Thursday, January 28, 2010

Newton's Law And Tension-Building

Have you had your daily dose of physics today?

No, really. I know there are some math-phobes and science-phobes out there. Take a deep breath. You can make it.

Newton's Third Law of Motion can be applied to the art of creating tension in your stories. His Third Law states that:
"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

When it comes to putting together a novel, short story, or other forms of prose, this law should be consistently applied throughout the unfolding plot. Tension is such an important factor to remember as you write. Without tension, the story of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz would just be the tale of a Kansas girl wandering aimlessly down a yellow brick road. Lord of the Rings would be a charming travel monologue.

However, too much tension can be just as detrimental. Lace every moment and every paragraph with tension, and both your characters--and your readers--will be nervous wrecks by the time you're done. Too much tension can also feel overly dramatic.

It is just as bad to start out with a large amount of tension, and then hit a sagging middle, and finally sputtering out completely by the end. It will leave a very nasty taste in a reader's mouth.

The best way to make sure your tension level is correct for the moment and scene, and to ensure that it is slowly building correctly toward a climatic end, apply Newton's Third Law.

Every action has a reaction, to summarize the law. If you introduce a particular fear in a character, ensure that the reaction to being faced with at some point is just as severe as her/his aversion to it. (And they should be faced with it, I might add. Though that's a topic for another post...)

If you have created an action that must be taken, ensure that the reaction to it matches up. Does your character detest, and even hate, the antagonist? Then the "pay-off" at the end, when one character defeats the other, should show a reaction to that hatred.

But, beware of being too dramatic. If you don't build in tension and "actions" that are wound throughout the story, your end "reaction" will fizzle.

Picture our space shuttle.

Little rockets + big shuttle = No liftoff
Big rockets + "small" shuttle = Explosive

Ensure that every action your characters take has a reaction within your narrative, that matches the original action in its intensity.

Some Examples:

Intensity by Dean Koontz [thriller/mainstream]
Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg [science fiction]
Sword-Dancer series by Jennifer Roberson [fantasy]
The Taking by Dean Koontz [speculative fiction.]

(yes, I tributed him twice. The latter one is more subtle with the tension building. And the thriller is less subtle, for obvious reasons)


  1. I agree. I agree. I agree, but...there often is a time and place for (usually the antagonist) to play that trump card when least expected by the protagonist (though perhaps expected by the reader who only has ten pages left in the book).

  2. Hah to the too much tension bit. That's why I only ever read Robert Jordan's first book of Wheel of Time once. (and never went beyond the first) My memory is a bit fuzzy since it's been a few years since I read it, but it felt like the characters, or at least the one group, never caught a break.

    I don't really like when an antag is so totally powerful to thwart the protags so much that they can't rest or think. If you never get a chance to think, how can you make decisions and take actions besides reacting all the time? Even Sauron and his forces could be misdirected, restrained, or even killed despite the amount of power they had.

  3. This is a great way of looking at tension.

    Critical also is understanding readers' expectations and your characters' makeup to keep things interesting. For example, a character may fail to react or react late because of personal issues. If the reader feels like MC should be doing something but they're not, that builds tension also. Of course the reason for the slow/no reaction should make sense.

    Nice post!

  4. Good music. Good friends. Good posts.
    What more could one ask for?

  5. This is pretty cool. I try to find that balance myself! Of course, there's a million different ways to do it!