I hesitate to review these books. Who wants a magician to give away the secret of how he does it? Keeping a secret from the audience is after all a perfectly valid position. Both these books set out to explain how stories work, and, in the case of John Yorke’s why we need to tell them.
Over the years I have devoured nearly every important screenwriting book after being handed a copy of Syd Field’s seminal Screenwriting — from Robert McKeee’s Story to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! McKee’s book in particular left me feeling like a fairly lumpy dancer with two left feet being told he needed to understand how DNA works before attempting a soft shoe shuffle.
Sean Coyne, who happens to be McKee’s literary agent, has basically boiled down McKee’s sometimes incomprehensible tome into an easier to understand step-by-step guide to building a novel. Elsewhere what Coyne talks about has been referred to as “the Snowflake structure” — endlessly replicating the same pattern of “inciting incident, complication, crisis, climax, resolution” from an atomic level of a chapter up to three acts and then finally the overarching book – like a motif being endlessly repeated in a Persian carpet. The Story Grid makes the argument extremely well. I would love to have Coyne on my side as an agent.
Yorke’s Into the Woods brings together all the different systems into one whole explaining their similarities. He takes a more intellectual approach than Coyne’s, but is probably, in the hackneyed phrase, “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.” He is very good at debunking the claims of some screenwriting gurus, all of whom are busy trying to sell you their own particular brand of snake oil. It’s truly excellent.
Back in the day, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall) grumbled about Syd Field giving away trade secrets in his rudimentary book Screenplay. O’Bannon would have been deeply unhappy about what is revealed in both The Story Grid and Into the Woods. However I take comfort in that few people will actually sit down and put the work in. Reading the crime fiction and self-publishing blogs, you read all the time about American lady novelists shrieking, “I’m a pantster, not a plotter” — i.e. they would rather sit down and bash stuff out by the seat of their large crimplene pants than take the time to plot something carefully. This strikes me as ridiculous. “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” said Truman Capote when he heard about Jack Kerouac bashing out On the Road on a single roll of paper. As a crime writer or thriller author, what you are selling is a plot as intricately worked out as the innards of a Swiss watch. It has nothing to do with real crime. So I take comfort in the fact that few people will actually listen to what Coyne is saying and take the time to develop a plot that ticks like a Rolex. It’s hard work thinking.
The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Sean Coyne is available to buy on Amazon UK, priced £4.73 here. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke is available to buy on Amazon UK here.
Main photo © JE Therlot (CC BY 2.0)