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

Scrivener software – what is it and what’s the big deal?

When it comes to writing prose, I was for a long time a Word-only girl, and to be honest, I still write my short stories mainly in Word, unless I am putting together a collection and needed to start moving things about. But it was when I started thinking about doing exactly that, and about the larger prose projects – novels, non-fiction – I wanted to embark on, that I first became aware of Scrivener as the  must-have tool for writers. In the same way screenwriters wax lyrical about Final Draft, many of my writer friends were telling me that Scrivener had revolutionised their lives, particularly the way they were able to organise their work. So what’s the big deal?

First of all,  a note on what Scrivener is and isn’t. Scrivener is not a “novel-writing system” – it won’t write your novel for you, or even give you tips on how to write. It’s not about guidance. Rather, it is a project organisation system built directly with writers in mind. As such, it has been developed with practical features that are specific to the needs of writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

It has so many great features that it’d be impossible to put them all in one post, and the inbuilt user-guide that comes with the Scrivener software is therefore pretty hefty and complicated, but for ease, the following are the key features I’ve been finding most useful:


You can create your own  to suit the way you work, but Scrivener comes complete with ready-made templates for various writing formats. For example, it has templates already loaded for a Novel, a Novel-With-Parts, General Non-Fiction, Non-Fiction with Sub-Heads, Research Papers, BBC Radio Play Format and many others.

It also supplies basic templates for character sketches and setting sketches, that you can fill in and save with the project. Plus you can pull in any photos or media links as well as adding research, including websites etc. so you have it all in the same place for reference.

Allows you to write in any order – in sections or scenes –  and move stuff around

Because the templates encourage you to write headed scenes or sections to be able to get the most out the tool, you can easily jump around when writing your manuscript as you wish, You can also move chapters, scenes and sections around with no trouble, just by dragging them to a different position. I personally find this preferable; I don’t tend to write larger projects in a linear way, so if I’ve set up my template the way I want it, I can write my scenes fairly randomly and first and move things and fill in any gaps later.

Corkboard/Index Card view

Giving users the option to view their project at many levels, from the big-picture to the granular, is one of Scrivener’s very best features. You can view all your scenes onscreen as a full run-together manuscript, for instance; or you can view them on a virtual corkboard as index cards, to which you can add synopses, to be able to see the project and its components in its entirety. You also have an ‘Outline’ view, of the basic headings, and to which you can add any features you want to highlight, like word-counts etc.


You can colour code every section and also label it, as to whether it’s a chapter or a scene, a character note etc, whether it’s first, second or final draft, for example. That way, when you see the whole thing in overview, you can clearly keep track of what you have and what you’re going to want to keep and not keep when you export your final version.

Composition Mode

Even though you can type your text in the main screen, sometimes all the sidebars and features can get distracting. So Scrivener allows you to go into what it calls “Composition Mode”, where you get just the page you are working on up on the screen to type in, much as you would do in Word, to allow you to focus totally on what you are writing. Obviously, you can also copy and paste any material you already have in Word straight into Scrivener if you want to. While in Composition Mode, you can have a black background – or you can choose a background from any images you have imported. For instance, for the novel I am working on at the moment, I have my background as a photo of my setting, which I find helps me get back into my story quickly whenever I begin a new session.

Project Targets

Scrivener allows you to both set and track word-count targets, as well as set yourself deadlines. For example, you can set how long the full novel will be and the ultimate deadline date for finishing your current draft. You can also set what they call a “session target” – say, 1000 words every time – and it will track your progress toward that and also toward the overall goal, and tell you how many days you have left to achieve it.

Export Tools

Scrivener gives you loads of format options for exporting your final masterpiece. It is set up to show “front matter” (things like the title and your name and address if you are exporting into manuscript format, and title pages if you are exporting to paperback pdf format). Using its “Compile” feature, you can export into manuscript format, various e-book formats, paperback formats, pdf – you name it. You can even export it as a synopsis document based on the contents of your index cards.

In short, having used Scrivener for a while now on my own projects, I can definitely see why other writers have fallen in love with it, and I use it on all of my bigger writing projects now. I can see also how it might not be for everyone though, depending on your requirements and way of working.

Consider Scrivener if you:
  • Have a big project – like a novel – where you have a lot of material and scenes that you might want to move around, and you want to be able to view it all in different ways onscreen.
  • Are looking for a project-management tool for your writing
  • Write in random sections and want to be able to move things about later
  • Want somewhere to keep all the material together – like research, character sketches, photos, reference websites – as well as the actual drafts for a project
  • Need software that can export your work to numerous formats including manuscript, formatted print-ready PDF and e-book, which is great for self-publishers
  • Would like a one-stop-shop for all your writing needs around one project
Don’t go for Scrivener if you:
  • Want a novel-writing system
  • Are looking mainly for a screenwriting formatting tool (Scrivener does have screenplay templates, but personally I’d use Final Draft for that kind of formatting)
  • Are an old-school, hands-on writer, and prefer to organise your work physically rather than onscreen e.g. with physical corkboards and index cards all around your room
  • Need to keep things simple. Scrivener’s great but because of all the little features it can feel a tad overwhelming at first.


