Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wall-to-wall action!

... is exhausting, to be honest. For the writer and, fortunately, for the reader too. Disciple, Part VI, is looming on my horizon and it's going to contain a lot of action. Part III also contained a lot of action, and I need to keep in mind the things that it taught me.

Writers and readers need to take a break from the action every so often, with the caveat that action is not the same as tension. Don't take breaks from tension. The action needs the occasional break in order to do some important clarifying and organizing.

Define the new situation
You've seen this in movies: our character stands on the littered battlefield, breathing hard, and looks around wondering who's survived? Use the moment to see who's okay and who's hurt, who's dead, what's been destroyed and what's still standing. Who's still in the game, and in what capacity? Did we win? What are the options now?

Not all stories need action sequences to accomplish their goals, but after any stretch of dramatic events it's good to take stock of what has changed. Sometimes it's obvious: the Death Star was destroyed. The villain kidnapped the girl despite our hero's best efforts. Or maybe it's something more subtle.

The two main variables here are the pace at which you define the situation, and how much of it you define. What does the reader needs to know right now versus what to hold back to raise tension later? Updates can be done in a very brief, up-front way -- an officer runs over and rattles off the casualties, the current troop movements, and off we go to the next part of the fight. In other genres, readers expect a more careful exploration of the results -- the characters need to discuss, do research, or travel someplace new.

Maybe all the implications of an event take time to unfold. That can raise the tension nicely in a story. Or maybe you want to drop an oh crap we're screwed bombshell. It's your roller coaster ride -- how do you want it to go?

How much you say and how much you don't say can be tricky for another reason. Readers are not stupid; if your character's mentor was killed, they can figure out most of the problems that's going to cause. If you write those out explicitly, it will look clunky and patronizing. It's better to point out only those things that are not immediately obvious, but are important to the story. But without being clunky or patronizing. That's a whole 'nother blog post, I think.

New situations require new plans. New plans can require new resources, or at least enough of a break for everyone to lick their wounds, get some sleep, and prepare for the next assault. Perhaps we need to meet new characters and bury our dead.

I'm using battle terminology because Part VI is a war. Metaphorically speaking, this applies to Victorian comedy-of-manners romances, too. Drink some tea, collapse on the couch in the parlor, and strap yourself into a fresh suit of armor -- whoops, I meant "a new evening gown." Emotionally, these aren't as different as they might appear.

As with all writing "rules," you don't have to do this when it suits the purposes of your story. If it's your intention to show the readers just how exhausted your characters are, don't give them a break. I tried to do this back in Disciple, Part I when my characters are harried by packs of monsters.

Did you let your characters catch their breath, or did you keep pushing?

Also: did you see my Goodreads giveaway?


Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

That's one of the things that I don't like about a present book I'm reading. It's too full of pages and pages of action. It kind of makes my eyes glaze over.

Liz said...

After a while, the action does get to be too much.

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