John Yorke ‘takes us on a journey to the heart of storytelling, revealing that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative forms…’
So says the burb on the back of John Yorke’s excellent book ‘Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story’. I was on John’s ‘Writers’ Academy’ at the BBC where he introduced me to the five act structure and, as a visiting lecturer in screenwriting, I found myself telling my students about it.
I chose ‘Jaws’ as an example but you can pick virtually any good Hollywood film - although ‘Jaws’ fits the paradigm with sublime ease: in Act 1, the Introduction, we meet Martin Brody, the New York police chief who has re-located to a small island community but is afraid of water; in Act 2, the New World, he has to deal with a community under siege from a marauding man-eating shark; in Act 3, the Mid-Point, he realises that he cannot defeat the shark from the safety of dry land but must follow it into its lair, which is the thing he is most afraid of: the water; Act 4 sees Brody dealing with the consequences of the Mid-point as he, Quint and Hooper try to kill the shark; and finally Act 5, the climax, where Brody faces the shark alone, is triumphant and overcomes his fear of the ocean.
Were Steven Spielberg and his writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb aware that they were following the five act structure? Of course they weren’t. They were influenced, just like we all are, be the narrative heritage of the culture in which they grew up. Ours, whether we like it or not, is an Aristotelian/Shakespearean heritage.
But it does not offer us a unifying shape to all narrative forms.
“Their version of storytelling is different and it’s not based on Greek or Shakespearean storytelling,” said Hollywood producer, Bill Borden on the ever excellent ‘The Business’ on KCRW public radio with Kim Masters. He was trying to explain why ‘The Mermaid’, a story he originally pitched in Hollywood but which was eventually made in China, went on to become such a phenomenal success, grossing half a billion dollars – but only in China. The Chinese audience, which will soon become the largest cinema going audience in the world, is brought up on a different set of archetypes and narratives than a Western audience and that is why, Borden explains, most Hollywood studios are struggling to make an impact in there.
Chinese stories are more episodic and more mythic with certain archetypes repeated – the journey to the west, the creation of the gods, the monkey king, Borden says. And you don’t have to travel far from China to come to the biggest film-making country in the world: India. Their culture is different again: a simple Bollywood romantic comedy will stretch over three and a half hours and might become a thriller, an action adventure, or a murder mystery half-way through, because their heritage is vast religious melodramas. And you could go on and on, travelling the world, finding ever smaller communities, with ever more esoteric story structures.
In China, Korean and Japan there is a four act structure known as ‘kishōtenketsu’. Stories that follow this form have no conflict.
Imagine, a story with no conflict.
It would be nice to think there is one unifying mono-structure that all stories follow. But, of course, there isn’t. Every culture has its own way of telling stories, its own narrative heritage.
And this diversity is a good thing.