how-stories-work-john-front-coverBeen reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods: why stories work and why we tell them (Penguin Books, 2013); it is really marvellous. Often when I’m reading something I’m struck with I reproduce an excerpt from it, just as a taster — a couple of pages or so. This following extract is from the closing chapter (pp. 212-14).

‘All our story-telling theories have one thing in common, all revolve around one central idea: the incomplete is made complete; sense is made. It sounds simplistic to say that ordering is at the root of storytelling, but ordering is absolutely about how we navigate the gap between our inner selves and the outer world. Indeed, the ‘home’ we have talked about throughout this book is our inner self and our journey into the woods is a journey to everything beyond. Our attempt to make sense of things encompasses the psychological process: how do we bring inner and outer into balance, how does subjective meet objective, how do we square want and need? How do we fit in?

‘Whether psychological, sexual, or societal, each of our story definitions is built around the same principle: order is made out of chaos; sense is conferred on an overwhelming world. An inciting incident blows a seemingly ordered reality into a thousand fragments, then a detective arrives to hunt down the culprits and restore things to their rightful place.

‘We’ve already seen that the three-act structure is a product of this process. It’s the corral within which we marshal reality, a structure that comes as easily to us as breathing. Ordering is an act of perception, and it is this action that gives us narrative, rhetoric, drama. As the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it, ‘It is no coincidence that [the] standard definition of plot is identical with the definition of intelligence… Characters in a fictitious world do exactly what our intelligence allows us to do in the real world.’ Our intelligence behaves like a detective. It’s sent on a mission, assimilates the available evidence, finds the truth that’s out there and brings it to heel. All narrative is at one level detective fiction. The narrative shape — the dramatic arc — is merely an externalisation of this process. All stories aren’t just quests, they’re detections.

‘Storytelling, then, is the dramatization of the process of knowledge assimilation. The protagonist in drama mimics both the author’s and reader’s desire — all are detectives in seek of a truth. In every archetypal story a protagonist learns — in exactly the same way we do. We are both brought face to face with the consequences of not learning — we will remain unenlightened — and thus, if we continue to read or watch, we choose to learn too. The assimilation of knowledge is in the very cells of drama — a character’s flaw is merely knowledge not yet learned. In seeking to rectify that flaw the story progresses, with the character’s gradual learning imitating the process of perception.

‘Drama therefore mimics the way the brain assimilates knowledge, which is why it’s identical to both legal argument and to the basic essay structure we are taught at school. It is why theme is essential and why it arises unbidden from any work. Consciously or unconsciously, all drama is an argument with reality in which a conclusion is drawn and reality tamed. We are all detectives seeking our case to be closed.

‘But this doesn’t just apply to drama.


(p. 214) ‘Take any factual book, or treatise, any piece of journalism and you will see a strikingly familiar pattern, one in which the author will actively pursue a specific goal (the point they are trying to make), positing a theory, exploring it and coming to a conclusion. The writer becomes the protagonist. What all these different forms of narratives are doing is behaving like detectives, enclosing phenomena into linked chains of cause and effect. Their structure is identical to dramatic structure.

‘Drama, then, is our argument with reality shown. Thinking is sequential, and ideas, as Susan Greenfield has said, are a series of facts linked by the idea that ‘this happens because of this’. As one point is proved, we link it to the next, striving for meaning, and in so doing story is born.’

john-yorkeJOHN YORKE is a British television producer. Following graduation from Newcastle University, Yorke joined the BBC as a trainee producer in the 1980s. He started out in radio but switched to television in the 1990s becoming script-editor and eventually executive producer for Eastenders, the BBC’s flagship primetime continuing drama (i.e. “soap opera”). Shortly after the turn of the century he left the BBC and went over to Channel 4 as Head of Drama whereat he commissioned show such as Shameless, Sex Traffic, and the award-winning Omagh. (In the book — p. 182 — Yorke says that Shameless is really just a modern take on The Waltons, which is sort of funny when first you encounter it [considering the FUBAR world of the Gallagher family] but then you think about what he says you realise that there’s a lot of validity to it, and, let’s face it, having commissioned it, he ought to jolly well know.) Eventually, however, he comes home to auntie, as Head of Drama Production, in which capacity he has been responsible for Life on Mars, Robin Hood, The Street, A Class Apart, Waterloo Road, Holby Blue, Truckers, and Skins, as well as looking after various series of Spooks, Hustle, and New Tricks. If you are not familiar with British television let me just say that this is a very impressive track record. He is also the founder of the Writers’ Academy at the BBC (for more on John Yorke and on this whole subject visit http://www.johnyorkestory.com/).