The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the entropy of any closed system will increase over time. The universe, being a closed system, will become more and more disordered until it reaches a state called heat death (see last week’s post for more information).
In the real world, entropy is a depressing reality. But when applied to a story, it can create a more exciting climax. Stories are, in a way, closed systems that take place in fictional universes. They have rules. Whether they are the laws of nature, the rules of society, or the limits of a character’s personality, these rules must never be broken… until the end of the story.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a perfect example. Ender Wiggin grows up in a military school, one of the most orderly places any story could be set. Furthermore, Ender’s education revolves around a certain game. As the story progresses, the rules of that game are broken to greater and greater degrees, and we see the status quo of the school coming apart as well.
Things become increasingly unpredictable and even dangerous, at least for the characters and perhaps, in some way, for any reader who’s become emotionally attached to them. “The system is breaking up,” the narrator tells us, relaying Ender’s thoughts. “No doubt about it. Either someone at the top is going crazy, or something’s gone wrong with the war, the real war, the bugger war” (Card, 157).
When fictional entropy brings about a story’s apocalypse, the main character is freed of all constraints and reveals his or her deepest passions. He clings to the one thing that really matters while everything else falls apart. In Ender’s case, it’s not the war or humanity or any other big concept; he just wants his childhood back. This moment when the protagonist is 100% honest could only happen because the author gradually destroyed his world.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game. NY: Tor Books, 1991.
Hawking, Steven W. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. NY: Bantam Books, 1998.