EP34: Into The Woods With John Yorke

John Yorke is one of the world’s leading lights in the art of storytelling. As former head of Channel Four Drama, Controller of BBC Drama Production and head of Company Pictures, he has worked on shows like Shameless, Life On Mars, and the UK’s most popular soap opera EastEnders. He is also the author of Into The Woods, one of our favourite books on the craft of storytelling.

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In this episode you will discover…

  • The most effective ways to use structure in your story
  • How to create compelling characters
  • Quick fixes for conveying exposition
  • The importance of a good cliffhanger

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)

John Yorke is a drama producer, former head of Channel Four Drama, Controller of BBC Drama Production and MD of Company Pictures. He has worked on shows like Shameless, Life On Mars, and the UK’s most popular soap opera EastEnders. He is also the author of Into The Woods, a fantastic book on the craft of storytelling…

When did you decide to write Into The Woods?

To cut a long story short, I was teaching writing, I created this course at the BBC to teach new writers, and I didn’t know what I was doing, because it had always been an instinctive process to me, so I thought I need to know about this.

I read all the classic screenwriting books and the more I read the more I thought there’s something not right here, there’s something missing. And the missing was the ‘Why?’

 

You would get, ‘There has to be an inciting incident on page 23’, but no one would ever say why. I come from an academic background and you can’t write that. If you submitted that as a university thesis you would be told to source it, or to prove it, and none of these books ever proved it.

I didn’t know why and I began to posit loads of theories, and try things out, and stumble on something that seems it might be the truth, and writing that down was my attempt to find out the answer to that question.

How did you get into storytelling yourself?

My father made amateur films and I was the clapperboy in his movies, so it was always around. He read a lot, so novels were always around me, but it was really as a teenager — this is going to date me now — an advert appeared in a British newspaper, ‘Photo love story writers wanted – Will pay £50 a story’. I was a student, I thought that sounds great to me. I wrote a photo love story, sent it to the publishers and they said ‘This is great, can you write another one?’ That’s how I started writing stories.

How did you make the leap into television?

I got a job as a sound engineer in the BBC. It was that thing of you get in any way you can, and then just network, have a look around, watch everything. I had this amazing three-year apprenticeship where I would run from watching sitcoms being made in TV studios to watching the news being broadcast on Radio Four, and just learning all the time, and then thinking I want to do drama. And then it’s just a question of knocking on doors until some finally say okay we’ll give you a chance. So I did radio drama first of all, I did two or three years of that, then finally got into EastEnders, which is the big British long-running soap opera. Within six months of being there it was kind of, ‘Ah, this is interesting, I know how to do this.’ I was so scared. It was a huge show, at that time it was getting twenty-million viewers a week, so it was really terrifying, but I felt comfortable. Then the storyliner left, the boss said to me we’re a bit stuffed now, we haven’t got anybody, do you want to write the next month’s-worth of storylines? I took a deep breath… I had no idea what I was doing at all. I immediately went out and bought eighty cigarettes and smoked them all immediately… I don’t smoke anymore, I want to make that very clear!

But, you do it. You have no choice. It was brilliant. I storylined it single-handed for a year and a half and it was the best apprenticeship in the world. It teaches you everything about story.

All the basic techniques are in soap opera. It’s not any different. It’s slightly bigger, it’s slightly more heightened, but in a way that’s a really good way to learn craft skills.

 

What were the key storylines during your period on EastEnders?

It was a long time ago, it was the nineties when I was storylining… The Mitchell brothers’ big love triangle — Sharongate as it was known — the death of Arthur Fowler, the introduction of Tiffany who became a big star, a few other things like that.

Arthur Fowler was a beloved character. Who makes the decision to kill him?

In that case it was the actor. He had decided that he had been in it from the beginning, he was getting on a bit and thought it was time to go, which was very sad because we all loved him, he was a great character, but departures give you good stories.

Sometimes, you just decide to kill people.

 

Sometimes, that’s because they’ve really upset you, and sometimes it’s because they’re not working, and sometimes you really don’t want to, but it’s a really good story. What it taught me was nobody’s indispensable, you’ve just got to be really good about how you replace them, but if you replace them correctly, then the show always feels fresh. It was a really good lesson. Don’t stick with what you know that works. Reinvent for the future.

You developed the Roadmap Of Change for your book. How did you develop that?