Becoming a Writer: Create Your Own Path

How do you create your own path as a writer?

It is easy to get sucked into the belief that to give yourself permission to call yourself a writer, there is a rigid set of external steps that you have to fulfil. The fiction writing world, at least here in the UK, can be a small one, demographically speaking. Much as I love all the writers I know, it is, in my experience, an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated crowd (and yes, that goes for me too). That means that for many writers,  the “officially-sanctioned path” – with its inherent assumptions about cultural background and income – can seem rather limited and exclusionary.

For instance, it is not enough to just sit down every day and write; it has to be literary fiction. It must be in the form of a novel ( you have to pick one form) and has to be traditionally published. You must have done – and paid for – an MA or MFA or one of the publisher courses specifically set up to rival these, or you are “ not doing anything”.  Or you must have studied English Literature at university and have gone to university in the first place. You must be under 40. Blah. Etcetera.

This, of course, is all bollocks. There’s nothing wrong with these things (well, apart from the under 40 focus), they can indeed be helpful for many – but they are categorically not the only ways to develop your writing, nor the only path to follow. It is perfectly possible to “become a writer” while missing any or all of these, and to create your own path yourself.

Five Ways To Create Your Own Writing Path

Know Yourself Well

Be honest. Think about the things you really like reading. What are your guilty pleasures? How do you see your writing dreams? What genres do you love? When push comes to shove, would you rather win the Booker, be a performance poet or make millions with a commercial bestseller? All of these make a difference to the decisions you might make on your writing path. The books to read, the authors to study, the courses to consider.

Learn Your Strengths & Weaknesses

It’s also worth getting clear about your writing strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps people have told you you’ve a knack for suspense, or you do a great line in sharp character observation, or your plot twists are sublime and your writing zips along. This is the stuff you champion and build on. On the other hand, your editing might need work, you might be rubbish at endings, you might struggle with structure or story. Nobody likes to be anything other than marvellous, but knowing your weaknesses means you can concentrate your learning efforts on trying to bridge those gaps.

Study The Greats

Your greats and my greats might be different – and that’s fine. I’m a short story writer and lover of dark, off-kilter literary fiction. You might be writing gritty urban YA, century-spanning family dramas, murder mystery spoofs, zombie sci-fi. I’m assuming if you are serious about your writing that you are already a voracious reader. But this isn’t just about reading for pleasure, although that too, of course. You need to actually study the best work in your chosen genre. Read a little around it too, explore the boundaries a bit. Compare and contrast different writers and forms and look at the patterns. Examine how the work is constructed; see how it has been put together, consider what the effects are on you, the reader and how those effects have been achieved. Make notes.

Don’t – ever – copy in the plagiaristic sense, but can you try out some of the structures in your own work? The effects? How might you improve on them?

Find Your People

No writer is an island – even for an activity that tends to involve so much isolation. It’s great to have like-minded people to connect with. I myself found a huge network of short-story lovers, first from joining a small short story book group close to my work, plus independently going to events and running into the same people, from there to a regular spoken-word night and joining a writing group with some of the attendees, connecting with new people over Twitter and by following blogs that interested me. If you take action, such as attending readings based on the stuff you genuinely love, you’ll soon start to connect with others doing the same. And who knows what can follow from there?

Seek Out Resources That Will Help You

 The better you know yourself as a writer, the better you can target the learning experiences you need. You may be someone who works best by yourself, using exercises from books and online and setting your own pace. Or you might benefit from the classroom atmosphere of a good course, or the silence of a writing retreat – or a one-to-one with a supportive mentor. You may want a critique group. You may want writing exercises targeting on one or two of your weaknesses. Personally I’ve done in-depth courses in screenwriting, playwriting, script-reading, short fiction. I’ve been to hundreds of author talks and spoken word nights. I have a ton of online resources I use and shelves full of books, many crossing over between screenwriting and fiction, which I happen to find useful. I’m in two critique groups. I do also have an MA, though seem to do my best work when setting my own pace and supplementing with short, targeted courses when I can afford them. That’s just me. Everyone is different, after all.

Truth is, there is a wealth of information and resource out there for you already – you just have to decide what you need to take your work forward and go out and find it. And yes, you are allowed. You might find that all of the listed “official channels” are right for you, or only some of them are, or only aspects of some of them that you can source yourself. Chances are if you want to, you will be able to find your own alternatives as and when you need to. Creating your own path may well empower you – and improve your writing, too.