Recently I wrote about the Beatles Get Back documentary and yes, I could write another five articles about it and still not be finished rambling and ranting about this eight-hour masterpiece.
But don’t worry, under 50 year-olds, I’ll hold off (for now). I mention it because I talked about the moment about halfway through episode two of the three-part documentary when keyboard player Billy Preston turns up and brings the moribund Beatles back to life.
It’s a key turning point in the drama, no, it’s the key turning point, and I would have thought no more about it if I hadn’t also recently read a truly excellent book about storytelling called Into The Woods by John Yorke.
Yorke is one of that rare breed of writers who write about writing – a professional. He has enjoyed a string of successes as writer, script editor and show enabler in the highly competitive world of narrative TV drama. Like most of the How To Write manuals, Into The Woods barely mentions comedy. But if you want to be a comedy writer you can still learn an awful lot from him.
Yorke is not the first person to look at Aristotle’s definition of a story as “the beginning, the middle and the end” and to say “yep, that’s more or less all you need to know.” He’s also not the first to attempt to update it, although unlike many writers who claim to be offering you something different, he admits he is merely adapting it.
There are many books out there, without mentioning names they claim to have reinvented the wheel of storytelling. As if this form that has barely changed in thousands of years has suddenly become something different since creative writing became Creative Writing (now a Major Degree Course).
He’s the first person I’ve read to suggest that one of the origins of this magnificent method of storytelling is down to the fact that when these tales were being told out in the open hundreds and thousands of years ago, the narrator needed to build in cliffhanger moments to allow for wee breaks.
I love that. Millions of words delving into the human subconscious about The Hero’s Journey, The Epic Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece, The Mighty Tales of the Thousand And One Nights, Shakespeare. Ignoring the fact that all story writers were mindful of the need to build breaks into the stories for when their spectators needed to relieve themselves.
Yorke’s update from the three-act structure is to define it as five acts (like wot Shakespeare did). A world is established, the hero or heroine receives a call to action, they discover their quest, they almost fail, they succeed. But the main thing that Yorke brings to the art of telling the story of storytelling is a thorough examination of…
The midpoint, you’ll not be surprised to learn, happens exactly halfway through the story. Yorke says that there’s a clear midpoint in almost every story you care to think of, even when the writer isn’t necessarily aware that they’ve written it. How can this be? Yorke believes that dramatic structure is not a construct but a product of physics, human psychology, and of course biology (which explains the wee breaks).
Looking at the simple Aristotle definition, if you put the twist at the end of act one between the beginning and the middle, and the twist at the end of act two between the middle and the end, you have five steps in a story. And viewed in this way, the middle becomes the point on which everything else rests.
This isn’t just a construct of the writer’s mind, or a moment that allows you to slip away from the campfire and relieve yourself. Although if you’ve ever watched a half hour sitcom on ITV or Channel Four it serves that purpose well. Yorke says it’s nothing less than humanity’s attempt to impose order on the world (the physics).
And, he says, it isn’t just narrative fiction where this applies. “Take any successful factual book, treatise, funding bid, journalism or strategic plan and you will see a strikingly familiar pattern – their structure is identical to dramatic structure.”
What he’s saying is that for whatever reasons, for thousands of years humans have found that the best way to deal with problems or obstacles in our lives is to begin by outlining the difficulties, and to work out how to solve them. Here is a tricky situation, we need to resolve it. To do that we have to leave the safety of the tribe and head into the woods. At some point we’re going to understand what we have to do, but we don’t yet know how to do it. The midpoint.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the comedic anti-hero, whose journey involves no learning, is not a forward progression but a circle, every week. If storytelling is all about making sense of the world, what place is there for the person who steadfastly refuses to move on?
The answer is that learning nothing is also a kind of knowledge. A way of understanding the world. Miss Marple, Henry IV, Superman, Basil Fawlty: they’re all looking to make a difference, to solve a problem, and it’s no less entertaining when they fail.
And they all reach a point, halfway through the story, when the understanding of their quest becomes clear.
Whether you design it or not, that big moment of definition for your show invariably comes halfway through the show. Coincidentally I found the halfway point of this article and it was where I wrote “The Midpoint.”
Last places left for my latest Build A Comedy Drama course. Details here: https://www.davecohen.org.uk/learn-to-write-comedy/comedy-writing-courses/