It emerged slowly. What was obvious from the beginning of doing this was stories seemed to have a common pattern. But that common pattern was defined as three acts. That’s useful to a certain extent, but it seemed to me that something else was going on. The tricky thing for most writers is that act two is where people get lost all the time. And the more I started to look at it, I thought there’s something… I hadn’t quite worked out the significance of the mid-point. I was plugging away. Christopher Vogler in The Writers’ Journey talks about Joseph Campbell — we used to call it, rather rudely, Campbell for Dummies — he started off drawing the roadmap of change, but he only did the first little bit of it. I thought there’s more there. Why have you stopped there? I do credit him in the book and make it clear that it came from an original observation from him.

But what he didn’t get, and McKee didn’t get, and what Syd Field didn’t get was the essentially symmetrical nature of structure.

 

Once I’d worked out that the middle was so profoundly important then the roadmap, the journey through the centre of the forest where you find the truth, and then taking that truth back home, that was the eureka moment. A lot of people helped, but the Writers’ Journey was a really useful clue and you piece it together from there, and then you test it with everything you can find. When you’re doing all this stuff you’re really prone to confirmation bias all the time; yes, of course that’s right, because it fits! You have to be really ruthless. My test of this, does Shakespeare do it?

And the great thing about Shakespeare is he writes very archetypal and you know he never read Syd Field.

 

You break a story into five acts in the Roadmap of Change:

Act 1

No Knowledge

Growing Knowledge

Awakening

Act 2

Doubt

Overcoming Reluctance

Acceptance

Act 3

Experimenting with knowledge

MIDPOINT – KEY KNOWLEDGE

Experimenting post-knowledge

Act 4

Doubt

Growing Reluctance

Regression

Act 5

Reawakening

Re-acceptance

Total Mastery

When would you advise writers to use this? At the start or after a first draft?

Every writer is different. I’m not saying people should write in five acts. Paul Greengrass asked me, ‘Why did Shakespeare write in five acts?’ And I didn’t know. And you explore and it revealed a pattern, and then you think that pattern is best articulated using five acts. But Shakespeare wrote in five acts because of the theatrical needs of his consumers, so you don’t have to write in five acts. It just became a tool on the journey to discovering the essential shape. So that’s the first part of the answer.

The second part of the answer is most great writers would say they write with their heart first. They pour their heart onto the page. They don’t structure beforehand. Then they go back and start to use the tools of their craft and chisel away.

 

Jimmy McGovern, the great British writer, used to say ‘I write my first draft with my heart, I write my second draft with my head.’ And you chisel away at the marble and the story reveals itself. Writing is rewriting. But I know a lot of writers who are very methodical and they use five act structure. If you’re writing an hour’s drama on television, say okay, four commercial breaks, turning points at the end of act one, act two, etc. etc. And they work out those beats. They have a vague idea of the story in their heads and they work out the turning points and then write to fit that. I think it’s just the personality type. Whats really interesting about this is people like Jimmy eschew structure. People like Russell T. Davies, they don’t like talking about structure, they don’t really believe in it. They just write it. And if you read their work, they write perfect structure. That’s the greatest proof of all.

It comes from within. It’s the way we all organise the world. And that’s all you really need to know. The rest is, how geeky do you want to be? It helps being a geek.

 

What is the purpose of stories and have we always told them in the same way?

This was the really big question: where does it come from? If you look at the roadmap of change you go from no knowledge, to halfway through to key knowledge, and then back to mastery of that knowledge. And that’s really the clue to it. Where it comes from is — to cut a long story short — structure is the dramatisation of the process of knowledge assimilation. The dramatisation of the process by which we learn. I exist, I talk to you, I change. You talk to me, you change. You can’t not have that interaction with every single thing in the world.

Child touches fire, ouch, learns not to touch fire again. That’s structure.

 

The hero’s journey is just a metaphor for knowledge assimilation. It’s a very hippy-ish, Grateful Dead-ish way of expressing: we learn and we change. And the hero’s journey is a really good articulation of that. All these story paradigms, like John Truby’s Twenty-Two Steps To Story Structure, they’re just metaphors of this shape, and every person who writes a screenwriting book is trying to articulate the same shape we all are, you just find the best metaphor to do it. I chose woods, because it’s the fairy tale structure.

Finding structure is hard the first few times you do it. I think, like riding a bike, it becomes instinctive over time. You have to learn to listen to yourself and listen to your heart and let it tell you I need to go here.

 

When I started teaching, about fifteen years ago, I didn’t even talk about the middle point at all, because I didn’t understand it at that point. Of all the people I’ve taught they (my first students) are by far the most successful group I’ve ever taught, because they found it. It’s great to have, but you can put too much emphasis on it.

If this stuff becomes a crutch to prop you up, then it stops that extraordinary thing that happens when you look at the world and think I want to write the world down.

 

With a structure in place is there a danger that you can shoehorn characters into the structure and make them do things simply because that’s where it’s supposed to happen?

