Action is boring

In the airport in Zurich, I bought a paperback novel for the flight home.  I wasn’t looking for heavy literature, just something to keep me entertained for the seven-hour flight, so I chose it based on the back-cover description, which promised a fast-paced thriller with an international setting.  Within the first chapter, bam, someone died a violent death.  About every other chapter after that, there was a gun battle or a car chase or a fist-fight.  The protagonists were chased across several countries, by a relentless cabal of bad guys, and everyone was after a piece of evidence that would change the world.  There was a fall off a cliff, some death-defying escapes, and countless ambushes.

I was bored out of my mind.

I wanted to stuff the book in the seat-back pocket for some other hapless airline traveler, but I still had five hours left in the flight and nothing else to read, so I persevered, more as a writers’ exercise than for entertainment.  When I finished the book, I thought about why the book didn’t work for me.  On the surface, you’d think it should be exciting, with all the chases and derring-do.  Yet it lacked tension.  It was all action, and no suspense.

I have the same reaction while I’m watching films.  I find that the most boring part of a thriller movie is often the car chase.  That’s when I yawn and glance at my watch, waiting for something more interesting to happen.  During the most recent James Bond film, I thought the action sequences were okay, but what really got me to perk up was the dialogue between Bond and the Eva Green character on the train ride.  The verbal sparring, the double entendres, the undercurrent of sexual tension — that’s what I call suspense.

When it comes to books, I’ve come to realize that action on the page is sometimes the least interesting part of the whole story.  Real suspense lies in the buildup toward conflict or danger, the threat of something terrible happening.  When it finally does turn into action, all that tension is released and leaks out of the story like a deflating balloon. 

A lot of writers confuse suspense with action.  They think that for a book to be thrilling, it needs lots of fights and gun battles and falling bodies.  Well, let me tell you about four books that kept me riveted to the page, books that were loaded with heart-pounding suspense, yet weren’t overstuffed with action.  NO TIME FOR GOODBYE by Linwood Barclay and REMEMBERING SARAH by Chris Mooney were by male authors who managed to inject amazing suspense just by the conflicts and crises of their characters.  Once I’d started these two books, I couldn’t stop.  They didn’t need action scenes dripping with testosterone.  Instead, they relied on something far more difficult to achieve: characters whose lives are in such crisis, you have to keep reading to see what happens. 

I can think of two other books that managed this feat.  One is an older book, KILLING ME SOFTLY by Nicci French.  I can’t even remember any violence in the book, but I remember almost unbearable tension toward the end, as the heroine finally discovers the truth about her lover.  Another memorable book (not yet released), is ICE TRAP by debut author Kitty Sewall.  It has no violence that I can recall, yet the author manages to set up so much psychological conflict and that I didn’t really care if it was a thriller, a murder mystery, or just a novel about twisted characters in the far north — I had to find the answer to the puzzle that the author introduces within the first few chapters.

I think it takes far more skill to write a suspenseful novel with no action.  Action scenes are easy.  Anyone can write a chase scene or a murder scene, and less skillful writers confuse action with suspense.  They think a gun battle is all you need to make a chapter exciting.  Instead it may have the opposite effect.  It may bore readers like me, readers who just flip past all the running and shooting and screeching tires. 

Pay attention the next time you read a thriller novel.  When does your heart pound, your hand go sweaty?  Is it during the gun battle?  Or is it during the pages leading up to the gun battle?  Is it the dread and impending doom?  Or is it when the bullets actually start to fly?

——————-

COMMANDER RIKER AND ME

As a lifelong Trekkie, I was tickled when actor/director Jonathan Frakes and I were asked to be judges for a local talent show here in town.  Here we are, along with third judge David Grima (editor of our local paper) and emcee Slim Goodbody (in the tuxedo.)   We took our jobs seriously — and it wasn’t that easy a job, considering the talent we had to choose from.  I just wish there could have been an extra prize for the amazing 12-year-old boy who played the piano, sang, AND played the harmonica to Elton John and Billy Joel tunes! 

(And in case you’re wondering, Frakes is both utterly charming and outrageously funny in person.)

