Into the Woods and Home Before Dark

This will probably seem ridiculous, but I have a new, all-time favorite book on story design. It’s called Into the Woods by Yorke, and it pretty much replaces Story Grid, which was my previous all-time favorite.

When I read Story Grid (by Shawn Coyne) it was life-changing. The way he described the fractal nature of scenes, acts and stories resonated with me. The emphasis on making sure that every scene had a setup, conflict escalation and payoff improved my scene writing. How much did my scenes improve? Like, a lot.

And if you can write a good scene, you can tell a good story of any length. Eventually.

I was convinced I’d found my storytelling guru

At the time, I set aside my storytelling for a month as I read Story Grid, and then worked hard with it on my desk for the next six months, applying the lessons. It made my storytelling much better.

Last year, I attended the Story Grid conference and then it made even more sense.


But Story Grid’s true focus is on editing a story to figure out why it doesn’t work. It doesn’t answer the question why you tell a particular story.

Still it made a great deal of sense, and the story I recently completed has gotten positive feedback from my early readers (the book is in proof reading, so keep your shirts on).

It seemed like there were missing chapters (for lack of a better cliche) on how to begin a story. The Story Grid website has added a couple of dozen articles that filled that void, and I listened to a podcast hosted by Tim Grahl, a novelist working with Shawn Coyne on how to use Story Grid. That filled more of the void for me, and I felt really good about the strength of my storytelling after all that.

I didn’t even think I needed anything else to read about story design.

Enter Into the Woods

Every year I read at least one book on writing. Some years I read two or three. For some reason, I had two copies of Into the Woods on my shelf, and I hadn’t read them.

I got them in a flurry of writing-book-buying, and somehow they got pushed to the bottom of the pile. Recently — as in a month ago — I started a different book on writing, found it shallow, and grabbed Into the Woods off the shelf.

It’s deep.

It’s life changing.

It has connected dozens of dots about writing, and has blown my mind. I have never read a book that I dog-eared and underlined so many pages. I copied dozens of critical notes and quotes into my common place book, and re-read as I went along, so I’ve read it twice already.

The Funny Thing Is…

The funny thing is that Story Grid and Into the Woods have a lot in common. They both talk about how the setup, conflict escalation and payoff are the fundamental building block of every sentence, beat, scene, act and story. They both talk about inciting incidents, turning-point conflict, crisis and climax in every scene, act and story. They both talk about how the protagonist’s inner journey is inextricably linked to their outer journey.

More than once, I checked the copyright date on the books to figure out who published first (Into the Woods, 2013). For a while I thought Into the Woods would be the perfect complement to Story Grid.

Then I realized how much better Into the Woods helps me understand story structure than Story Grid.

Not a Fair Comparison

I’m positive that Shawn Coyne would shrug if I mentioned Into the Woods. Shawn is very up front about how Story Grid is about how to edit a story to get the conflict escalation correct so that you have an entertaining, enlightening and compelling story.

Story Grid relies on the Hero’s Journey, from Joseph Campbell and expanded by Chris Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, to explain the structure needed.

Into the Woods, on the other hand, endeavors to answer the question why our stories fall into the archetypal pattern we know as the Hero’s Journey. Moreover, it answers the question why we tell stories at all.

I’m An Idiot

I’m so happy I’ve read both these books. I have had this edition of Into the Woods on my to-be-read shelf for three years. That’s a full year before I read StoryGrid. But when I got Into the Woods, for some reason, I didn’t crack it open. I bought it at the same time as Vogler’s book on the Hero’s Journey and read that, first. (To be honest, Vogler’s doesn’t read well, to me, from cover to cover, and I’d picked at it, flipping around reading the various sections until I eventually read all of it.)

Had I read the first couple of pages of Into the Woods instead, the last three years would have been different for me.

Oddly enough, the same friend who sent me Story Grid (with a note that said, “You have to read this”) had also recommended The Writer’s Journey and Into the Woods.

Why Read Into the Woods?

If my goofy enthusiasm doesn’t convince you, consider this: Into the Woods has the best explanation for how to create a compelling second act. How does he do this?

Yorke makes a brilliant explanation for how to turn the dreaded second act into three acts, matching the journey your character must take, and how to find a mid-point that elevates the meaning of your story — whether you know what the meaning is or not. Thus, you end up with a five-act story. But it makes so much more sense (once you read the book).

Another Reason to Read Into the Woods

Once more, I recommend you read both Story Grid and Into the Woods. They complement each other, answering ‘why’ we tell stories, and also how to edit a story that is not quite escalating the conflict properly.

Also, I realized that I have two copies of Into the Woods. Somehow, I ordered it twice, and now I’m willing to give away the one I haven’t bent, dog-eared and written in.

How to Win a Copy of Into the Woods

Use this link to join the giveaway for this one copy of Into the Woods. This is an overkill way to figure out how to give away a single book, but I have my reasons.

Mostly the reason is because I bought the giveaway promotion software from Kingsumo many years ago, and just want to use it.

Am I whoring for followers? Maybe, but it just seems easier to communicate about the giveaway with this damn thing I paid for, rather than cobble together some half-assed system.

A week from now, I’ll pick one of the people who entered and figure out how to give you the book. Only eligible to U.S. residents, because I don’t feel like dealing with shipping out of the country.