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.