The Physics of Story Telling

last updated: 24 October 2018 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 831 words)

Every story is made up of characters. Every character behaves according to certain basic laws.

Sir Isaac Newton was an English mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who is reputed to have formulated his theory of gravity while watching the fall of an apple.

In 1687 he published his Principia Mathematica which set out his laws of motion. While these laws may be old and may have originated from scientific research, they apply equally to storytelling.

Newton’s Laws of Motion

Let’s look at the three laws.

First Law:

An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon.

Second Law:

The force on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration of the object.

Third Law:

When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Newton’s Laws and Stories

So how do these laws of motion apply to fiction?

Newton’s laws are about bodies and fiction has bodies—we just call them characters. One character will “act upon” another character and there will be consequences.

There are catalysts and forces—these are, in essence, stuff that happens. These are the events that occur for a character—a conversation, a threat, an attack, a death, and so on. These events drive one character’s actions which in consequence lead to the next character’s reaction.

Let’s look again at Newton’s laws, but this time in terms of humanity and story

First Law of Fiction:

A person either remains in their present situation or continues to progress with their life at the same rate unless something happens to change that.

If there is no outside influence, a person remains at rest or in motion. To put this in more human terms: a person does not change how they are living their life without an external catalyst.

Looked at in another way, if there is no cause, then there is no effect. So for a story, there must be an initial spark that ignites the action.

Second Law of Fiction:

The impact of an external catalyst is equal to the seriousness of that external force multiplied by the speed with which the character has to react to the change brought about by the external event.

In other words, when there is an event which brings about a change in a character’s life:

  • The more extreme the external catalyst, the greater the effect will be for the character (for instance, a murder will have more impact than an insult).
  • The less time the character has to respond to the external impetus, the greater the impact of the event will be for the character.

Third Law of Fiction:

When one person exerts a force on a second person, the second person simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first person.

This law is more frequently expressed as: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For people, this law can be summed up more succinctly: every action has a reaction. Every action leads to consequences.

The Emotional Component

Of course there are differences between objects colliding and how humans react. The prime differences are governed by emotion and choices.

If a billiard ball knocks against another, then Newton’s laws tell us how the two react. If one human knocks off another, then the precise nature of the response will be controlled by emotion and choices. To be clear, there will be a reaction, but unlike with billiard balls, that reaction cannot be so readily predicted, and nor can the timing of the reaction be predicted.

However, it is implausible that an action will not to lead to a reaction. That reaction may be a choice not to act, but the choice not to act is still a reaction.

Intent v Actuality

When looking to the physics of a story, it’s important to look past the intention and to consider what actually happens.

When someone reacts, as a general rule they react to what happened to them. In the first instance, usually all a character can know is what happened.

It doesn’t matter whether the action was intended or was a mistake. It doesn’t matter whether the person initiating the action was culpable or whether the action was an honest mistake. All that there is, is the action—and that action is what leads to the reaction.

That said, there are times when intention matters. For instance, if a character finds that someone intended to kill them, but failed, then that character is likely to act on the intent. The character may run or may seek out the would-be assassin—whatever the course, the intent will be significant in certain situations.

Newton the Storyteller

Newton may not have intended to explain how people act and react, but when he laid down his principles in the seventeenth century, Sir Isaac explained a lot about humanity and how fiction works.

Filed under

Category: story
People: Issac Newton  
Tags: character   physics   laws of motion