John Yorke‘s INTO THE WOODS, not to be confused with Stephen Sondheim’s well known musical of the same title, is a very British book. Many examples referred to in it, come from British television, no wonder, as Yorke is an expert TV producer from the UK. It is not a screenwriting manual, it’s a book about how and why we tell stories.
Let’s have a look at what seems to me the more relevant concepts of this work:
- The importance of storytelling. This is the key idea around which the whole book grows: “Storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all -almost- as breathing”. The book refers to Christopher Vogler’s work “The Hero’s Journey” and Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth”: “Campbell argued that within all the traditional stories of ancient cultures (…) there could be found one underlying identical pattern”.
- The power of structure. “In Into the Woods I attempt to explore and unfold the extraordinary beauty of (…) structure”. “All stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use and (…) the laws of physics, of logic and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path”. But for Yorke structure is not a prison but a springboard: “(..) Abstract Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealist and Futurist – all were masters of figurative painting before they shattered the form. They had to know their restrictions before they could transcend them”. The book details the origins and evolution of structure through time.
- The importance of change: “Learning is central to every three-dimensional story. That is how the characters change”. I like the way Yorke develops this, but I must confess that the roadmaps and other diagrams in this section instead of clarifying I find confusing. To me, here the author tries too much to find a formula, when the concepts that he develops are powerful enough to not need one.
- The fractal theory. Jackson Pollock‘s paintings “are ‘fractal’: tiny sections of the work mimic the structure of the whole.” “And so it is with drama. Stories are built from acts, acts from scenes and scenes are built from even smaller units called beats. All these units are constructed in three parts: fractal versions of the three act whole”. Let me stop here one minute. Why is it that so many authors skip “Sequences” when dissecting the script organism? After the Act, the Sequence seems to me the most important unit, more powerful than a Scene. What defines a “Scene” is unity of place and time, what defines a “Sequence” is unity of narrative: a scene or a series of scenes that describe one dramatic event and one only. The attack on the Death Star in Star Wars is only one big sequence, constructed of dozens of scenes.
- The importance of theme: “Subject matter is a static given. Theme, on the other hand, is an active exploration of an idea, it’s a premise to be explored, it’s a question”.
- Three acts or five acts? Yorke pushes forward the idea of a five act structure that “isn’t really different to a three-act structure, merely a detailed refinement of it. (…) Simply put, five acts are generated by inserting two further acts breaks into the second act of the traditional “Hollywood” paradigm. The first and last acts remain identical in both forms”. In this, I must confess I remain unconvinced. The way the author splits The Godfather into five acts doesn’t work for me. Coppola’s film jumps into its second act when the Don is shot 45 minutes into the film, in that we agree. The very nature of this movie makes acts longer than usual. In my view, the third act starts clearly with Michael’s reappearance in America, after his wife has been assassinated, taking charge of things. Yorke believes that this is the beginning of an Act 4. So, following his words, we would still be in the second act now, and I think we are clearly not. Act 3 runs 45 minutes, equalling Act 1. Act 2 runs 90 minutes, perfectly split in two halves thanks to the Midpoint where Michael kills Sollozo (We’ll talk symmetry, one of the strongest points of this book, later). I have the same problem with Yorke’s analysis of the structure of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In it, Yorke establishes the end of the first act when Jones escapes Belloq, right after the first sequence of the film. To me, that is not an act, it’s just an introductory sequence: Act 1 doesn’t end until Jones is commissioned to find the Ark before the Nazis do, which in fact that spins the film into Act 2. I hope I didn’t lose you there…
- The supremacy of Midpoint. The Midpoint itself is a concept first put forward by Syd Field. The guru of gurus quoted Paul Schrader as mentioning that something relevant happens always in the middle of act 2, therefore, the very centre of the film. As a concept, the Midpoint does not appear in Field’s first seminal book “Screenplay”, but later in his work. Yorke takes the concept one step further: “the midpoint is the moment something profoundly significant occurs”. “It’s the point from which there’s no going back”. Yorke establishes a difference between Two Dimension and Three Dimension stories (plot driven and character driven, basically). “The midpoint of each film is the moment when each protagonist embraces for the first time the quality they will need to become complete and finish his story”. “The ‘truth” of the story lies in the Midpoint.” This is, to me, one of main contributions of this book, along with the fractal theory and the one that follows:
- “Symmetry”, says author and critic David Lodge, “matters more to writers of fiction than readers consciously perceive”. “If symmetry and balance are sought in a story structure then it should be to detect a distinct relationship between the first and last acts of any drama”. “Not only do the first part of act one mirror the last part of act five mirror each other, but act four becomes a mirror of act two, and one half of the third act, bisected at the midpoint, becomes a mirror image of the other.”
There’s a lot more in the book to look for: E.M. Forster and “what happens next”, ” jumping the shark”, “nuking de fridge”, “the worst point”… One of my favourites: “All television is storytelling” , so reality TV is storytelling too, just told by different means. I reached the same conclusion when I directed my first documentary: I found it essentially the same as fiction, sharing the same rules, roots and structure, even characters. If in doubt, watch the documentary Man on a Wire and then Robert Zemeckis’ film The Walk.