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Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into…

Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story

by John Yorke

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This is a book I will be keeping near me for future reference. I have pages of notes inside the back cover and there are many underlined passages throughout the book.

Yorke states early in his book that it is not a “how-to” book prescribing how to write a story in whatever format, be it book, play, or film. He even has a few words of warning for readers in relation to books that put forward definitive structures and approaches for preparing any piece of art. He even goes so far as to name a number of “how-to” books and highlights what he sees as the flaws in their advice. All this is, however, incidental to the main purpose of “Into the Woods”.

In this book, Yorke’s hypothesis is that there is an underlying structure to stories and that this is neither the result of conscious planning nor has it been derived from Greek tragedies. He posits that this structure is fundamental to the way humans assimilate the world around us and it is the natural way we will tell a story and the most natural way for us to learn about our surroundings and our relationships with people and our environment.

His approach is to use well known films, books and television shows to demonstrate how they fit the structure he hypothesizes. He also reviews the views of commentators on structure, and discusses the works of writers who have argued against structure but who have, inadvertently, written their works within the structure he hypothesizes.

Yorke is quick to state there are exceptions but he claims they are few and far between.

Having outlined his hypothesis and used examples to demonstrate the structure in action and to provide evidence to support his hypothesis, he then addresses the question of why is this structure so ubiquitous and is there a psychological reason for this. His conclusion is that stories are the way we make sense of the world and learn.

By the way, along the way he gives great analysis of how characterization works, how audiences are engaged, and stories help us survive. ( )
1 vote pgmcc | Jan 12, 2019 |
It’s refreshing to read a book on the theory of storytelling that doesn’t claim to be the oracle on the subject, but is based on years of practice and study and doesn’t openly dismiss other approaches; instead Yorke takes each approach on merit and analyses the flaws. His own view on structure is hugely useful, a symmetrical shape that can be imposed on almost all works. In the process he divines exactly what’s unsettling about the structure of No Country For Old Men and illustrates how The Godfather, Thelma And Louise and are perfect illustrations of his theory of underlying structure. I’m not entirely certain whether this is imposition of the writer’s own model but they’re excellent and very helpful guidelines to follow if you’re constructing your own story and the illustrations from other stories are well chosen. Practical, thought provoking and engaging. ( )
1 vote JonArnold | Jan 19, 2015 |
A definitive argument for all successful stories being told in a 5 act format - even if the author or scriptwriter is unaware of it, or actively kicks against it. Its very well argued, and illustrated - but I did get a sense of the facts being shoehorned into a model, rather than the model necessarily reflecting the facts. But still a very interesting work for anyone interested in the creation of stories, at any level ( )
  Opinionated | May 10, 2014 |
A well told argument for five acts being at the core of story - examines the why of structure...and myth is only a partial answer! ( )
  ablueidol | Dec 17, 2013 |
Ostensibly this is a book about story structure in film rather than books, but the lessons are the same so it’s useful to writers of any sort, be they scriptwriters or novelists.

Most writers of fiction will have come across the concept of the three act structure which is largely what this book covers, although Yorke divides the three acts into five. That is itself isn’t original. He admits that he’s collected ideas on story structure from theorists and writers both alive and dead. As such it’s a pretty good introduction to the field for someone, like me, who has not really studied story structure in detail.

If I had to make a criticism I’d make two. The first is that, having chosen most of his examples from film, he is very reliant on the reader having seen the films he talks about. If you haven’t seen Thelma & Louise then I urge you to see it (perhaps twice) before reading this. There are probably others, perhaps three or four films that you would benefit from seeing to understand the references that he makes. (Unfortunately I can’t remember them all as it’s a while since I finished the book.) However he has drawn from so many film references that nobody will have seen all of them but most readers will have seen enough to benefit from what he says.

The second criticism is also really a recommendation. If anything there is too much in this book. I wouldn’t say it’s repetitive as he makes a point in enough ways for the reader to grasp a concept if they didn’t get the point from the first example (or they hadn’t seen the example film). However he does go into a lot of detail and as such it’s a bit much to pick all that up from a single reading. Perhaps it’s not intended as a light read as it’s really a text book. Film script students would probably refer back to it throughout a course.

Whether he is correct in his analysis is something I can’t say, but to understand the structuralist’s perspective it’s a good place to start. He suggests that even those who do not believe in structural story still write in this form without knowing it. I’ve looked at my own work and tried to identify the ‘mid-point’ and I’m not entirely convinced the séance scene is that mid-point, but he may be right. How my acts are defined from there is anybody’s guess. What I can’t tell having read Into the Words is whether my work is a load of old tosh, but I suspect that my next book will be better for having read it. ( )
1 vote JackBarrow | Sep 19, 2013 |
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