The Trouble With “Action”

I’ve often been criticized for the “slow” pace of my books, especially by the “action junkies” who expect a fight, revelation, or surprise in every chapter, or at the least every other chapter. Now, I’d be the first to admit that even my books aren’t completely realistic, because there’s more action in them than in corresponding events in real life, but I try to give the feeling of real life and action by providing more lead-up events, and a certain amount of routine, than do many authors. Possibly that’s because I’ve experienced more “action” in life than I anticipated and because it wasn’t much like the way I’d visualized and imagined it, especially how much time and preparation for “action” takes.

I was a competitive swimmer in college, and even more than fifty years ago, to be competitive required at least 3-4 hours a day of practice six days a week. Yet we generally only competed once every week at most. Today, it’s more like twice that and a lot more work with weights and machines. All that for a few minutes of “action.”

But the same is true of any action in life. A one-hour military flight mission for one single aircraft will require from 10 to over 200 hours of maintenance, depending on the aircraft. So what does this have to do with writing and battle scenes? Simply that no society, especially a lower tech society, can support a lot of battles day after day right on top of each other. There’s no time for recovery, resupply, or even travel.

All right. Then why shouldn’t a writer skip over all that dull but necessary stuff in a few sentences or paragraphs and get on with the action?

In fact, a lot of writers do. Even the “slowest” writers condense the events and maintenance in between the exciting stuff. But there’s a balance. If it’s all action, the reader loses the “reality” of what’s occurring and a book becomes the unrealistic verbal equivalent of a video game. If it’s totally true to life, most readers won’t finish the book because they get overwhelmed by the details.

As an author, I give more details than most fiction authors, but that’s because I feel that those details are real to the characters and shape the way they see the battle and the action. The “boring” training, or the trade-offs between trying to make a living and also trying to prepare to fight an invader are real to those people. They’re choices they have to make, and they’re in many ways far more important than most people think because they’re what determines how the battle, the action, and the characters turn out.

There’s an old saying about war, to the effect that the competent officers concentrate on tactics, the brilliant ones on logistics. Or, put another way, WWII was won on logistics [while that’s an over-simplification, at its base, it’s true]. And for reasons like that and the fact that I don’t want my books to read like verbal video/computer games, that’s why “logistics” and “routine” are a vital part of what I write.

8 thoughts on “The Trouble With “Action””

  1. Christopher McSparrin says:

    You are absolutely right about the need for a balance between action and the “boring” details. You can get books such as The Silmarillion.. a good book… however, filled with too much detail that at a point withdraws the reader from the world in which the author is building. Then there are three books filled with so much action and too little detail that becomes a quick entertaining read and yet never truly draws the reader into the authors world. Whereas, your books attempt to balance that in such a way that even with the huge gaps between years within the storyline that one who has read the entirety of the Saga of Recluse can envision what is happening between books because of the way you balance detail with action. One can envision what happens after the events of the Mage Fire War and when Fairhaven becomes the powerful White City.

    A most grateful fan,
    Chris M

  2. Greg says:

    That’s what holds me to them after multiple re-reads.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    At least some of us enjoy the routine scenes too – the woodworking, domestic circumstances, horse care, etc. I’d certainly rather live those than the action; and they tell me more about the characters than the action does. For that matter, Recluce sounds like a great place to visit, although it might be a bit constraining to live there full-time.

    So if there are those who think there’s too much of the slow bits, take comfort that there are others who think that any less of those would not be enough.

  4. David Roffey says:

    Zen and the art of order-chaos balance

  5. Constance says:

    Your attention to the details of life is what attracted me to your writing in the first place. Every book doesn’t have to be a horse race to hold my attention. Sometimes I like to just sink in and absorb the world.

  6. M. Kilian says:

    It is the very focus on not just what happens, but how and why that has always kept me coming back to your books. Even without explaining every little facet, you make sure that the books aren’t just another good guys vs bad guys novel.

    Even with Forever Hero, or perhaps especially, as the reader I was engaged by just how monumental the passing of time was. That not every little moment of an “immortal” character’s life was full of action but rigorous and complex, to the eventual compromise of even an impressive mind’s faculties.

  7. D Archerd says:

    Some of the most enjoyable portions of your books are when a character is wrestling with administrative issues, trying to restore order to a land or city that has become chaotic. I find those problems and issues much more absorbing than battle after battle. Not to mention much more illustrative of real life.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    If I wanted to read action, action, action stories, I’d be reading Warhammer, Mack Bolan (for those who are old enough to recall them as I do… to my shame), etc.

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