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Everything you ever needed to know about screenwriting (but were afraid to ask)

A veteran of British drama, John Yorke knows a thing or two about storytelling. And he wants to share it with you.

John Yorke
Wednesday 03 April 2013 19:08 BST
(Rex Features)

John Yorke is a former head of drama for both the BBC and Channel 4 and has worked on or commissioned shows as diverse as EastEnders, Life on Mars, The Archers, The Street and Shameless. He's currently managing director of independent TV producers Company Pictures. His new book, Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story (Particular, £16.99) is an in-depth study of and guide to stories and narrative and a primer for any budding screenwriter (or any kind of writer). We asked him for his 10 top tips for telling stories.

The architecture of all stories is pretty much the same

Take just one story: a dangerous monster threatens a community and one person takes it upon himself or herself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom. It's the story of Jaws. But it's also the story of Beowulf. And it's more familiar than that: it's The Thing, it's Jurassic Park, it's The Blob – all films with tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it's also every Bond film, every episode of Spooks, House or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Psycho and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture – in which a foe is vanquished and order is restored – stays the same.

Without empathy your work won't work

A whole generation remembers how they flinched when they saw the fisherman's decapitated head fall out of the boat in Jaws. Professor Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience has conducted extensive research into the way we watch – and react to – stories and his analysis suggests that when empathy works we become one, physiologically, with the protagonist. Think of how your body reacts when you watch the laser beam creep closer to Bond's groin in Goldfinger. Watching someone being hit activates the same areas of the brain as being hit – the physiological reactions, though not the pain, are identical. Stories thus place us all on the same wavelength. We live what our protagonists live. If that connection doesn't take place then any narrative simply won't work.

Studying screenwriting is older than screenwriting itself

The rules that govern screenwriting are the fundamentals of narrative and there's a whole history of structural analysis preceeding the advent of film. What screenwriters now call Inciting Incidents (the explosion in a characters life that kick starts a story) were articulated as long ago as 1808 by AW Schlegel. The rise of film was inevitably accompanied by a rise in screenwriting gurus pedalling "how to" manuals – and Epes Winthrop Sargent has some claim to being the first. His The Technique of the Photoplay, written in 1912, is not only hugely entertaining, it has the virtue of being refreshingly honest. Much wisdom can be found in Sargent's book, but it's here that the drive to understand structure has become no longer an intellectual pursuit, but a profit-driven enterprise.

Reality television is drama

All reality TV – from The X Factor to Grand Designs – has an essentially dramatic structure built around a three-act core. Here's the mission – here's the pursuit of the goal – here are the crisis, climax and resolution. Indeed, it's when reality television fails to follow the rules of drama that it withers. Simon Cowell's Red or Black? died by featuring almost entirely passive protagonists (a cardinal dramatic rule) – and Wife Swap tells an instructive tale too. Audiences initially tuned in to enjoy the clashes, but the programme was at its most effective and rewarding when the protagonists changed – when the repressed and emotionally crippled father learned to play with his children. Perhaps because it's harder to manufacture real change from reality, but perhaps the programme-makers prioritised argument and sensation over growth and maturity.

Perfect structure doesn't give you perfect drama

Notting Hill is a perfectly structured film, The White Ribbon isn't. But which is the superior work? Your answer will tell you where you stand on the axis between creativity and commerce. That tension, between tradition and its subversion, radiates across all forms of art. Alex Ross's history of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, illustrates the fundamentalism that overtook classical music after the Second World War – a world where any hint of tonality was labelled. The composer Pierre Boulez said: "It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All the art of the past must be destroyed." Out of that urge, great work can be made. Structure creates expectation, answer will follow question. But you don't have to resolve. The White Ribbon doesn't answer the questions it poses; its argument is that those questions are unresolvable.

Cause and effect is at the root of everything

All narrative is effectively a chain of cause and effect – this happened because of this. Daniel Kahneman and Nicholas Nassim Taleb have written at some length about our tendency to fall into what Taleb calls "the narrative fallacy". We impose sequential reasoning on all phenomena. This report appeared on a BBC local news item some years ago: "Police are today investigating a house fire. A woman and three children are being kept in hospital. It's understood she was involved in a custody battle."

"What happened?" we ask and we find our answer by linking the three statements in the most simplistic manner. Most will conclude the husband was behind the fire but there's nothing in those sentences to suggest that. Our need to impose causal logic builds a playground for writers.

It's all about opposition

Jimmy McGovern was an angry young teacher when he started working on Brookside in 1982. He wrote about working-class life with an intensity that stopped you mid-step – no one, you felt, had ever written with such anger, such humour; no one had trumpeted quite so eloquently the ideals they believed in. The show was a bastion of old Labour values, largely conveyed through the figures of Bobby Grant, a shop steward, and his wife Sheila. Its voice redefined the soap genre – but it was also one-dimensional. No one disagreed with Bobby. It teetered on propaganda. Then something extraordinary happened. McGovern became a truly great writer when he not only helped introduced the Corkhills, a family of strike-breakers with an errant policeman son, but, far more significantly, gave them "equal rights". He loved them as much as his left-wing heroes.

What happens next?

Jack Reacher's creator Lee Child sounded almost apologetic when he described what gave his work such narrative momentum: "You ask or imply a question at the beginning of your book and you absolutely self-consciously withhold the answer. It might feel cheap and meretricious but it absolutely works." Child echoes no less an authority than EM Forster: "Story", he said, "has only one merit, that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault; that of not making the audience want to know what happens next." All narrative works in the same way – by engaging our curiousity and withholding its satisfaction. The broadcaster Alistair Cooke said the secret of broadcasting was simple: "(It's) the control of suspense. No matter what you're talking about. Gardening, economics, murder – you're telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence people have the right to turn off." If narrative doesn't force you to ask "What happens next?" it isn't working.

You can break the rules, but do you want to?

The volume of stories that end in union and/or marriage suggests that stories provide a template for healthy procreation. From the earliest folk tales to modern rom-coms the same message proliferates – only on achieving harmony as an individual will one be rewarded with sexual congress. From ET to When Harry Met Sally – the same story skeleton in which boys learn to become men is apparent. From The Taming of the Shrew to Jane Eyre the same process is visible for girls, as they slough off their juvenile flaws and grow into women.

You don't need to understand structure to write it

Jimmy McGovern wrote perfect structure from the minute he began on Brookside. He didn't study it, because writers don't need to – it's an instinctive process. The most important rule of screenwriting is that you don't need to know the rules of screenwriting. Understanding structure won't damage a writer, but not studying it deprives one of something. The more you dig into narrative structure the more it reveals its ineffable beauty.

'Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey into Story' by John Yorke, Particular Books, £16.99

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