Former BBC Drama head Yorke, now director of an independent production company and founder of the BBC Writers Academy, distills his experience in film and TV in this concise guide for aspiring screenwriters.
“This isn’t a ‘how to write’ book,” he cautions, although, like other writing manuals, this one does feature templates, charts and many rules. Yorke focuses most emphatically on structure: of a whole work, components of acts and scenes, characterization, dialogue and subtexts. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from The African Queen to The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet to Glee, the author points out what all stories have in common: a protagonist, whom the audience will care about most; an antagonist, “the thing or person the protagonist must vanquish to achieve their goal”; a desire to propel the protagonist to action; an inciting incident; a journey; a crisis; a climax; and resolution. All of these elements, he contends, can be structured into three or five acts; he prefers five since it “allows us to uncover the most extraordinary—and intricate—underlying pattern.” In creating a character, Yorke points out an essential internal conflict “between how we wish to be perceived and what we really feel” and brings in Freudian theory to account for varieties of behavior. Dialogue can be useful in conveying personality, as long as the writer remembers that successful dialogue “doesn’t resemble conversation—it presents the illusion of conversation, subservient to the demands of characterization and structure.” In six appendices, Yorke provides structural analyses of a few movies, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and The King’s Speech; a separate appendix offers a complicated chart summarizing the advice of a dozen “screenwriting gurus,” all of whom, writes the author, “are grasping to capture the true shape of story.”
Aristotle, Hegel and Chris Rock all have something to contribute to Yorke’s overarching thesis: Attention to structure is essential in all narrative forms.