In the last week or so, I’ve had quite a few conversations with other writers about craft books and which ones people found the most useful.
Once of those books that plenty of people agree on is Into The Woods by John Yorke. I had no idea how many people loved it until I started asking!
So today I’m sharing my own review of this book, which I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Into The Woods was one of the first mainstream books to examine story structure in a methodical way, backed up by evidence. Its author John Yorke has decades of experience writing for the screen; he’s written acclaimed dramas and run hugely popular soap operas. So the book focuses primarily on screenwriting – but is just as relevant for novelists.
The book was inspired when Yorke started to research story structure and theory, interrogating scripts and talking to writers to find out what the common threads are. As he says in the introduction:
“…there was one unifying factor in every good script I read … and that was that they all shared the same underlying structural traits.”Into The Woods introduction
Yorke then started to examine hundreds of years of storytelling to discover where this underlying structure had its roots. He read Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, classic novels and modern screenplays, and discovered that however diverse these stories may be, they all have the same underlying structure.
Into the Woods takes the reader through this structure. It shows you, with reference to classical and modern sources, examples of story structure at work. It demystifies story for the casual reader; but also, and most importantly, it provides tips and pointers to help modern storytellers use this structure to improve their own stories.
This was one of the first books I read on story structure (and I’ve read plenty!). It was hugely influential in my switch from being a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) to a plotter. I’ve used it to revise novels I wrote before I understood story structure, and to help me plot those I’ve written since.
There will be those who decry story structure and say it’s formulaic and over-simplified. But Yorke shows his readers that the underlying simplicity and consistency of story structure means you can layer elements on top to create a work that’s individual, complex, and satisfying for readers.
He shows that great writers including Plato, Shakespeare and the Brontes have all written stories with the same underlying structure, even if they didn’t know they were doing it at the time. In fact, the very fact that so many writers do this subconsciously is extra evidence for there being a deeply ingrained expectation of story in the human psyche. And that’s what makes well plotted stories work, because they appeal to something in the reader that’s innate.
I can highly recommend Into The Woods. It’s an accessible and fascinating guide that balances examples from the classics with modern film and TV, to demonstrate that great story structure is something all of us can aspire to. If you’re a beginning writer, or someone with plenty of experience who wants to hone their craft, this book is for you.