Review: Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why we Tell Them by John Yorke

Read enough books and eventually you’ll start asking yourself, “What makes a good story?”. I’m sure most of us reviewers have pondered this question at least once as we plough through our TBR list. Why is it some tales stand the test of time, while others leave us unfulfilled?

Well, in Into the Woods, John Yorke has done the research for you.

“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. Storytelling is as simple – and complex – as that. That’s the pattern. That’s how we tell stories.”

You could be tempted to read Into the Woods as a how-to-guide-for writers, and whilst it it will definitely help any writers out there, Yorke’s intention is a bit different. His aim is to show how every good story (and plenty of bad ones too, mind) follows the same unifying structure.

From ET, to Toy Story, and Oedipus Rex to the Godfather, Yorke takes a scalpel to them all to lay bear the skeleton that lies underneath – protagonists, antagonists, crises and climaxes – showing that they’re fundamentally the same.

Yep, look underneath the bonnet and even the Godfather and Toy Story follow the same rules.

Just showing the skeleton isn’t enough for Yorke, though – he wants to show why this structure works. Why do humans need to have stories told us in this way?

“A story is like a magnet dragged through randomness”

Into the Woods takes a look at the reasons we tell stories, and argues that it is our need to understand the world that drives this structure. Even here, there’s more than meets the eye: each new story can help us understand different parts of the human experience altogether – whether that’s how we learn to get along (Toy Story), face up to our destiny (The Godfather) or learn to love another (E.T).

Sure, describing a story as “our need to understand the world” isn’t as exciting as writing about two toys that fight and run away into the neighbour’s house, but ultimately, Yorke argues, they’re the same thing really.

So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it? Better yet, have you written anything after you read it? Did it help?

Let me know in the comments!


Looking for more books on writing? Well there’s only one worth checking out as far as I’m concerned, Stephen King’s On Writing. Check it out here:

Review: On Writing by Stephen King - Stephen King spills the beans on how he gets words from his brain to the page. Mind = blown...

13 thoughts on “Review: Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why we Tell Them by John Yorke

  1. This sounds fascinating! I find myself wondering that while reading certain books or writing reviews sometimes…why are certain stories SO good and others that seemed potentially interesting fell apart. Will be on the lookout for this one. Great review!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and it was REALLY good. Into the Woods reminds me of what they tried to teach us in 9th grade English, but it’s probably more interesting than the class.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am intrigued! I have been asking myself exactly the same question and have a few theories… which could be completely wrong of course! 🙂 I will definitely be checking Into the Woods out.

    Liked by 1 person

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