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By Valerie Kalfrin · November 22, 2019
Narrative expert John Yorke absorbed story structure long before he decided to study it, convincing him that understanding story patterns improves anyone’s writing.
“The main thing I’m obsessed by is, Why does structure exist?” he said in a TSL 360 video. “What I’m interested in is understanding how stories work. Because I think if people understand why stories are the shape they are and where that comes from, that makes them better writers automatically.”
The longtime BBC producer and story editor has been in “in telly,” as the Brits say, since the 1990s, working on series such as EastEnders, the acclaimed 2014 crime miniseries The Missing, and the 2015 Emmy-nominated historical drama Wolf Hall starring Mark Rylance. He’s earned three awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts as an executive producer and story consultant.
He’s perhaps best known these days for his acclaimed 2015 book Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story and his storytelling classes for films, documentaries, novels, business, and video games. He finds a unifying narrative shape through a wide range of work, from fairy tales to Shakespeare to The Godfather, Mad Men, and True Detective.
Here, he relates some of his favorite advice. Hear more from him and other industry experts with a TSL 360 membership (there’s a free 3-day trial). TSL 360 also grants you access to dozens of masterclasses, interviews, and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, Emmy-winning TV writers, producers, agents, and major studio executives.
A script that Yorke loves “more than any” is The Fabulous Baker Boys by Steve Kloves (Flesh and Bone, Wonder Boys). Kloves also directed the 1989 film about two struggling musician brothers (Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges) and the up-and-coming singer (Michelle Pfeiffer) who joins their act.
“It’s a structural masterpiece. It’s very, very simple. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s so clever in everything it does but effortlessly so,” he said.
As a consultant, Yorke follows the adage that the test of a great surgeon is knowing when not to operate. Sometimes he’ll read scripts that need no tinkering; other times, he acts as “a mirror to the writer,” walking them through his and an audience’s emotional reaction.
“You’re saying, ‘Is that what you want? Do you want them to feel that right there? Because that’s what it’s making me feel,’” he said. “What are you trying to achieve as a writer?”
Yorke said it takes years of practice to become great at screenwriting. “It’s like [playing] a musical instrument.”
So strive to create a melody, so to speak, that plays uninterrupted. “Everybody has the same goal: How am I going to make people not pick up their phone and look at Twitter while it’s on?” he said. “Don’t be boring. … Make sure each sentence makes you want to read the next sentence. That’s it, you know? Don’t impersonate other people. Find your voice.”
His greatest test for a script is whether he’s eager to read through to the end. “Do I keep reading to the end without putting the script down? If you get to the end without stopping, then there’s something special there.”
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist who now dives into fictional mayhem as an author (Quicklet on The Closer: Season 1), essayist, film critic, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She also writes for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, ScreenCraft, Hazlitt, Signature, and the blog for Final Draft, the top-rated screenwriting software used by the filmmaking industry. A member of Screenwriters of Tomorrow, she’s collaborated on short films and features, and she’s affiliated with the Tampa Bay Film Society. She lives in Florida. Find her online at valeriekalfrin.com.