Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story

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9781846146435: Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story

Into The Woods is a revelation of the fundamental structure and meaning of all stories, from the man responsible for more hours of drama on British television than anyone else, John Yorke. We all love stories. Many of us love to tell them, and even dream of making a living from it too. But what is a story? Hundreds of books about screenwriting and storytelling have been written, but none of them ask 'Why?' Why do we tell stories? And why do all stories function in an eerily similar way? John Yorke has been telling stories almost his entire adult life, and the more he has done it, the more he has asked himself why? Every great thinker or writer has their theories: Aristotle, David Hare, Lajos Egri, Robert McKee, Gustav Freytag, David Mamet, Christopher Booker, Charlie Kaufman, William Goldman and Aaron Sorkin - all have offered insightful and illuminating answers. Here, John Yorke draws on these figures and more as he takes us on a historical, philosophical, scientific and psychological journey to the heart of all storytelling. What he reveals is that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative - one that echoes the great fairytale journey into the woods, and one, like any great art, that comes from deep within. Much more than a 'how to write' book, Into the Woods is an exploration of this fundamental structure underneath all narrative forms, from film and television to theatre and novel-writing. With astonishing detail and wisdom, John Yorke explains to us a phenomenon that, whether it is as a simple fable, or a big-budget 3D blockbuster, most of us experience almost every day of our lives. "Brimmingly insightful ...fresh, enlightening and accessible ...a gripping read from beginning to end". (Robert Collins, Sunday Times). "Terrifyingly clever...Packed with intelligent argument". (Evening Standard). "So detailed and engaging is his methodology that any consumer of books, plays, TV or films will find the experience enhanced; and scriptwriters themselves will find useful guidance - because when you know the why, the how is natural". (Robert Epstein, Independent on Sunday). "This is a marvellous analysis of screenwriting and, with any luck, should help a great many people achieve their dreams". (Julian Fellowes, writer/creator of Downton Abbey). "Another book on screenwriting! Oh, how I wanted to hate it! I didn't. I loved it. Much of it was fresh to me. And always interesting, always intelligent and, for a writer, always rewarding". (Jimmy McGovern, screenwriter, The Street and The Accused). "In an industry full of so called script gurus and snake oil salesmen, at last there's a book about story that treats writers like grown ups. This isn't about providing us with an ABC of story or telling us how to write a script by numbers. It's an intelligent evaluation into the very nature of storytelling and is the best book on the subject I've read. Quite brilliant". (Tony Jordan, screenwriter, Life on Mars and Hustle). "Even for a convinced sceptic, John Yorke's book, with its massive field of reference from Aristotle to Glee, and from Shakespeare to Spooks, is a highly persuasive and hugely enjoyable read. It would be hard to beat for information and wisdom about how and why stories are told". (Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director, The Globe Theatre). "This book is intelligent, well written, incisive and, most of all, exciting. It is the most important book about scriptwriting since William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade". (Peter Bowker, screenwriter, Blackpool, Occupation and Eric & Ernie). "Part 'How-to' manual, part 'why-to' celebration, Into The Woods is a wide-reaching and infectiously passionate exploration of storytelling in all its ...exciting and thought-provoking". (Emma Frost, screenwriter, The White Queen and Shameless). "Into The Woods is an amazing achievement. It has a real depth and understanding about story, a fantastically broad frame of reference and it's interesting and absorbing throughout. Full of incredibly useful insights, every TV writer should read the first chapter alone". (Simon Ashdown, series consultant, EastEnders). "Testing the adage that "in theory there's no difference between theory and practice but in practice there is", this is a love story to story - erudite, witty and full of practical magic. It's by far the best book of its kind I've ever read. I struggle to think of the writer who wouldn't benefit from reading it - even if they don't notice because they're too busy enjoying every page". (Neil Cross, creator of Luther and writer of Dr Who, Spooks and currently NBC's Crossbones). John Yorke is Managing Director of Company Pictures, the UK drama independent producing Skins, Shameless, The White Queen and Wolf Hall. For many years he's been responsible for a vast array of British drama; as both Head of Channel Four Drama and Controller of BBC Drama Production he's worked on big popular works such as Hustle, Spooks, Casualty and Holby City alongside award-winners such as Bodies, Omagh, Sex Traffic, Not Only But Always and The Curse of Steptoe. His career began single-handedly story-lining EastEnders in its very first BAFTA winning year - beginning a 14 year association that produced some of the biggest audiences in British television history. As a commissioning Editor/Executive Producer, he championed some of the defining works of British television including Life On Mars, The Street, Shameless and Waterloo Road. In 2005 he created the BBC Writers Academy, a year-long in-depth training scheme which has produced a generation of successful television writers. He's also worked as Editor of The Archers. John is Visiting Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He lives and works in London.

