Just in case you think writing books, or any other book for that matter, is a grand conspiracy between author and editor, with the occasional agent chiming in, consider this: when I was writing “Story Engineering” (my first writing book), I used the term “story physics” several times to describe how and why stories work.
“You know,” I explained to my confused editor, who majored in English Lit and not science, “like gravity. The forces around us that control everything. Stuff we can’t change or avoid, but are nonetheless available to use to our advantage.”
He then said, “explain to me how writers use gravity.”
He made me take it out.
Now, as my new writing book comes out (not coincidentally entitled “Story Physics“), I may have some explaining to do. Not so much to that editor (who a., was great, by the way, and b., isn’t my editor on this new book… she’s great, too), but to readers who find the term… something other than and less than writerly.
You know story physics by other names. Dramatic tension. Pace. The mystery and intrigue and thrills and emotional resonance of reading a great novel or seeing a powerful film.
Of course they’re there. It’s the point of writing a story, right?
But here’s the hypothesis upon which I’ve based the new book, along with the delivery of a greatly expanded roster and definition of the unavoidable forces that will make your story work, or not: they can be harnessed.
And for that to happen, you need to understand them thoroughly, not so much as the consequences of the creative choices you make, but as the pre-determinants of the effectiveness of those choices. You need to know how and where and when to plug them into the stories you write.
Left on their own without your oversight, without your very conscious touch, story physics become a consequence of what you’ve assembled on the page. They are the sum of your story premise and the skill with which you’ve rendered it.
Which is precisely why some stories work better than others. Story physics, like gravity, are always in play, both at the story development stage and at the story impact/effectiveness stage. There’s no getting around it on either side of that.
You ignore story physics — leaving them to the aforementioned sum of the parts — at your peril. Or, you can manage them. Optimize them.
Can you truly say that in your last story, every single decision you made along the way was the best possible dramatic and expository choice available to you in that moment of creation?
If you can, then either your name is David Baldacci or you are kidding yourself. Perhaps without even realizing it.
The Connection Between Core Competencies and Story Physics
My first writing book introduced six core competencies that every writer needs to address in the construction and execution of a story. Like the story physics that energize them, to not address them, or even acknowledge them, is to leave them to chance… because they are present regardless of the writer’s awareness.
You can either fall out of an airplane without a parachute, hoping you land in a pile of feathers next to a barn… or you can use a parachute. Both are completely governed by the physics of the moment. It is the same with the stories we write. We get to choose.
The six core competencies are tools. And like any tool, they are a matter of degree when applied.
The force — the power, the compelling energy — driving each of those six core competencies is one or more of the six realms of story physics. This is a different six-some altogether, as different to a story as strength and eye-hand coordination are to an athlete. One empowers — in this case, literally fuels — the other.
You swing the hammer hard or you swing it softly. You select low or high. You press down or you use a light touch. Each choice defines the power and effectiveness of the tool, which must be matched to the degree of power and touch appropriate to the task.
There is the tool… and there is how the tool is applied.
Again, just like in our stories.
Story physics are the natural literary forces behind the creative choices you make (the application of the tools, as represented by those six core competencies) during story development and execution. What goes where, and why.
These six realms of story physics are always in play, for better or worse: compelling premise… dramatic tension… pace… hero empathy (emotional resonance)… vicarious experience… and narrative strategy.
Optimize them and the story works. Under-cook any of them and the story suffers for it. It’s that simple.
“Story Physics” (the book) closely examines each, and juxtaposes them against the six core competencies (tools) that rely on them to work. With a deep dive into two bestselling examples that harness all twelves of these forces and tools with exquisite effectiveness.
Whether this sounds like entry level stuff to you, or the magic that awaits behind the curtain of the grand illusion of storytelling, they remain the supreme qualitative factors and forces in your stories… always.
I’ll be writing more about each realm of story physics over the summer, and connecting them to the specific core competencies they empower.
Until then, consider this:
Which is the more powerful and compelling premise: a love story between two kids growing up on farm during the depression… or a love story between a black depression-era farmhand and the white daughter of the land baron who killed the boy’s mother after raping her?
The difference is story physics, pure and simple. Not just at the conceptual/premise level, but on every page in the manuscript.
Prepare to go to the next level.
Read an recent interview on this topic at Writing That Changes You.