“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves.” – John Yorke, Into the Woods
In his excellent book Into the Woods, John Yorke talks about how other cultural forms, from philosophical texts to jazz records, are like stories. They all try to provide order in a seemingly chaotic world, something that humans instinctively do. It’s a way of giving life meaning and asserting some control.
Books about story structure follow this same pattern. They’re attempts to assert order out of the apparent chaos of words and imagination. Yorke’s own book fits the pattern he’s describing.
Good or bad, right or wrong, writing guides help us to assert order over writing. In doing so, they make us feel good, which perhaps explains why so many writing guides, of such variable quality, go soaring off the shelves.
These structures can be useful as well as satisfying if they give us enough feeling of control to grapple with the task of writing. And as Yorke shows, beneath their novelties, many of them follow the same underlying patterns.
At the end of the day, these too are stories – stories about how stories work.
I read a lot of books and articles on writing. After all, you don’t improve at anything without learning from others. And one of the best ones I’ve found recently is Into the Woods by John Yorke.
Into the woods is all about storytelling. Specifically, it’s about the overarching shape of stories. Yorke takes a range of different approaches to this, including three-act structure, five-act structure, and the hero’s journey, and demonstrates how they follow a similar pattern. From this, he draws out a set of principles for how to tell stories.
One of the most interesting things about Yorke’s work is the variety of examples. There’s a lot of mainstream British TV here, as that’s his writing background. But he also takes examples from classic literature, Hollywood movies, and even indie films that claim to break the mould. He shows how they all, in their way, follow the same pattern.
Connecting Plot and Character
Like the best books on plotting, Into the Woods connects character and plot. It shows how the tensions and the thrills of a good story arise from the protagonist’s needs and desires.
More than this, Yorke brings together a lot of the hot topics in modern writing advice and connects them together. The gap between wants and needs. The centrality of conflict. Making the internal external. Showing versus telling. He artfully demonstrates how they aren’t just a useful set of tools – they’re an interconnected web of ideas from which a story is built.
My Favourite Writing Book Since Story
I’ve taken in a lot of good writing advice recently, from sources like the Writing Excuses podcast, the Mythcreants blog, and Lessons from the Screenplay’s videos. Some of that is as good as this book, and even reflects similar lessons. But as a book, a single substantial text on the subject, this is the best thing I’ve read since Robert McKee’s Story. So if like me you’re looking for lessons on writing, I heartily recommend it.