Part 3: Action-reaction in fiction as Newton’s Literary Third Law

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…” Newton’s Third Law, thus stated, uses the words action and reaction to refer to the physical forces operating on two interacting objects. These forces exist simultaneously (equal magnitude, opposite direction), as in the image below.

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*** Be forewarned: The writing analogy strays from the simultaneity implicit in Newton’s Third Law. ***

In WriterSpeak (with a little simplification), Newton’s Third Law could be translated as follows: “Every (protagonist) action sparks an opposing (antagonist) reaction.” Conversely, each enemy attack creates some situation to which the hero must respond.

Why? Not necessarily because the antagonist is a bad person (he may not be a person at all), but because he and the hero have clashing goals (e.g., The Fugitive‘s Dr. Richard Kimble vs. Deputy Samuel Gerard).

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Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) professes his innocence and Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) says, “I don’t care.” (But guess what. He cares.)

On a basic level, the central conflict of every novel is founded on this tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some change occurs that invites further response. Plot is, by definition, a sequence of events linked by action and reaction—by cause and effect. (More on that here.)

On a large scale, we can see this basic tug-of-war structure across Star Wars episodes 4 to 6. In A New Hope, the rebels destroy the Death Star. (Hero victory!) But then The Empire Strikes Back. (The hero withdraws to lick his wounds.) Finally, in Return of the Jedi, hero Luke not only overcomes the antagonist (Darth Vader), but also rescues him from the dark side. (Permanent victory! The central conflict is resolved.)

Back and forth like lumberjacks moving a two-person saw, the hero and villain push and pull, perpetually digging in deeper. It’s not always as straightforward as hero vs. villain, but the point is, your hero isn’t working in a vacuum (er—unless you’re writing sci-fi). But even if he is in a literal vacuum, it’s not clear sailing to the finish. He’s dodging space debris where there should be a planet, getting caught in a tractor beam, and being diverted into smelly garbage mashers by a pushy princess (all because he’s coming up against that antagonistic force).

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Motivated by some personal need, the hero presses forward in pursuit of his goal. That goal is what’s driving him forward. But he must meet with opposition or else the story sags. After all, opposition stems from that all-important ingredient of good fiction, which finds its origin in that action-reaction push and pull: Conflict!

What do you think? What are the forces of antagonism in your own story? Do you enjoy a story more when the antagonist is blatant (as in Star Wars and Silence of the Lambs) or when it’s more subtle (as in The Help or Forrest Gump)? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Janice Hardy’s book Understanding Conflict. To enter the “special giveaway” with the option of winning a $25 gift certificate from Better World Books, visit the permalink here and follow the instructions.

Missed the first two? Check them out here: Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation. AND Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s Second Law.

Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation

Let’s start with the basics. What is Newton’s First Law? It could be stated like this: A body at rest stays at rest, and a body in motion carries on in the same speed and direction—unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

In WriterSpeak, we might say that a character “at rest” (or in motion) will remain “at rest” (or in motion) until acted upon by an outside force.

Let’s explore this analogy further…

At the beginning of each story, the main characters are living out their lives. They may not be physically resting (i.e., inactive / external rest). They may not even be at peace with their life (i.e., contented / internal rest). But they’re not yet motivated to stray from their everyday course…

UNTIL an outside force (likely caused—directly or indirectly—by the antagonist) sets off the central conflict that forces the protagonist to change plans. The initial force permanently alters the hero’s course and initiates his mission against the enemy.

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But what does that mean?

Outside Force

The phrase “outside force” speaks of the external nature of the dilemma. This isn’t mere angst over some long-standing issue, but rather an unexpected plot event that presents a new challenge. The outside force is also important in terms of cause & effect. That is to say, realistic characters won’t drastically change course without good reason. The hero only acts in response to the proper motivation.

For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke discovers a secret SOS in a droid his uncle recently purchased. After Old Ben thwarts the sand people’s attack, Luke mentions the message—then declines when Ben invites him on his quest. Why?

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Because Luke is not yet motivated enough to go to Alderaan. He has plans in the works he’s not ready to scrap, even if they happen to spring from a sense of obligation toward his uncle. Sure, the plot would’ve been easier to write if Luke had just said,“Sure, why not?” But his motivation throughout the rest of the story would’ve suffered as a result.

The point is this: Luke doesn’t/shouldn’t decide to change his plans on a whim. And so, at this particular point in time, he realistically rejects the journey.

