Writing: Why the Laws of Thermodynamics Are Important to Your Story

Even writers of epic fantasy stories need to be grounded in a good understanding of the effects of the three laws of thermodynamics.

In Back to the Future 3, Marty McFly finds himself trapped in the Wild West during the year 1885. His DeLorean time machine has run out of gas, which is a very big problem. Without power, Marty can’t get the car to run at 88 miles per hour—the speed necessary for time travel. The rest of the movie’s plot centers on the quest to find something with enough power to make the DeLorean reach 88 miles per hour. Energy is a key part of this movie, and it should be a key part of the make-believe elements you create.

Power, aka energy, runs the universe. Understanding how energy works is necessary if you want to govern your make-believe elements. When writing speculative fiction keep the Laws of Thermodynamics in mind. (Keep reading. I promise this won’t become a science lecture.) While doing a bit of research, I found a site that explains the laws of thermodynamics in simple way for those of us who aren’t scientists:physlink.com (http://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae280.cfm) (NOTE: Steampunk authors, you need to read this, as it discusses the industrial revolution.)

For the purposes of writing speculative fiction, this website gives us the definition of the laws of thermodynamics into something those of us who don’t speak physics can understand:

**The British scientist and author C.P. Snow had an excellent way of remembering the three laws:

  1. You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because matter and energy are conserved).
  2. You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always increases).
  3. You cannot get out of the game (because absolute zero is unattainable).***

My dad, an engineer and a businessman, would often say, “The laws of thermodynamics basically tell us that there is no such thing as a free lunch.” In a nutshell, this is what authors need to remember:

  • The First Law of Thermodynamics: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Entropy, waste, and decay happen—unless you add energy. (Think of it like your bedroom. Unless you add some energy to that bedroom in the form of cleaning it up, it’s going to look like a pigsty within a few days.)
  • The Third Law of Thermodynamics: You have to play the game.

How does this apply to speculative fiction and governing your make believe elements? Here are a few things to think about:

Even your magic and science-fiction toys have boundaries: These thermodynamic laws were discovered because corporations wanted to create perpetual-motion machines. Scientists discovered it was impossible—machines have boundaries. How might this look?

  • Science fiction writers: No perpetual-motion machines. He he he. On a serious note, remember that somewhere in that spaceship you’ve created is a Scottish man yelling through the radio that the ship can’t go any faster because it doesn’t have the power. Your ship can’t outrun everything.
  • Fantasy writers: Even JK Rowling used the laws of thermodynamics with her fundamental laws of magic. For instance, in the Potterverse, you can’t create food. (Hermione explains it as “Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration.” You can’t just create matter without explaining how you do it to the audience, or at least without implying that the reason exists. If JK Rowling has to create fundamental laws of magic, you do too. The same concept goes for your mythological creatures: a dragon can’t just create fire. That energy needs to come from somewhere. In my Elysian Chronicles series, my unicorns’ horns can harness the sun’s energy for use in emergencies. Guess what. The energy runs out if they use too much of it, and they have to spend some time in the sunlight to “replenish their horns.”
  • Comic Book Writers: You can pretty much do anything you want as long as the girl in the story is sexy. Just kidding. Seriously, even Superman has kryptonite, Batman’s toys use energy, and Iron Man needs something with lots of power in his chest. (But you still need a sexy heroine, which is stated in the equation that proves the Fourth Law of Comic Dynamics: Man in Spandex + Sexy Heroine > science.)

Some form of energy must power your world, your toys, and your characters:

  • Science Fiction Technology: Your DeLorean’s flux capacitor can run on Mr. Fusion, but it will always be powered by gasoline. (And you really need to watch the Back to the Future trilogy if you haven’t.) In other words, you can make yourself a time machine as long as you create something to power it. Even light sabers need power. Don’t worry about describing how all of your machines work. The audience doesn’t care. They do care if something in your world doesn’t make sense when it comes to energy.
  • Decay: We’ve discussed decay in an earlier post (click here). Make sure to remember that your machines and other items break down over time.
  • Magic: Magic takes effort. Even Gandalf needs time to work. In The Hobbit, when they dwarves and Bilbo are taken captive by the goblins, JRR Tolkien tells us that, “…[Gandalf] sat down and worked up the best magic he could in the shadows. ‘A very ticklish business, it was,’ [Gandalf] said. ‘Touch and go!’” Gandalf also shows exhaustion after his fight with the balrog in The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring.
  • Characters: You characters need energy. They get tired and hungry. While I’m not suggesting that you make sure to inform your reader every time your character stops to eat or sleep, you do need to make sure to show fatigue.
  • Creatures: Creatures need energy too. Their powers come from somewhere.

Other Dimensions/The Paranormal: This is where you can play around a bit with energy and energy transfer.

  • Changing dimensions: Dimensional transfers might take energy. Figure out how that would work. (Yes, this means you get to “just make stuff up.” Just make sure it makes sense.) Changing dimensions might make your characters exhausted. It might not. In the Elysian Chronicles, characters transcending dimensions is possible. I don’t go into the science much in the first two books, but I leave a very important hint about what the energy transfer during morphing might do to, say, metal from the dimension of Heaven’s Realm when it enters Earth’s dimension. (This is the key to Book III by the way.) Paranormal beings might also need energy to materialize.
  • Other dimensions: You are free to do whatever you like in other dimensions that you may have created. Just remember that your audience will only buy into so much make-believe before they stop suspending disbelief.

Don’t info dump! Note that in The Hobbit, Tolkien doesn’t tell us how Gandalf creates his magic. He tells us that the magic took a bit of effort and leaves it at that. The same with Back to the Future’s time machine. They don’t give the audience a bunch of equations about how the flux capacitor works. It makes time travel possible, it’s cool looking, and that’s all the audience needs to know. They want to know that you put a bit of effort into your creations, but they don’t want to hear you describe it. (Just like a husband/wife relationship. “What’s for dinner, honey?” is not license to describe the ingredients.)

Use these concepts to create conflict in your stories: Your hero becoming tired during battle creates tension. The fear of a spaceship without power floating through space will keep your reader turning pages. Embrace the laws of thermodynamics! Use them to your advantage by keeping your reader on the edge of his seat!

What to take from this: Magic and science fiction toys need energy. Use this need to add conflict and tension to your books.

Mainstream Writers: Your hero is not Superman—otherwise you would be writing fantasy. He needs to get tired. Your heroine does too.

Speculative Writers: Make sure you do your research and brainstorming during your world creation sessions. It might annoy you that your readers won’t ever see all the work you put into it. Don’t worry, you can add it into the appendix or put it on the website later.

If you are new to this blog, for the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. (For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”) This week, we are taking a closer look at the third and most important rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #3—Govern Your Make Believe Elements. We have already discussed these techniques:

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.


About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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6 Responses to Writing: Why the Laws of Thermodynamics Are Important to Your Story

  1. Miche Sipes says:

    Thanks for yet another interesting and informative post. I’m hoping to get to Necronomicon on Saturday and see one of your in-person presentations!


  2. Pingback: Writing: Your Characters Must Earn (or Have Earned) Their Skills | M. B. Weston's Official Website

  3. This post ties in with my personal rule:
    Beat the hell out of your characters.

    My character Deacon fights monsters. He gets his ass kicked a LOT even when he saves the day.


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