Writing and the Laws of Motion

A Guest Post by Patti Stafford of The Stafford Scribe

You may be asking yourself how the Laws of Motion can apply to writing. It’s a legitimate question, and a very good one. Hopefully I can shed some light on the matter.

Whether or not you realize it, physics applies to every aspect of life—life is in motion and Newton’s Laws of Motion apply directly to life, the earth, and the universe.

Character arc is basically the character starting from nowhere, no involvement, and through various situations he changes. He must grow in some way. If he remains the same throughout the story—he doesn’t arc. It leaves a very big hole in your story—possibly like the Black Hole in space, but that’s a whole other analogy.

Characters are in motion, just as an object is in motion—let’s say a ball. The ball remains in motion until something happens to change its direction or the force of inertia stops it. In this case we hope it changes direction. If there was no gravity combined with friction to work against an object, the object would stay in motion.

We’re going to apply physics to character arc in a story. Don’t let it scare you—I’m not a physicist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once. I’m a writer and with any luck I can come up with some simple analogies to explain it. You will have to use your imagination just a bit, but being writers, this should be second nature.

So, what can Newton teach us about characters and character arc? Let’s begin, shall we?

Newton’s First Law, also known as the Law of Inertia, states, “A body persists in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.”

It seems pretty clear but I guess it can be confusing without a connection being made. How did I come to make the connection? Well, I live with a musician that applies everything in life to either music or physics. One day as he was explaining something; most likely about bad driver’s who don’t apply physics to their driving or how ballistics are wrong in Hollywood drama; I was trying to pay attention—I really was, but having heard these same conversations several times my brain started thinking how the laws of motion apply to characters—because I’m a writer and I relate almost everything to writing.

A body (the character) persists (and he’s adamant about it) in a state of rest (until we get a hold of him and begin writing his story) or of uniform motion (he’s doing the same old thing, day in, day out) unless acted upon by an external force (the conflict that motivates him to do something different).

If the character remains at rest or in uniform motion we don’t have a story. He’s boring. He needs an external force applied to him that puts him in motion and changes his direction (his arc).

Here’s where we’ll start to use the imagination. If the world was flat, and I mean completely flat like a piece of wood, and our character was a ball (a body/object) it would remain at rest until something (or someone) came along and bumped it.

Once the ball (our character) was set in motion it would remain on its course, in motion, at a constant speed—in a straight line, until an external force acted upon it.

Now, friction is an external force and the friction between the ball and the wood would eventually cause the ball to slow down until it comes to rest. If that same ball were in space without the resistance of friction, it would hurl along, on its course, at the same speed, until something (an external force) caused it to veer off its path.

A character is the same way—he will remain either at rest or on his current course of action (or non-action) until something causes him to change his path—the external conflict.

Newton’s Third Law states, “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

For a moment, I’m going to debunk Hollywood dramatics and then try to explain how this affects our character.

The Hollywood Debunk: In the movies when someone is shot with, let’s say, a 12-guage shotgun, the person being shot is blown 10 feet backwards and often through a wall.

If you’ve ever fired a firearm—of any small caliber—you know this is bull, and Newton’s law explains it—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It breaks down to this; if the person being shot is thrown 10 feet, then the person firing the weapon is also thrown 10 feet (equal) in the other direction (opposite reaction). There, I feel much better.

Watching a movie with a ballistics expert can be quite the experience—you’ll never watch a movie the same way again. They can get away with that in the movies for some reason; novelists can’t. You can bet your sweet feather pen that if you write it wrong, some ballistics expert will read your book, decide you’re an idiot and never pick up another one of your novels.

So how does an equal and opposite reaction affect our character? Well, whatever conflict is applied to him to get his butt in motion—he must (or should) have a reaction that’s pretty equal to the conflict, and opposite of it. If someone is chasing him and trying to kill him, he’s going to run like hell to save his life (equal and opposite). He’s not going to stand there and be killed—he’s going to do the opposite of getting killed; which is trying to stay alive.

When you begin writing your character’s story, up until that point, he’s been at rest (in a sense) or he’s been in the same constant motion—he hasn’t really been doing anything. If he’s lucky, you’re going to pull him out of his boring, sheltered life, make him miserable by causing him conflict and he will react and grow—he will change and come out better in the end. This is his arc; without it, he remains at rest or in an unwavering state of motion and no one cares about him. He has to have external forces and/or a conflict acting upon him that causes him to change course.

Apply Newton’s Laws of Motion to your characters to bring them to life and make them jump off the page—get their butts in motion.

PATTI STAFFORD runs The Stafford Scribe, a Website devoted to the craft of writing, the writer’s life, and inspiring writers to embrace their passion. She is also Course Presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Creative Writing Course, staff writer for BloggingTips.com, and runs the ISSG-International Scribes Support Group.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to Writing and the Laws of Motion

  1. Monica

    Thank you, Patti, for putting a great spin on the character arc, and making things so clear – at least for this former math teacher who’s fascinated by the role of science in our lives. I love how you put the Laws of Motion to work for character! Newton would be proud.

  2. Mary E. Ulrich

    I loved this. Physics is applicable in all parts of life. It is fun to see how this relates to characters, plot and writing.

  3. J.Morgan

    I know just what you mean. Whenever my husband starts talking about politics, something he does often I have to force myself to listen. I tend to get ideas on how to make my characters better while I am doing so. So in the end it turns out to my benifit.

    I love the way you illustrated how physics apply to characters.

    Great post.

  4. Wow, what an interesting point. I never really thought of it that way but now that I’ve read this, I can definitely see applying physics to writing. Thanks for this.

  5. What a great analogy! And a nice, in a nutshell way to remind ourselves as we write.

  6. Great post, Patti. But just to plays devil’s advocate here, at the climax of the novel, shouldn’t the protagonist’s change of circumstances be due to internal forces rather than external ones? The inciting incident that causes the motion can be due to an outside force (and usually is), but the new normal at the end of the novel should result from the protagonist’s actions and choices. The protagonist may take those actions and make those choices in response to the external conflict. But a protagonist who’s merely acted upon generally isn’t substantial enough to support a short story, much less a novel.

  7. And the translation of the 2nd Law of Motion (the net force is equal to the time derivative of the body’s momentum) is: “the more adversity you throw at your character, the more interesting his arc will be”…