Action vs suspense

Here’s an interesting post by Joe Moore at Kill Zone, a blog that focuses on writing topics and particularly on thrillers and mysteries: Action vs Suspense.*

As far as thrillers are concerned, I’ve found that most action scenes just get in the way of the story. What I enjoy is the anticipation of action and danger, and the threat of something that has not happened yet. When it does happen, the action scene becomes the release valve.

There’s a succinct encapsulation of the role of action. After some consideration, I think it’s true. Sometimes I become gradually unhappy with the experience of reading a particular book because I get too tense about the eventual outcome. This is always due to build up, not to the actual action. When the suspense builds up . . . and builds up . . . and builds up . . . then one of a few possible things happens:

1. I trust the author, so I keep going in the expectation that Things Will Work Out, and they do. Sometimes “working out” is pretty loosely defined, but after the action has ended and the dust settles, the resolution is at least fairly hopeful for at least some of the important characters.

2. I trust the author, so I keep going in the expectation that Things Will Work Out, and they totally do not. This would be a grimdark kind of reading experience, or perhaps a literary reading experience, and in either case I am probably done with the author forever. Tana French and Joe Abercrombe come forcefully to mind here, though I did read no fewer than four of Abercrombe’s books before I gave up and put him on my Never Again list. Oh, yeah, the move “Saw,” that was totally this kind of experience. (Why did no one WARN me???)

3. I’m not so sure I trust the author, so when I get too tense, I flip ahead and read a bit of the ending. This is really rare for me, but it does happen. And it particularly happens with a new-to-me author who is especially good at revving up the anticipation of disaster, not the author who throws in a lot of action. It’s so true that action per se is not suspenseful.

I don’t think of myself as a high suspense kind of writer, partly because I probably know more or less how the book is going to end and that Things Will Work Out and partly because I think my books are basically middle-of-the-road for suspensefulness for fantasy. But here’s what Charlotte said about MIST:

The Keeper of the Mist is one I think I will enjoy more the second time around. This first time through, right inside of the thick of the tenseness along with Keri, it was awfully hard to be relaxed and happy and delight in the fascinating magic … even though I peeked at the end, it still wasn’t enough to keep me from being tense. Because most of the time Keri is desperately trying to figure out what she should be doing in rather difficult, potentially life ending, situations, and she has to save not just herself, but her whole country.

Of course I’m really pleased with this. It’s hard for me to see the suspense building in this story even though I’m deliberately dropping Keri and everyone into one fire after another, because, well, after all, I knew through quite a lot of the actual writing how everything was going to come together to (spoiler!) save the day.

I totally understand the feeling that you’ll enjoy a book more the second time around, though. I sometimes feel exactly like that, for exactly the same reason. And there are definitely times when I prefer to read a story that has a lot less tension throughout. I think low tension is one of the primary qualities that defines a comfort read.

You know what fits into the less-tension category? Beauty and the Beast retellings.** And other fairy tale retellings. You know exactly how they’re going to come out, you know Beauty’s effort to save the Beast will work, you know there’s a happy ending. That’s part of the pleasure.

Romances are like that, too; isn’t it interesting that an entire hugely popular genre should be specifically low tension? I find myself sometimes reaching for a Regency or contemporary romance, or perhaps a cozy mystery, precisely because the last book I read offered a really successful high-tension, high-stakes, ratchet-up-the-suspense reading experience and after that I totally want a break.

So, suspense vs action. Both are great, but suspense comes via anticipation of peril, and action is the means by which the peril is resolved.

One of my very favorite thrillers, btw, is The Breach by Patrick Lee. The whole trilogy has tons of both suspense and action, plus mind-blowing plot twists. I definitely need to read the trilogy again and, now that I won’t be so caught up in the tension, really look at how Lee puts these stories together.

* This post starts with a declaration that the Nook is dead. If you click through and read the linked article, you’ll find that this is a bit of an overstatement. So far, book content on the Nook is not affected by Barnes & Noble’s revamping the Nook and what it does. However, if I had a Nook, I’d be thinking about transferring all purchased books to a laptop via Calibre, just in case. I hear there are ways to get around DRM if necessary.

** I finally did what I’ve been meaning to do for some time, and picked up samples of ALL the Beauty and the Beast retellings that anybody has ever recommended to me and put them all in a dedicated folder on my Kindle. So now I know what my go-to relaxation books will be for a while. Not that I will have a lot of time for reading in April. But now I *finally* be able to prioritize these.

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10 thoughts on “Action vs suspense”

  1. As I was reading your post I started rummaging through my mental library for books that have a great suspenseful buildup to the action, and what immediately sprang to mind was Emma Bull’s “Bone Dance.” One of my favorite authors and most often reread books. Even as I read it again, and even knowing the ending, I still feel the increasing tension – in the book, and in myself, the reader. Man, I wish she’d write some more!

  2. YES. Emma Bull is one of the authors I most wish would start bringing out a new book every year. Starting with the other half of TERRITORY.

