Wednesday, August 21, 2013


When it comes to competitions, I usually have the luck of a horseshoe en route to the glue factory. I could win the lottery and they’d lose the ticket. I could be picked for a once-in-a-lifetime cruise aboard the Titanic. Indeed, the only contest in which I’d truly fancy my chances, is Russian Roulette.

And so it was with no shortage of liver-damaging surprise that I greeted my win in the competition in April. The prize – a storytelling course with the great John Yorke. The worry – that I would finally give the great John Yorke sufficient legal grounds to take out a restraining order. Or hitman.

Please understand, I don’t make a habit of stalking scriptwriting gurus. Robert McKee, Syd Field, Linda Seger – rest easy in your Egyptian cotton beds. But I have had the great pleasure of hearing John speak several times during my nascent scriptwriting career and have always admired his energetic expertise. The man knows his onions. And he knows how to make you tune in to them four times a week.
Mary Evans tries not to faint when she meets the legendary John Yorke.

For those of you unfamiliar with his work (I can lend you my scrapbook), John cut his TV teeth in continuing drama, single-handedly storylining EastEnders for a spell before moving to Casualty. He was soon lured back to The Square and can pride himself in killing Ethel Skinner, shooting Phil Mitchell and landing Zoe Slater with Kat for a mother. He has been at the cutting edge of drama commissioning and production for Auntie, C4 and currently Company Pictures, gestating such pearls as Shameless, Life on Mars, The Street and The White Queen before they hit our screens.

John is possessed of the rare knack to make you feel as if you already knew his teachings – or at least should have done. His book, Into the Woods, is a quite unparalleled exploration of storytelling, not prescribing how to tell a story, but asking why so many settle into a recognisable and psychologically satisfying shape. In short, he’s just bloomin’ marvellous and as the course approached last week, I found myself conjecturing if, when faced with the real deal, this self-possessed woman in her mid-thirties might start behaving like a Harry Styles fan with a fistful of knickers.

I needn’t have worried. From the very beginning, John put aside all legal concerns to be incredibly generous, not only to me, but also to the other six lucky golden ticket winners with whom I shared his time. I’ll confess that previous encounters with fellow writers had me a little worried about this one. All too often, aspirant writers are either uncomfortably pushy, or frankly, certifiably insane.

But the group was simply fantastic and the talent and banter truly made the three days an exhilarating experience. We hearken from a variety of backgrounds – Jon, Mike and Gareth are filmmakers, Nic a director, Sean is a playwright and Piers and myself are TV writers. To varying degrees, all of us are on the nursery slopes of our scriptwriting careers, looking for the ski-lift to success. Everyone was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to mine John’s scriptwriting knowledge. And that lunch was included.

Day one was all about back-to-basics. This is an exercise I would heartily recommend to any writer, regardless of where their career has landed thus far. John talked about the bare bones of storytelling, some of which were very familiar, others sent my brain off in new directions. Is your protagonist active? Does your story create anticipation and then defer gratification? Are you giving your viewers enough to do to join in the dots themselves? Do you love your characters? And of course – does your script show not tell?

We then delved into story archetypes and the brass tacks of telling a tale. Who is the protagonist and who or what is the antagonist? What does your character want? What journey will you send them on and what gets in their way? Do you have a clear inciting incident? What is the crisis and how is it resolved? If these questions are unfamiliar to you, make them your best friends. But even if you’ve heard them a million times before, post-it them back to the front of your brain. It’s bread and butter stuff, but it sure as Snyder makes a more filling sandwich.

Day two was structure day. I confess that I approached this with the equivalent enthusiasm for haemorrhoid surgery. Like many writers, I have had a slow and painful fight against the need for structure. I came to regard structure like I regard my mother – annoying and interfering, but ultimately necessary. And is the case for both, that didn’t mean I had to like it.

But by going over the five-act paradigm time and time again using examples from film and TV, John slowly encouraged us to take the stabilisers off and have a go ourselves. I found myself not only tolerating structure, but really enjoying the structural scaffolding it provided. We took examples of arguably weak stories from continuing dramas and had a go at rewriting them ourselves, using our character revision and newfound structural know-how to improve them. And by Jove, it worked.

Day three was comprised of a single exercise: to watch a docu-drama and turn it into a movie treatment, before pitching it to the group – in just two hours. This project had been advertised earlier in the course and I had already been considering which particular feminine complaint or terminal grandparent would keep me from attending it.

But armed with some new weapons in my scriptwriting artillery, I found myself not only feeling able to have a go, but really enjoying the experience. Intense – certainly. Successful – not entirely. But considering how I’d have tackled the task just 48 hours previously, I was really rather chuffed with what we’d created. Like all my colleagues, I left that day feeling very sorry I wasn’t returning the next.

I cannot adequately express how fantastic an experience I enjoyed, courtesy of the There wasn’t a moment I didn’t enjoy. The camaraderie of my classmates, to whom I wish every bit of their inevitable success, was joyous. The chocolate digestives were apparently inexhaustible. The benefit to my scriptwriting career… here’s hoping. If it helps others, here are the top five things I took from the course:
  1. Is my protagonist always active (good), or is s/he reacting to events (baaaad)?
  2.  Do I have clear and plausible turning points at the end of every act, which throw the drama in a new direction?
  3. Do my characters have tangible desires, regardless of whether or not I plan for them to achieve them?
  4. Am I making my audience work hard enough?
  5. What forces my protagonist to change?

It is of course to John Yorke that I must extend my warmest and most heartfelt thanks. In my day job as a journalist, I often interview the supposed great and good of celebrity and learned a long time ago never to meet one’s idols.

But I could not have found a warmer, more generous, supportive and knowledgeable guide through three wonderful days. I can’t wait to apply these new ideas to old scripts and watch them straighten up at the spine like they’ve been pulverised by a Norwegian chiropractor. And I hope, for his sake, that John doesn’t have a snowy car accident anywhere near my house. For John, I steadfastly remain, your number one fan…

Mary Evans

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