Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a book about story and story structure. While Yorke pokes fun at writers who have exacting structural formulae, one need not get past the subtitle to realize he’s advocating a form of structure himself: the five-act structure. And not just any old five-act structure, but Yorke proposes that there be symmetry around a third-act midpoint, and that the approach to story be fractal (to be elaborated upon below.)
The book is divided into five “acts,” or parts, but the theme of each part isn’t related to the role of that particular act in a story or play. The first act consists of five chapters that explain what makes a story. Yorke describes the three-act structure as well as five-act structure, and then explains how these forms are connected — i.e. how five acts can be overlaid, or mapped to, the three-act structure. One chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the crucial topic of change. After all, in a story we have a character who wants something and is put through the wringer as he / she attempts to get it, and the moral and / or psychological change that they experience as a result is a major determinant of how satisfying the story feels.
“Act II” explores the components of story – acts and scenes – and how they are arranged into a story. The first of the five chapters describes fractal structure. For those who don’t deal in mathematical concepts on a regular basis, a fractal is a shape that — if one zooms in — one finds smaller and smaller copies of the original shape. This applies to story telling in that one wants acts and scenes to follow a progression that echoes the overall story. That is, a character (at the scene level it may or may not be your hero) wants something, confronts opposition, and this clash either results in more conflict or a resolution. There’s a chapter devoted to the “inciting incident,” which is sometimes called the “first doorway,” and is an event that forces the hero to make a key decision that will put him or on the road of story.
The third “act” consists of only one chapter, Chapter 11, that is entitled “Showing and Telling.” This obviously references one of the most oft-recited (and trite) pieces of writing advice: “show, don’t tell!” As most writers soon discover, this advice is a great rule of thumb but a poor law. Hence, the need to discuss what would otherwise be a simple idea over the course of an entire chapter.
The penultimate “act” is about character, characterization, dialogue, and background. Like most books on story, the emphasis on making memorable characters is more about determining their wants, needs, and weaknesses, rather than being about figuring out how one will dress them or what accent one will assign them. Not that studying the latter isn’t worthwhile, but it’s a common error to produce a muddled character because one hasn’t given enough thought to who they are at the most fundamental level.
Chapters 15 through 17, address the subjects that are probably most responsible for poor story writing: dialogue, exposition, and subtext. The central challenge is to tell the reader just the right amount, neither letting the story get bogged down in needless information, nor leaving the reader thinking the story unbelievable because they don’t have the requisite background to understand what motivates characters. From “as you know, Bob” dialogue to Bond-villain monologuing, there are many ways to ruin a good premise by botching these story elements.
The final “act” deals mostly with the challenge of writing series. Series writing presents a huge challenge unto itself. We are all familiar with examples — such as the television show “Lost” — that started out with great promise and devolved into a pile of rubble by the end. The first three of the five chapters in the final part discuss television and series writing challenges in detail. The last couple chapters close out the book.
The book has seven appendices. Five of these are examinations of the structures of stories known for being exemplary: “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Hamlet,” “Being John Malkovich,” “My Zinc Bed,” and “The Godfather.” [“Being John Malkovich” may be included because Charlie Kaufman was known for strongly rejecting “formulaic” approaches to story structure, but Yorke wanted to show that structure happens organically even if it might not be purposely pursued.] The sixth appendix considers first and last act parallels. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Yorke proposes that there is a symmetry around the midpoint that occurs in the third-act of a five-act story. The final appendix is a handy table that shows how the structures taught by masters of screenwriting (e.g. John Truby, Robert McKee, as well as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” [which is referenced throughout Yorke’s book]) map to five-act structure.
I found this book interesting and informative. Like other great books on story, there is extensive use of well-known stories [particularly cinematic, e.g. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” etc.] to help clarify the author’s points. I would recommend this book for those is interested in story, and how stories are structured to be best received by an audience. The space the book occupies is bit different from Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” [which I reviewed recently.] While Truby’s book is the kind one would sit down with as a reference after reading it in order to help one build one’s story structure and scene weave, Yorke’s book is less of a hands-on guide and more of a light read to improve one’s ideas about story more generally.
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