Secret Structures That Underpin Our Stories

Article excerpt

Byline: NICK CURTIS

INTO THE WOODS: A FIVE ACT JOURNEY INTO STORY by John Yorke (Particular Books, [pounds sterling]16.99) ANALYSING a joke is like dissecting a frog: it's not that much fun for anyone, and the frog dies. John Yorke, a leading TV producer, runs the risk of killing his own frog in this terrifyingly clever analysis of how stories work.

This is not a how-to book for screenwriters but a philosophical inquiry, with a particular emphasis on structure. Why do so many stories follow a similar three- or five-act structure, with even their constituent parts echoing the same arcs of thesisantithesis-synthesis, or journeyarrival-return? Why do writers such as David Hare, Charlie Kaufmann and Frank Cottrell Boyce, who affect to despise the three-act structure, produce dramas that seem perfectly to embody it? Why does an apparently seven-act story, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, seem to follow the same rules? And should we, looking at the vital signs of our frog, really care? The answer is probably eventually. Packed with intelligent argument, this is a short book that feels long. Yorke's sphere of reference is vast, from Socrates to Shakespeare to The Wire to Holby City. He can talk about The Godfather and the Muppets in the same breath, and show how The Waltons and Shameless are essentially the same story.

The first half of this five-part work (see what he did there?) strikes me as a cogent analysis of the essential dynamics of fiction, although I confess I found it hard to retain all the information Yorke supplies. …