  3. I notice it more in movies than in books. The action scenes of movies often bore me. It’s ‘oh, the obligatory chase scene, or whatever – hurry up and get back to the interesting character stuff’. Come to think of it, though, I don’t always pay much attention to action/fight scenes in books – especially if they seem to just go on and on.
    There has to be something more than just ‘action’ to keep my interest.

    One of my favorite examples of how suspense works well is the movie Apollo 13. I knew how it came out, having lived through it as well as read the book. But I am always on the edge of my seat waiting with the son of the astronaut and others on earth while everyone stops to learn whether it worked. And it’s taking longer and longer…

    i think I like the Marvel Universe movies because they get some character stuff into the action scenes.

    Books often do it similarly by paying attention to the stuff that isn’t the action, but those who will be impacted by whatever the results are.

    I am an end reader, or a flipper, sometimes due to tension, sometimes boredom. And sometimes it isn’t action tension, it’s emotional – will character get head screwed on straight in time? that sort of thing. Suspense. Definitely a part of page turners.

  4. I just this minute finished a really well done Beauty and the Beast retelling. “Masque” by W. R Gingell. Found it on a recommendation from Intisar Khanani, who wrote “Thorn”, which was a Goose Girl retelling I really liked. I really liked this Beauty – she reminded me a little of the Amelia Peabody character from Elizabeth Peters’ mystery/adventure series. With a lot more insight into the character and politics of the people around her.

  5. Re: point 2 – real good way for me to stop reading an author. Had my “Never again” moment with Bryce Courtenay because of this.
    Sometimes when the suspense really gets to me, I quickly flip to the back of the book just to see who is still alive at the end. You know, just to check that things really did work out.

  6. Elaine, yes, I’ll sometimes flip ahead out of boredom, too. Less often these days when I generally just put the book on the DNF–giveaway pile. Or delete it off my Kindle, whichever.

    One series that has great action scenes is Django Wexler’s Thousand Names series. I am very much looking forward to re-reading it from the top once the final book is out, and I will TRY to remember to see what he’s doing with the action scenes that keeps them riveting. Of course there’s always the how-the-hell-will-they-get-out-of-this aspect to many of Wexler’s action scenes; not at all a brute-force approach to combat.

    Mary Ann, thanks for passing that recommendation on! Especially since it’s free for Kindle right now. I’ll add it to my B and the B file. I do kind of wish there wasn’t a country called “New Civet” as indicated in the description, though, since I know very well that civets comprise half a dozen species of attractive mongoose relatives. I will try not to visualize a civet every time the word appears on the page.

    Kootch, exactly, and I’m making a mental note to be extra wary of Bryce Courtenay.

  7. The main kind of tension that I can’t abide is that caused by willful miscommunication between characters. It’s more a symptom bad plotting than bad pacing, but if part of a book’s conflict could be avoided by two people sitting down and having a conversation like adults for 5 minutes then I will be flinging the book at a wall and ranting up a storm. I don’t even care if I know everything will work out — sometimes that just makes it worse! That’s obviously something very common in YA books (where maybe they can’t be expected to act like adults; no, I still expect them to reconsider conclusions jumped to in haste.)

    I feel the problem with action scenes comes when the action happening to the characters rather than by them. If two characters are in a street fight I don’t need a play-by-play of blows that would bore me to tears, but rather a view of how the character’s traits, be they resourcefulness, intelligence, or whatever, come into play. I like Bujold’s Miles books as an example of this, epecially when Miles was young.

  8. While I feel that it is okay for an author to set up a plot that hinges on the two main characters not talking to one another, and where simply chatting for five minutes would resolve everything . . . after all, this is a wide world and no doubt someone out there finds that appealing . . . I HATE THIS WITH THE PASSION OF A THOUSAND SUNS. I will be right there with you, ranting and flinging.

  9. One last recommendation – S. L. Huang writes a series, Russel’s Attic, which reads like watching “The Matrix” or “Die Hard” on a caffeine buzz. With great characterization. I like action movies but I don’t usually read “action” books, but since I had read a short story by Huang (from the Book Smugglers first anthology) I gave this series a try, and I was hooked. The action is really good, the sci-fi world building is better and the characters are great.

  10. I get the no-stress/avoid-suspense attitude. Usually I love books and movies with action and peril (and of course, danger and heroes who have to save the day!), but when life gets stressful, I try to stick to something that doesn’t make me more stressed…even if it’s temporarily, and for a character. During my first two semesters at college I couldn’t watch or read anything with peril. I was so busy figuring out college life and what professors wanted from me, that even when I started watching the 70s cartoon of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe I had to stop halfway through because it was making me too anxious for the characters! :D It’s funny–the only thing I could read during freshman year was college textbooks and maybe Get Fuzzy or Calvin and Hobbes comics, and the only movie I watched (repeatedly) was The Emperor’s New Groove. It was such a relief to just laugh and not work/be graded! Now that I’m past this *cough* neurotic *cough* phase, I’m glad to say I’m back to loving peril and adventure.

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