How to Create Immersive Narrative Environments

By Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

Stories do not exist in a vacuum. Even if the narrative entirely consists of a solitary character floating in the depths of space, there are still elements to the setting; an environment. Plus, just as in real life, there is more to the story that is occurring off the page. Situations are defined by naturally-occurring rules, and forgetting or disregarding these will ruin any sense of realism.

It does not matter if a story is set on Earth, a distant planet, or another dimension entirely, as your environments must be real. Sterile settings without characters do not allow for a story, as there is none to tell. To ensure your environments and characters feel natural and organic, consider applying the Laws of Thermodynamics to the settings within your story.

Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics

If two systems are in equilibrium with a third system, they are in equilibrium with each other.

The systems are situations or settings, and until the inciting incident that launches your story, situations maintain an equilibrium. This sounds very complex, but is actually relatively simple: if A ⇌ C, and B ⇌ C, then A ⇌ B, where ⇌ means in equilibrium with or maintaining a status quo. In storytelling terms, that means that if one situation, A, is in status quo with another, C, and a separate situation, B, is also in status quo with C, then A must also be in equilibrium, or status quo, with B. For example, in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, the story begins with the Shire being in status quo with the world of Men. Similarly, Mordor is in status quo with the world of Men, until the inciting incident of Sauron sending the Wraiths to find the One Ring, which breaks that status quo. As such, until the inciting incident, the Shire is, by default, in status quo with Mordor. They are in equilibrium. That being said, equilibrium does not necessarily mean at peace. In Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, MI6 are actively engaged in the Cold War with the USSR and Eastern Bloc; that is their status quo. Goldfinger’s organisation are smuggling gold for SMERSH, a Russian intelligence operation. Therefore, MI6 (and, by extension, James Bond) and Goldfinger are in equilibrium, even though they are technically enemies and at war by proxy. Equilibrium is normality, from a narrative perspective.

First Law of Thermodynamics

When energy passes, as work, as heat, or with matter, into or out from a system, the system’s internal energy changes in accord with the law of conservation of energy.

The law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but instead it transforms from one form to another. Fire is the release of energy through combustion, and it manifests as flames and heat. If we take a situation that was previously in status quo with another, and then pass energy into, out of, or through it, the internal energy of that situation will change following that law: it will transform what is already there. To demonstrate, take Stephen King’s The Shining. The family unit that is the centre of the story are in equilibrium with the world, which is in equilibrium with the Overlook Hotel, until they are left alone within the hotel and the status quo changes. Then, through Jack’s continued immersion in the hotel, the energy within the family is transformed. What was a somewhat loving—if slightly dysfunctional—familial bond becomes a terrifying storm of fear and rage, with love and care mutating into hate and anger. As energy continues to pass into, out of, and through the situation, so the internal energy transforms. This eliminates deus ex machina, as all energy must be a transformation of what is already there. Tension comes from the change in energy, and each change of state has resulting effects upon the characters within each situation.

Second Law of Thermodynamics

In a natural process, the sum of the entropies of the interacting systems increases.

Entropy is a forward process that cannot be reversed—although, technically, no laws of physics would be violated if it were—for example a bullet being fired from a gun or a husband telling his wife about his affair. Physical processes involving systems in real life, with many atoms or molecules, are irreversible. As such, when two initially isolated situations (separate but nearby, each in equilibrium with itself but not necessarily with each other) interact, they will eventually reach a mutual equilibrium. The total entropies within that final culmination will always be equal to or greater than the total entropies of two initially isolated systems combined. In other words, the actions taken and decisions made by characters after the two situations have collided, and until they reach their final equilibrium, will always be equal to or more than the actions that brought those two systems together from the start of the story to that point. As an example, consider Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin. The initial two systems—or situations—are Rosemary and her husband, and the Satanic cult centred around the building that they want to move into. After they have moved, the systems interact: the couple meet the cult. The irreversible actions of each system lead us through the story: Rosemary’s pregnancy, the attempts of the cult to conjure the Devil, the strains on all their relationships and subsequent reactions. When the two systems finally culminate in a mutual status quo, as the story ends, the actions that have brought them to that point from their initial interaction are considerably greater in gravity and scope than the actions each took before they met, even if added together. The new status quo occurs at the moment when the respective intensive variables of the two systems are finally balanced; then the final system also has the same values and the story (or section of the story) comes to a close. That is not to say that represents the full tale; the new system can then interact with another to bring about a second, larger culmination, and so on.

Third Law of Thermodynamics

The entropy of a perfect crystal of any pure substance approaches zero as the temperature approaches absolute zero.

At absolute zero—the coldest temperature possible—a system will be in a state with minimum possible energy. As entropy results from a number of accessible microstates, and systems consist of many parts, this means that there is only one state, the ground state, where the system is effectively inactive. To put this in context: a situation will never be inactive unless you freeze it to absolute zero. As temperature is an influence upon a system, that means every situation you write will constantly be active, even at equilibrium, and even if there are no other influences acting upon it. In The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, the story follows the old man of the title, out at sea, for the majority of the novel. Yet the harbour where he lives continues to exist, with its actions happening off-page whilst he is not there. The system does not drop to minimum possible energy just because the focus of the story has moved elsewhere, but instead carries on, maintaining its equilibrium with the sea. It is impossible for a process to reduce the entropy of a system to its ground state in a finite number of operations. That means you cannot freeze a system, no matter what you do. They continue to have energy, even if all the characters are dead. The system still exists.

By applying these laws to your situations and settings, you can ensure that your story works in a way that is realistic and comprehendible. Your narrative will feel more immersive as a result, and the world you create will truly come to life.

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