Update & Mini-Rant on ‘All Action, All the Time’ Stories

All right, so this has been brewing a while. To explain myself well, I should supply some background.

As my little progress-o-meter in the sidebar shows, I’ve crested the 60% complete point in the novel I’m working on. What this means, in general, is that several things are coming to a head in the story and the intensity/tension is amping up. In my view, these things are the natural product of laying a good foundation, developing characters and storylines, and allowing things to take their natural course.

At the same time, I’m aware that modern taste in general, and especially in a field like fantasy literature, is way more geared toward what I call, “all action, all the time” type stories. These stories are comprised of a series of predicaments, preferably one every chapter or two, each one more unlikely than the next.

Now, this model can certainly be done well. I haven’t read an Alistair Maclean book in a decade or so, but I’m a big fan. As I recall, his espionage books are pretty much constant action until the plot is resolved, and I don’t mind that one bit when I’m engrossed in one of his stories.

However, Maclean was a master, and even as a master, I don’t want Maclen all the time, because I don’t want ‘all action, all the time’ in every book. I also like stories that take their time to build to a crescendo, not just stories that start at the crescendo and try to maintain it for 300 or 400 pages.

And that’s a problem, because I know I’m seriously out of step with the modern marketplace and my own audience. All of which mean that I spend a fair bit of time wondering if a modern audience will come with me on the journey I’m trying to take them on. Will they persevere in my story until the action takes over if they haven’t been pushed to an adrenaline high in the first few chapters and then kept there with constant provocation?

To make things worse, I’ve been reading Jane Austen lately, and while I’m really enjoying it, I keep thinking that I’m slowly killing my fantasy-writing career. Jane didn’t write ‘all action, all the time’ stories at all, and she’s not helping me care less about character development and the elements of story not directly involved in intense action sequences. Quite the contrary, she’s making me even more resistant to moving that direction.

This could be bad for my writing career.

Now, I know that plenty of talented writers can develop characters well while they spin a good action yarn. And, I also know that less can be more in description and characterization, that these things need not be sacrificed in order to tell a good story with a steady pace.

And, of course, most readers will give you some latitude if you’re good enough. My problem might just be that I’m not good enough. I might be the kind of writer who needs the adrenaline kick to be constantly distracting my readers from the fact that I’m not better at this.

Who knows. All I know is that I’m looking forward to writing the last third of my novel, to the action & excitement that it involves, all the while wondering if I’ll ever convince a press to buy the thing, and if so, if readers will find sufficient merit in the story to hang with me…

The good news is that even if I don’t, I’ll always have Jane, and Alistair, to comfort me.

14 thoughts on “Update & Mini-Rant on ‘All Action, All the Time’ Stories

  • Dear Mr. Graham,
    The One Year Adventure Novel curriculum I was talking about (Under “Technical Difficulties”) talks a little bit about this. The model is only 12 chapters (or about 15,000-24,000 words. A little shorter than yours, hee hee) long, but his recommendation is that the hero really never is let up from a problem, and nothing ever goes right for him without going wrong too.
    If you have cool characters, though, this is not needed as much (there wasn’t too much action in “Huck Finn”, but Huck is such a strange person that it’s enjoyable to look at his unique take on life, for example).
    Or if you’ve got a sweet world (which if it’s anywhere as cool as BotB, it will be pretty cool) that’ll work too. Sweet as in impressive, not sugary. Didn’t really like the sugary parts of the book.
    I try to stick, though, to the whole idea of “never let up the Hero from his problems until it resolves”, because: A. I have only a small bit of writing talent (which I hope to get better at), B. My story world isn’t too interesting (unless you’re the sort of person, who, like me, really enjoys thinking about how to turn a medival crossbow into an efficient automatic weapon of deadly power and accuracy… hee hee), C. My characters all have depth, but aren’t totally fascinatingly different (like Huck), D. That’s the sort of book I enjoy (that’s why I liked BotB 2-5: there was this constant nagging threat of death following them).

    So, to try and help you (this feels strange, trying to help the best author in the world to date, excepting those who penned the BIBLE.), you have at least two of the three things I talked about. But still, there should always be a nagging sense of danger, or some sort of thing that we want to happen that hasn’t happened yet (everyone seems to want Rulalin to be killed, for example). It can’t be happy-go-lucky (written many of those stories: “Oh. Let’s go do this. Oops. Let’s go do that. Whee!” Not interesting.), but they don’t have to always be sword fights and dragons swooping in.

