John Yorke’s “Into the Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them” – book review

I have a weakness for buying creative writing books, putting them on my shelf and not touching them. They scare me. I’m worried that they will tell me I’m doing everything all wrong. So I do my own writing in quiet embarrassment, hiding from those wise creative writing books on my shelf.

But I heard only good things about this book. John Yorke is the Managing Director of Company Pictures, which produced TV shows such as Wolf Hall and Skins. He started his career by storylining (I’m not entirely sure what storylining means) the Eastenders. He is an experienced writer and an experienced teacher of creative writing (he set up the BBC Writers Academy in 2005, which is sadly no longer a thing).

This is not a how-to guide. Yorke is interested in analysing how stories work, and though you may want to use those conclusions in your own story writing, there is no instruction as to how you might want to incorporate them. I loved that. It made the whole experience much less intimidating, as I was never told I was doing something the wrong way. Instead, the book gave me ideas on how to build and analyse plot, in some ways similar to Roland Barthes’s famous “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” but presented to a more general audience. Now, I’m an absolutely a fan of Barthes (I’m not a fan of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, not that I read all of it, but in the chapters I read, the bibliography was non-existent, which made me furious) so it was predictable that I would really enjoy this book. The idea is basically that you can analyse a plot in terms of its events and find an underlying structure to it.

One might trace the beginning of this idea in Aristotle’s Poetics in which he analysed the structure of tragedy. It is tempting to think of Into the Woods as John Yorke’s attempt to write a sort of Poetics for the TV age, incorporating insights from movies such as The Godfather, Thelma & Louise, and Being John Malkovich. If you’re the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers, make sure you see those movies before you read the book!

What I found incredibly useful about this book were the extensive footnotes and bibliography: not only was I glad to find some old friends there (E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Wayne C. Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow), but I discovered all the books that I would need to read if I ever wanted to take screenwriting seriously (Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, William Goldman’s Adventures of the Screen Trade). I also reminded myself about the books that I want to read because I’m curious about narratology (Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Vladimir Propp Morphology of the Folk Tale, and Claude Lévi-Strauss The Structural Study of Myth).  I found myself taking copious notes and using highlighters to mark them, which I hadn’t done for a good long while! It can be a bit dense at times, and I found the first half of the book much easier to engage with than the second (possibly because I had more time to focus fully on it).

I love a book that provides me with new information, but also points me in the direction of other books I might want to read to improve my knowledge. This is one of those. Highly-recommended!

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