Death, