Community book club

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Join the community book club and together we will read a range of books about the craft of writing and the business of being published.

BOOK CLUB CHOICE FOR APRIL AND MAY IS.... The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better by Will Storr.

In the UK you can currently buy it through Hive (https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Will-Storr/The-Science-of-Storytelling--Why-Stories-Make-Us-Human-an/24079242), which helps support local book shops. And goodness knows, they need our help now.

Here is the blurb... 

Who would we be without stories?

Stories mould who we are, from our character to our cultural identity. They drive us to act out our dreams and ambitions, and shape our politics and beliefs. We use them to construct our relationships, to keep order in our law courts, to interpret events in our newspapers and social media. Storytelling is an essential part of what makes us human.

There have been many attempts to understand what makes a good story – from Joseph Campbell’s well-worn theories about myth and archetype to recent attempts to crack the ‘Bestseller Code’. But few have used a scientific approach. This is curious, for if we are to truly understand storytelling in its grandest sense, we must first come to understand the ultimate storyteller – the human brain.

In this scalpel-sharp, thought-provoking book, Will Storr demonstrates how master storytellers manipulate and compel us, leading us on a journey from the Hebrew scriptures to Mr Men, from Booker Prize-winning literature to box set TV. Applying dazzling psychological research and cutting-edge neuroscience to the foundations of our myths and archetypes, he shows how we can use these tools to tell better stories – and make sense of our chaotic modern world. 

As we approach the end of March, and having experienced some quite unexpected external events through the period of reading this book, I'm interested in suggestions for the next book. Something that will help take out minds off the news and nurture us creatively! Any suggestions? 

As we're a few weeks into March, and our time with Into The Woods is coming to an end, I'd love to know what the main useful take-aways were for you? Even if you didn't like the book overall, or were frustrated with it, it would be good to know the positives - if we all share those useful tidbits, hopefully we'll all pick up some helpful advice. 

I found the focus on 'change' through the story useful. It often takes me a couple of drafts before the development of a character really comes together, in the first draft they are rather following the plot along rather than actively developing as people. Thinking about little incremental changes as they're going was helpful. 

What about you? 

Into the Woods - In Summary

In writing up Into the Woods as I've read through it, I have been harsh in my criticism. Not because Yorke has presented particularly poor arguments, but because of the conceit he displayed in the introduction: the promise to go where no other had gone before and answer the question of why we tell stories. It didn't help his case that I know many have raised this question, and some have provided at least passable answers to it.

Overall, this is a useful book when viewed through the lens of an analysis of how story has been presented through the ages, albeit with an extra-large side helping of as-applicable-to-television. If it retreated from the attempt to claim that the singular centre-balanced story shape is the perfection all stories aspire to - or subvert with intent - and cut the outdated psychoanalysis babble, it would provide a good outline of a structure for story that is a useful scaffold on which to build: the five-act structure it describes - with some decent supporting examples - is well-tested.

That Yorke tries to present his work in five acts, which bear no resemblance to the function of those acts within said structure, just stinks of gimmickry.

So, yes, there is much good information within Into the Woods. But it is hidden, requiring the reader to sift through Yorke's pseudo-religious fervour and find their own value in the examples he offers up.

I am most surprised that someone who has been involved in so much story writing through his career has such a poor grasp of how to impart meaningful information in a clear manner. And that this book has received so many plaudits: it is certainly not the worst book on story I've ever read (there are some real clunkers, there, to contend with), but it sits closer to that than to the best.

22 - Why?

Finally, the answer that's been dangled before us all along. The why of story.

Except…

Yorke starts this chapter by giving possible explanations of why story. All of them, of course, are nothing more than his theory ineptly plastered onto variations of reasons. He then turns around and - with a level of hubris that is simply jaw-dropping - says that they constitute evidence that his theory is the strongest contender, because his theory encompasses them all.

