Book Review: Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
The Overlook Press, 2014

Why do stories work the way they do? Why are they structured the way they are?

These questions fascinate me. Storytelling—its nature, how it works, the role it plays in human lives and society—fascinates me. As much as anything, storytelling is what marks human beings as unique among all the animals of Earth. The act of telling stories partakes equally of our capacity for imagination and our need to discern pattern in world around us. We use stories to try and make sense of our experiences and simultaneously celebrate the mysterious and unknowable. It’s both creative and formulaic.

The stories we choose to tell, and the ways we choose to tell them, tell us who we are and how we understand our role in existence.

There have been numerous works written through the ages which attempt to answer these questions, from Aristotle to Mamet. Go into any bookstore or search Amazon and you’re sure to find dozens of titles which promise to teach the best formula for writing any kind of story you want.

John Yorke is a professional screenwriter with years of experience working in television. He has read and studied the full range of screenwriting manuals. In his studies, it became clear to him that all stories—across all formats, from screenplays, to novels, to myths and folktales, and spanning different cultures and traditions—conform to certain universal patterns. Even storytellers who intentionally seek to eschew standard structures end up conforming to them in some fashion.

It appears that structure is inescapable if you want your story to work.

Given the universality of these storytelling structures, it also seems clear that these patterns must grow out of some kind of neurological basis.

Such are Mr. Yorke’s conclusions, at any rate. This book is the result of the years he spent studying these questions. He sets out to explain what these universal structures are and, perhaps most importantly, to answer the question of why stories work the way they do.

He explores the full range of different writing theories (focused mostly on screenwriting techniques, most of which harken back to the seminal work of Joseph Campbell and the concept of the monomyth), the history of structural theory, and seeks out the central elements they all circle around. His quest takes him through concepts from psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and criticism. The work is remarkably comprehensive.

When Mr. Yorke describes what he believes are the universal structural elements of storytelling, there are moments when it all seems far too simple—the formula is too easy. But he makes a very compelling case that this simplicity is a foundation capable of supporting an incredible variety of characters, settings, plots, tones, and themes in the stories that people tell. He argues that storytelling is fractal and that infinite complexity is contained within this simple set of rules.

It’s his focus on the question of why stories are structured as they are which makes this work stand out from its predecessors. For all that has been written about storytelling through the ages, this question of why stories work this way has been sorely neglected.

It’s remarkable, too, how readable this book is for all the density of its content. It flows easily and draws you along like any good story should. Illustrated with numerous examples from film and TV, as well as novels, this is a work of profound synthesis that applies to all storytelling.

It’s a compelling tale, appropriate for anyone who tells stories or is fascinated by them.

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