Thursday, 19 September 2013

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story - book review

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke

Ostensibly this is a book about story structure in film rather than books, but the lessons are the same so it’s useful to writers of any sort, be they scriptwriters or novelists.

Most writers of fiction will have come across the concept of the three act structure which is largely what this book covers, although Yorke divides the three acts into five. That is itself isn’t original. He admits that he’s collected ideas on story structure from theorists and writers both alive and dead. As such it’s a pretty good introduction to the field for someone, like me, who has not really studied story structure in detail.


If I had to make a criticism I’d make two. The first is that, having chosen most of his examples from film, he is very reliant on the reader having seen the films he talks about. If you haven’t seen Thelma & Louise then I urge you to see it (perhaps twice) before reading the book. There are probably others, perhaps three or four films that you would benefit from seeing to understand the references that he makes. (Unfortunately I can’t remember them all as it’s a while since I finished the book.) However he has drawn from so many film references that nobody will have seen all of them but most readers will have seen enough to benefit from what he says.

The second criticism is also really a recommendation. If anything there is too much in this book. I wouldn’t say it’s repetitive as he makes a point in enough ways for the reader to grasp a concept if they didn’t get the point from the first example (or they hadn’t seen the example film). However he does go into a lot of detail and as such it’s a bit much to pick all that up from a single reading. Perhaps it’s not intended as a light read as it’s really a text book. Film script students would probably refer back to it throughout a course.


Whether he is correct in his analysis is something I can’t say, but to understand the structuralist’s perspective it’s a good place to start. He suggests that even those who do not believe in structural story still write in this form without knowing it. I’ve looked at my own work and tried to identify the ‘mid-point’ and I’m not entirely convinced the séance scene is that mid-point (is being half way through enough?), but he may be right. How my acts are defined from there is anybody’s guess. What I can’t tell, having read Into the Woods, is whether my work is a load of old tosh, but I suspect that my next book will be better for having read it.