Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

"Into the woods" by John Yorke (Penguin, 2014)

The Universality of structure

  • "The quest to detect a universal story structure is not a new one ... Most of them posit completely different systems, all of which claim to be the sole and only way to write stories ... None of them ask 'Why?'" (p.xii)
  • "All stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don't have any choice as to the structure they use and, as I hope to show, the laws of physics, of logic and form dictate they must all follow the same path" (p.xvi)
  • "The quest is an integral ingredient of all archetypal stories. Change of some kind is at the heart of this quest, and so too is choice" (p.15)
  • "Three-act structure is the cornerstone of drama primarily because .. it follows the irrefutable laws of physics. Everything must have a beginning, middle and end." (p.26)
  • "a five-act structure isn't really different to a three-act structure, merely a detailed refinement of it" (p.33) "Vogler's paradigm is in essence nothing more than a three-act structure viewed from the protagonist's point of view" (p.57)
  • "All stories involve characters being thrown into an alien world" (p.28)
  • "All tales, then, are at some level a journey into the woods to find the missing part of us, to retrieve it and make ourselves whole" (p.72)
  • "If you take any archetypal story ... Not only do the first part of act one and the last part of act five mirror each other, but act four becomes a mirror of act two, and one half of the third act, bisected at the midpoint, becomes a mirror image of the other" (p.105)
  • "The paradigm, then, provides the skeleton of two-dimensional, three-dimensional and multi-protagonist modes, whether told in genre or art-house form, and in each the 'truth' of every tale confronts the protagonists halfway through" (p.68)
  • "'home' is threatened; the protagonist suffers from some kind of flaw or problem; the protagonist goes on a journey to find a cure or the key to the problem; exactly halfway through they find a cure or key; on the journey back they're forced to face up to the consequences of taking it; they face some kind of literal or metaphorical death; They're reborn as a new person, in full possession of the cure; in the process 'home' is saved" (p.69)
  • "in a three-dimensional drama the mid-point is where a character learns what they are capable of, and in a two-dimensional drama the truth about the adversary (or whatever the character's predicament is) is revealed" (p.71)
  • "In an archetypally structured story, the qualities a character displays in pursuit of their goal will be the ones that sabotage their ability to achieve it" (p.139)
  • "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" (p.213)


  • "There are some stories that don't appear to fit this shape ... structured around the protagonists getting what they want at the end, not halfway through ... Why do they, and many others, conclude at the end of the outward journey? The answer is simply that the archetypal 'journey there: journey back' structure is buried within the more obvious outward journey." (p.70)
  • "In dark inversions, a character's flaw is what conventional society might term 'normal' or 'good' - a goodness that characters overturn to become evil in their own way" (p.21)


  • "The key to empathy, then, does not lie in manners or good behaviour. Nor does it lie, as is often claimed, in the understanding or motive ... It lies in its ability to access and bond with our unconscious" (p.5)


  • "all forces of antagonism embody the qualities missing in their protagonist's lives" (p.8)


  • "all archetypal stories are defined by this one essential tenet: the central character has an active goal. They desire something" (p.7). "The most popular works embody desire in an object" (p.9) What a character thinks is good for them is often at odds with what actually is. This conflict, as we shall see, appears to be one of the fundamental tenets of structure, because it embodies the battle between external and internal desire" (p.10)

Inciting incident

  • "All stories have a premise - 'What if ...?' ... An inciting incident is always the catalyst for the protagonist's desire" (p.13)
  • "Sometimes an inciting incident isn't immediately clear because an audience isn't always aware from the start what the character's journey is going to be" (p.86)


  • "Every act of perception is an attempt to impose order, to make sense of a chaotic universe. Storytelling, at one level, is a manifestation of this process" (p.28)
  • "Storytelling, then, can be seen as a codification of the method by which we learn" (p.29)


  • "Stories are built from acts, acts are built from scenes and scenes are built from even smaller units called beats. All these units are constructed in three parts: fractal versions of the three-act whole" (p.78)
  • "fractal theory dictates that every act will contain all the essential elements of story: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, journey, crisis, climax and - occasionally - resolution" (p.80)
  • "Archetypal stories are fractal enlargements of the basic unit of perception" (p.226)

Other reviews


  1. Dear Tim

    According to a list made by Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, there are only seven basic stories:

    1) man against man
    2) man against nature
    3) man against himself
    4) man against God
    5) man against society
    6) man caught in the middle
    7) man and woman

    When you consider that over a hundred thousand books are published every year in the UK, it proves how endlessly inventive writers have to be.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish

  2. I enjoy classifying, so I was tempted by this book. I've read Christopher Booker's The seven Basic Plots too. Phrases like "all forces of antagonism embody the qualities missing in their protagonist's lives", "The most popular works embody desire in an object" or "the qualities a character displays in pursuit of their goal will be the ones that sabotage their ability to achieve it" make me want to find exceptions, then inspire me to write stories, which is why I find such books useful.