London Screenwriters' Festival, 31 August: Masterclass in Advanced Structure with John Yorke
ACT INever pre-judge an event's audience, that's a lesson I learned last Wednesday at the London Screenwriters' Festival. I'd signed up for a day's Masterclass with TV/Film writer John Yorke on Advanced Structure (Screenwriting) and expected to be one of the oldest attendees as screenwriting tends to be a young writers genre. On arriving at Regents University I was overwhelmed to find myself in a packed auditorium (circa 200 people) with writers of all ages and backgrounds - many were novelists/short story writers like myself but huge fans of John Yorke's book Into the Woods and obsessed with STRUCTURE. Men are usually outnumbered 10:1 at the writing events I've been to but here there was true equality, well in numbers anyway.
I was there because I'm keen to write more drama (and yes, one day a screenplay) and I have a fascination with structure in storytelling, on which John Yorke is an expert. He was introduced onto the stage with a standing ovation, clapping, cheering and the sort of welcome not usually produced by a gentile audience of writers. Clearly, screenwriting is the glamour end of the writing profession. This was a quality set-up too with a sound system booming out Film music and a massive screen - thankfully there was air conditioning, which worked. Impressively, John Yorke talked without notes all day and happily took questions at any time.
John took us through the basics of structure: 3 and 5 acts, as well as touching upon the theories of Christopher Vogler, Christopher Booker, Robert McKee, Freytag and John Truby (to name a few). I'm not going to reproduce the detail here as you can get a idea of the content by reading Into the Woods. I'd read his book the week before and this really helped, as suddenly his examples were being brought to life - literally, as he showed numerous film and TV clips. Interestingly, he also gave examples to demonstrate how the laws of storytelling and use of structure have been hijacked by the politicians. He used speeches by Ronald Reagan and Michelle Obama to highlight this. We learned that Michelle owed a debt to Cicero (Roman orator, born 106 BC) and his classic 6 part speech structure (or her speech writers did...)
I wanted to cheer when John Yorke said "Structural theory should apply to all narrative forms" and that basically all stories have a Beginning / Middle / End or Set up / Confrontation / Resolution ie a 3 Act structure. This is something to remember when editing a short story or novel. He believes most writers don't plan structure, it just happens as an innate part of the writing process. Structure and order is not imposed on the stories we write or tell because "We are incapable of NOT ordering the world." Basically, human beings thrive on order even in their virtual lives of storytelling.
For me the epiphany moment was when he talked about the MIDPOINT of a story. The midpoint should occur exactly half way through, it is the moment of most significant change ie a life changing moment for your protagonist or main character. It's point in the story where the stakes are raised and the character's life is changed forever. Find the midpoint and suddenly everything clicks. This is something I need to think about while editing my second novel and John's words here really helped me to plan what I need to do. He also talked about how the second half of a story should really be the consequences of what happened at the midpoint - again sound and sensible advice for any writer.
For the last session we watched a 30min Panorama documentary The Taliban Hunters concerning the Karachi police's struggle with Taliban terrorists. Our mission was then (in groups of 4) to outline a screenplay for our film version of the story we wanted to tell from the facts. 30 mins to come up with a pitch for a Hollywood blockbuster. My group had a lot of fun and though we didn't get to pitch our film (we planned to cast Tom Hiddleston as the rogue Western reporter learning tough lessons in Karachi) it was an interesting exercise in collaborative writing. Most of us writing novels or short stories write in isolation and it can be a lonely business. Many TV series and films are created by a team of writers and I can see the attraction. Brainstorming and then getting excited as our ideas evolved and triggered more from each new suggestion was a liberating experience. Perhaps, not to everyone's taste or style of writing but I really enjoyed it and it has made me think about how I would want to approach a screenplay if I ever take the plunge. I would be very interesting in a collaboration with other writers.
Six teams got to pitch their blockbusters to John Yorke and 2 other screenwriters who really knew their stuff. The pointers given easily applied to pitching a novel and I listened avidly to the feedback. Get in quick with the title and then the hook. Cut out all detail - that can come later - but sell the protagonist and the problem they have to solve. If you can label your film/novel/TV show in some way, then go for it. One guy pitched his film as "The Untouchables meets Training Day in Karachi" - that was all they needed, he'd sold his idea with one line. "I'd want to see that film," said one judge. Okay, not my cup of tea but I'm not a Hollywood Producer looking for the next hot script.
As John signed my copy of his book I slipped in a question about the novel I'm editing. It has 3 protagonsists, so 3 midpoints in the story and I asked him if they should all come exactly at the centre of the book or should this be the midpoint for the main protagonist. He came up with several excellent suggestions for me to think through. I need to check but spookily I think I may already written the storyline to match one of his scenarios.
On Friday I'm off to York for the Festival of Writing. I have 3 one-to-one sessions booked (2 agents and an editor) so I do feel better equipped to 'sell' my novels.
The final act of a well structured story is the hero's journey home. I did make it home, despite the efforts of Southern Rail, but that folks is another story ...
Finally, as you can see LitPig recommends John Yorke's Into the Woods - How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. Honestly, you don't have to wannabe a screenwriter to enjoy this book, it really does apply to all forms of storytelling.
Is anyone else out there going to the Festival of Writing? Let me know, as it would be lovely to meet you there.