Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

Newton's laws of motion may seem like an odd set of laws for developing plots in writing, but in fact, they not only work for physics, but they work for fiction, too. It's one of those odd ways in which seemingly unrelated fields actually provide some point of reference and clarity for each other. Perhaps serendipitous, perhaps an example of synchronicity, perhaps simple insanity. You decide.

So what are Newton's laws of motion?

The Law of Inertia: An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force; and an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.

Story Opening. Some characters begin from what is essentially suspended animation, stasis, or the classic rut. Some external force, be it an inheritance, murder, or just catching the wrong train in the evening has to impel that character into a maelstrom of action.

Other characters may already appear to be in motion, but they are moving in the wrong direction or moving too quickly. In their case, an external force must act upon the character to push them in another direction, or stop/divert their path toward another direction. A U.S. Navy Seal on a critical mission is diverted by the crying of a child, propelling him and the mission into another direction.

Writers label this a number of things. The Inciting Incident or The Call to Action. Call it what you will, it is, in essence, the character overcoming the inertia of their everyday life and starting the story. I actually prefer to think of it this way because it reinforces, to my mind, the essential task you must complete for your story to begin. Your story must overcome the inertia of non-being and become an interesting work of fiction.

  • Your character must overcome the inertia of their everyday life
  • The writer must overcome the reader's initial inertia which translates into a lack of interest in anything the writer has to say. The writer has to hook the reader with the story, pique the reader's interest, and make the reader want to read more.
  • And the story must overcome the inertia of the backstory, plot contrivances, and everything that must be done to get the story moving and get to the action.
  • The writer wants to overcome this inertia as quickly as possible, to get the story and the characters moving and get the reader to turn the pages.

The Law of Acceleration: The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the resultant force action on the body and is in the same direction.

Fiction is about change. Characters are tortured and put through fire until they come out on the other side, wiser and perhaps in the case of a romance, worthy and ready for love. So if your character and story are going to move forward, you need to think about the law of acceleration, i.e. the rate of change of momentum. Momentum of the story, often called pacing by writers, and the momentum of change for the character(s). The obstacles they face, while they cause problems for the character, are what will propel that character—and story—forward.

The character's obstacles, bad decisions, and stupid actions are the forces acting upon them that will accelerate both the story and the character forward to the conclusion. And you want your story to keep on accelerating if you want your reader to turn those pages.

But not just mindless acceleration. The forces must cause change. Endless fight scenes are boring. What is interesting is the character's reactions to those incidents and how they change the character, change the flow of the story, and cause things to move in another, and hopefully, unexpected direction. Ceaseless action can actually decelerate your story. Think about it.

That's why I like the force aspect in this law, because it reminds me that the character is not in complete control. There are forces acting upon the character which will cause that character to react, reevaluate his or her life, and ultimately change. This is the journey or character's arc.

The Law of Reciprocal Actions: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

And finally, my favorite law. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So many writers forget this and it is so critical and basic to any story. Every time something happens to your character from the very beginning incident, your character is going to make a decision and react. And every time your character acts, there is going to be an equal and opposite reaction, which is many cases is going to be exceedingly unpleasant for your character and get them into deeper poo-poo. This is, in essence, the way stories work.

Your character inherits an old house (an action affecting them and propelling them out of their inertia).

Your character makes a decision and acts upon it by moving to the old house (decision/reaction: their reaction to the initial action) despite the fact that the house has a bad reputation.

Your character is confronted by ghosts/horror/mayhem (action).

Every action your character takes results in an equally bad and unexpected reaction in the story events.

And so it goes:

Your character overcomes inertia as a result of an initial action, starting the story cycle.

Then action / decision / reaction --> which leads to another action / decision / reaction cycle because every action results in an equal and opposite reaction in the plot.

And each cycle escalates (remember acceleration) until the final breaking point, the climax, the black moment, the final conflict—whatever you want to call it, which the character finally does resolve so the story can conclude.

Perhaps this appeals to me because it defines what can be sort of literary "airy-fairy nonsense" in more active, dynamic terms that I can relate to like action/reaction, forces driving a character, and overcoming inertia. It seems to make more sense to me and I'm better able to evaluate if my beginning chapter is strong enough to frame the story and get the character and action going if I think of it in terms of overcoming the initial inertia. And if I remember the laws of acceleration and reciprocal action, it is easier for me to keep the story moving. Perhaps it's just synchronicity after all, or some weird kink in my mental wiring.

The problem for other writers is finding ways to think about writing and the process of building a story in terms that make sense to them and help them with their goal of creating a piece of fiction that is interesting, enlightening, and engaging. For some writers, this is an effortless process that does not require any thought. Others plot and plan, write and rewrite, until they get their work the way they want it. Every writer is unique, every process is unique and all that matters is finding ways to illuminate the dark well enough to get where you want to go.

1 comment:

benpatrick said...

Thank you for posting the relationship of Newton's Laws to writing fiction, very true.