One of the reasons he gives in this process is that story represents how we learn about the reality of the world, how we live life, how we remember the realities of our own history. But he made a clear point, in an earlier chapter, of explaining why, in turning historical events into screen-based dramas, the order of reality is often heavily rewritten, to "make a better story," at the express expense of historical fidelity. He had already demonstrated the lie of his own reasoning.

Off the back of that first part of this final chapter, Yorke goes on a poorly written rant, dragging up ever more arguments to plaster over his cracks. In so doing, he creates something that is barely readable for its lack of coherence. It does not follow a logical sequence of argument.

Perhaps the only elements worth mention from this morass are: A) that the nuclear model of story - the single conflicting beat - when juxtaposed with more of the same, becomes something more, an emergent property (though he fails to use such terms) with story shape, echoing that of the nuclear conflict; and B) that even his own theory of story is but a model, as fallible as any other.

Thus, Yorke fails to deliver on his promise of answering the simple question of why story.

18 - Television and the Triumph of Structure & 19 - Series and Serial Structure & 20 - Change in Drama Series & 21 - Home Again

Chapter 18 is little more than a history of television programming, touting the popularity of the series and serial formats. Yorke acknowledges that popularity doesn't imply quality, but counters that it also doesn't imply a lack thereof. He then claims that the common critical rejection of the popular is a form of cultural backlash, demonstrating a prejudice as stark as that he accuses the critics of.

Then, in Chapter 19, Yorke looks at the inner structure of the serial, and the series. He states what was implied earlier: that the (successful) serial - and this applies to works of prose just as much as screenwriting - will present a full story structure the levels of both the episode and the larger arc.

As in the classic story structure Yorke espouses, characters change over the course of a serial. He even shows some good examples where the first episode constitutes reaching the inciting incident for the larger full-serial arc.

The series is different to the serial. It is an open-ended sequence of episodic stories that are distinguished from the serial in that the main characters do not change. In terms of his thesis/antithesis model, instead of synthesis, the antithesis is rejected with each episode.

The other element Yorke included within this chapter, surreptitiously despite how important he had mentioned it was in the introduction, is reference to some of the psychological elements that make certain aspects of story appealing to audiences: that a happy rather than a realistic ending will make them return, that a sense of family-as-defensive unit echoes the coping mechanisms of youth…

Chapter 20 picks up the elements chapter 19 hinted at, looking more deeply at the weakness of the series, and its natural inclination to get bogged down in repetition - in self-parody - eventually losing its way in an attempt to become more than the format allows…

I'm including chapter 21 in this block because, even though it is not a part of the preceding arc, it fits no better with the following chapter, which will deserve its own write-up. But, honestly, I have little clue what it was supposed to be about. It felt like Yorke throwing every example he could find at the wall in the hope that they would demonstrate enough overlap with his premise that the reader would give up and just accept that he's right, without critical analysis. He even goes so far as to claim that all stories, even those that patently do not adhere to his model, are evidence for his theory, as they are using subversion of the default as a storytelling tool.

I did note that he harps on repeatedly about symmetry, that everything must hang evenly on either side of the crisis-bearing midpoint. But, if Yorke understood anything about balance in a visual medium (which, allegedly, he should), he would know that balance is not achieved around the centre point of a work, but at - in its most basic form - 61.8% of the width/length of the work. (Why 61.8%? Because it's infinitely recursive, subject to rounding error.)

I get it; he believes in this theory with religious fervour. That doesn't make it right.

15 - Dialogue and Characterization & 16 - Exposition & 17 - Subtext

Finally. Three chapters that provide solid, meaningful instruction. And while the ideas aren't new, they are coherently expressed.

Chapter 15 is simple. It states that dialogue is nothing more than a facet of character action. It can be used as any other type of action, perhaps even more diversely. Yorke mentions that it is easy to combine dialogue with physical action to display inner duality: say one thing, express another through body language… His implication that the dialogue is the less reliable of the two is oh so cliché, though.

