A Two Hour Story Clinic for the Price of a Movie Ticket

We practice story craft in the pursuit of… what

Excellence, of course.  But what does that mean?  What makes a story excellent? 

It’s not craft… craft is the means, the pursuit, the toolchest.  This craft-excellence-craft circle becomes a paradox until we understand what the goal is, what actually makes a story work. 

And that answer is… story physics.  The forces of managing reader manipulation and experience that combine to compel, engage, enrage, an ultimately satisfy.  Any story that works juggles these variables, and while we can define them again and again — which I do — it’s good to see them at work.

When regular folks who aren’t nursing a writing Jones read a story or see a film that works, they feel the story physics without giving them much thought.  They are pulled in, they root, they worry and wonder, they hope.  But us… we not only feel those same forces, we notice them, we appreciate them, and if we’re paying attention, we can learn from them.

Or at least we should.

One of the best clinics I’ve ever seen on the subject of story physics opened in theaters today. 

It’s a true story directed by Ben Affleck, who also stars.  It’s called Argo, the title of a ficticious film within the film.  It snagged a 5-star review in my local paper — in two years of living here and reading every last movie review, it’s the first and only 5-star review I’ve seen — and probably something comparable in yours.

And that’s no accident.  That’s entirely because of the story physics that went into the script.  It’s the outcome of storytelling craft at its best.

Buy a ticket, watch, and learn.

Here are the five things you need to look for, all of them realms of story physics. 

Each is stellar in this story.  Not remotely contrived or forced, masterfully integrated through the application of the Six Core Competencies.  Most stories have one or two really good realms of physics in play, but rarely are all five in evidence to this degree. 

When than happens the stories usually become bestsellers and win Oscars.  The connection isn’t quite inevitable, but with a little patience and in the hands of the right agent, nearly unavoidable.

A compelling premise… based on a true story that might have been laughed off an editor’s desk if submitted as fiction.  And yet, the assembling of the moving parts of the story are artful, as compelling as any fiction you’ve every read or seen, and therefore a mechanical application of concept.  Something we should always consider when looking for ways to bring our story ideas to life.

Extraordinary dramatic tension… almost from the first frame.  Stakes are palpable, and the tension erupts from multiple sources, always circling and embracing the primary core story spine.  Everybody in this movie needs and wants something, and everybody has to conquer serious obstacles to get it.  If you’ve struggled with this hero’s quest stuff, this is your in-your-face case study.

Breath-taking, perfectly metered pacing… that just goes faster and faster, never letting up on the gas.  Even the cutaways from the main characters keep you riveted.

Hero empathy… you can feel the anxiety in every frame, and not just for the hero, either.  You’ll be happy you’re not there, yet grateful you to see and feel what it was like to be them.

A vicarious journey… in which that empathy allows you to lose yourself in the story, not only to be them, but to be there.  If you have a single moment of reflecting on your real life once the lights go down, you aren’t paying close enough attention here… this is bigger than your real life, and you’ll experience every beat.

What’s amazing about this story is that the ending is never in doubt.  And yet, you’ll find yourself holding your breath and spilling your popcorn.  That’s a testiment to story physics… it’s less about outcome than it is about the experience of getting there.  Or in this case, getting out of there.

And just maybe, walking out of the theater inspired and more fully aware of the power at your disposal: the power of story physics may suddenly be clearer to you, more accessible to you.  They’re already in your story, the question becomes… are they running the show, or are you, the author, running them with the goal of making them stronger?

That latter option, by the way, is also called craft. 

Finally… stick around for the credits, you’ll see the real people this film depicts and honors. 


Would you like to see how your story physics stack up?  Click HERE to learn how.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

3 Responses to A Two Hour Story Clinic for the Price of a Movie Ticket

  1. The trailers looked interesting but this makes me want to see it so much more!

  2. I just saw Argo this afternoon and thought it was one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite some time! You really know your sh*t, Larry. Everything you outlined in your post was there in the movie. Argo is the kind of movie people go to the movies for–to get away from real life and live vicariously in another place and time. This movie dropped me smack in the middle of Tehran in 1980 and by the time it ended, I was on that plane as it crossed out of Iranian air space! Like you predicted, I’m inspired. Thanks.

  3. Mike D

    Good suggestion for a movie study exercise, Larry. I actually read about the events behind this movie some 5 years ago in Outdoors Magazine. The movie is likely a much more actioned-up reimagining of what really happened. The only tense point in real life was when the agents and ambassadors were at the airport getting their papers in order, counting on the security to be lax in reviewing their forms. I don’t remember there being very many obstacles or any chases whatsoever, but then that’s why it’s “Based on a True Story.”

    The reason I’m posting though, is I just got back from watching Disney-Pixar’s “Wreck-it Ralph.”

    Larry, this movie is the walking talking eating breathing definition of story structure mastery. At every point in the movie where I was anticipating the mile-markers of good story structure, they showed up; the hook, the first plot point, pinch point, mid-point, the downward spiral, the shocking second plot point, last pinch-point (Hoh man! That was an incredible villain reveal!), climax, and resolution (heart-warming-tear-jerking-but-not-as-much-as-Toy-Story-3).

    I recommend everyone see Wreck-it Ralph. You will see every mile-marker of story structure that Larry has lectured about exactly where it is supposed to be, while at the same time it skillfully layers additional markers on top (case-in-point the villain/antagonistic force revelation/evolution without being convoluted).