I think you’ve got to be prepared to throw all this stuff away. The great writers whose imagination triumphs, whose imagination leads the way, it’s then propped up with a skeleton. But what’s interesting is often when you’re writing what you think is the midpoint isn’t the midpoint. And what you think is the third act break isn’t the third act break. But, if you try and force it to be, you get in trouble. What you should do is just write it. I wrote a film a few years ago, which is now being turned into a series on the BBC, and I was convinced the midpoint was thing this and only a year later when I watched it again I thought oh my God no, it’s not that at all, it’s that! It doesn’t matter. The audience isn’t going, ‘Well, that isn’t the midpoint,’ because if they are you’re in trouble.

What’s the best way start building a character? You mention Ego versus Id; is that the best place to start?

I don’t think there’s one way to start. There’s loads of tricks you can use. The one which I learnt on EastEnders right at the beginning was, can you draw them as a cartoon? And that was brilliant, because immediately you’re thinking what am I going to exaggerate? This is what Dickens does, he takes one aspect and exaggerates it, and you get real clarity straight away. If you look at all the great EastEnders characters they’re really distinctive types. If they’re just that, they’re two-dimensional, but once you’re there you can then flesh them out.

The ego and the id thing is something that a writer said to me years ago, that all great characters are contradictions, they’re in conflict with themselves the whole time.

 

And he talked about Basil Fawlty, seeing himself as this lord of the manor, a man of high class and breeding, which is absurd because he’s a bed and breakfast owner in Torquay. The same with Captain Mainwairing in Dad’s Army; I am the great officer, of course he’s utterly inept and everybody laughs at him.

That conflict is what fuels a character, between what they think they are and what they really are, is at the root of all storytelling.

 

The Godfather’s a really great illustration of this. He thinks he’s a war hero, but he’s much, much darker than that. And the significant point, where he shoots the policeman and the gangster, is the point of the film. That’s the lesson. This is who I am. And you see that conflict in his eyes. Bang!

Do you see any similarities between a good episode of EastEnders and the chapter of a good book?

The thing that you always take with you is you’ve got to make sure that every sentence makes you want to read the next sentence. Every word makes you want to read the next word. Lee Child does this brilliantly. The Jack Reacher novels are really good illustrations of big, popular storytelling.

You ask a question and then you don’t answer it.

 

That’s all you’re doing. E.M. Forster said exactly the same thing; the only important thing in a story is what happens next. And conversely the only thing that will ruin a story is if you don’t care what happens next.

It’s all about the techniques you use to create curiosity and intrigue and defer gratification. The more you do that, the more populist the novel will be.

 

That’s just good, standard technique and that applies to the novel as much as the potboiler. The other thing you look for in a story is do enough people want to be that character? ‘Where do you place your heart?’ is the key thing I ask in every script I ever develop. Who do I love? Who’s my hero? And do I want to be them? And if you don’t, then no one else is going to want to be them. Do you want to be Al Pacino in The Godfather? Of course you do. Because there’s something extraordinarily attractive that taps into your dark side. Even if it’s got a dark ending, I don’t care. I remember seeing The Godfather in the cinema, and every male came strutting out of the cinema, thinking ‘Can I grease my hair back?’ It’s that, it’s James Bond. Every boy wants to be James Bond, as young girls a few years ago wanted to be Hannah Montana. Their journey taps into your deepest desires. That’s seems to be really important, the ubiquity of the Cinderella story, the Ugly Duckling story. We all deep down think we’re pretty useless and people are laughing at us and we’re a bit crap, but if only I could prove… you’d see! That story is so seductive. You get that a lot. You want to go on a walk, if you’re comfortable with the person taking you for a walk, and the journey in sight feels like somewhere appealing — it doesn’t have to be a nice story, it could be the darkest tales of revenge, because we all feel those things, too; they’re all laughing at me, I’m going to kill them. You shouldn’t be formulaic about it, but Jack Reacher is the wandering knight errant who brings justice to forlorn communities, just like David Carradine did in Kung Fu forty years ago. When I was a kid, David Carradine and Kung Fu was the coolest thing on the planet.

Writers often get notes to make characters more likeable, but they don’t need to be likeable, they need to be intriguing.

It used to be like that all the time in telly, but that’s because telly depended on mass audience, and so you tried not to offend anybody, but since cable and video on demand has taken off, since the Sopranos in particular, that changed a lot, and there’s a much greater understanding that you don’t have to be nice. Nice is really boring. Russell T Davies’ advice is don’t think about it. Just write. I think in a sense he’s right; if you love them, the audience will love them. And that’s all you have to worry about.

