Into the Woods Summary: A Five-Act Journey Into Story
Updated: Jul 20
After reading this book, I saw the matrix behind every movie, TV show, and story that I have experienced since. This book not only provides a formula for stories it also connects it back to psychology. There were so many nuggets but one that stood out was: The reversal of expectation is a key device in storytelling.
Want to dig deeper than the core principles? Check out:
I have summarised 'Into the Woods', distilling the book into 33 core principles:
Art is born from the battle between order and chaos. There is order and form, even when reflecting chaos and anarchy.
Story is about learning. It is a map that pushes us to go off the path that our society and psychology has placed us on. It encourages us to find a new path to learn from, to embrace and to grow. Story is a dramatization of acquiring knowledge, the pursuit of truth.
Every generation views the world through the lens of available facts. • The Earth was supported by atlas. • Cigarettes were good for you. • The Earth is the center of the universe.
All humans look similar but we are all different. We have the same psychological needs but we all have different experiences. We all have the ability to: love, be vengeful, and jealous.
Stories that tap into our universal similarities will be timeless. Stories about : • Mothers • Fathers • Sexuality • Death
All successful stories are about human desires because they matter to us: • Success • Revenue • Love • Survival • Protection of family or home • Belonging • Friendship • Survival • Self Esteem
Both in story and in real life safety is different for all people. For some it will be: • Being the highest status person in the room, for others the lowest. • Being with their husband, for others they will only feel safe without them. • Being without a job, for others being with a job makes them feel trapped and vulnerable.
The desire for safety, if we want to live within a group, means we must accept that we can not have unrestricted access to our other wants. A thirst for sex and revenge are not good ingredients for living in a community in harmony. Desires need to be repressed which results in an internal conflict between the way we want to be seen and our inner desires.
Jung believed that every psychological force has its opposite: the facade we showed the world and our shadow unconscious urges, which result in an identity crisis. Other psychologists had similar views and that in order to be happy this internal war must be overcome in order to reach happiness or completion. There is then a connection between stories and their journeys and our own reconciliation of our two sides.
We believe our desires will make us complete and give us peace. We wear masks to protect our ego, and to hide our more vulnerable inner selves. By confronting this vulnerability and its cause the hero can move on and become whole again.
A story introduces you to a character to connect with, through which you see their world.
Our favorite characters are often the ones who we want part of ourselves to be: the good and the bad.
All characters are at war with themselves. In public we portray ourselves as model, virtuous citizens. We hide our dark side. We worry about how others will see us and this worry is the fuel for many of our decisions. Characters are more interesting when they act in the opposite of what they say. They are more true to life.
A story becomes more interesting when the antagonist is part of the protagonist, making them more real, for example: cowardice, fear or addiction.
Mavericks are popular: we've all felt at times like we are the only sane person surrounded by idiots.
When there is less back story the audience has a broader opportunity to connect with the character.
'The character seeks what they want and in so doing realizes instead their need. Their lack is lacked no more; they have overcome their flaws and become whole.'
Change is linked to desire. If the hero wants something they are going to have to change in order to get it.
An opportunity (disguised as a problem) occurs which throws the character's world into disarray. During this journey, they learn something about themselves. Towards the end all hope seems lost. In the end there is a final battle in which the character wins.
At the start of a story you may be 25% x and 75% y. At the end of the story you'll be 75% x and 25% y. For example: • 25% man & 75% boy ----->75% man & 25% boy • 25% brave & 75% fearful ----->75% brave & 25% fearful
A story is often the mirror image of itself.
'Stories are built from acts, acts are built from even smaller units called beats. All these units are constructed in 3 parts: factual versions of the 3-act whole. '
Scenes are built around mini inciting incidences that connect to make a story.
Scenes move like a wave with action -->reaction---->action---->reaction until an unexpected reaction happens and one character is successful in their goal and the other is not. This is a turning point.
The 3- Act Story: Act 1: • A flawed hero is presented • Ends with 'The Inciting Incident' where the hero falls down a rabbit hole. Act 2: • The hero tries to return to their original world. • They learn that important lessons can be learned in this new world. • The hero is confronted by their opposite. •They must decide whether to use the lessons learned to defeat the enemy or return to their old world. •Ends with 'The Crisis' Act 3: •The hero and their opposite battle, reconcile, and achieve balance.
Christopher Vogler - The Hero's Journey A symmetrical chain of cause and effect containing a beginning, middle, and end. 1. The hero is introduced in their ordinary world where.... 2. The call to adventure is received. 3. The hero is reluctant and often refuses the call initially but.... 4. They are encouraged by a mentor to.... 5. Cross the threshold and enter the new world where... 6. They encounter tests, allies and enemies. 7. They enter the inmost cave, crossing a 2nd threshold. 8. Here is where they undergo the supreme ordeal. 9. They take their reward and... 10. Are followed back to the ordinary world, undergoing a spiritual death before.... 11. They cross the 3rd threshold and experience a rebirth, transformed by the experience. 12. They return to the ordinary world with the elixir, treasure or knowledge.
The common elements in all stories: • 'Home' is at risk • The hero suffers from a flaw or problem • The hero goes on a journey to overcome the problem • At exactly the halfway point the hero finds the cure to their problem • On their return journey the hero must confront the consequences of taking it • The hero faces a real or analogous death • The hero is reborn with the cure and their home is saved.
Provide the audience with facts and allow them to find the connection.'Good storytelling never gives you 4, it gives you 2 + 2. Don't give the audience the answer; give the audience the pieces and compel them to conclude the answer. Audiences have an unconscious desire to work for their entertainment. They are rewarded with a sense of thrill and delight when they find the answers themselves.
Don't tell the reader that the person is annoyed, show them subtly by writing 'He's tapping his finger'.
The secret to a successful story is the control of suspense. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence.
The inciting incident is often a decision the hero must take that will result in them confronting their worst fear.
Reversal of expectation is a key device in stories.
'Successful happy endings, both in fiction and in psychology, involve the individual resolving conflicts and learning to integrated and balance opposing forces. Just as all stories seek to resolve order from chaos, man seeks to still the raging conflict within.'
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