The Journey

Whatever story you’re writing, it’s just about guaranteed to involve some kind of literal or figurative journey—one your hero would rather avoid. We’ve already seen Luke reject his mission. But what finally gets him involved? In generalized terms, why don’t our heroes perpetually turn and run when the going gets tough? Because the outside force imposes a situation he can’t ignore, thereby forcing the choice that propels him on his journey.

The first set of key words here is “he can’t ignore.” Why doesn’t the character just walk away? Because too much is at stake—and not in a purely altruistic way. Whatever it is that’s gotten your hero’s attention, it’s personal. Sure, in the beginning he might’ve said, “It’s not that I like the Empire. I hate it. But there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” But then the antagonist hits him where it hurts and he makes a choice: “There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”

That choice always leads to action and thereby alter’s the hero’s course.

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Examples from Film

Consider the change of course for the characters in each of the movies listed below, and ponder this question: Would the character have made his or her decision if not for the pressure exerted by the “outside force”? Also, see if you can identify the personal stakes for each character (easier for some than others).

EXAMPLE 1: The Hunger Games

Character Status Quo: Go hunting. Feed family. Don’t starve. Outside Force (External Events): Little sister’s name is drawn as tribute for the Hunger Games. Character Decision: Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.

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EXAMPLE 2: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This particular example is complicated by multiple characters, each with their own interacting decisions. It also involves a complex series of forces that thrust the Pevensies on their journey. As such, this particular film is a good example of how the motivational transition that turns apathy into action isn’t always a straightforward singular event.

Character Status Quo: Boredom in the Professor’s mansion. No one expects good from Edmund. Intermediate happenings: During a game of hide and seek, Lucy discovers the wardrobe portal. No one believes her. Edmund follows her in one night and meets the White Witch, who deceives him with flattery. (He thinks that she, unlike his siblings, sees his value.)

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Series of forces and Decisions leading up to the journey: Edmund sends a ball through the upstairs window. Mrs. Macready’s offstage shrieks send the Pevensies running for the wardrobe. The two elder Pevensies are wowed by the snowy world within, and Peter—after calling Edmund out for lying—apologizes to Lucy by indulging her desires to visit Mr. Tumnus. There they learn the White Witch has captured Mr. Tumnus. Though Lucy is personally invested in what happened to Mr. Tumnus, Peter is not. He’s preparing to get his family safely back through the wardrobe when Mr. Beaver shows up. Warned about the trees, they reluctantly follow Mr. Beaver back to his house where he and the missus explain the perpetual winter and the prophecy.

Note: If the external forces had stopped here, the Pevensies would’ve had no reason to stay in Narina. They’ve learned about the prophecy, but they have no personal motivation to help fulfill it… Until…

Character Decision: Edmund—motivated by Turkish Delight and his underlying need for approval—sneaks away to see the White Witch. His decision serves as the Outside Force that shoves his siblings on their journey to find Aslan and thereby save Edmund’s life (Decision).

EXAMPLE 3: The Lord of the Rings

Character Status Quo: Enjoying a simple life in the Shire. Avoiding adventure. Outside Force (External Events): Frodo inherits the ring of power and Ring Wraiths are headed their way. Character Decision: Deliver the ring to Rivendale in the hopes of dumping the dreaded relic on the elves.

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EXAMPLE 4: Star Wars: A New Hope

Character Status Quo: Working for his Uncle. Apathy regarding the Empire. Outside Force (External Events): By chance, Luke’s uncle purchases the very droids the Empire is seeking, Luke discovers Leia’s hidden message, and his Aunt and Uncle are murdered. Character Decision: Go with Obi-wan, learn the ways of the force, “and become a Jedi like my father” (but not too much like his father, we hope).

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Final Thoughts

So, a heroine at rest tends to stay at rest—indulging the same old habits and plodding along in the same direction as before—until derailed by an outside force. That force is external, personal to the protagonist, and eventually leads to the key decision that cements her new course.

What do you think? In your own WIP, what external force of change begins your hero’s journey? What about the protagonist in your favorite novel? Can you think of any stories that don’t meet these qualifications? For a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel, simply join the discussion below (and drop your email here for the draw.)

Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s second law.

Cause & Effect in Fiction

Almost everything in a story is the effect to some earlier cause. Indeed, in all of life, this same principle holds true.

