Using the Laws of Physics to Keep Your Readers Hooked

An opening hook is great, but it isn’t your whole story. In order to keep the reader interested, you need to keep the action and suspense coming, but without making it seem contrived. There’s not a straightforward solution – but I’ve found that the laws of physics can help quite a bit.

Law 1: Conservation of Energy

In physics, “energy” is the ability to cause change – change in motion, temperature, state of matter, or whatever. Everything has energy, and things transfer energy between each other. In that process energy can change from one form to another, but it doesn’t ever go away. A boulder at the top of a cliff has gravitational potential energy; as it falls the energy becomes kinetic (movement) energy; and when it hits the ground the energy becomes heat and sound.

The energy in your piece should follow the same law. Always keep the energy there, even if it takes different forms. Energy can transform from suspense to action to tension to emotion, but it shouldn’t ever go away.

Even writing that isn’t fast-paced and intense should have energy. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a great example. For most of the book, nothing much actually happens, but the main character Hester Prynne faces a struggle with herself and others as she tries to repent and regain her dignity. It kept me glued to the chair.

I think the key to energy is conflict. There must be something for the characters to struggle against, even if it’s not right in the reader’s face. A good book without conflict is like a universe without energy – it doesn’t exist.

Law 2: Conservation of Momentum

“Momentum” is the tendency of a thing to keep moving. My physics teacher described momentum as the amount of “oomph” a thing has. Like energy, momentum doesn’t go away – it just gets transferred. When a ball moving really quickly smashes into another ball, some of the momentum transfers to the second ball and it starts moving.

Momentum is the product of mass (how much stuff there is) and velocity (a fancy word for speed). The total momentum in things never changes, but the individual mass and velocity can. In the ball example, when one quickly moving ball hits another ball, the mass has increased to two balls, so the velocity goes down a little – neither the second or first ball will be going as fast as the first ball was originally.

Momentum is a thing in writing, too. Think of it as the amount of “oomph” your piece has. Mass is the substance, the stuff readers really care about. Velocity is the pace, the speed at which the writing flows. If you’re not adding substance to your writing, don’t slow down the pace, or your readers will get bored.

And keep in mind that “substance” is not just “stuff” when it comes to writing. Substance is stuff that the reader cares about. If you slow down the action of a gunfight to describe what the sunset looks like, you’d better have a very good reason for doing so.

Law 3: Force

Force is the measure of causes of motion; without force, nothing will ever move. Isaac Newton defined it as the product of mass and acceleration. Force isn’t conserved like energy and momentum are, but it is one of the central focuses of physics, since all motion is caused by some force.

In writing, if mass is your substance (the stuff the reader cares about), then acceleration is the ramping up of tension. If you want to get your writing moving, or have it change direction, you need to accelerate the tension somehow, either by introducing a new conflict or by making the conflict bigger.

Don’t forget that force includes substance, though – you can’t just accelerate tension for no reason. Tension and conflict have to carry meaning, or the reader won’t care about it.

Law 4: For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction

Force isn’t the only thing Isaac Newton came up with. One of his most famous laws is this one, about actions and reactions. What he means is that if a force is applied to any object, there’s an equal force applied back. This is why you can stand up – when you put your foot down on the ground, the ground pushes back on you. Otherwise we’d all fall through the Earth and keep floating forever.

Want to keep your writing dynamic and alive? Pay attention to reactions. For every action you write about, there’s a reaction somewhere. If your characters dance through a village shooting all the inhabitants, you can bet somebody’s going to react. If there are no reactions to events in your story, it will seem flat and meaningless, like the characters are just prancing through a video game.

Even deeper than that, pay attention to the impact your writing has on the reader. While they read they’re going to react to what you write, whether you like it or not. You can harness that by predicting their reactions. If you want a reader not to notice something, but remember it when you pull it out later, slip it in where no one will react to it. If you want a reader to feel tons of emotion when a character dies, you’ll need to spend some time developing that character and making the reader feel attached to them.

Reactions are in opposition to force, and in writing it’s no different. When you accelerate the tension in your story (like we talked about in Law 3), the solution will also accelerate. The more tension, the bigger the solution will seem and the quicker the reader will want it there.

Don’t drag out tension so far that the need for a solution becomes unbearable to the reader (reading that kind of story is just annoying) but don’t end it so quickly that you neglect the reaction. Unless, of course, that’s the reaction you’re going for.

Law 5: Entropy

When I mentioned energy above, I talked about how it transforms from one form to another. As energy transforms, it loses organization. For example, when wood is burned, energy stuck in chemical bonds in the wood is released as heat and dissipates into chaos. Entropy is the measure of this disorganization, and the law of entropy says that disorganization is always increasing. In other words, someday all energy in the universe will end up scattered around as unusable chaos. This is called the heat death of the universe.

For writing, entropy teaches us that all stories must have an end. Every story thread must dissipate into a conclusion. Tension must run out. Conflict must cease. Otherwise, you’ll drive your reader insane. Good writing is not a soap opera; it’s a self-contained story, something that leaves the reader satisfied – thinking, but fulfilled. It’s like a good meal, after which you might sit down and think about how amazing the food was, but you’re full, and you’re done.

And that too concludes this blog post. I hope I’ve given you some ideas on how to keep readers interested in your writing. Thanks for reading!

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