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About the Author:

John Yorke is Managing Director of Company Pictures, the UK drama independent producing Skins, Shameless, The White Queen and Wolf Hall. For many years he's been responsible for a vast array of British drama; as both Head of Channel Four Drama and Controller of BBC Drama Production he's worked on big popular works such as Hustle, Spooks, Casualty and Holby City alongside award-winners such as Bodies, Omagh, Sex Traffic, Not Only But Always and The Curse of Steptoe. His career began single-handedly story-lining EastEnders in its very first BAFTA winning year - beginning a 14 year association that produced some of the biggest audiences in British television history. As a commissioning Editor/Executive Producer, he championed some of the defining works of British television including Life On Mars, The Street, Shameless and Waterloo Road. In 2005 he created the BBC Writers Academy, a year-long in-depth training scheme which has produced a generation of successful television writers. He's also worked as Editor of The Archers. John is Visiting Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He lives and works in London.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for Into The Woods:
A Five-Act Journey Into Story

“Love storytelling? You need this inspiring book. John Yorke dissects the structure of stories with a joyous enthusiasm allied to precise, encyclopedic knowledge. Guaranteed to send you back to your writing desk with newfound excitement and drive.”

—Chris Chibnall, creator/writer, Broadchurch and Gracepoint

“Outrageously good and by far and away the best book of its kind I’ve ever read. I recognized so much truth in it. But more than that, I learned a great deal. Time and again, Yorke articulates things I’ve always felt but have never been able to describe … This is a love story to story—erudite, witty and full of practical magic. I struggle to think of the writer who wouldn’t benefit from reading it—even if they don’t notice because they’re too busy enjoying every page.”

—Neil Cross, creator/writer, Luther and Crossbones

“Part ‘how-to’ manual, part ‘why-to’ celebration, Into The Woods is a wide-reaching and infectiously passionate exploration of storytelling in all its guises … exciting and thought-provoking.”

—Emma Frost, screenwriter, The White Queen and Shameless

“John Yorke’s Into the Woods is brilliant. It illuminates and explains.”

—Susan Hill, author of The Woman In Black and the Simon Serrailler crime novels

“Even for a convinced sceptic, John Yorke’s book, with its massive field of reference from Aristotle to Glee, and from Shakespeare to Spooks, is a highly persuasive and hugely enjoyable read. It would be hard to beat for information and wisdom about how and why stories are told.”

—Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director, the Globe Theatre

Copyright

‘Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.’

G. K. Chesterton

Praise for Into The Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story
Copyright
Introduction
  ACT I   HOME
  1. What is a Story?
  2. Three-Act Structure
  3. Five-Act Structure
  4. The Importance of Change
  5. How We Tell Stories
  ACT II   WOODLAND, DAY
  6. Fractals
  7. Acts
  8. The Inciting Incident
  9. Scenes
10. Putting It All Together
  ACT III  THE FOREST
11. Showing and Telling
  ACT IV   THE ROAD BACK, NIGHT
12. Character and Characterization
13. Character and Structural Design
14. Character Individuation
15. Dialogue and Characterization
16. Exposition
17. Subtext
  ACT V   HOME AGAIN, CHANGED
18. Television and the Triumph of Structure
19. Series and Mini-Series Structure
20. Change in Drama Series
21. Home Again
22. Why?
  APPENDICES
I. Act Structure of Raiders of the Lost Ark
II. Hamlet – The Structural Form
III. Being John Malkovich – The Structural Form
IV. My Zinc Bed – The Structural Form
V. The Godfather – The Structural Form
VI. First and Last Act Parallels:   Some Further Examples
VII. A Lightning Guide to Screenwriting Gurus
Notes
Bibliography
Acknowledgements
Credits
Index
About the Author
About Into the Woods

Introduction

A ship lands on an alien shore and a young man, desperate to prove himself, is tasked with befriending the inhabitants and extracting their secrets. Enchanted by their way of life, he falls in love with a local girl and starts to distrust his masters. Discovering their man has gone native, they in turn resolve to destroy both him and the native population once and for all.

Avatar or Pocahontas? As stories they’re almost identical. Some have even accused James Cameron of stealing the Native American myth.1 But it’s both simpler and more complex than that, for the underlying structure is common not only to these two tales, but to all.

Take three different stories:

A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it on himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom …

It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and eleventh centuries.

And it’s more familiar than that: it’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob – all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of MI5, House or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture – in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community – stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.

Our hero stumbles into a brave new world. At first he is transfixed by its splendour and glamour, but slowly things become more sinister …

It’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also The Wizard of Oz, Life on Mars and Gulliver’s Travels. And if you replace fantastical worlds with worlds that appear fantastical merely to the protagonists, then quickly you see how Brideshead Revisited, Rebecca, The Line of Beauty and The Third Man all fit the pattern too.

When a community finds itself in peril and learns the solution lies in finding and retrieving an elixir far, far away, a member of the tribe takes it on themselves to undergo the perilous journey into the unknown …

It’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Morte D’Arthur, Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. And if you transplant it from fantasy into something a little more earthbound, it’s Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Guns of Navarone and Apocalypse Now. If you then change the object of the characters’ quest, you find Rififi, The Usual Suspects, Ocean’s Eleven, Easy Rider and Thelma & Louise.