    Also, if you have a sweet story line, then that really helps (all the characters having stories adds a lot of interesting depth).

    ES

    PS, if you can tell I love your blog (the number of Posts in the past four days), it’s a book mark. I love your work. Also, you can tell I’m verbose (length of comments, hee hee. That’s how my book is about 60% of one of your epics). It’s true. That’s why these comments are so long and numerous.

  • Well my input is go for the character development. In one of my classes we were discussing the possible loss of literacy in this country in favor of technology. This led us to how, with movies and television, it has gotten to the point where it has to shock and constantly be in action in order for us to pay attention. In my opinion this is a sad prospect so I would rather see more into the characters. Please don’t get discouraged I enjoy reading your books!

  • Dear Mr. Graham,

    “These stories are comprised of a series of predicaments, preferably one every chapter or two, each one more unlikely than the next”. This is undoubtably a terrible book. This is a book that will be set down after about three chapters. But, this is not the sort of book that is “All Action, All the Time”. The correct way to do those is to make each happenstance a direct result of the one before. It must make sense, or, as I said, it will be put down or not purchased.

    Also, the One Year Adventure Novel curriculum (no, I do not work for them, nor do I gain commissions on sales or referrals. They don’t even know I exist) has a name for your thoughts: You are in a “Mid-Book Crisis” (Similar but different to a “Mid-Life Crisis”). Basically, you’re thinking that what you’re writing stinks. You stink, maybe. (Your thoughts, not mine. You don’t stink, Mr. Graham) What OYAN recommends is something totally strange to happen. Have a body fall from the ceiling. Blow something up. (If it’s a sword and cloak sort of fantasy, you should make it a pyrotechnic explosion 😉 And then try to figure out why. It’ll make your brain come alive trying to figure out why on earth (or Kirthanin, hee hee) whatever strange thing happened happened. It just might work. (Again, it’s strange to be advising such a great writer as ye are).

    Also, my homeschooled-grammar-loving alternate identity has something to say (or maybe it’s the National Christian Forensic Communications Association -NCFCA for short- part of me asking for the definition of terms): Define “Action”. If action relates to the idea of something happening, then duh ever story must have action all the time. When nothing happens a story is very boring. Very boring. If you mean a bad situation or a fight (which I think you do), then look at my previous comment: the Hero shouldn’t every have a breathing chance. That’s why BotB 2-5 were so good: the heroes and heroines were being chased continually, so there was this lingering shade of gloom, to take the words of a hymn.

    But please, please realize that I love your work and beg you to continue. I think there are several thousand, who, like me, would e-mail P&R to tell them to purchase your manuscript.

    ES (fan of all things LB Graham)

    PS, I think I figured out where you got the romance for BotB 1-5. You may have some memories of those Jane Austen novels (which, by the way, I’m a slight fan of the BBC movies, hee hee).

  • Dear Mr. Graham,

    “Our attention spans have diminished greatly, I’m afraid.” I have one thing to say to this: How long is BotB 1-5, (page count or word count: Pages: 2,000ish, words: 1,000,000 ish), and how many people read them all? And then (I know this is more than one thing), how many people have watched the extended (four hour) editions of the Lord of the Rings, which have many, many, portions where the tension is relived (for a love story, funny scene, etc.)? (please realize I put myself in both of those categories).

    Yes, the culture at large has a short attention span, but there are MANY, MANY, who have longer spans.

    Please keep up the good work,
    Edmund Skye the Verbose

  • I know plenty of my teenage friends prefer all action, all the time, and that they feel like the author is getting long winded when they go into detail about a scene or a character. As one of your fans, I completely disagree! Details, even tons and tons of them, truly bring a story to life. In BOTB, the details allowed me to truly enjoy the story, and now I feel this way about every book. (Not to mention the fact I read very quickly, and so details help me to slow down and get a better perspective on a story. :) )

  • You know, even though the pop culture may have a decreased attention span, there are a lot of people out there who still love Jane Austen… :) So don’t lose hope.

    And you know what? Austen’s books have a lot of plot development, even if it isn’t typical “action.” A strictly action-based novel has a hard time getting the reader interested if it doesn’t develop characters that the reader cares about. (Well, it’s the same with romance, actually.)