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23 replies
  1. struggler
    struggler says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Tess, about the tedium of ‘action’ in novels – I didn’t say ‘thrillers’ because not that many thrillers really thrill imho. Last night I watched a film I had never seen before – 21 Grams – and was riveted by the acting, the unknown direction and ending, and I was very moved by the sense of loss when three out of a family of four were killed in a hit-and-run. There was some violence but it took up barely a couple of minutes and it was relevant. Then tonight I watched a film I had seen before – 8mm – and wondered why and how I could have forgotten how plain awful it was, with lots of violence and people I couldn’t care less about getting shot or crossbowed to death. Avoid! Casino Royale being a James Bond flick needs violence to justify its identity but it was done very well and the action was a raw, white-knuckle ride. Best Bond for many years, probably since the Connery days.

    When it comes to the written page, it is of course more difficult to portray a sequence of action that might take less than a minute to happen in real life yet take 5 or 10 minutes to read (and a lot longer to write!). I think it’s best kept to a minimum, because as you say it’s the threat or fear of violence that (if built up properly) is so much more effective. Same applies to sex; especially, in my view, when it is penned by a male author. I really don’t like ‘too much information’ and much prefer a little teasing and innuendo, and clever imagery with the reader being left to fill in the blanks with his or her imagination. It’s more sensational that way, when the reader has to create it as opposed to simply read it. So yes, action is usually boring and sex scenes (if I may include these in this topic) are embarrassing at best and repellent at worst, as very few writers have the wherewithal to be able to portray sexuality as opposed to just sex. I have always liked your own approach to this, particularly in THE APPRENTICE, where you patiently developed a kind of erotic tension between Rizzoli and Special Agent Gabriel Dean without going into, ahem, too much detail.

    (Very) broadly speaking, female writers tend to be more explicit about the consequences of violent action – for example the autopsy report – while male writers by comparison tend to describe the violence itself, as it’s happening. We don’t need that any more, in my view – some of my earliest impressions of violence in novels came from the hand of Harold Robins whose novel STILETTO I must have read at least 35 years ago, and I can almost quote a line that has stuck in my mind to this day, when someone thrust a knife up under the chin of another bad guy – it went something along the lines of “If the knife thrust deep into his brain didn’t kill him, he was almost certainly dead before he hit the ground”. As an impressionable and mild-mannered teenager this left something of an impact on me. Corny, cheesy and often plain silly but fitting, I would guess, the demands of the readers of 1960s epic dramas. Four decades on we must adopt a more enigmatic approach to themes such as action, violence and consummation, leaving as much as possible for the reader to complete – but there are still too many wham-bam-biff-sock ‘thrillers’ out there for my liking.

  2. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    Lucky you! I saw Q narrating at the Cleveland Orchestra and I almost fell out of my seat in shock. I had no idea he was a musician!

    I’ve been really missing Star Trek, lately. I miss those old days of science fiction, when there was such hope for humanity in the genre.

  3. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    I find tense mystery much more exciting than the fly-by-the-seat action flippancy. Most of the time, action sequences in novels aren’t in the least contributable to the story. Sure, we know you have to run away from the killer so please don’t explain in detail every rock you stumble on and just how close he came to grabbing your skirt, make it more alluring. Say the killer is lurking and taunting the person, there’s two ways to play it then, you can have the killer win or you can have the heroine completely surprise us and get a one-up on the killer. But if there’s just a chase scene, odds are the girl will fall, maybe kick the guy, but will ultimately die or whatever, blah blah drab. So yeah, I share your enthusiasm for the slinky type tenseness that comes with unveiling the story through many pages of who is doing what where and will we get to him/her in time. Etc. Dean Koontz does an excellent job of this btw.

  4. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i think it’s a matter of competent writing/filmaking vs.poor quality work that makes the difference,not whether it is action vs.suspense per se.there are some very fine films and books which have neither-i really enjoyed the Indiana Jones films-they had action scenes that literally flowed into each other accompanied by good offbeat storylines-the film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”,almost unobtainable commercially is an example of a first rate crime film with virtually no action-another obscure pair of films “The Man on the Roof” and “The Man From Mallorca” judiciously mix action with an intelligent plot-the car chase in the latter film is scary,particularly if you’ve been in a few as i have because you know that in reality they are often dangerous beyond imagining-it was not overdone-i thought Cormac McCarthy’s book “No Country for Old Men”was both exciting and reflective,a tough combination to pull off,interspersing non stop action narrative with first person thoughts of an older lawman-i am waiting to see the film ,which the Coen brothers have apparently done a masterful job of directing and casting-contrast this with the latest Bruce Willis vehicle which i found ridiculous to the point of boredom(just what Tess is saying)-i guess my point is that any genre ,whether action,drama,comedy,suspense,etc can be good ,bad or indifferent depending on the quality of creative effort

