"Your life is a reflection of how effectively you balance potential and kinetic energy." - Steve Maraboli
"I'm not lazy, I'm just overflowing with potential energy." - Unknown
There are few tropes as commonly referenced as "You're not living up to your potential." Hollywood, both the big and small screens, love it almost to a fault. Normally some TV Dad is harping on his TV Kid for wasting their life as the youth pursues their dream of becoming a painter/dancer/nuclear physicist. Instead, TV Dad insists, they should stop wasting time and make something of themselves. By the end, TV Kid has proven that they have, in fact, Done Something with their art/dance/yellow cake Uranium. As viewers, we tend to pull for TV Kid because A) they're the protagonist and B) no one, not even TV Dad, puts Baby's fission in a corner.
The thing is, TV Dad isn't necessarily wrong. It's just that many times he doesn't get the concept of Potential Energy.
By definition, Potential Energy (PE) is the amount of energy stored in an object due to its position or location. Place a bowling ball on the ground and there's not a whole lot of PE going around. Hold that same bowling ball over the edge of a skyscraper* and suddenly you have a LOT of it just waiting to be released.
Think about a compressed spring or a coiled snake. Each has built up a decent amount of PE. Each is technically living up to its full "potential", even if it doesn't move. They're living in a state of perpetual "could be" rather than "are".
Kinetic Energy (KE), however, is where the rubber meets the road. Release the bowling ball**, decompress the spring, the cobra strikes, all of these transfer of Potential to Kinetic Energy. All that "could be" energy suddenly becomes "is" and you get some pretty interesting results.
Great stories are ones where authors have mastered the balance between Potential and Kinetic Energy.
Luke starts off on Tatooine, goes then through many highs and lows before the climax of using the Force to destroy the Death Star. Katniss is a miner's daughter in a backwater District, slowly building up her Potential Energy before transitioning it violently onto the Capital. Harry begins his tale living under the stairs of his aunt and uncle, but by the end of the series, he's released all of his PE and defeated He Who Shall Not Be Named.
Dig into those stories, however, and you'll find multiple points where Potential Energy is built up before being transferred to Kinetic Energy. Luke and Han destroying tie fighters, Katniss dealing with yet another threat from the Games, Harry learning to fly. Each story element is a mini-climax. Tiny releases of tension that, in turn, help build to the next release, then the next, until the final, major climax.
But what if those releases never happened? Or what if they occurred only near the end? If we only focused on Potential Energy, our stories would be pretty boring. Remove the KE points within A New Hope and all you get is a farm kid whining about life on a desert planet. Katniss would stay in District 12, waffling between the affection of two boys. And Harry would still be under those stairs, completely ignorant about Hogwarts and the awesomeness that is the Nimbus 2000***.
Granted, these are major, sweeping generalities, but the principles apply. As authors, learning to build up the tension in our story is one thing, but releasing it at the right point is another. If we focus too much on Potential Energy, we tease, but there's very little pay off. That tension is crucial to the forward momentum of a story, but we have to pick the right moments to release it.
TV Dad's heart may be in the right place, but he's wrong when it comes to the physics of the story. In fact, one could argue that TV Kid is fully living up to their potential. Yet that's only half of the equation. Mastering that transfer of Potential to Kinetic Energy is the key. And if we can learn how to do that, well then we might just find we're not only living up to our potential, but exceeding it.
*DO NOT HOLD A BOWLING BALL OVER THE EDGE OF A SKYSCRAPER!
**AND FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY, DON'T RELEASE IT!
***I always preferred the NB2K to the Firebolt. It was, after all, Harry's first ride.
Joshua Roots is a car enthusiast, beekeeper, and storyteller. He enjoys singing with his a cappella chorus, golf, and all facets of Sci-Fi/Fantasy. He's still waiting for his acceptance letter to Hogwarts and Rogue Squadron. He and his wife will talk your ear off about their bees if you let them.
His Urban Fantasy series, The Shifter Chronicles, is available wherever digital books are sold.
The jury's still out on whether or not he's living up to his Potential Energy....