Into the Woods

Show Some Intitiative: Walk Into the Woods

The initiative post

I have touched on John Yorke’s storytelling theory (2013) in previous posts. This post will be based upon the Into the Woods theory of story arc, that identifies an (often unconscious) inevitability of dramatic structure that touches every aspect of a narrative:

What is [narrative structure]?
It’s a fractal enlargement of a single scene.

That’s what story structure is – single units of perception, endlessly seeking to mimic each other as they build into one giant version of their constituent parts.

— John Yorke. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. 2013. pp. 225.

Yorke argues that the classic definition of a Three or Five Act narrative structure, the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (1949) or, put simply, beginning, middle and end, is true on a macro scale, but can be broken down to a micro level, as well:

 A scene has a beginning, middle and end and encompasses change. Put these scenes together and they grow into acts; put the acts together and you have a story.

— John Yorke. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. 2013. pp. 225.

This post will be focused on my own investigation of just how deep this dissection can go. A scene may have a beginning, middle and end… what about a shot within a scene? A frame within a shot? The mise en scène within a frame? This post will be live, active and updated periodically as I make further discoveries in my research. Please feel free to contribute to the discussion by commenting.

Here’s a simple, poorly shot sequence of an energy drink in front of a computer screen. I wanted to use something basic that had no deliberate production design or shot construction with the intention of further challenging and, perhaps, illustrating my argument.

Can this shot exist, independently, as its own narrative? Is there a story arc? A journey, as Yorke might say, into the woods?

Let’s take a look at what we have.

The shot begins with a can of ‘V Energy Drink’, draped in shadow from the backlight of the computer screen. The darkness that engulfs the energy drink suggests that it’s night time, we know we’re in an office or working space (computer screen and what looks like a document on the screen).

We have a setting.

The camera is shaky, clearly handheld. One might assume, from this, that the obvious handheld technique suggests that the point of view of the camera lens and the audience is also the point of view of the protagonist.

We have a character.

So; shaky protagonist, late at night, with an energy drink and a typed document. Now we start to see a story.

Halfway through the sequence, the shot loses focus. This tells a great story. Perhaps, our protagonist, attempting to finish the document on screen, late at night, could not fight off sleep regardless of the amount of energy drink they have consumed. There could be any number of readings, but in these 8 seconds of a single shot, we seem to have a story.

How does the story hold up against Yorke’s story structure, though? Let’s try and fit it into a model of three acts:

  • Act 1:
    • A character exists in a world and wants something.
      • Shaky protagonist is in a late-night work environment, fighting sleep
      • Wants to finish work
  • Act 2:
    • An obstacle stands in the way
      • The protagonist starts to struggle against sleep
  • Act 3:
    • ???

Here we run into a problem. At this micro level, can a story ever adhere to an entire three acts? Let’s try a re-structuring:

  • Act 1:
    • A character exists in a world and wants something.
      • The first thing we see, due to its bright lights, is the computer scene
      • Act 1, then, is a character wanting to finish their work on the computer
  • Act 2:
    • An obstacle stands in the way
      • Now, our gaze has shifted around the frame and seen the energy drink
      • Character development, we know that the character is struggling
      • The camera movement is shaky
      • The character’s obstacle is sleep
  • Act 3:
    • The protagonist (our shaky writer) and antagonist (sleep) fight it out, one triumphs
      • Sleep seems to overcome the protagonist
      • The shot becomes completely out-of-focus
      • The antagonist wins, teaching the protagonist a valuable lesson (go to bed!)

As noted at the beginning, this post is an ongoing investigation. While it seems that, from particular readings, we can incur meaning from a single shot, how much of a stretch is this? How dependent is it upon pre-conceived knowledge of the mise en scène, ie. recognising an energy drink; having pre-conceived readings of what losing focus might communicate; etc.? Is this an issue, or is all film and/or storytelling dependant on this in some way (are we practically defining semiotics)? Could we break this down further, to a still image? What do you think?

Works Cited

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, New York: Pantheon Books.

Yorke, J. (2013). Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. St Ives: Penguin Books. 

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

*Featured Image Credit:
Licensed by Adobe Stock. 



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