  5. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    I have a slightly different approach as to what book I read. If I like the movie, then I read the book and then compare and contrast. If there is no movie, then I go with my gut feeling. That’s how I discovered your books.
    If the book jacket gives me something to work with, then I thumb through the book and usually buy it.
    As per being a Trekkie, my wife is the utmost fan. Not only have we gone to a convention (starring Shatner & Nimoy) and subsequently buying a $20 Star Trek “Blooper” video, I have every original episode on tape, as well as EVERY Star Trek movie. I also bought her a pet Tribble, and if that thing goes off again in the middle of the night again, I’m gonna set my phaser on KILL.
    Thanks for all you do!
    Abe

  6. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    Add one more to the “I agree” side. While I find torture scenes amazingly freeing to write, I know I’ve hit the high tension wire when I have to walk away. It’s exhausting work! If you, the writer, doesn’t feel it, how will the reader?

    And Dean Koontz is the master. “The Father” is amazing! That’s how I felt about “Gravity”, Tess. The scenes were set and the pages flew by because there was no way to put it down. I loved it! I actually found “The Bone Garden” to have similar tension. Keep up the great work!

  7. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    one more thing-want to see a reat action film?try the uncut version of “Supercop”starring Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh(with a comic relief appearance by Maggie Cheung)-it turns out that neither Jackie nor Michelle used stunt doubles(!!)

  8. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Joe–

    I agree. In the wrong hands, action certainly can be boring; but, done well, it can add to suspense and characterization.

    The classic thriller paradigm is an ascending sawtooth, with action rising and falling upwardly toward the climax. Some writers attempt to file the saw blade, leaving out the lulls, never giving the reader/viewer a chance to breathe. Those are usually the stories that make me weary, make me eject the disk or put the book down forever.

    Sounds like that’s what you got hold of for your flight, Tess. 🙂

  9. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    A number of interesting points were raised and I suspect that a bigger part of the problem to a certain extent is what authors think that the public wants. In a world where we turn on the news and see a Police Chase ensuing for hours on end to fatal shoot outs from failed armed robberies the individual is bombarbed and blasted into insensitivity at the world around them.

    Some authors then think that in order to get a reader reaction they have to do the most terrible acts imaginable with a twist or have to include the worn out cliched scenes within many pages of thier books. That’s one reason why I think that a lot of people these days love the more emotional aspect of a tale and the build up to the action sequence.

    Where once upon a time it was readers imagination we now have CG to generate even the most outlandish effects. Everything seems to have a budget but the readers imagination. Its one reason I suspect that books havent gone the way of the dodo in much the same way that a lot of the old genres have, for example the western. At one point you couldnt move for the next John Wayne film yet these days how many westerns can you count that have been made in more recent years? Off the top of my head these are all the ones that I technically count as a Western (I exclude Dances with Wolves as thats more a tale of the native Americans and one mans acceptance) Unforgiven, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, 3:10 to Yuma, Dead Man, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Open Range, The Proposition, The Quick and the Dead.

    Thats it, but look at the Action Thriller and you can probably name 10 in around a minute without really thinking. Whilst there is always a place for a cliff hanger action sequence in a novel, finding something that leaves a bigger cliff hanger can be quite as simple as a character uncovering something about thier boy/girl/friend that leaves them in unknown territory. Its scary, its unknown and plays on the deepest Xenophobic fears that each person knows to a certain extent, its more powerful.

    More people need to explore this option as its very easy to not only alienate a reader but boar even the most hardy reader to death with too much action, its like food, you need changes in your diet, living on chocolate may seem like a great idea for a few days but then you’d get sick of it and want something else. Everything is good in moderation and I suspect the other part of the equation should be something to do with pace.

    A Action
    E P Emotion Pace

    Quite simply to get one angle that needs to be covered you have to carefully blend and the other elements. For example Action is = Emotion X Pace. Its a good balance when you look at it and demonstrates that as a cornerstone its an essential thing to get the whole thing balanced. Still that said its just my tuppence so to speak.

  10. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I get bored to tears with novels incorporating trumped up plot problems, where the characters spend whole chapters whining about something they could have solved with an ounce of common sense. The novels can have all the action sequences they can hold, if the writer shovels in humor, romance, and sarcasm. 🙂

  11. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    I find what happens between the action bits much more interesting. If the protag is running for his life, where he takes his down time can be fun and exciting. In film, the times when James Bond is crashing a party or flirting with babes and they’re sparring with great dialogue it’s much more fun (for me) than watching the bullets fly.

