So what are “Story Physics,” anyhow?

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?

Perhaps.

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.

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Story Physics is available now on Amazon.com, and will be released in Kindle, Nook and other digital formats in mid-June; it will be available in bookstores (remember bookstores?) then, as well.

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Read an recent interview on this topic at Writing That Changes You.

 

16 Comments

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16 Responses to So what are “Story Physics,” anyhow?

  1. Matt Duray

    My copy is in the post somewhere, making its way to me. Can’t wait to read it.

  2. Kindle for me. Great insight as usualy, Larry. I’ve read a few books that seemed to master the basic elements of the genre, but the “chemistry,” or to use your termonology, “physics” didn’t quite work. I look forward to your new book. Hopefully I’ll have to take to fly-fishing camp later in June. Gotta have something to do during the warm part of the day when the trout are sleeping!

  3. UPS delivered my copy yesterday. I haven’t done more than read the TOC, but the book looks fantastic and I’m eager to get into it. if its half as good as Story Engineering, it’ll be awesome!

  4. You should have explained gravity to that editor who didn’t get it, because without the story physics, the story sinks. Or, at least that’s one way to look at it. Right on, as always, Larry.
    Mindy

  5. Fantastic post, as always! These concepts are so crucial, I’m so surprised that many authors never learn them and never utilize them. Can’t wait to read Story Physics!

  6. Martha

    Oh joy! My copy just came, and it was a late night for me, delving into the wonders that Larry always delivers.
    When I first hear Larry explain his Story Physics at a weekend workshop, I was fascinated but confused. It took a couple more times listening to his very clear and well-delivered presentations to really get it. But once I did, it was like a giant light came on. And as a bright light will do, it showed me things I’d never seen before. It changed my writing life.
    Thanks, Larry, for your brilliance, for your enthusiasm, and for your patience.

  7. Kenneth Fuquay

    Thanks for the insights, Larry. Don’t stop. Your words fall on lots of receptive ears that are hungry for understanding and enlightenment. I have read, read, and re-read Story Engineering, and have begun the same with Story Physics. Keep swinging for the fences!

  8. I have noticed in my own work that people fall into 2 categories in their perspective on life:

    1. Life is something that happens to you
    2. Life is something you make happen

    The folks in the latter group are ALWAYS happier and more productive.

    A solid knowledge of story engineering and story physics lets writers move from group 1 to group 2. I aim to be one of ’em.

  9. Mike Lawrence

    EDITOR: Explain to me how writers use gravity.

    WRITING GURU: It’s an analogy, Bob. We could just as easily call it Story Principles or Story Theory or Story Dynamics. But ‘physics’ is catchy, don’t you think? It’s fresh and different and implies a concrete foundation which can be understood and applied with confidence. People like that.

    EDITOR: You mean like ‘Story Mechanics’? Let’s call it that. It sounds like you’re using a typewriter.

    We see the WRITING GURU tapping the back of his cell phone against his forehead.

    WRITING GURU: Well, that would be more of a book about sentence structure and grammar.

    EDITOR: But some writers still use typewriters, don’t they?

    WRITING GURU (Sweating): Um, how about ‘Story Engineering’?

    EDITOR: (laughing) Gee whiz, Larry, we’re not *building* a typewriter.

    WRITING GURU (trembling): Er, um… what was your first thought on the title?

    EDITOR: Hold on, let me find it. I wrote it down here somewhere. (beat) Ah, ‘The Six Core Competencies of Writing Fiction’.

    We see the WRITING GURU’s face and then flash to him smashing his cell phone with a typewriter.

    WRITING GURU: Hey, that sounds great!

  10. Sara Davies

    Story Physics & Story Engineering are two great titles that encapsulate the content.

    You could call the next one “Story Architecture.”

    I’d like to see a book about a novel built from the ground up according to the outline equivalent of construction drawings and specifications. The missing ingredient out there in the world of writing books is process. Everyone has one, or nothing would get written. Share yours.

  11. Robert Jones

    SP is amazing. Really adds to SE. It expands, plus adds a whole new layer.

    I think Sara has a good idea, either for a future book, or post. With Larry’s books being re-released, it might make for an interesting series to deconstruct one of them, giving both insights into the process, and highlighting the story physics. Promote both SP and the re-released novel because now we’ll need to buy both to read and examine fully.

  12. Anthony

    Larry,

    Please, please do an analysis of Man Of Steel.

    I saw it tonight in a radio-promoted prescreening, and I’m wondering if I was just confused or if it actually took half the movie to reach a First Plot Point.

    I feel like this movie will be a good example of what happens when writers ignore story physics. Lovin’ the new book, by the way. Should have it finished by tomorrow.

    Thanks for what you do!

  13. Robert Jones

    @Anthony–I’m betting the FPP was something fairly subtle and what you saw was either pinch-point 1, or the mid-point.

    I’m curious how Man of Steel fairs on the whole, but will probably not waste my time and money–in spite of better people being involved in this one. And if I never see another Lex Luthor vain enough to wear a toupee, it’ll be only too soon. Plus come on…Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey may be fine actors, but Lex Luthor they ain’t. Based on past massacres (in spite of a certain fondness for both Christopher Reeve as an actor, and Superman II on the whole), I can wait for cable, or Netflix this time around.

  14. Lee

    I just ordered a copy of your new book, Larry, and I can hardly wait to get it in my hot little hands! Getting ready for the July session of Camp NaNoWriMo and you’re a big part of that preparation. Well, your books are. And your site. Ad your comments. Ok, then, YOU are a big part of my prep and all my writing now. Thank you for all you do, Larry. Bless you! 🙂

  15. Anthony

    Robert, you are exactly right.

    After racking my brain, I think I figured out where the actual first plot point occurred. I was looking in the wrong plot thread. I think I can share my current theory without spoiling anything: the primary thread centered on Lois’ quest, not necessarily Clark’s. I still didn’t feel the stakes adequately in place when this occurred, and this contributed to my confusion.

  16. Robert Jones

    @Anthony–it sounds a bit different, coming from The quest of Lois. Was there anything good to be said for this version? Or was it just another lame Hollywood version of Supes?