Review

Into The Woods – John Yorke

Into The Woods  A Five-Act Journey Into Story

The author of this relatively recent and increasingly popular book is TV producer John Yorke, ex-Head of Drama at Channel 4 as well as former Controller of Drama at the BBC. So it’s fair to assume that Yorke is a guy who knows his stuff with regard to story and narrative structure.

Throughout the book, Yorke seeks to uncover the universal patterns underlying story. He argues that these – like Jung’s archetypes – are universal because such narratives are an intrinsic expression of our human nature. Yorke explores the way that narrative patterns pleasingly echo those that occur in nature. He gives the example of fractals (patterns in nature that exists at the smallest unit level and are repeated in larger units.)

Then we get to his in-depth examination of story structure. Essentially, he concludes that all stories follow a distinct pattern. Yes, even when their writers are adamant they are not doing so! Yorke believes this pattern can almost always be mapped to a five-act, rather than the classic three-act, structure. He then breaks this down in detail for the reader.

One thing that I loved about Into The Woods was the chart at the end  listing all the main screenwriting gurus and methods (yep, so there we have our Truby, Save The Cat, Linda Aronson, Vogler, Syd Field etc etc). He shows how all their separate “methods” and structures are just different terms for what is essentially the same pattern. By doing so, Yorke clearly seeks to set himself above all those pesky cowboy screenwriting gurus. I have to say, however, that I’ve personally found that each “guru” does in fact have a little something different to bring to the party in terms of practical approach and application, all of which I’ve found useful in my writing.

Another thing Yorke does far better than most is offer plenty of salient examples from recent TV shows and movies, examples with which all readers should be familiar. It takes away the element of snobbishness that we sometimes see in theoretical discussions of this sort. I also liked his chapter on repeated patterns at the beginnings and endings of stories.

I did however feel that the book was overly repetitious and muddled in places. It came across more to me as an academic thesis and personal labour of love for the author than a practical guide for other writers. I found its ideas interesting but not especially new. And I’m afraid that when I tried to apply them practically and incorporate them step-by-step into methods I already use, I found myself oddly frustrated. It feels rather that Yorke goes very in-depth on some elements and skims over others. That said, Into The Woods has fast become a modern classic for students of writing, story and structure. If you are unfamiliar with the underlying theories of these, I can see why it could be considered a key addition to your writing-book collection.

 Useful if you are:

  • After a detailed analysis and overview of story structure
  • Looking for the whys and hows of story and narrative
  • Interested in storytelling theory and philosophy
  • A fan of psychoanalytic theory
  • Wanting lots of recent examples and are happy to have them from film and TV

Less Useful if you are:

  • Seeking a step by step guide to storytelling
  • After examples from novels and short stories, not film
  • Looking for a guide that will help you unpick story problems
  • In need of a practical guide to story-building
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Review: The Artist’s Way

 The Artist’s Way   Julia Cameron

 The definitive book for reclaiming the creative self. Cameron’s 12-step programme (which follows AA methodology & structure) takes you on a week-by-week journey giving you the essential tools to reconnect you with your own creativity.  The most well-known of these are Morning Pages and Artist Dates.  Each chapter contains practical exercises for the week, and commentary on that week’s theme. It gives  Cameron’s guidance, and relevant biographical details of her personal journey of creative recovery after alcoholism and a harrowing public divorce (she was formerly married to director Martin Scorsese).

I can certainly vouch for this one. Originally published in 1992,  it’s maintained its popularity for a reason. I found  the focus on personal creativity, even in the simplest ways, and doing morning pages first thing worked amazingly well and improved my writing tenfold, although the commentary and methodology may be a bit hippy-dippy for some. Having first read it more than a decade ago, I still do my Morning Pages religiously, and I’d recommend it for anyone struggling with writer’s block.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling with writer’s block
  • Want to reconnect with your creative self
  • Would be keen to begin a regular creative practice but aren’t sure where to start
  • Are looking for something holistic with practical exercises
  • Have personal stuff to work out and process
  • Need  some creative self-care

Don’t use if you:

  • Run for the hills at any mention of God or spirituality
  • Come out in hives at anything new-agey
  • Are looking for a writing craft or structure book
  • Want a how-to-write book or one that gives you tips about editing
  • Need something to help you with a specific writing project

 

 

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Becoming A Writer – Dorothea Brande

Becoming A Writer  Dorothea Brande


I took, and I still take, the writing of fiction seriously. The importance of novels and short stories in our society is great. Fiction supplies the only philosophy that many readers know; it establishes their ethical, social, and material standards; it confirms them in their prejudices or opens their minds to a wider world.

