LONG READ – John Yorke breaks down the narrative shape of HBO series Chernobyl

LONG READ – John Yorke breaks down the narrative shape of HBO series Chernobyl

In this premium article John Yorke explores how Chernobyl's makers ‘took something complex, grey, difficult and un-heroic and turned it into a classic Hollywood narrative shape’.

HBO’s Chernobyl cleaned up at 2019’s Emmys, but faced accusations of distorting the facts to tell a story. At the BBC Untold Storytelling Festival, John Yorke discussed how shaping the facts into a narrative revealed more of the truth about the event. Read the adaptation of his contribution.

Anyone who is old enough remembers what they were doing when news of the Chernobyl explosion and the detection of a radioactive cloud moving towards the UK broke.

Over subsequent months and years the impact of the explosion leaked out in stories, ranging from radioactive lambs in Wales to millions of humans and animals at risk from radiation poisoning. But it’s taken 25 years and an HBO drama to bring the full story to light. Why? Because there was so much information, so many stories, so much data, obfuscation and confusion that no one could make sense of it.

Until, that is, it was shaped into a story. Narrative structure provided the backbone around which to wrap the facts and characters.


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In the final epsiode of Chernobyl there is a rigged show trial, and KGB Chairman Charkov calmly tells our other hero Lagasov it’s a necessary process: ‘We will have our villians, we will have our hero, we will have our truth’. And that’s the shape. The Soviet show trial will do what we do every second of our waking lives. We peer at reality and we search for a hero, we search for a villain, we find a truth – and we call that a story. 

John Yorke


You can also listen to John Yorke share these ideas as part of BBC Radio 4’s Untold Storytelling Festival, broadcast August 2019.

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Uploaded by Emily Ronan


Published on October 19, 2019

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