on 5 November 2014
I'm an aspiring novelist (I've been an aspiring novelist for about 5 years now, will probably still be an aspiring novelist in another 5) and have a degree in English and Creative Writing, so like most writers I've read countless books on how to improve my craft. When it comes to writing, I've held Stephen King's 'read a lot, write a lot' mantra in my head for a while, but I still flick through non-fiction books with the hope that a single sentence will unlock the magic genie lodged in my brain and a fully-formed manuscript will just appear right before my eyes.
Into The Woods was a fantastic surprise. Its main focus is on scripts, but talks about how to structure a story in general for different genres in 5 acts, and why those 5 acts are better than the common 3 that we tend to work to.
This has changed my perspective of how I structure a story. Some writers can go off without any sort of guidance, but I am not that writer. I need to break down my thoughts in a simple way. I think that now I have the tools to break my work easily, I can focus on aspects that I hadn't been able to before.
The writing is intelligent and full of cultural references whilst not being omnipotent and self-imposing. I've been introduced to theorists I never knew existed and perspectives I've never thought of.
Would recommend this book to anyone of all levels of writing who wants to learn how to best structure their novel.
on 29 April 2016
There are a number of books around about the ten, or nine or four or fifteen or however-many basic plots, but this one claims to have found the _single_ ‘underlying structure’ to storytelling, and claims furthermore that it’s an archetype that we know already. In short: the empathetic (but not necessarily nice) protagonist one day has a problem (the ‘inciting incident’), refuses to confront it, then does and looks like failing, then succeeds (or, in a rarer variant, fails).
The problem takes the protagonist to a new environment (literally or metaphorically); opponents may be ‘internal’ (psychological) and external; there will be reversals/ surprises/ turning points (at least two: a ‘call to action’ and a ‘realisation of consequences’, spaced around the mid-point); there may be episodic sub-goals, with sub-problems and sub-reversals using the same structure; even individual scenes follow the same setup-to-conflict-to-crisis pattern (but the first and last of these can be implicit in earlier or later action, so sometimes the scene is only the conflict).
The protagonist has a flaw and changes, which means their eventual goal may change too; but nonetheless they use their new knowledge at the final climax which resolves the original problem (or, rarely, the flaw leads to tragedy);
These structural claims are the key part of the book. But it also contains sections on: showing not telling; using psychological theories in characterisation; making the most of characters’ facades; using dialogue that tells the viewer important background (without being obvious about it); and more. And there are interesting analyses on things like the structure of TV series (where characters have to have forgotten what they learned the previous week), and the issue of why humans tell stories in the first place.
The book nods to various forms of high culture every so often, but most examples are from TV and Hollywood films. The style is somewhat buttonholing, but I was won over by the writer’s enthusiasm and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. There are quite a few sentences like ‘We are all identical – yet we are all different,’ but often I was just beginning to speed-read when a really sharp sentence or idea brought me up short. I liked the idea of narrative structure as dialectic, for instance… It was a good read and I guess possibly useful for writing synopses and doing early structures on what’ll happen in your screenplay…
on 22 August 2013
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.
on 14 April 2013
THIS IS A BRILLIANT BOOK . A Must Read for writers and compulsive for anyone passionate, interested or involved in storytelling .
It is wonderfully written , erudite, clear, entertaining and full of love for the medium with excellent examples and ideas .
I know a bit about writing.....thirty odd years in the business ( WAKING THE DEAD) and I've read a few books on the dark art of making it happen . And this is by far the best .
And I say this having thought no one would ever better Robert McKee's "Story".
I especially loved the section of series and serials and the evolution of that and simply haven't read anything as intellectually and creatively interrogatory of Television .
No one can teach you to write but this is the sort of book which helps you convert what you half knew or thought you knew into applied practice .
At whatever stage there will be something both practical and inspiring for you . A book you can return to again and and again when you need to begin, to refresh or a kick start.
And for producers, directors, and writers of all fiction this is the map of the woods where story happens at its highest level.
Written for grown ups by the man who knows.
on 9 April 2013
This book is a disappointment.
Relentlessly repetitive, it takes five acts to describe a one-scene story.
A harping, irritating prose style forever exclaiming how 'simple' and 'clear' things are, and forever promising some great insight into storytelling yet delivering bland obvious-isms. And the same ones over and over and over again.
If you've ever wondered how British television drama became thin, bland, predictable in its patterns and empty of idiosyncrasy or living characters, it could just be that this one man, John Yorke, is responsible... and now he wants everyone else to know how to do it.
More annoyed than I otherwise might be because of the claims the publicity makes that this is something different. Well done Yorke/Independent, you got £10 out of this sucker.
It's a cynical, massively padded, repetitive, strident, dull, pale, thin ghost of Booker's Seven Basic Plots from which, as far as I can tell, it takes a very great deal.
Seriously terrible, and not to be taken seriously by anyone who loves beauty, depth, idiosyncrasy or originality in their stories.
This book is a careful analysis of how stories have always been structured since we have record of them, and why certain patterns crop up over and over in every tv show/book/film. This isn't a how-to manual on script-writing, or a set of instructions on how to write a good story, but nevertheless a lot of the insights within the book are likely to help any writers who are struggling with an uncooperative story or characters that don't seem to work properly. It will be useful not only to screenwriters but to novelists and any writers who are starting out. It's unlikely to help generate any ideas for you or inspire you, but if you have an idea you're working on, the analysis of successful story patterns here may well help you to develop your fiction better.
At first I thought the author's style was good: it was accessible, easy to understand, and included lots of entertaining pop culture references to everything from Hannah Montana to classic Greek myth. However I soon found that the author made the same point over and over in different ways, and this repetitiveness became a little annoying. The structure sometimes seemed a little aimless too, and whilst the book never becomes truly dry, there are times when it does seem a little lifeless. Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting points within the book, and I think it's worth a read for anyone who's interested in the way that we tell stories.
(A final point: this book has one of those weird covers that seems to get greasy fingerprints on it as soon as anyone looks at it.)