Do you remember executive balls? No, I mean Newton’s Cradle, the desktop toy that consists of five steel balls suspended in a cradle. The steels balls are hung like playground swings but with all five touching each other when at rest.
Click-clack. When you lift one of the outside balls and let it fall, it transfers its energy through the intermediate three balls, which do not move. The outside ball on the other end, however, swings upward almost exactly as high as you lifted the steel ball on the other end.
In physics terms, the kinetic energy of the first outside ball is transferred through compression of the intermediate balls. It’s a shock wave. Energy is lost through the generation of heat, a loss minimized because the balls are made of cold steel. Newton’s law of motion (F = ma) is thus neatly demonstrated.
Newton has something to teach novelists. His law of motion says that when one object is in motion it will continue in motion unless acted upon by another force (first law). The acceleration of the object is proportional to the force acting on it, and inversely proportional to its mass (second law). When the object in motion strikes another object, the other object exerts a force equal to and opposite from the first object’s force (third law).
You can immediately spot the implications for fiction craft, right? Set your protagonist in motion and he’ll keep going until he hits an obstacle. What happens at that point depends on how urgently your protagonist is motivated (how forcefully he is moving) and the size of the obstacle (its mass). What interests me the most, though, is how Newton’s third law applies.
When your protagonist slams into someone else, that other person will either be unmoved, will sway, will topple over or—possibly—will be flattened as your protagonist plows over him. It depends on the size, trajectory and speed of the other character. The point is, your moving protagonist will always exert a force on others, and vice versa. Characters, in a way, carom off each other like snooker balls on the velvet surface of your story.
Think about it. Other characters will always affect your protagonist, slowing him not at all, or a little, or quite a bit or even stop him dead. Put differently, other characters will change your protagonist’s trajectory but—and here’s the main point—your protagonist will also force a change upon those he encounters.
Here then is our application of Newton’s law: Protagonists and other characters will always change each other. They must. Newton says so, and who’s going to argue with him? Now, how do we apply this to our manuscripts? Here are some suggestions.
- Look at your current scene. Who are the two principle actors, and how are they at odds? Who wins, who loses? Go deeper. Win or lose, how is your POV character changed inside in this scene? Get that down in words.
- Look at your protagonist’s overall arc of change. List the major encounters your protagonist has with other characters in the course of the story. Now, chart out how each encounter enacts a dimension of your protagonist’s overall arc; that is, how each scene with another character becomes another step in that journey.
- Pick three of those other characters. Write down how each one is changed, in turn, by encountering your protagonist. Work out a consequence for each. What happens because they are changed? Better still, work out one thing that each of those other characters will do as a result.
- What is one unexpected result of your protagonist’s overall journey? How does it ripple outward in the pond, affecting many? Show that.
Newton’s law is a law because it’s true all the time. Is it true in your manuscript? If not, better get back to work because—accept it—you can’t win against Mother Nature. In story terms, you ignore Isaac Newton at your own peril.
How is your protagonist changing others, and how are others changing your protagonist?