John Ostrander’s Writing Class: Newton’s First Law of Plot

Young_Bilbo_BagginsStory reveals character through action – the plot. There are two primary ways that the plot works: 1) the protagonist initiates the action or 2) the protagonist is thrust into a situation and the plot reveals what happens. In each case, the character’s defenses are stripped away as we get down to who they really are – not who they (or anyone else) think they are. What is important is not what the character says (or anybody else says about them); it’s what they do. It’s what they choose to do. Their choices define them.

How do we determine what a given character will do in any given situation? It depends on their motivation. It’s not simply what they want; it’s what they need. It’s not just what they desire; it‘s what they lust for. I may want a pizza, but that’s not strong enough a motivation to drive a story. It may not drive me; I have to get into the car and go pick it up. Or, worse, make my own. How much do I really want that pizza? Maybe it comes down to how good that pizza is. I’d probably go a long way for a deep dish pizza. Mmmmmm. Deep dish pizza! Where was I?

We want something that will drive a character to action and that’s not always easy. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts upon it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. That’s true in a narrative as well. Maybe we’ll call it Newton’s first law of plot.

We all have a certain amount of inertia especially as we grow older. Change can be difficult. We have routine and that can be comforting. However, as Samuel Beckett noted in Waiting For Godot, “Habit can be a great deadener.” In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is apparently satisfied with his life – his home, his books, his tea, regular meals, and handkerchiefs. Then one day a wizard and a whole mess of dwarves invade his sanctum and, before he knows it, he finds himself running down a road, off on an adventure, forgetting his handkerchief.

Why? Because something has been stirred in his soul, the desire to see far off lands, to meet elves, to do the things he has read about in his books. It speaks to a side of him that he has not often indulged.

Bilbo wants to keep his life just as it is but he also wants to have an adventure. It’s not that he wants only the one thing. Like all of us, he has more than one desire and all are important to him. It is the decision that informs us about his character and, not coincidently, drives the story forward. It is the necessary decision for us but not the only one Bilbo could have made. The more difficult the choice, the more interesting the decision and the more it tells us about who this person is.

We rarely want one thing at a time and we often have to sort out conflicting wants and needs. The choices we make define us. As with us, so with the characters we write. What’s true in life should be true in our writing. If you want to write an interesting, and complex character, give them conflicting choices with no easy answers.

That’s the job.