Mar 02 2008
This piece describes how to write the right amount of action for a book.
Some writers, particularly novice male authors like myself, tend to write fiction as a series of actions. That is generally a mistake. Although action can be used to engage readers, it can distract you from developing the characters, scenery and dialogue that make a story work.
A piece with too much action frequently reads like a movie script. The author provides little except for what is absolutely necessary to understand the action. Most pieces that begin with an action scene suffer from that problem. The author shows us a character, but frequently doesn’t take the time to establish why we should care about him or his plight.
Likewise, action movies often start with an unintroduced character doing something dramatic and usually dangerous. That does not translate well to novels because movie actors can use their presence to communicate who they are and why the audience should care. Furthermore, movies are inherently more visceral and less cerebral. A novel reader has to create a character from the group up with only the clues you provide.
Many novelists write in an action-dominated way because they fear that an audience will get bored of a character if “nothing happens”. Usually these authors are males and, if asked for examples of stories where “nothing happens,” will almost invariably give works written by females. I think guys are afraid that focusing on details like character and scenery early will make their work into chick lit. I’m only one guy, but I think that I absolutely have a problem with a surplus of action/character-growth vs. exposition and scene-setting.
I think that most action-dominated novelists tend to misunderstand the problem they’re trying to avoid. Pieces that are heavy on exposition/scenery tend to fail for the same reason as action-dominated pieces: the characters are not engrossing. Strong characters are a prerequisite to compelling action. Let me demonstrate this with a quick writing exercise for you: please take five minutes to write a quick fight scene between two guys. Let’s keep it short, at most 250 words.
I’ll give you some time to finish…
I’ll be blunt with you. I am at least 95% sure that your action scene sucks. That prompt made it virtually impossible to write a scene that readers would care about. Re-read your fight scene.
WHY ARE THE CHARACTERS FIGHTING?
Your sample probably glossed over this, but it is the main question of any fight scene. Why. Why should we care who wins? Why does this fight matter? Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that you created a scene with a Protagonist punching the hell out of a Villain(s). Fight scenes with faceless combatants are dreadfully boring.
Fellow Superhero Nation contributor Cadet Davis offers this rebuttal: “characters matter, obviously. However, I still think that my action scene is compelling even though we don’t know why the characters are fighting. In general, I would say that strong language and sentence craft can make a fight interesting even though the characters might be dull.”
I respect Cadet’s opinion, but he is absolutely wrong. You probably have a favorite fight scene. Did you enjoy the fight because the fight itself was memorable and the punches were described in great, vivid detail? Or did you enjoy it because the fight was a fitting climax to a conflict between two great characters? Let me put it another way. Have you ever enjoyed a literary fight between two mediocre characters? I would argue that it’s actually impossible to write a strong fight scene if the characters are disappointing.
Many fantasy authors seem to agree with Davis. Christopher Paolini, the author of Eragon, is a prime offender. Eragon’s climax is a siege similar to the Battle of Helm’s Deep (from Tolkein).
I thought that Paolini’s use of language was uncharacteristically strong in this scene. I found his descriptions of the dragon’s actions vivid, almost exciting. Regardless, the scene failed for several related reasons.
- The battle was a climax to a banal conflict between an Evil emperor and his oppressed, Good subjects (led by Eragon). By the time Paolini’s battle started, it never could have been anything but an “epic” brawl between mobs of faceless Evil enemies against The Good Guys.
- It failed to answer this question that had been bothering me since page 1 of Eragon: why is Eragon the hero of this book? There isn’t anything special about Eragon, anything that screams that this story and this world are unquestionably about him. The selection of him as the main character seems completely arbitrary. By contrast, the audience connection with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader was so strong—even though these characters were themselves archetypical!—that their fights felt intense and climactic even though the fights were technically middling.
- The scene was like a rolling LOTR homage.
To recap, compelling action requires strong characters. Focusing too heavily on action is a problem because 1) we probably won’t care about whether the character lives and 2) we aren’t invested in his mission. It’s important to spend enough time on character, mood, scenery and world-building to immerse in the story, particularly the story’s conflicts. If we care about the conflict, it’s hard to write a bad fight scene.
I wish you the best in your writing endeavours. If you need beta-review assistance, please e-mail us at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com. Good luck!