You exist. Why? Because your parents…got a visit from the stork. Your eyes are brown. Why? Genetics. Normally you arrive early to work, but today you’re late? Why? Because the alarm didn’t go off because a storm hit last night while you were sleeping and killed the power. mikado-1013877_1280-cause-and-effect4

Your personality may be completely different from that of your parents, but your ingrained traits are, in themselves, the cause for a whole host of other effects. Like the career you choose. The friends you keep. Why you react a certain way in response to some external stimulus. All these things, too, are affected by your life experience. (Human beings are complex.)

Even a glimpse into the universe points to a chain reaction of cause and effect. Light from distant galaxies is red shifted. Why? Because light is composed of waves. Because the wavelength determines the color observed. And because—if the source of light (e.g., star) is moving with respect to the observer—the waves will (seem to) be squished or stretched out depending on whether the star is getting closer or moving farther away. But why is there a red shift? The universe is expanding. Why? The Big Bang set it all in motion.

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From these examples, we can recognize a few different elements of fiction that are guided by cause and effect.

(1) Governments, technologies, physical laws, and rules of magic

Just as the physical universe is governed by certain laws, so too whatever world your particular characters happen to inhabit must be governed by consistent laws. If your novel involves magical creatures, don’t change their abilities as the story progresses. If you’ve imagined a futuristic technology, make sure you’ve clearly defined its capabilities, then stick to them. If your story hinges on the mystery of what your magical creatures (or technologies) can do, don’t fret. Just be aware that readers need something logical they can grab onto until the newest revelation occurs.

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(2) Personality constraints

Plot is a complex interplay between external events and character decisions (i.e., actions). Perhaps your plot is begging you to take the story in a particular direction… But if that change requires your protagonist (or antagonist) to behave in uncharacteristic ways, you’re better off considering other options.

The bottom line here is that characters must be consistent. If they do change (as we expect), their behavior should shift gradually… and only because the plot has taught them a lesson. In other words, don’t let your protagonist act uncharacteristically confrontational (or whatever) just because it heightens the drama.

(3) External action and consequence

From the smallest fragment of a scene to the broad expanse of character arc and plot, cause and effect permeates good fiction.

The central conflict of every novel, for example, is founded on the tug-of-war interaction between a hero and his opposition. The antagonist acts (cause). The hero reacts (effect). For every action taken, some consequence (i.e., conflict) ensues. Plot is, by its very definition, a sequence of events linked by cause and effect.

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Cause and Effect Mind Map. You can think of “Character 1” (teal) as the hero and “Character 2” (red) as the antagonist. Or you can think of them as hero and heroine. Interaction takes place where teal and red meet. Note that the color of the box designates the character to which that particular “property” applies. For example, Character 1’s wound may lead him or her to keep secrets, which in turn may result in Character 2’s misguided action (since they’re acting on wrong beliefs). The purple boxes represent external events that could affect either character. And, yes, this is terribly nerdy, but it was fun to contemplate. (Get a closer look here.)

On a smaller scale, characters are always interacting with the world around them. Although character personalities will differ, their response to any given external stimulus always follows a predictable sequence, as outlined by Swain:

  • Automatic Physiological/Visceral Feeling (e.g., a rush of adrenaline)
  • Reflex/Jerk Reactions (e.g., screaming, jumping in fear, lashing out on instinct)
  • Rational thoughts, speech, and actions

For example, you’re leading a friend through a peaceful forest when all of a sudden the tickling stickiness of a web envelops your face and the creeping crawl of eight tiny legs works its way up your neck. You may not demonstrate each of the reactions in the sequence above. But if you do, they ought to occur in the following order:

First, your heart launches into your throat (physiological reaction). Then, you emit a high-pitched screech as you frantically claw at your neck and face (jerk reaction). Finally, as soon as you’re safely spider-free, you turn to your gawking companion, blush, and sheepishly explain what just happened (rational speech).

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Any change in the order will likely come across to readers as being unrealistic. (For example: You turn to your friend. “I just ran into a spider web. Man, I hate spiders. They totally freak me out. In fact, I can feel one crawling up my neck this very instant. Hang on a sec.” Then you shriek and frantically flick the offending arachnid as your heart slams against your ribcage.)

Cause and effect is important enough I’m sure we’ll discuss it again eventually. But for now… What do you think? Is everything in a story the effect to some earlier cause? Are there blatant exceptions to that rule? Join the discussion below for a chance to win a 2500-word critique.