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

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ANALYSING a joke is like dissecting a frog: it’s not that much fun for anyone, and the frog dies.

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story

John Yorke

Particular Books, £16.99

John Yorke, a leading TV producer, runs the risk of ­killing his own frog in this ­terrifyingly clever analysis of how stories work.

This is not a how-to book for screenwriters but a philosophical inquiry, with a particular emphasis on structure. Why do so many stories follow a similar three or five-act structure, with even their constituent parts echoing the same arcs of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, or journey-arrival-return? Why do writers such as David Hare, Charlie Kaufmann and Frank Cottrell Boyce, who affect to despise the three-act structure, produce dramas that seem perfectly to embody it? Why does an apparently seven-act story, such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark, seem to follow the same rules?

Packed with intelligent argument, this is a short book that feels long. Yorke’s sphere of reference is vast, from Socrates to Shakespeare to The Wire to Holby City. He can talk about The Godfather and the Muppets in the same breath, and show how The Waltons and Shameless are ­essentially the same story.

The first half of this five-part work (see what he did there?) strikes me as a cogent analysis of the essential dynamics of fiction, although I confess I found it hard to retain all the information Yorke supplies.

Once Yorke gets past pure structure on to character and dialogue, and starts to write more about television and less about film and the older narrative forms, the book becomes pacier. His discussion of serial or continuing drama, especially soaps, is particularly acute.

Yorke’s cerebrations, and his omnivorous cultural consumption, lead him to conclusions that the average reader probably already understands, emotionally if not intellectually. The creation and consumption of stories is about empathy. “Stories about mothers, fathers, burgeoning sexuality and the passing of life from one generation to the next will always resonate,” he says, because they make sense of the chaos of the world.