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What We Can Learn from Newton’s Third Law

vicki hinze, on writing

Written by Vicki Hinze

On June 12, 2014

Social N Article being added to the Writer’s Library

vicki hinze, newtons 3rd law, writing, conflict, character, villains



Vicki Hinze




What is Newton’s third law and why does it matter to us?  Simply put it’s the law of action and reaction.  You know the one I mean.  Every action causes a reaction.  That’s a propeller in collisions, and that made me wonder:  What about non-physical collisions, as in conflict between characters?  Would the law apply there also, and if it does, then how does it impact us in writing?  In life, in our everyday relationships?


Since conflict is the spine of the book upon which everything rests, and since our personal and professional relationships can be constructive or destructive and keep us sane or drive us crazy, it’s worth trying to figure out.  The better we understand something, the better we are at manipulating it in fiction, depicting realism, and the better we are at understanding and coping in real life.


In novels, conflict is often created when two characters want something.  The more they want it (the higher the stakes), and the more someone else doesn’t want them to have it, the more tension there is between the characters.  So, like in the physical world, each character has a position.  Opposite positions to each other.  (Why?  On the same side in the same conflict, there is no conflict.  They’re in agreement.  So they must oppose to have conflict.)


Now the two collide.  One fights at the top of his lungs and with all he has for something, and the other fights at the top of his lungs and with all he has against that something.  Polar opposites.  Who wins?


You might think the winner will be the one with the strongest position.  But what if both positions are equally strong? Equally motivated, equally sound from the character’s perspective (even if the character’s psychotic, he’s going to see himself as logical, reasonable, and just), and equally capable of defending or attacking the opponent.  Why does that matter?


In life (and books), we know exactly what to expect from someone who is pure evil.  Their worst.  There’s no doubt, no uncertainty and no tension.  That makes for a really weak villain or opponent.  It is when both are bright, capable, well able—when they are matched on all possible fronts that the outcome is uncertain.  That’s maximum tension, maximum conflict, but what then determines who wins the conflict?


In Newton’s law on action and reaction, they exert equal and opposite force.  In other words, both sides give as good as they get.  So it isn’t force that determines the outcome of these two interacting individuals.  It’s mass.


Mass?  Huh?  Think about it this way.  Both guys are the same size—their mass is equal.  If one were bigger, heavier, he wouldn’t accelerate or move at the same speed. Wouldn’t react at the same speed.  Newton is referencing mass in the physical realm.  But let’s take it to a non-physical realm.


  • Guy #1 and Guy #2 are equally smart, skilled, and able to defend or attack.
  • Guy #1 and Guy #2 are opposing forces.  One is Pro, one is Against something (worthy of a hero/heroine).
  • Guy #1 is Pro.  Guy #2 is Against.

The two collide.


But they’re equal, and it’s a draw—until Mass enters the equation.  Guy #1 stands alone.  Guy #2 stands with a group.  The group is mass, and the largest mass wins.


What if there is no group?  Could ideals, motivations, emotions generate mass?  If Guy #1, standing alone, wants to win more, he’ll go that extra mile.  If he is deeply emotionally engaged, unwavering in his necessity to win; if he wants it most, does that add mass?


I believe it does.  Remember those grandmas and moms who lift cars to unpin their kids trapped beneath?  The intangible resulted in greater mass of ability.


In relationships, we see a multitude of conflicts and in each of them, when viewed though the prism of Newton’s law of Action-Reaction, we see how the laws governing the physical world replicate in the emotional and spiritual worlds.  That’s reasonable and logical, of course.  But most don’t think in these terms when interacting with others or when crafting characters.  Maybe we should.


Remember the bug and the windshield.  Definitely action and reaction.  Definitely opposing forces colliding.  The force of the collision is equal.  But the bug is smaller, less dense than the bus or its windshield.  Common sense tells us the bug is going to lose, and it does.  Every time. Why?  Mass matters.


In relationships, mass would be personal traits.  Things that motivate.  Things deemed important to the individuals.  Understand what motivates an ally or opponent—a family member or friend—and you’ll better understand how to interact with them. How to attack or defend in novel conflicts.


In characters, think goals, motivations and conflicts.  All should be connected in your story and be challenged in the story events.  Think internal as well as external conflicts.  They should mirror, or echo each other.  This is how an ordinary person exhibits acts of heroism/cowardice, love/hate, and all in between.


Remember that every action causes a reaction—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and recognizing it (in your life) and incorporating it (in your stories) adds depth and texture and layers that are peppered with tons of intangible benefits.  That’s a huge lesson in Newton’s Law.



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© 2014, Vicki Hinze. Hinze is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest release is Down and Dead in Dixie. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s online community: Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact.

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