Thoughts on Action in Fiction

Action in science fiction and fantasy is often overvalued, whereas, in mainstream fiction, from what I’ve seen, it tends to be undervalued. Part of this difference, I suspect, lies in expectations. Historically, science fiction and fantasy were expected to be exciting, and most readers tend to view action as exciting, while “mainstream fiction” is supposed to be “thoughtful.”

What this view tends to overlook is the fact that action, in real life, is always either the result of an earlier decision or a reaction to some other event or action. In short, somewhere along the line, someone’s “thought” was behind all that action.

Wars don’t start when one kingdom sends knights or troops across the border of another kingdom. They begin well before that for any number of reasons, when a prince is killed by a terrorist, or when a group of dissident aristocrats protest taxes imposed by a distant ruler, or when the head of state of one country decides to take back territory taken in a previous war, which had begun because that territory had been taken away even earlier. Or perhaps the war began when the ruler of a land decided to repudiate the authority of a high priest. Or when the ruler of one land seizes the ships of another land and demands tribute. From the decisions made in studies, throne rooms, military headquarters, or mercantile banks come actions that spur conflicts of interest, and those conflicts lead to wars or military actions and adventures of various sorts.

All too often in action-oriented books, there’s little or no mention of what led to the fighting, except for a brief mention or rationale, with most of the emphasis on what those involved must do in the situations in which they find themselves, and in a way, that makes matters so much simpler. Whatever the protagonist does is for his or her survival. The tacit assumption in most books, except those where the protagonist is an anti-hero, is that the main character’s goals are worthwhile, even in those instances where he or she may not be, although, sometimes, the story is about how the noble protagonist must stoop to despicable means in order to survive or to accomplish great and worthwhile goals [and, yes, I’ve written a few books with that plotline, but I’d like to think that there was a great deal more about why he or she happened to be in that position].

All that leads to the question: Does it matter what led to the fighting or the action?

Obviously, I think it does, as well as the question of how that thought or decision led to what follows. Almost always, military and “action” figures in real life reflect some aspect of their society… and the way that society, or that part of it, thinks. That means that a character that is true to life is going to give some thought to why he or she acts in the way they do, and they may feel conflicts with their mission or their orders… or with the laws under which they live. Or they may agree totally and yet find their orders in conflict with what they believe they stand for.

In most F&SF, this conflict and others are usually resolved in terms of action, although, personally, I try never to have all conflicts fully resolved, even when the ending theoretically ties up most of the loose ends. In mainstream fiction, it’s often never resolved, even when action does occur, but then F&SF has “traditionally” been more optimistic, an optimism that’s often come under attack by the “darker” side of the field as being unrealistic, but doesn’t that make “dark” F&SF more like mainstream fiction with magic or high tech?

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Action in Fiction”

  1. Alison Hamway says:

    I appreciate your approach to action in SF & fantasy. Books that are constant action are boring and repetitive, and seem to mostly want to out-do themselves in violence/perversions. Even SF movies are more interesting if there are some breaks in the action, and a plot!

  2. John Prigent says:

    Without a reasonable plot SF is merely ‘exploding spaceships’ and fantasy is merely ‘fighting with spells, often exploding ones’. Though it has to be admitted that there are some good stories of both ‘mere’ types in which the protagonist or principal viewpoint is essentially pressganged with no idea of how or why the fighting started.

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