Review: Into the Woods, By John Yorke

Why it's always the same old story

Books about how to write for TV and film are ten-a-penny, and all too often outlandishly prescriptive: character A must experience incident B on page 12 and the like. John Yorke's entertaining read, while useful as a lesson in screenwriting, has a higher purpose: by presenting a convincing hypothesis that all narratives, from The Odyssey to The Killing, share a single, unifying structure, he seeks to explain why stories are written as they are.

First, he has to cover the basics. A former Channel 4 head of drama and controller of BBC drama production, Yorke has the pedigree to offer his own thoughts on these matters, but he draws on sources from Aristotle to Aaron Sorkin to show us such building blocks of story as protagonists, forces of antagonism, inciting incidents, crises, and climaxes.

All the while, however, he returns to his central question: why is there a consistent narrative pattern – of thesis, antithesis, synthesis; of flaw, challenge, resolution – whether we are watching a drama, a documentary, or reality TV (and yes, X Factor holds to the same configuration as Hamlet)?

Spoiler alert: Macbeth murders Banquo; Jason Bourne learns the truth; Michael Corleone shoots the police chief. And what connects these moments? Yes, they are climactic, but they also happen almost exactly halfway through. Similarly, Yorke points out, crises come two-thirds of the way into a piece, and plots offer a mirroring configuration: in The King's Speech, for example, first George VI makes a dreadful speech, refuses to talk to anyone, and rejects the help of Lionel Logue; and in the final act, he seeks out Logue, insists he has a voice and makes a brilliant speech.

Time and again, these constructions present in such a systematic way that it cannot be dismissed as serendipity. So what's going on? Yorke's conclusion is far from new: that story structure is driven by a need to make sense of the world. Yet so detailed and engaging is his methodology that any consumer of books, plays, TV or films will find the experience enhanced; and scriptwriters themselves will find useful guidance – because when you know the why, the how is natural.