- An object at rest remains at rest, or if moving remains moving in a straight line if no external forces act upon it.
- If an external force is applied, the object’s motion will change in either magnitude or direction, and the rate of change of the motion (its acceleration) when multiplied by the object’s mass is equal to the applied force.
- For every force applied to an object there is an equal and opposite force exerted back by the object (24-25).
Let’s apply these laws of motion to the horror story plot (or, for that matter, any other type of plot).
According to Gustav Freytag, an incident in the story’s plot sets everything that follows it into motion. This incident, called the inciting moment, is like a spark that starts a fire or, in terms of Newton’s laws of motion, it is the external force that changes the plot-as-object’s motion, causing it to take a new direction. Were it not for the inciting moment, the plot would continue forward, in a straight line, so to speak, rather than changing direction as it begins its upward climb which commences what Freytag calls the plot’s rising action.
The third law of motion is also useful as a means of envisioning what writers, literary critics, and readers call conflict, for it is the “force applied” by the protagonist to the antagonist, or “object,” countered by the “equal and opposite force exerted back” by the antagonist that balances the story’s action (at least until the turning point, a second inciting moment of sorts, which intervenes to set the plot off in a new, downward direction, as it were, Freytag’s falling action.
As Kakalios points out, the second law of motion (“If an external force is applied, the object’s motion will change in either magnitude or direction, and the rate of change of the motion (its acceleration) when multiplied by the object’s mass is equal to the applied force”) can be represented by the mathematical formula F = ma, wherein F = force, m = mass, and a = acceleration (25). (Acceleration differs from velocity, Kakalios reminds his readers. The former refers to the change in speed over time, whereas the latter refers to the change in speed over distance .) Mass is simply a measure of how many atoms make up an object. A piece of plastic is made up of relatively few atoms, whereas lead is comprised of many more atoms, packed, as it were, in an equal amount of space. The more atoms-per-space (mass) and the greater the rate of acceleration, the more force results. In terms of story plotting, we mentally replace atoms with narrative incidents (or, in description, perhaps with action verbs and shorter sentences). The more incidents, action verbs, and sentences we “pack” into a passage, the greater its force, or narrative effect, upon the reader. It seems that Edgar Allan Poe has something similar to this concept, minus the physical laws of motion, in mind, when he argues, in “The Philosophy of Composition,” that a shorter story, especially one that can be read in “a single sitting,” without interruption, has a greater effect upon its readers than a longer story which is, in effect, simply a series of shorter stories told successively and related to one another through cause and effect. To make a story more horrifying, speed up the action (writing action verb-packed short sentences in a rapid-fire series of narrative incidents); to slow the pace and the story’s effect (horror), slow down the same process.
It seems that, understood figuratively, Newton’s laws of motion apply to plotting horror fiction (and other literary genres) as much as they do to physical and mechanical motion.
Kakalios, James. The Physics of Superheroes. New York: Gotham Books, 2005.