    “I know that plenty of talented writers can develop characters well while they spin a good action yarn. And, I also know that less can be more in description and characterization, that these things need not be sacrificed in order to tell a good story with a steady pace.”

    True. I think the key to this is to hint at some sort of danger/dark cloud on the horizon/action to come, while you flesh out your characters with some key “showing” elements at the beginning. The beginning doesn’t have to be fast-paced, but it does need some sort of hook. Even an unexpected note, or someone pounding on the door, something that isn’t related to the big plot, can do the trick. Something that makes us sit up and wonder what’s going to happen to the characters down the road.

    Hope that was helpful. It’s kind of hard when i don’t really know a lot about what you’re writing. Anyway, I feel like I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll stop now. :)

    Blessings!
    ~Evergreena

  • I think in storytelling, character and plot is everything. I don’t care if there isn’t a single fight as long as the characters are interesting and the plot is well-done. Rulalin is actually a great example of this. I know many people (my friends included) who were baying for Rulalin’s blood from the end of the first book. Rulalin has always been my favorite character though, even before his “redemption” in the fourth/fifth books. I guess I think he is just one of the best-drawn and most interesting characters. Back to plot though, I certainly don’t have anything against fight scenes–heck, my first (very badly planned) book was thirteen chapters of fight scenes! Someone mentioned foreshadowing I believe, and this is definitely cool, since in can kick the tension up without a dramatic declaration/entrance or a thrilling fight-scene. Finally, I think a book is far, far better for an initial wait/delay before the crescendo begins. For example, when I watched the movie The Dark Knight, it wasn’t as hi-action at the beginning, and for a while it looks like all the loose ends have been tied up, before, seemingly all at once, everything really goes to heck in a handbasket. Looking back at the movie, it was much better this way than any other way they could have done it.

    Cheers,
    Evan

  • I have the same issue in my NaNo novel edits. My prior NaNo novel had an MC who tended to jump off cliffs, etc, at every oppuritunty. But I’ve read not only LotR and the Silmarillion, but four volumes of the History of Middle-Earth series. Trust me, charrie development is still good.

  • Mr. Graham–

    With all due respect, why sacrifice action for character development? I feel that action in books can often be a better way of developing characters, than pages of angst.

    It seems to me, that the things that characters do, and the way they interact with other characters, and react under duress is often a better way of developing than just telling what is going on inside.

    I think there is room for both, but mostly it irritates me when i have to read pages and pages of inner turmoil rather than a few pages of conflict that bring out the protagonists true colors.

    I’m an amateur writer, and will probably never be published, but that is just my opinion.:)

    I am looking forward to your next novel!

  • What we mean by action is the key. No one is suggesting “telling what is going on inside” is preferable to plot development. Go to a movie store. Look at the rows of movies labeled “action” and the rows of movies labeled “drama.” Both have plots. Things happen in both. I’m just saying that our reading market had short attention spans for plots developed in the “drama” rather than the “action” way…

  • actually…i debate whether the drama genre of today’s movies has any kind of plot, let alone cohesive action, but yes.

    i think i misunderstood your use of the word action. Thanks for the clarification.:)

  • Well this comment is coming very very late, but I’d just like to emphasize what Edmund Syke said… I quote “But still, there should always be a nagging sense of danger, or some sort of thing that we want to happen that hasn’t happened yet.”

    Of course it doesn’t necessarily have to be the world ending (as in BotB) that presents the nagging danger, but I think you will be able to get away with not having action scene after action scene as long as you are building up to some foreseeable climax. This way the reader can enjoy all of the build-up by pondering what it’s effect will be on the overall climax that they are still anticipating.

    Of course I’m just some highschool kid and not a literary expert by a longshot, but that’s just my thoughts on the matter.

    That being said, I am rereading your BotB series for the 3rd (I think?) time, and I absolutely love your work. I’m not really a devout follower of your blog (or any blogs for that matter), but I remember long long ago, before AMHM was released, I was browsing around the blog and saw a teaser for your next thing you were going to work on. I decided to check back today, and you have already made lots of progress on draft. It’s pretty exciting, because if this new project is half of what BotB was, then it will be a great read. :) Keep up the good work.

  • I think what you’re talking about, broadly, is conflict – to pull out English teacher language here. I heartily agree that all stories need conflict of some sort. I was ranting against action, defined narrowly in terms of external events, like the kinds of things that ‘action films’ revolve around.

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