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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars flawed, 22 Aug 2013
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This review is from: Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story (Kindle Edition)
It is worth noting that, for a book about writing, written by a writer, for writers, Into the Woods is incredibly badly written. And I do mean just awful. The author adopts the tone, throughout, of an enthusiastic but hopeless missionary, trying to explain the holy trinity to a skeptical savage. Every sentence is so identical to the preceding one, each paragraph is the same as the last, so that eventually you have to read everything twice, just to extract the information from the sentence, because the cumulative effect is so boring. The book is so repetitive anyway, that you aren't sure if you've read this sentence before, or if you've just read one like it, or just feel like you have. Also irritating, in a book of this kind, is the personal opinions of the author being presented as fact, usually in the form of annoying assertions, like, 'Tarantino's achingly clever screenplay' or 'Jimmy McGovern's brilliant depiction of...' Let's all agree that value judgements are subjective, but that some things seem to be more popular for some reason. Let's work out why.

As for the content, it is varied. The book is about film and television writing exclusively. The author's ideas on story structure are interesting, and convincing in places. The book begins with an analysis of the parts of a screenplay, which offer quite little that is new to existing students of story structure, although the author goes perhaps further than others in believing that stories are broken down into parts that mimic the whole, in a process that the author likens to fractals in nature. In other words, he is an extreme structuralist. I found the author's explanation of structure, despite his dreadful prose, to be quite lucid, and insightful at times. Much to agree with and disagree with.

For example, early on, the writer states that there are two types of screenplay: those that are two-dimensional (in which the protagonist does not undergo a change) and three-dimensional, in which they do. This is an interesting distinction, and helps to clarify the difference between certain types of story. However, the author is clearly taken in by his own spatial metaphor. He comes to believe that three-dimensional stories are better than two-dimensional ones, by a process he doesn't explain (3 is more than 2, perhaps?). But anyone could come up with an example of a 'two dimensional' story (say, 'Alien') that most people would agree is better than a 'three dimensional story' (say, Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams). But the author largely ignores these two dimensional stories throughout the book, because he clearly favours the other kind. Sometimes he turns a 2 dimensional story into a three dimensional one, just to make his point (does Elliott in ET really have a flaw that he overcomes to rescue his friend? I don't think so). The author's decision to focus on one kind of story is the poorest decision of the book. It leaves a whole forest of questions unexplored, such as how does a horror film work, when there are multiple protagonists? How can two screenplays seem to contain the same elements, and yet one work well, and the other not work well? What is the difference between certain types of story: love story, bank heist, sergio leone western, etc? The author is not interested in differences, so much as similarities, which means leaving out everything which doesn't conform to theory, which means, pretty much, a lot of interesting stuff.

Once the book moves on from general story structure (acts, midpoints, inciting incidents etc.) the real problems begin. The sections on character, motivation, etc. are just useless. The author embarks on the most superficial and unnecessary explanation of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalytic principles yet committed to print. The pages and pages devoted to explaining the hidden motivations of the subconscious and how they relate to the sublimated motivations of the characters of a film could really have been left out. The second part of the book, in fact, including the history of TV serials in the UK, and why some serials 'jump the shark', largely feels like something tacked on to flesh out the book.

Whatever rules you might wish to establish for storytelling, you can find examples where the rule has been applied, but the result is a bad product, because it hasn't been done well (that's without even getting into how you decide what 'good' and 'bad' are in art). That's why the author often drops in comments like, 'this rule, if followed properly...' But what is 'properly'? That is the big question haunting books that try to reduce storytelling to structural principles. Without the addition of talent, taste, experience, whatever you want to call it, these rules are of no use whatsoever, since they will be incorrectly applied, or lack some balancing element in the work.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Feb 2014 11:50:40 GMT
M Budd says:
For answers to the question "How stories work and why we tell them" read the classic "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker.
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

Posted on 5 Aug 2014 15:51:24 BDT
Mrs. K. says:
What a fantastic review, thank you.
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