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  • Writer's pictureRicardo Barretto


I ran across “Into the Woods” by John Yorke during the pandemic after a long and painful journey through dozens and dozens of screenwriting books and classes, and I consider it hands down the one sign of hope that you, the writer, exist and matter. You don’t need to read past the introduction to see the problem staring you in the face: too many gurus, too many theories, too much complexity, and all that jibber-jabber has one unifying theme -- they all pretend the individual, a.k.a. you, does not exist.

The one point I want to emphasize here for our ‘experiment’ is the same one John Yorke opens his narrative with. It is the three-act structure. The quote he gives us presents John Truby’s passionate denial:

“The so-called 3-act structure is the biggest, most destructive myth ever foisted on writers. I would like to call it obsolete. But that implies that it worked in the first place. It didn’t.”

In its place, using the precise three-act structure he blowtorched, Truby offers a 22-point structure for the story. I don’t know about you, but I took my lessons from physics and I am a stickler for elegance, and in terms of elegance it’s hard to beat E.M. Forster in Anatomy of Drama: story ‘can only have one merit: that of making the (average) audience want to know what happens next.’ Everything else comes after that. The simpler we make it, the better. Simplicity sets up the oracle as to ‘why’ things exist. But how do we achieve that interest in the future?

Your conscious mind is probably racing ahead of you thinking about act breaks and inciting incidents and empathy and telegraphs and dangling causes and dramatic irony and the big dramatic question and… congratulations, you have become a hack. If your goal for storytelling is the art of brain pottery, the manipulation of other brains, that is a pretty close definition of a hack. But let your ego rest to the side, there may be some archetypal truth to that.

Before we continue, also remember that you can’t please everybody. Two people can watch a sunset and have completely different experiences. Some people have regressed to an interior state. Some like to complain. Some have a particular trauma that a particular scene or character in your film represents. Some people are dead to the numinous. Hell, you could even envision a future of ‘wireheading’ where the reward mechanism is hijacked and the brains are rewired to look at paint-dry as a transcendental experience. Vines for me was like watching paint dry, and if one is honest about it, one would ask how the hell did that benefit humanity in any freakin’ way?

And the deeper you go into that black hole the more you know that you don’t know, or as Bertrand Russell said: “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.”

But craft confers tremendous advantage: Birds are lovely, but they can’t write screenplays. The town drunk has a better chance. Consciousness is the field upon which the ideas and the creative energy of the unconscious will emerge. We can only capture the images we are ready to receive. That is precisely the role of craft. The most elegant idea will meet you at the point you are ready to receive it. Who do you think is better equipped to handle the infinite activity of the creative unconscious? A musician who knows only one scale, C major, or a musician who knows all major, minor, melodic and harmonic, and a myriad of chord structures?

In defense of the three-act structure, I would like to point out that it happens every day in your life. Multiple times over. Some last a few seconds, some a few minutes, some may take an entire day, week, years, even a lifetime. The infinite fractal points out to something deep and archetypal that informs our search for knowledge. When it lasts 120-minutes we call it a movie. Have you ever tried to book an Airbnb? Decide on what to have for breakfast? To invite someone on a date? Which school to go to? A future Career? Here’s how it is structured: you spill coffee accidentally while writing an article, you instinctively pull your computer away, search for napkins, deal with the wet mess and the pages, and try to restore some sense of order. Done: There’s a question, you deliberate on the answer, and then you answer (or reframe the question for the future). The table, the wet papers, and your computers will never be the same again.

The negative side of the craft is that it also carries our Western prejudice that it is the only source of knowledge. There are numerous other ways of relating to the world and the creative process: empirical and tacit knowledge, instinct, dreams, intuition, meditation, and so forth. To deny them would mean to deny the majority of your experience of life.

Consciousness also will try to categorize everything, explain, put it in numbers, pretend it has complete control of the story and its elements. It will fail. Always. We’ll always re-group, re-think, new books will emerge, new pundits will arrive and become like newly discovered particles popping in and out of existence. The fundamental reason it will fail is that it is a unilateral representation of a complex problem whose another half of the equation is the individual, the unconscious, his individuation process and his particular and unique relationship to the story, and the individuals that comprise a society in its average epistemic state. The individual is a chaotic mess, undefinable, ever-evolving, and according to some neuroscientists, an illusion. But it is an individual that brings forth the story. The individual and his or her life experience, frustrations, education, knowledge, wisdom, dreams, and aspirations-- an individual consciousness and its current state in the process of becoming whole. Any attempt of a screenwriting consultant will be a unilateral and incomplete representation of a complex problem.

Craft aside, the most important question you must ask yourself is ‘what am I trying to say? Why am I writing this story at a particular time? What is it about it that touches me personally? When I visited the offices of then recently deposed Disney Studios CEO, his lawyer said that all his successes were films made by particular individuals with particular visions, that is, stories that matter deeply to them.

When I attended the drama classes of Dame Stella Adler, I'll never forget her yelling at a student (as she often did) after a scene he performed, “No wonder you want to become an actor! You haven’t lived! You don’t know what life is! Go on and live and come back in ten years!” My advice is precisely that. Work on craft, yes, but most importantly, go out and live, individuate, find yourself, then return to the story. It is precisely at the meeting point between yourself and craft, at the edge of chaos and order, that the story is born. We’ve become too lazy and spoiled to do the hard and traumatic work of ‘becoming’. The too many gurus and paint-by-the-number solutions simply won’t cut it. The fundamental part of that equation, the one that is completely left out by pretty much everybody, is you, my friend, the writer, as E.M. Forster reminds us: “I have no mystic faith in the people. I have in the individual.”


Ricardo Barretto is a writer, actor, musician, and a student of depth psychology and mythology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. He studied cognitive psychology, philosophy, neuroscience at the University of California, Irvine, and is also a former Sailing youth national champion. His Extension program at a private university in his native Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attracted executives from film and TV and directors of major film festivals. He worked as a consultant for several artists and production companies, including the winner for best film in Brazil in 2012. He loves Science Fiction and anything related to the impact of technologies in our human identity.

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