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.

OJ_action-reactionSS

*** 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 2: How a character’s internal change mirrors Newton’s Second Law

A brief recap

Last time, we talked about the external events surrounding our hero’s humble beginnings. Rather than starting out heroic, he or she tries to avoid the journey set before them.

  • During the reaping for The Hunger Games, the last thing Katniss wants is to volunteer to be a tribute.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s first reaction to Gandalf’s news about the ring is to give it away (to reject the journey).
  • Luke, too, in Star Wars: A New Hope, makes excuses for why he can’t go with Obi-wan.

They’re not looking for adventure, but their outward circumstances change in a way they can’t ignore. Outside force. Outward circumstances. Protagonist decisions leading to action. All these things fall within the realm of the plot—the physical journey: External changes. But the “outside force” triggers internal changes as well…

just like the debris expelled from Earth’s surface into orbit during the creation of the moon… (*WARNING: TANGENT ALERT!*)

Earth-Moon-vertical

Okay, so maybe an Earth particle blasted into space by a meteor doesn’t make for a great character…

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But, I digress…

Internal Change (the realm of character arc)

In the first chapter, our protagonists are likely to be stuck in a rut—internally at least. They believe some lie, or they’re haunted by their past, or they’re hampered by besetting flaws that prevent them from fulfilling their dreams. Or maybe they’re hampered by a flaw because they believe a lie that was first stamped into their brains during some past traumatic event (i.e., their ghost or wound). The point is, most characters need to change (internally), but they can’t do it on their own.

Then along comes the “outside force” (e.g., meteor), and soon thereafter the protagonist’s decision launches him on a journey that takes the rest of the book to complete. Like the initial “outside force” that first sets your protagonist in motion, new external circumstances and events (all related to the central conflict) present new challenges for your hero to overcome. During the course of the journey, he struggles against various obstacles that force him to address his inner issues until he emerges, a changed man.

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But how does all this relate to Newton’s second law?

F = ma, a = F/m

Newton’s Second Law is most familiar to people when it’s expressed as a formula. Force equals mass times acceleration

With a little rearrangement, this becomes: acceleration equals force divided by mass. In other words, there are two variables responsible for changes in the acceleration of a body: The Force (may it be with you) and the mass:

(1) Variations in the Force (↑F, ↑a … ↓F, ↓a)

In physical terms, the rate of change in velocity—i.e., acceleration—of a particular body is proportional to the total force acting on that body. Imagine shoving a shopping cart with a big vs. little oomph. (These are technical terms here, so you might want to jot some notes.) Obviously, the bigger oomph produces the greater acceleration.

In WriterSpeak, a character’s overall internal change will be proportional to the magnitude of difficulties he or she must overcome. In other words, the greater the forces acting on a character, the more he or she changes.

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(2) Variations in the Mass (↑m, ↓a … ↓m, ↑a)

In physical terms, the greater the mass on which a given total force acts, the more sluggish the acceleration. That is to say, your shopping cart is harder to push once filled.

In WriterSpeak, the more sluggish or stubborn the character, the greater the forces needed to bring about a given change. In other words, more challenging trials will be required to reform Jack the Ripper than to convince Elizabeth Bennet to marry Mr. Darcy.

So, Newton’s second literary law speaks to the magnitude of a character’s internal change (or arc)…

The bottom line here is that every heroine needs impetus to overcome her issues. The more we want her to change, the more pressure we need to apply in the way of plot hurdles and difficult choices (i.e., internal and external conflict).

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After all, characters are the most stubborn of people. They don’t learn from their mistakes the first time around. They aren’t self-enlightened individuals who spontaneously decide to become better people overnight. They scoff at their mentors, presuming they themselves know better—until struggle and hardship teach them otherwise. Only after they’ve experienced the full constriction of their flaws can they embrace the idea of change.

How about you? When you recognize flaws in yourself, do you find them easy to overcome? What about your characters? How is the magnitude of their arc proportional to the difficulties they have to face? Leave a comment below (and drop your email here) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or an e-copy of K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs.

Come back next week to peruse the next article in this series: Story Physics, Part 3: Action-Reaction in fiction as Newton’s Literary Third Law. Missed the first one? Check it out here: Part 1: How Newton’s First Law mimics character motivation.

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.

locomotive-derailed-everyday-course-until-outside-force

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.