  12. april
    april says:

    I’m not usually a fan of the killer’s point of view, but I’m reading a book now that opened with this device. I found the anticipation, the routine of death, to be more suspenseful than the actual torture killing. It was more disturbing to read about the motivations behind the action than the action itself.

    As for Star Trek, I never cared for the original, but I did love The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine a little bit. I can’t say I’ve ever had the privilege of ever seeing or meeting a member of the cast, but I always love it when one pops up in a tv show. John De Lancie (Q) was in Shark this season and Denise Crosby (Lt. Yar) was on Bones as well. Then, I geek out and the husband looks at me funny.

  13. moorrbrt1
    moorrbrt1 says:

    One of my favorite writers rarely describes the actual crime, yet her books are fantastic. You’re right, the best parts aren’t always the action scenes.
    I’m a long time Star Trek fan as well. And in reference to the comments by “April”, wasn’t the actress that played Lt. Yar also in one of the Pet Cemetery movies?

  14. Josephine Damian
    Josephine Damian says:

    Oooh, Tess, have you seen the movie version of “Killing Me Softly” with Joeseph Fiennes and Heather Graham? Has to be one of the most sexually explicit R-rated movies I’ve ever seen. And fascinating watching the girl figure out her lover’s deadly past. Rich and strange.

  15. Craig
    Craig says:

    It’s funny that you should mention No Time for Goodbye; I just finished it Saturday and went to my bookstore and raved about it. For those of you who enjoy you might want to check out Harlen Coben who writes in the same vein. And yes, Moorrbrt1, that most certainly was Denise Crosby in Pet Sematary.

  16. therese
    therese says:

    I am also a lifelong trekkie and Jonathan Frakes could always raise the tension with just a shift of an eyebrow.

    There are too many times I’ve wanted to throw a book across the room because it wasn’t living up to it’s emotional appeal. If I don’t relate to or care about the characters, the special effects and life threatening situations are absolutely boring. I’d rather see those main characters exploded.

    In the movie “Titanic” I cared so much about the main characters I loved it and don’t want to watch it yet am compelled to do so. In “Pearl Harbor” I was ticked the wrong guy died and only want to watch the battle scenes where the character I like the most is a KP grunt.

    As writers, we need stories that involve our emotions. I will never understand why so many books are printed that don’t meet that standard. Oh well. All we can do is what you do, write awesome stories and hit the bestsellers list then get on a panel with “Riker”.

    Enjoy the journey of life.

  17. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    I’ve added Ice Trap to my to-be-read list. I wanted to wish you and your family a happy Thanksgiving and thank you for all the time you put into this blog. I really value hearing your advice and experiences. It makes my current lurching towards my book release and resulting anxiety seem almost normal.

  18. putney1968
    putney1968 says:

    I share most of the sentiments you’ve expressed. I’ve even thought to myself: I can write better than this! Unlike you, I haven’t had anything published. But that hasn’t stopped me from joining NaNoWriMo to write a 50,000 page novel in 30 days. I’m at 45K now, hurray! Of course, I have produced words, not necessarily good writing or entertainment, so the next task is to edit, expand, contract and otherwise improve upon what I’ve started this month. Happy Thanksgiving!

  19. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Keep plugging away putney1968, I joined to write but when I had some major problems I put it down so Im going to treat next month as my Nano time. Works even better with Christmas over that period so I have a chance for some real writing time.

  20. Frank Hood
    Frank Hood says:

    Early on I read an article on writing that pointed out that true suspense came from emotions not action. Joss Whedon said that the question he always asked as he started plotting out a Buffy season was what situation or villain would be the most emotionally threatening to his heroine.

    I worry that jaded editors who don’t have time to read past the first page of book submissions won’t recognize an emotional hook, and consider the book unsalable if there’s no physical threat or murder in the first scene. If you don’t give the reader the time to care about the character, then all the jeopardy you put your protagonist in is for naught.

  21. Tom Young
    Tom Young says:

    I agree, I’d rather read something with a good story line and only a little action. I guess it’s a ‘makes a good movie’ mentality or something. I can’t wait until someone decides to make a movie out of one of your books.

    Or maybe a TV series

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