Thursday 12 October 2017

What Writers Can Learn From Science - Claire Fayers

I’m excited to be writing my first guest post for ABBA today. Thank you for having me.
I don’t know how many of you saw the recent article by Meg Rosoff in the Guardian. What Richard Dawkins could learn from Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which she laments the division between imagination and science.

I read the article on holiday in France, coincidentally on the same day I visited Leonardo da Vinci’s house in Amboise.

The whole place is quite fascinating to look around, with a reconstruction of da Vinci’s studio and giant models of some of his most famous inventions scattered around the garden to play with.

Leonardo's revolving tank

With Meg Rosoff’s words in my head, I was struck more forcefully than ever that there never used to be a division between science and the arts. On the contrary, the two fed into each other as people pursued knowledge across the disciplines. The astronomer Caroline Herschel studied maths and music. Humphrey Davy, inventor of the safety lamp, wrote poetry.

Maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, science and stories often begin with the same question. What if? What if I could measure the wind? What if people could fly? What if a boy found out he was really a wizard?

Human curiosity is a powerful thing, driving us to build flying machines, to measure the world around us, to paint and write and create music.

Leonardo's flying machine

And if the first germ of an idea starts with ‘what if’, every story begins with Newton’s first law of motion:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Or, as I like to put it: A moving object will continue in a straight line until something happens to knock it off its course. Some say this is also true of stories. (The Accidental Pirates, book 1)

Everyone talks about the Inciting Incident, the moment when your character’s life goes dramatically off course. What force are you applying to knock them out of their everyday routine and into the new path of the story?

Then you have the second law of thermodynamics: 

In a closed system disorder (entropy) increases over time. 

I don’t pretend to understand what this means in real terms, but in the closed system of your book does your character face increasing disorder? Do things become progressively worse, the challenges harder, the plot twists more unexpected until you reach the end?

And, finally, Newton’s third law of motion, which, thankfully is much more straightforward: 

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Stories are all about action and reaction. But sometimes I fall into the trap of letting my characters react to everything rather than driving the story by their own actions. It’s helpful to pause every so often and ask whether I’ve got the right balace of action and reaction.

I love how stories follow the laws of physics. It seems to me that there is something logical about the art of storytelling and that the best stories reflect how the world works on many levels.

What’s driving your curiosity at the moment?

Testing Leonardo's helicopter design

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, combining science, magic and adventures on the high seas.


Pippa Goodhart said...

So true! Thank you, Claire.

Sue Purkiss said...

I love Da Vinci's house at Amboise! Very interesting piece. My forthcoming book is set at the end of the 18th century, and that was one of the things that struck me about that time - that artists and scientists MIXED and sparked each other off. There's a very good book by Richard Holmes called The Age of Wonder about that period.