So three different tales turn out to have multiple derivatives. Does that mean that when you boil it down there are only three different types of story? No. Beowulf, Alien and Jaws are ‘monster’ stories – but they’re also about individuals plunged into a new and terrifying world. In classic ‘quest’ stories like Apocalypse Now or Finding Nemo the protagonists encounter both monsters and strange new worlds. Even ‘Brave New World’ stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Witness and Legally Blonde fit all three definitions: the characters all have some kind of quest, and all have their own monsters to vanquish too. Though they are superficially different, they all share the same framework and the same story engine: all plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story ‘monsters’ are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion and the importance of home.

But these tenets don’t just appear in films, novels, or indeed TV series like Homeland or The Killing. A nine-year-old child of my friend decided he wanted to tell a story. He didn’t consult anyone about it, he just wrote it down:

A family are looking forward to going on holiday. Mom has to sacrifice the holiday in order to pay the rent. Kids find map buried in garden to treasure hidden in the woods, and decide to go after it. They get in loads of trouble and are chased before they finally find it and go on even better holiday.2

Why would a child unconsciously echo a story form that harks back centuries? Why, when writing so spontaneously, would he display knowledge of story structure that echoes so clearly generations of tales that have gone before? Why do we all continue to draw our stories from the very same well? It could be because each successive generation copies from the last, thus allowing a series of conventions to become established. But while that may help explain the ubiquity of the pattern, its sturdy resistance to iconoclasm and the freshness and joy with which it continues to reinvent itself suggest something else is going on.

Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be – though we must be careful – a universal archetype.

‘Most writing on art is by people who are not artists: thus all the misconceptions.’

Eugène Delacroix

The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one. From the Prague School and the Russian Formalists of the early twentieth century, via Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, many have set themselves the task of trying to understand how stories work. In my own field it’s a veritable industry – there are hundreds of books about screenwriting (though almost nothing sensible about television). I’ve read most of them, but the more I read the more two issues nag away:


   • Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories. How can they all possibly claim to be right?
   • None of them asks ‘Why?’3

Some of these tomes contain invaluable information; more than a few have worthwhile insights; all of them are keen to tell us how and with great fervour insist that ‘there must be an inciting incident on page 12’, but none of them explains why this should be. Which, when you think about it, is crazy: if you can’t answer ‘why’, the ‘how’ is an edifice built on sand. And then, once you attempt to answer it yourself, you start to realize that much of the theory – incisive though some of it is – doesn’t quite add up. Did God decree an inciting incident should occur on page 12, or that there were twelve stages to a hero’s journey? Of course not: they’re constructs. Unless we can find a coherent reason why these shapes exist, then there’s little reason to take these people seriously. They’re snake-oil salesmen, peddling their wares on the frontier.4

I’ve been telling stories for almost all my adult life, and I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working on some of the most popular shows on British television. I’ve created storylines that have reached over 20 million viewers and I’ve been intimately involved with programmes that helped redefine the dramatic landscape. I’ve worked, almost uniquely in the industry, on both art-house and populist mainstream programs, loved both equally, and the more I’ve told stories, the more I’ve realized that the underlying pattern of these plots – the ways in which an audience demands certain things – has an extraordinary uniformity.

Eight years ago I started to read everything on storytelling. More importantly I started to interrogate all the writers I’d worked with about how they write. Some embraced the conventions of three-act structure, some refuted it – and some refuted it while not realizing they used it anyway. A few writers swore by four acts, some by five; others claimed that there were no such things as acts at all. Some had conscientiously learned from screenwriting manuals while others decried structural theory as the devil’s spawn. But there was one unifying factor in every good script I read, whether authored by brand new talent or multiple award-winners, and that was that they all shared the same underlying structural traits.

By asking two simple questions – what were these traits; and why did they recur – I unlocked a cupboard crammed full of history. I soon discovered that the three-act paradigm was not an invention of the modern age but an articulation of something much more primal; that modern act structure was a reaction to dwindling audience attention spans and the invention of the curtain. Perhaps more intriguingly, the history of five-act drama took me back to the Romans, via the nineteenth-century French dramatist Eugène Scribe and German novelist Gustav Freytag to Molière, Shakespeare and Jonson. I began to understand that, if there really was an archetype, it had to apply not just to screenwriting, but to all narrative structures. One either tells all stories according to a pattern or none at all. If storytelling does have a universal shape, this has to be self-evident.

It was an investigation that was to produce a number of interesting offshoots. By concentrating initially on film and television, I was able to:


   • explore how story structure works, not just in single-protagonist storytelling but also in multi-protagonist dramas
   • explain why protagonists have to be active
   • illustrate how – in more detail than ever before – the structural principles work in television
   • understand how narration can destroy drama
   • expound on why so many characters die in the penultimate stage of any drama
   • explain why almost all cops are mavericks
 ...

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