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.
I just watched McCullin, the new documentary about the photojournalist and (though he hated the title) war reporter, Don McCullin. He talks about the absurdity of photographing people’s most tragic and terrible moments; about the struggle to reconcile a desire to follow the action – to the point of becoming a “war junkie” – with a deep humanitarian compassion; about the huge doubts as to whether all of it was worth it – did his pictures ever actually change anything?
McCullin also worked in Northern Ireland – and what struck me there was his comment on how absurd it was that he could fly to Belfast, drive up to Derry and check in to a hotel, and know that at a certain hour of the afternoon, things would kick off. It was like a “football match”, he says; or like a theatre where “you knew the plot”. Easy work for a photojournalist. What’s sad – among much sadness in this film – is that strands of this predictable violence have carried on till now, among some of NI’s youngest people.