John Yorke – Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. [Notes]

Yorke’s book provides a wonderful exploration of what makes a story, exploring how they are structured and giving some very helpful and interesting examples. While different media can tell stories in different ways, understanding the underlying principle is more than important regardless of the medium being discussed.

Three Act Structure:

“Everything must have a beginning, middle and end.” [Yorke. 2013:26]

Syd Field – First to articulate the 3-act paradigm, breaking the structure down to:

  • Set-Up,
  • Confrontation,
  • Resolution.

With Turning Points between the first and second (the Inciting Incident), and the second and third (the Crisis).


“It’s a model that lies behind all modern mainstream film and TV narratives. Contrary to the perception of many, though, it wasn’t invented by Field. One Only has to read Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines, written in 1885 and so clearly an antecedent of Indiana Jones, to see the structural prototype of the modern movie form.” [Yorke. 2013:26]

  • The Technique of the Photoplay. By Epes Winthrop Sargent. – First screenwriting manual.

Dramatic Structure:

  • Act One: Thesis
  • Act Two: Antithesis
  • Act Three: Synthesis

Hollywood Structure:

  • Act One: Establish a flawed character.
  • Act Two: Confront them with their Opposite.
  • Act Three: Synthesize the two to achieve balance

“From thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.” [Yorke.2013:29]

“That’s what inciting incidents are too – they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need.” [Yorke.2013:29]

“Cliff-hangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into a new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must make sense.” [Yorke.2013:29]

“Storytelling, then, can be seen as a codification of the method by which we lean – expressed in a three act shape.” [Yorke.2013:29]


Three Act Structure and Five Act Structure.

“It’s important to underline that a five act structure isn’t really different to a three act structure, merely a detailed refinement of it, and historically of course both forms can be traced back to the ancients.” [Yorke.2013:33]

Example – Comparing Shakespeare and Polanski’s Macbeth:


Freytag’s Pyramid.

Gustav Freytag

“In 1863, in his epic Technique of the Drama, he gave the world ‘Freytag’s pyramid.” [Yorke.2013:36]

photo-20-10-2016-17-28-381) Exposition – We meet the protagonist, and time and place are established.

2) Complications – Actions are complicated. “Events accelerated in a definite direction. Tension mounts, and momentum builds up.” [Yorke.2013:37]

3) The Climax of the action – Conflict reaches its high pint. Protagonist stands at a crossroads, victory or defeat.

4) Falling Action – Consequences of the climax. “Momentum slows, and tension is heightened by false hopes/fears. If it’s a tragedy, it looks like the hero can be saved. If [It’s not], then it looks like all may be lost.” [Yorke.2013:37]

5) Catastrophe – Conflict resolved. Either through catastrophe, downfall of the protagonist, or victory.

Freytag places emphasis on the midpoint of the story.

– Christopher Booker – The Seven Basic Plots.

  • Booker, C. (2005) The Seven Basic Plots  Continuum.
  • Haggard, R. (1885) King Solomon’s Mines. Cassell and Company. London
  • Shakespeare, W. (2016) Royal Shakespeare Company. London.
  • Yorke, J (2013) Into the Woods. How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. Penguin Books. St. Ives.
  • Macbeth (1971) Film. Directed by Roman Polanski. [Blu-Ray] US: Caliban Films.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark. (1981) Film. Directed by Steven Spielberg. [Blu-ray] US: Paramount Pictures.

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