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Into the Woods:

A Five Act Journey into Story

by John Yorke

Here's a quiz. What do the following moments have in common: ET phoning home; Hamlet discovering Claudius's guilt; and the creature bursting out of John Hurt's chest in Alien? If your answer is that they are all critical moments in their stories, then you're right - but you only get half a point. Yes, all three are pivotal scenes. Or, as John Yorke puts it in his brimmingly insightful, stimulating study of how stories work, they are the points after which "there can be no return to how life was before".

In his meticulous examination of films, plays, novels and fairy tales, however, Yorke uncovers something even more intriguing about the above moments: they all occur at precisely the halfway point of their narratives. It's a coincidence far too elegant to be entirely arbitrary. The question of why this should be forms the heart of Yorke's book.

Again and again, he points out, stories display the same structures - whether they're the Odyssey or The Godfather. Take, for instance, the 'rubber-ducky' moment in movies (as it was witheringly nicknamed by Sidney Lumet, the director of Twelve Angry Men), the scene where we learn the past trauma that explains the protagonist's life. In Citizen Kane, it's Kane's separation from his sleigh Rosebud. In Casablanca, it's Rick being abandoned by Ilsa in Paris. Without fail, the moment comes two-thirds of the way through the film. Why? Because that's the point when the hero finally faces and accepts his past.

In case after case, Yorke compellingly unpicks how all of us, not just Spielberg and Shakespeare, unconsciously give preset, archetypal shapes to our tales. We're such natural storytellers, in fact, that Yorke even spots classic story structure in a yarn told to him by a friend's nine-year-old son: a family holiday is cancelled because the parents don't have enough money, the children discover a buried treasure map, are chased as they try to find the treasure, and eventually unearth the booty that pays for a better holiday. This storyteller might be nine years old but, with uncanny precision, he has expertly followed Aristotle's principles of drama in The Poetics: a hero suffers a reversal of fortune, comes to a realisation of how to resolve his predicament, and as a result balance is finally restored.

The pattern is so fundamental that it crops up in everything from Hansel and Gretel (the siblings are stranded in the big scary woods, and learn not to trust strangers) to Toy Story (Woody and Buzz Lightyear are stranded in the big scary world, and learn to be friends). As Yorke demonstrates, this tale of the journey into and then back out of danger serves as a basis for almost all narrative. A hero has to leave his village to battle a menace threatening his community. It's Beowulf. But equally, it's Jaws. And fascinatingly, you don't even need a physical journey at all for the same structure to appear. In Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, the king goes nowhere, spending almost the entire duration of the action in his palace. His journey, in a nice Sophoclean twist, is purely psychological. He sets out to discover what's caused the plague in Thebes, and ends up discovering it's him.

Two and a half millennia on, Sophocles finds a new telling in ET. In Spielberg's fable-like blockbuster, it is, neatly, the 'monster' (the extraterrestrial) who happens to go on a long journey and find itself (like Dante) lost in the woods - of suburban America. The protagonist, 10-year-old Elliott, by contrast, never leaves home. Like Oedipus, his journey is psychological - he discovers love for someone other than himself: ET.

Yorke's own background is in television. He cut his teeth writing the first storylines for EastEnders, before becoming head of Channel 4 Drama and controller of BBC Drama Production. (He now runs the production company that's adapting Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall for TV.) Some of his most astute observations are, unsurprisingly, on the nature of small-screen drama. Remove the fact that one is set on a contemporary Manchester council estate and the other in the Depression-era Virginian mountains, and Shameless and The Waltons are essentially the same series: each week, the family comes together to fight off a force from outside. It's Beowulf and Jaws again - without having to go anywhere. In television, for economic reasons (so you can use the same sets week in week out), the characters stay put rather than going on a journey.

(Rex Features) So pervasive are these underlying archetypes that even reality television, Yorke argues, is built on classic Shakespearean structure. Is The X Factor really just Hamlet by another name? Well, in its barest bones, absolutely: someone is called upon to perform an act, undergoes doubt about their ­ability to do so, and then faces their final reckoning. Not only that, says Yorke, but Hamlet is, at heart, "a classic detective story", in which Hamlet is Poirot and avenger rolled into one.

So why do these same shapes and patterns keep emerging in stories time and again? Like any good storyteller, Yorke is assiduous about not giving away his ending, dangling the prospect of his final, unifying theory over the course of his book. When his final revelation comes, it's hard not to be a tad disappointed — too much build-up, and naturally you start expecting nothing less than the biblical explosion of the Ark of the Covenant unleashing its contents at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But Yorke's is a nice, subtle point. Wisely, he acknowledges that ­stories serve a range of purposes too great to reduce them to just one function. The American mythologist Joseph Campbell - whose 1949 tome The Hero With a Thousand Faces has almost served as the handbook for subsequent Hollywood screenwriting - argued that the significance of stories was essentially societal: a hero slays the dragon of the status quo in order to show humanity the way forward. Yorke, persuasively, adds an interesting nuance to this: the archetypal story of venturing into the unknown is, deep down, a metaphor for how we digest information almost every day of our lives. You see or notice something new, it makes you question what you thought you knew, then you absorb it and move on. It's not quite as exciting as watching ET and ­Elliott flying across the moon to make it to ET's mothership. But Yorke's book, in telling scores of stories in such a fresh, enlightening and accessible manner, is a gripping read from beginning to end.

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