Chapter 16 deals with dialogue as a tool for exposition. It presents methods to encapsulate exposition in action and natural dialogue: real showing rather than telling (an even more relevant issue for screenwriting than for prose, which assumes there will be a level of description; but is balanced by the ability to show mental action, which the screen struggles with).

In an attempt to provide an example of dialogue well-used for exposition, Yorke gives us four pages of the Apocalypse Now script. It provides, he claims, background and personalities of all the key players… To which I can only say: nope. This supposed example of exemplary dialogue-based exposition achieved the exact opposite, blurring the characters into a morass of noise: by the end, I couldn't tell any of the characters apart (I had been able to distinguish two for most of the first page).

And in chapter 17, Yorke describes subtext as that which is not shown, but is inferred through what characters are trying to conceal. Subtext, he says, results from insecurity; in security (pun intended), one can clearly express emotion and intention.

The implication is that subtext works because it feels real; it feels like the way people communicate in person. And that is a strong argument. It is, also, an argument that leaves itself - and the very concept of storytelling - open to systemic failure. That which is not stated explicitly is always open to misinterpretation. Indeed, misinterpretation is all but guaranteed. As such, the message in any story that relies on the audience decoding meaning from subtext is as variable as the audience: no creator of such a story can have any confidence that the audience will take away the intended message.

It's an interesting concept that the goal of story is to let the audience create their own interpretation, infer their own message, which may be at odds with the author's intent. (Not that Yorke would dare suggest that; he seems to believe - wrongly - that everyone will draw the same conclusion from any given subtext.)

13 - Character and Structural Design & 14 - Character Individuation

Chapter 13 seems to exist purely to reiterate Yorke's one-size-fits-all theory that story is a linear progression from mostly A with a touch of anti-A to mostly anti-A with a touch of A. He does, at least, mention - as many before him have, though not as succinctly - that one cannot say a story is structurally plot-driven or character-driven, for plot structure is character evolution and character evolution is plot structure.

Chapter 14 is… How can I describe this, other than some of the most laborious writing I have ever waded through?

If I'd wanted to read a book on Freud's theories of super-ego versus id - which, while foundational to a field of psychoanalysis, have been evolved beyond recognition in the century since - I would pick up some of Freud's own work. Yorke even goes so far at to make Freudian psychoanalysis core to his theory, claim that character flaw results from some prior trauma, and its revelation allows deeper understanding of the character. (It feels like he derived his theory from as an extension of a fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis.) Of course, he then contradicts himself saying the prior trauma shouldn't be exposed, that denying audiences the solidity of backstory allows them to self-project, thereby achieving a greater connection with the primary protagonist.

As to the question of how countless stories can be built on a singular structure with the same character flaw, Yorke takes a long-winded path to saying that everyone will cope with that same flaw in their own way. Surprised, not.

Hi everyone.

Very interested that you've chosen this particular book.

I'm a "graduate" of the BBC Writers' Academy, which John Yorke founded and ran for several years. Interestingly, he has just started it up again, with a new bunch of students. This book is a distillation of the course that he ran, and is all very familiar to me, having sat through the original classes.

I owe John a great deal, so I'm probably biased, but I do think it's pretty much the best of the bunch if you're looking for an accessible general text on storytelling and story structure. He is totally open about having borrowed or stolen from all those who've gone before, but I think t's a decent synthesis, and he gets a good balance between academic analysis and user-friendly advice.

It's not faultless, by any means. In some ways, its central message (that story-telling and story-listening are innate human skills) actually suggests that we don't really need the book, because we all tell stories, and understand them, naturally.

I don't follow his advice religiously, but I have gone back to it several times for a refresh, especially when i'm thinking about a new project. In fact, as we're all reading it now, maybe i'll pick it up and have another browse...

My story genius friends,

I am finding this book to be very interesting so far, in spite of the fact that it does cover some ground I have seen in the rather vast collection of other books I have on this subject in my paperback, hardback, and Kindle library.

