Everything feels different or disjointed: the air oppressively warm; my knowledge of Spanish buried too many years ago to find the words I need; and it should be afternoon, but I’m the first to order breakfast. Eggs with tomatoes and onion, fruit, black coffee to shake off a six-hour time difference.
Last week an overnight flight took me to Cartagena de Indias, a city of around 1 million on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where men push carts piled high with mangoes through busy streets, where horse-drawn carts join traffic jams, where friends pose for selfies amid flags or pink umbrellas or street art. A dark history – a one-time slave trade hub, and one of three seats of the Catholic Inquisition in the Americas — but the city has since become a UNESCO heritage site, and tourists come nowadays for the colour, the nightlife, the nearby islands, the easy stroll along thick fortress walls.
The hero’s journey is trotted out regularly in discussions on storytelling (and, therefore, also on advertising, campaigning, fundraising, and so on). The protagonist goes on a journey to fulfil a desire or answer a call to action; overcomes the enemy; returns home a changed person. Even if we don’t know the theory, we’re all aware of the formula somewhere deep in our bones.
Into the Woods: How stories work and why we tell them, by former BBC/Channel 4 producer John Yorke, picks this formula apart, exploring each element and providing a few more clues to watch out for in any narrative. The three-act or five-act structure; the inciting incident, midpoint, crisis and climax; the central character who must face his or her opposite.
Some of it is almost gloomily formulaic: in a Bond or Hitchcock film, he writes, the crisis is nearly always a high-octane, 25-minute sequence at the end, set in a unique location, and almost always on territory that’s alien to our hero.
We think of the natural world as following a four-part rhythm, but spring, summer, autumn, winter don’t always quite fit. A freezing cold March doesn’t feel like spring, and November can be “all wrong for autumn”, as the American writer Kurt Vonnegut observed. Instead, he suggested, there are six seasons in the year, including a ‘locking’ season in November and December to lead us into winter, and an ‘unlocking’, in March and April, before spring unfolds.
I came across Vonnegut’s six seasons last week, as part of a writing workshop inspired by Japanese microseasons – an ancient tradition in which the year is divided into 24 periods, and sub-divided into 72 even shorter ones.