NEWS15 March 2016

How stories work

Leisure & Arts Media News

UK – ‘The story is fundamentally a quest to solve a problem', according to scriptwriter, author and producer John Yorke.


“In simple terms a story allows us to understand what it is to be someone else,” he added.

Yorke, whose latest book is Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, was addressing delegates at the MRS annual conference, Impact 2016, in a session during which he deconstructed the mechanics of storytelling, suggesting that business presentations might be improved by learning from narrative tropes.

“By presenting with PowerPoint, and using facts and numbers, the problem is that you don’t get an emotional response,” he said. On the other hand, stories establish an emotional connection.

“The story is fundamentally a quest to solve a problem. On the way there’s always a crisis, the worst point where you think all is lost, and then the climax, where the protagonist and antagonist face each other.

More broadly, on a global, macro level the function of story is to reduce chaos to order, Yorke explained. "As human beings we can’t cope with chaos. The end of a narrative gives the reader the sense that everything is OK.”

Yorke – whose career has seen him as script editor for Eastenders, and managing director of Company Pictures, the UK drama independent responsible for Skins, Shameless and Wolf Hall – once spent every weekend for three years going to the cinema with just a stopwatch and notepad. It was there that he deconstructed the art of storytelling.

"Fundamentally, stories are the shape they are because it’s a dramatisation of the processes by which we learn," he said, adding  that in business there are interesting uses of storytelling. He cited Innocent, the smoothie brand. “Three boys give up their jobs, facing risk and jeopardy and transforming the extraordinary trick of making what it effectively a glorified sugary drink into this gift to the world,” he said.

Yorke also offered some advice for Labour under its current leader Jeremy Corbyn. While the Conservative and previous Coalition governments have successfully told and retold the fabricated story that Labour caused the global economic crash of 2008, today’s opposition party lacks a narrative.

“They need a very clear goal, a very clear enemy and a leader who a large number of people can empathise with," he said. "As a leader Corbyn’s not an easy many for a large number of people to empathise with. I’m not sure what his goal is or who the enemy is.”