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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  1. espejoenigma | Pearltrees

    [...] Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips » Blog Archive » ‘Story Physics’ And The Art of Screenwriting <b>Story Physics </b> are the story-telling principles at the core of Pixar animations. [...]

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