So writes Dorothea Brande in the introduction to her 1934 book, Becoming A Writer.

It seems to me that there is comparatively little written in the now hundreds of writing books about the psychological aspects of “being a writer” – about things that hit many of us, like lack of confidence, for instance, or the underlying anxieties that lead to writers block. (See Writing, Pressure, and the Things We Don’t Talk About Enough for more on these issues.)

And it’s interesting that, nearly 85 years after the book’s publication, despite the changes in technology , in spite of all the MFAs and books, the problems writers face are the same as they always were, and require the same basic solutions. These are what Becoming A Writer provides. It is essentially a guide to building for ourselves the good habits that form the foundation of a productive writing life.

You can see how later creativity books like The Artist’s Way have been influenced by Brande’s thinking and exercises – Becoming A Writer can be considered a precursor to those. She uses the language of the then-new psychoanalytic approach, and writes a great deal about the power of the unconscious, as well as what would later be popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as  “flow” .Her advice – she was a writing teacher – displays a  genuine psychological understanding  of writers and creative practice, particularly around building good habits and the sources of resistance.

The purpose of the book is to ‘”train” the burgeoning writer via a series of musings and practical exercises, such as writing first thing in the morning, agreeing with yourself to write at set times, viewing yourself objectively as a character and so on,as well as exercising your “non-writing” self.. She takes what we would now call a “holistic” approach– but there’s certainly no “woo” about it.

One particular strength for me is how the book encourages the writer to take ownership of their writing practice. Far too often, we look outside ourselves for the answers – to course qualifications, to self-declared ‘gurus’, to fixed interpretations of what constitutes good literature. Brande encourages quality, but wants her readers to know themselves well as people and what they think of the world and the big life questions,  so that they may strive for honesty in their writing, to familiarize themselves objectively with their own quirks, style, strengths and weaknesses and then use that to improve and build on that knowledge and skill.

In all the books I’ve read on writing, I still don’t think I’ve found a guide to daily practice as common-sense and practical as this. In terms of content, it is every bit as relevant now as it would have been 80-odd years ago. As a result, I would highly recommend.

Use if you need:

  • Guidance on building your regular writing practice
  • Practical exercises to build up good writing habits
  • An approach that encourages you to observe and take ownership of yourself as a writer, and that you can tailor to your own needs.

 

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Review: The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

The Anatomy of Story     John Truby


Screenwriting guru and script consultant John Truby goes in-depth about how to build a satisfying story, level by level. The book is designed primarily for screenwriters, and I have used it for screenplays, but I have found the exercises invaluable when writing prose fiction too.

Highly practical, the book focuses on getting the writer to build a coherent story that works at all levels – including working out its particular  “designing principle”. This is the overall strategy you’ll use for telling the story, a concept which takes the whole thing into deep structural territory.  Truby focuses on more than just the basic three-act structure approach. Chapters cover key elements such as how to find your premise, the seven crucial steps of story structure, character, moral/thematic argument, the world of the story and its symbols and how these all work together to create a coherent whole. The book then takes you through Truby’s screenwriting  plotting method (The 22 Steps) which brings everything together step by step.

Although readers will find many of his movie examples outdated (he bangs on about Tootsie, for example) I have  certainly found his story exercises some of the most useful in my arsenal, particularly when I am planning a story or when I am stuck. As a result, The Anatomy of Story has turned out to be of the most well-thumbed and practical writing books in my  collection.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling to isolate the premise of your story
  • Want a step by step process to help you build your story
  • Like getting analytical with practical exercises at the same time
  • Are looking for practical ways to pull your story into a coherent whole
  • Would like to really go deeply into your story

Don’t use if you:

  • Can’t bear screenwriting gurus or writing “systems”
  • Prefer to be a pantser and work without outlines or too much analysis
  • Need your movie references to be modern
  • Are already a master plotter
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