It's in the detail

‘Story Physics’ And The Art of Screenwriting

July 15th, 2012 by Catharine Ashdown




Story Physics are the story-telling principles at the core of Pixar animations. These principles have been further developed by BBC Drama’s John Yorke to deliver training for emerging scriptwriters.

  • Empathise with your main character, even if you don’t like all of his/her motivations. (For example, Woody in Toy Story initially masked his selfish desires as being selfless.)
  • Unity of opposites. Each character must have clear goals that oppose each other.
  • You should have something to say. Not a message, per se, but some perspective, a truth.
  • Have a key image, almost like a visual logline, to encapsulate the essence of the story; that represents the emotional core on which everything hangs. (For example, Marlin in Finding Nemo, looking over the last remaining fish egg in the nest.)
  • Know your world and the rules of it.
  • The crux of the story should be on inner, not outer, conflicts.
  • Developing the story is like an archaeological dig. Pick a site where you think the story is buried, and keep digging to find it.

The emphasis of John Yorke’s Story Physics masterclass was on the first two of these principles: “All drama is based on a conflict of opposites to a molecular level…Take the opposite point-of-view from what you actually believe and you will see your writing blossom”.

Basic dramatic set-up = Two characters, with equal & opposite desires – and somebody wins.

Find the arc of your screenplay by setting up dramatic paradoxes within your story’s context and, above all, its main characters. One of the best examples used to illustrate the point came from David Simon’s original pitching document for The Wire:

Within a brief span of time, the officers who undertake the pursuit are forced to acknowledge truths about their department, their role, the drug war and the city as a whole. In the end, the cost to all sides begins to suggest not so much the dogged police pursuit of the bad guys, but rather a Greek tragedy… An America, at every level at war with itself.

The Wire Bible:

Story Physics alone won’t make you a writer. What they can bring is an understanding of the dynamics at work within your script, unlocking problem scenes to focus on those elements of your story that get to the heart of the human experience.

Further Reading: Understanding Story, Or My Journey of Pain by Andrew Stanton (transcript)

Source: Pixar’s Storytelling Secrets






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Why Am I Writing This? Where To Find Your ‘Writer’s Voice’.

July 3rd, 2012 by Catharine Ashdown

The best scripts are the ones that need to be written.

Obvious, when you stop to think about it. Only with a growing checklist of screenplay ‘musts’, the writer might be forgiven for overlooking a few fundamental questions:

Why am I writing this particular story and what makes me the only writer to tell it?

Because if you can’t answer that, chances are the Producer/Script Executive on the receiving end of your script won’t be able to either. A question mark instead hangs over your writing. It’s a good screenplay, with a sound structure – so why doesn’t the story grab them?

Their response, should you be lucky enough to elicit one, might well refer to the lack of a ‘writer’s voice’. Rough translation: Whilst they appreciate the skill of your screenplay, they’re in the dark as to your inspiration for writing it.

Taking the time, to define your need to pick that pen up in the first place, goes a long way towards setting your writing apart. It’s this personal writing theme – the idea or emotion driving your writing – that gives your story its underlying meaning, one that can still be heard over competing scripts on a similar subject. It can also act as a writing tool, a starting-point to return to in the confusion of different drafts and questions from producers, directors and (fingers crossed) actors.

An understanding, finally, of your own work that turns the knowing ‘how to write’, into a script that gives a voice to your story.


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