We’re writing a female protagonist. How do you approach that yourself?

It’s such a big question. I just think of people I know and try and imagine what it’s like to be them.

It’s the process of empathy; you try and imagine what it’s like to be someone else.

 

If you’re good at that, then it works. It’s weird now, because there’s this whole thing of cultural appropriation where people say ‘Well, you can’t tell their story, you can’t dress like that.’ I find it all slightly sad, really, because as humans, what makes a society is to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. That’s what empathy is. And if you say we can’t empathise with them, or go into that culture… If you’re good, why can’t you? If you’re bad and do it, then no one will read it, but if you’re good don’t be daunted by that. There are plenty of wonderful books written by men about women, and there are amazing books written by women about men. It’s just a question of observing and being attuned.

Exposition is a minefield for writers. What are the best ways of conveying exposition?

In drama there’s a few quick fixes. The easy one is have an ingénue. Have someone in there who’s like the reader, who doesn’t know, and then someone’s got a reason to tell them all that information. Every brand new drama series always starts with the rookie, and the rookie’s there to be told the stuff we need to know.

The second way is through conflict. To get information across, have an argument. Then exposition is weaponised. The problem with exposition in real life is there’s no real desire to say anything inherently dramatic, but if you have an argument then the exposition gets disguised. It has a desire attached to it. All writing is about desire. The protagonist always wants something, so if you give your exposition a desire — ‘For God’s sake, give up smoking!’ — then I know you smoke.

I write video games as well and they’ve learnt how to hide exposition. Just reveal exposition through inference: you go through the story, you work it out, and what the characters are doing.

 

That’s the more skilled version. In the book I do a little history of exposition. It goes all the way back to the Prologue in ancient Greece who says, ‘Here is our scene, we’re at war with these people…’ Then you get to the nineteenth century and the whole table dusting thing where you get two maids who say, ‘You’ll never guess what so-and-so’s been up to!’ Writing now, at its best, the exposition is invisible, which is what you want. You don’t want to know that you’re being given information.

Can your story have too many characters? And how many characters should a story focus on?

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. There have been so many great gang shows on television, like ER or The West Wing, that will have six protagonists. That works really well. Decide if your show is a multi-protagonist show. A dual-protagonist show? A Starsky and Hutch? Or is it a single protagonist show? If you get beyond six it gets quite hard for the audience to focus on who they’re being involved with and why they should care. But a great writer could probably find a way to write six or ten. It also depends on the duration of the story. With six you see, even then, structural patterns.

Those six are different facets of one personality. You have the brainy one, the impetuous one, you have the father figure, you have the rookie, and you put them all together and you’ve got one protagonist. I knew one guy who used to build his characters around the personalities of the Beatles.

 

If you’re running a soap opera you have a huge cast of characters to choose from. Is it a case of giving the writer a family or a character to focus on for each episode?

The episodes are storylined so the writer will know what’s expected of them. It can be a paragraph, it can be a page, it can be two pages. When I ran EastEnders we had five storylines in each episode. You’d have two A stories — which is a bit silly really — two big stories, a B story, a C story and a tiny little D story, and that was the same every week. You’d say, this is the episode where Grant discovers that Sharon has been having sex with Phil, or whatever, and you’d give them that, say here’s where it starts, here’s where it ends, go off and write it. And their job is to join the dots. Soap writing is a real skill; joining the dots. Outside of that, you used to go to the writers and say we need a new family, can you create a new family for us? And the best writers would go off and do that and that would give you something.

Do you have any tips for switching between storylines?

Years ago I read Iain Banks’ The Crow Road and thought God, this is brilliant because every single chapter I was desperate to carry on, and he always went somewhere else, and I was really annoyed for about thirty seconds, then it was, oh, this is really interesting as well.

That’s the trick isn’t it? It’s really useful deferring gratification. I’ll just go over there. You hold back the answer. You put someone in jeopardy. You cut away. You can formulate rules, but I think most people do it instinctively. You know, at some point, that’s enough there. Let’s leave him alone, I need to go over here. It’s trial and error. What’s interesting is if you do it like that, with hindsight you’ll go back and you’ll find a pattern. I think what you’re doing when you’re writing is chiselling away at marble to find the story that’s in there. If you look at the very first episode of ER, Michael Crichton’s amazing script for ER, there’s six characters, it’s ninety minutes long, and I studied it for two years thinking, ‘How has he done this?’ And then finding it. There is a really clear, really simple shape at its heart.

How do you study scripts? Is there a method you use?

