Into the Woods by John Yorke

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.

Plotting Stories

The book cover of Into the Woods

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.

Function and purpose in writing skills

Stay on target... stay on target...
Stay on target… stay on target…

In writing, we have all these rules and pieces of advice that get dished out. I offer plenty of them here, and follow others with varying degrees of dedication. But these rules aren’t just neutral things that create some kind of abstract ‘better’ writing. They create different sorts of writing, which have different impacts. A lot of the advice leads to writing that is familiar and accessible, that people will easily get into and enjoy. But we have to remember that’s what the advice is good for, and only deploy it when that’s the aim.

Going back to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Morgenstern’s use of the second person is so disconcerting that some people make a rule of never using that voice. It’s challenging, even alienating, and as As If pointed out on Google+, it breaks the fourth wall, the implicit barrier between the reader and the content of the story. If you want to write relaxing action fiction then ‘don’t use second person’ is a good rule. But in The Night Circus it adds something to the mix, because the use of that voice fits the purpose of the story.

Don’t just take the approach that works well, take the approach that works well towards the aims you want. The advice that works for me works for me because I like accessible genre fiction with varying degrees of action. The advice that’s ‘good’ for me would be terrible for someone who wants to produce ground-breaking experimental fiction. Good writing depends on your aims, and if you don’t keep those aims in sight then you will end up working smoothly and efficiently towards something you never wanted.

On which topic, have you ever followed writing advice that ended up not suiting you? What widely accepted wisdom have you rejected, on writing or something else? Share your thoughts in the comments, and whatever you’re working at, make sure that you keep your aims in mind.


Picture by Pete via Flickr creative commons.