Applied physics: the natural laws of story

Gary and I were having an admittedly nerdy coffee conversation this morning, and as he was expounding on the finer points of Newton’s laws, it occurred to me that these indisputable physical laws can be applied quite handily in the universe of fiction. There are certain truths about character and plot development that do not change, and breaking those natural laws removes the element of reality good fiction needs.

Newton's First Law of Motion: An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
In every sentence of every scene of every story, characters have to have a reason for doing what they’re doing. An arc of change has to be set in motion by some credible catalyst, and a course of self-destruction or self-actualization can only be stopped or slowed by a believable obstacle. Even if the entire story takes place in a bathtub, some force – from outside or in – has to come along and upset the balance.

Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Once the story is in motion, there’s play and counterplay, crossing and countercrossing. Sometimes it’s a quick step, sometimes it’s a tango, other times everybody’s kung foo fighting, but always there has to be action and reaction in equal measure.

Newton's Law of Gravity: Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the product of the masses of the particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

“That essentially means opposites attract?” I asked Gary this morning.

“No,” he said, “that means everything attracts.”

Which is of course the story of the glory of love. And hate. And Sunday dinner at the in-laws and war and peace and crime and punishment. The way characters are drawn to each other or flung into one another, crashing at intersections or being sucked in by a charismatic criminal or quietly coming together for a cup of tea. But on a larger scale, I think there has to be a sort of gravitational pull from the story itself that keeps the characters and events in orbit. What is this universe about? That’s the mass that guides the arc of change and keeps plot points from flying off into outer space.

PS ~ The way cool portrait of Sir Isaac above was done by artist Spencer Tomberg. "I attempt to capture a fragment of the complexity of the natural world in my paintings," says Tomberg. "By mixing geometry with images that are common to our minds I strive to honor the mathematical majesty that is hidden in our lives...It is a weaving of the human condition, culture and mathematics that brings my paintings to life and shows how we are a beautiful part of the natural world."

How do you not love that?


Now you're making me feel mundane. My husband and I tend to talk about oil changes, kid issues, and who forgot to take the trash out. Great post, though. I loved your take on the laws!