When I started doing this I really did go to the cinema with a pad of paper and a stopwatch. I couldn’t work it, and I thought I would time everything and explore it. I think it’s like doctors and x-rays. If I look at an x-ray I just like bleurgh. But a doctor will look at it and go, ‘There’s a carcinoma on your lung.’ And the more you do it, the more you know what to look for, and you start to be able to see stories very quickly. So it’s very unusual for me now to see something and not be able to see its structure pretty quickly. But when you’re watching it you try really hard not to think about it, because that means it’s not very good. It should be fun, and the structure bit comes afterwards.

What have you learned about the importance of cliffhangers?

It’s a subversion of expectation either of the audience or the protagonist at the last second. It goes back to Greek drama.

The Greeks called it peripeteia and anagnorisis: reversal and discovery. It’s as old at that, it’s a basic unit of dramatic structure.

 

Something is confronted by its opposite that flips what you thought you knew on its head at the last minute. It’s a brilliant device. It’s the crisis point of the scene, which means you go, ‘Oh no, don’t leave them there!’ That’s what you want. It’s an extraordinarily powerful thing. In soaps, people can look at it as a cheap and meretricious device, and it can be if it’s used badly. It’s like the 1960s Batman: Batman would be about to die and then next week you’d realise that the whole thing was ridiculous and obviously he was never in any peril at all. You’ve got to pay it off cleverly, in an intelligent way that’s surprising yet somehow feels true. They’re very hard to do. When you’re planning something like EastEnders, you put a lot of work into that.

The really simple way of looking at it, is you reverse-engineer. Okay, that’s my ending; I’m going to write against that.

 

The master is Aaron Sorkin. There’s that wonderful episode of The West Wing where someone’s tried to assassinate the President’s party, and you’re in President Bartlett’s limousine, and he seems pretty worried, ‘What about Zoe? I think Zoe’s been shot, we’ve gotta turn round, we’ve gotta go get her,’ and there’s about three minutes of thinking, Oh, what a great guy, he’s really worried about his daughter and staff… and then suddenly you realise he’s been shot. It’s an amazing moment: bang into the credits, and you’re just there. Aaron Sorkin does it all the time. He’s a master craftsman.

Do you think in terms of emotion? This is how I want the audience to feel…

Yeah, I think so. It’s not often consciously articulated. Tom Stoppard talks brilliantly about this, ‘A writer’s job is to organise information and release it in the right order to solicit the emotional response you require.’

A comedy can be exactly the same story as a tragedy, but the information will be released in a different order. That’s all it is, really; working out when to release information for maximum desired effect.

 

So much of writing is… I’m not going to tell them that yet, I’m not going to let them know he’s her uncle, because when I do reveal that at the end of the fourth act it’ll have this effect. It’s always variations on suspense or surprise.

New writers want to explain everything. And it’s about learning to withhold, withhold, and intrigue…

 

And it’s also learning to lie to the audience, that’s the real skill. The subtle way in which you lead an audience to infer a deep untruth, so then later on you can reveal it and they can get, Oh, of course! It’s why Agatha Christie was brilliant. The example I give in the book is the police are investigating a house fire, a mum and two children were badly injured, the woman had recently gone through a difficult divorce… so you immediately infer that it’s the husband. And of course the twist is it’s either the mum who set fire to the house, or if you’re really sick it’s one of the kids. There you’ve got instant story.

When should you hold back crucial story information for suspense?

It depends on what emotional effect you want to have. Hitchcock always said that was far superior to surprise. He thought surprise was cheap, even though he used it a lot. Psycho was quite surprising at times. It’s the bomb under the table. If you tell the audience there’s a bomb under the table, but don’t tell the characters, you are glued as they talk inanely about last week’s football match. You’re sitting there going, ‘Oh my God, there’s a bomb under the table!’ If that’s the effect you want, then that’s absolutely fine. Chekov would not be Chekov if Chekov did that. He would talk about the football match, and you would infer subtly their relationship over the ages from that conversation. That’s the effect Chekov wanted. I think the more populist you are, the more that surprise and suspense becomes really important, and not to be sniffed at. It’s an amazing technique used in the right hands.

I started off looking at narrative in television and you realise they have to be the same for everything or not at all. The only difference between narrative in a book and narrative in a theatre is the mode of consumption. The story is fundamentally the same. I started looking at it in other areas, partly because I was asked to and partly because I found it fascinating, we do storytelling for business, I spend a lot of time working with advertising agencies, honing their stories, we do storytelling for the novel, we do storytelling for video game, you start to realise after a while there are so many applications in narrative.

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Mark Desvaux (coach, bestselling recording artist, entrepreneur and author) is living the life of his dreams and works with people looking to live to their true potential and make a difference in the world.

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