John Yorke begins Chapter 4 of Into the Woods with this extract from The Godfather:
“He locates the gun behind the toilet cistern, composes himself and moves towards the washroom door. In the small Italian restaurant, Sollozzo and McCluskey sit impatiently. He makes his way back to the table. He takes his seat, a subway train rumbles above but he hears nothing but the sound of his own heart. Diners talk on obliviously, the train screams past, he rises, pulls the gun, pauses and then in a moment plants a bullet in the forehead of both his guests. A mist of blood, a table upended, and Michael Corleone’s life is changed for ever.”
This chapter is called The Importance of Change and Yorke does a pretty good job of showing the importance of change to the creative artist—doesn’t matter whether you’re writing novels or screenplays, change is (or should be) the essence of what you do. He says that, “in three-dimensional stories the protagonist goes on a journey to overcome their flaw” and that “Change is thus inextricably linked to dramatic desire: if a character wants something, they are going to have to change to get it.”
When I’ve talked about Into the Woods before, it’s been to say how something that should really be obvious did not become clear to me until I read what John Yorke has to say about it. That’s the reason I recommend that we all, neophyte to established bestseller, have something to learn from this book; a well-thumbed copy should be on every writer’s bookshelf. It happened again with this chapter.
As I’ve said before, my degree from the University of Toronto was in English; I didn’t take Creative Writing and I’ve never done a Creative Writing course. I’m not against them—in fact, I think they’re probably a very good thing—I’ve just never done one; and the result is that there’s a lot of writing theory that is second nature to some writers but that I don’t know. I’ve always been aware that sometimes I get it right and sometimes when I read what I’ve written I realise I’ve a heavy restructuring/rewriting job on my hands and until I read Into the Woods I often didn’t really understand why this book worked and that one didn’t.
I’m a lot closer to that knowledge now.
I’m not going to reproduce great chunks of Into the Woods because (a) I want as many writers as possible to buy their own copy and read it; and (b) I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism or—worse—sued for breach of copyright. However, I find this graphic so irresistible I’ve printed it and stuck it on my wall. Planning and executing the structure of a novel is so much easier if you keep this sequence in your head. And, when I look at the books of mine that have worked and compare them with the near-misses, I can see that the winners followed this structure and the others didn’t. The winners followed it accidentally, though, because I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was trying to reproduce structures that I’d found satisfying in other people’s books, and now I have a better handle on what I’m supposed to do.
My book, The Unquiet House was ready for publishing and due to go live in October. Now I’ve pissed off Ron Lynch’s cousin, who does his best to keep Mandrill Press writers on the administrative straight and narrow, by withdrawing it so that I can strengthen Act Four—the part where the characters, having grown in self and situation-awareness, regress and suffer doubt before girding their loins (and not just figuratively; Bernie Kells told me the other day in a Facebook post that I was a rude woman and I really don’t dispute that) and going into Act Five ready to get what they want. And, actually, I’ve just lied because I’m not going to strengthen Act Four—I’m going to write an Act Four that, in the original, doesn’t exist.
This reminded me of my very first sale, a short story that was published twenty years ago when I was half the age I am now (Yes, that’s right, you clever mathematicians). The magazine’s editor rang me to say she’d be pleased to see more; and she congratulated me on my excellent structural technique—the way I’d put the last and biggest hurdle the heroine had to climb over right before the joyful ending. I had? Well, I had—but I hadn’t really known I was doing it. And now I did.
This is how writers improve—by having an expert explain technique. Not content—that’s the domain of the writer alone. Technique.
I wish I’d come across John Yorke twenty years ago. By now I might know what I’m doing.