THE PLOT: ‘Into the Woods’ by John Yorke is a non-fiction book about storytelling. Written for screenwriters and novelists, it explores the underlying structure behind all narrative forms, including why we tell stories and how they function. Using lots of examples from Shakespeare to EastEnders, Yorke dissects the three act and five act structures to understand the root of storytelling. Yorke is the mastermind behind great dramas, including Wolf Hall, Shameless and Skins, and he utilises this knowledge and cites a range of sources to posit the theory of a universal structure underneath all great stories.
RATING: After published novelist and Headline editor, Richard Roper, mentioned this book at a talk I attended, I immediately bought it to read during National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo). There were some useful nuggets of information that helped while I was furiously writing my own novel so I’d give it four stars. It also helped me to interrogate some of the storytelling devices I used naturally and push them further to ensure they’re working as hard as they can to drive the narrative. But it’s important to note that unlike other books on writing, this book is not didactic. Yorke is keen to state that his theory may not be the only one, and cites a range of complementary and contradictory thoughts.
GOOD BITS: I enjoyed how Yorke explained how to create great characters with interesting story goals based on their internal needs. This is not a new concept to me, but Yorke’s way of linking character goal and need to the inherent structure of the whole novel made this concept more concrete to me and I’ve been able to apply it in my own work. I think this worked for me because he explained why the character’s internal flaws and needs effectively create the structure of a novel, rather than just stating the character should have one.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: At times, I found this book a little dense and boring, but that might be because I struggle to read non-fiction. In particular the end was quite repetitive and although it’s meant to be a summary, I found he used multiple quotes or sources to expound the same point, making it a bit of a slog. He really drove home the point about thesis and antithesis, and it reminded me a bit of dull reading for university.
OVERALL: This would be suitable for anyone trying to write their own story in any medium and I’d recommend it to fans of ‘Save the Cat’ and ‘How Not to Write a Novel.’ Unfortunately this won’t solve all of your writing woes. Spoiler alert – there is no magic pill that will make you suddenly be able to create great fiction – but it does help you understand the form and structure of most stories. Warning – if you’re just interested in storytelling in general but are not working on your own project, you might find it a bit tedious and dense.