The part I like the most so far is the emphasis on building characters who have a change of heart as the essence of three-dimensional writing, as opposed to the two-dimensional writing of blockbusters and the Marvel comics approach to story.  He is right. There is a lot of misguided advice that puts so much emphasis on the story/plot marvels of a two-dimensional "blockbuster" story without touching on the difference a great book makes—with a character whose heart and pulse and fear and longing and love we can FEEL.

I have been thinking a lot about this while I am revising my WIP and adding more to the layers of my main characters—what, for instance, are their flaws, wounds, hurts, habits, annoyances, desires, pet peeves, favorite things, preferences, regrets, dreams, attitudes, tics, repeated actions and so forth—and how do all of these attributes throw more subtle light on the plot, reveals, outcomes, etc.  It is very painstaking.

At the end here, I will give a great William Faulkner quote I ran across and a link, but first, let me say that any number of books, blogs, etc. can give the bare bones of what an engaging and commercial novel has to have (by commercial I mean something an agent will look at and potentially take on).

A commercial novel DOES have three acts.  It has a beginning, a middle, and end.  It should be around 90,000 words. The first Act is about 75-90 pages, the second act about 180, and the third act about 75-90 more. Run out to 110,000 words at your own peril. Printing costs will go up after 90,000. It better be a masterpiece and you better be Stephen King.

https://careerauthors.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/

However, that does not mean three acts is ALL there is. You can find 4 Parts if you want, or 5 Acts if you want, or 22 steps if you want—but all of this is just theory of plot. Tips.  If the tips help you and fire your imagination, and tighten up the story with engaging plot points, great!  If not, stick to the basics.

BUT, the most important challenge is to create a character who FEELS and who is challenged in her feelings and attitudes to the world, and who changes—someone who feels ALIVE. Otherwise we do not give a damn and the fanciest plot or special effects in the world will not save you.

That is what I am getting so far, and I agree with it.

Here is what Faulkner said (we are so fearful and numb we are losing the ability to write with feeling):

https://lithub.com/20-pieces-of-writing-advice-from-william-faulkner/

It is just as applicable today as it was in 1950.

On writing towards truth:

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.” (from Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize banquet speech)

 

12 - Character & Characterization

It is sweetly ironic that Yorke should choose the first chapter on character to reveal the timbre of his own. I have been particularly harsh in my critique of Into the Woods specifically because of Yorke's conceit in the introduction to claim that he is the only one to have asked "why" of story, even calling out a couple of other writers by name as hacks who propose their models as one-size-fits-all solutions. Now, when it suits him to call on one of those he earlier denigrated for a supporting quote, Yorke labels him a guru.

Other than that, this chapter has both positives and negatives.

The clearest point on the positive side is Yorke's statement that the root of all character is "the conflict between how we wish to be perceived and what we really feel."

While an interesting premise, it is really an extrapolation of his core theory, that the conflict of story is between the singular protagonist and the externalisation of a denied part of themselves - an antithesis of what they believe themselves to be. In reality, Yorke could more succinctly, and more accurately, have stated that the root of all (revelation of) character is "the conflict between multiple, unaligned desires."

Most of the chapter, however, comprises distortions of various schools of psychology to a common basis that all intra-personal conflict is but a representation of internal-external balancing acts; an attempt to justify his core theory. He ignores the fact that societal conflict is only a perception, based on one's insecurities; that all such internal-external conflicts are really internal-internal. Also, he tries to suggest that everyone suffers raging conflict between how they wish to be and how they must act to fit into society, when the simple truth is that such conflicts are well-settled for the vast majority of people by a young age.

We have gotten into the thick of Yorke embracing the sins he accused everyone else's work as possessing: unsubstantiated claims that his model is the one structure that unifies them all, without so much as a hint of an attempt to address the question of the why of story.

It's so great to see so many of you reading Into The Woods and sharing your thoughts! I wonder if it might be nice to schedule a webchat to discuss it one evening (UK time) towards the end of March?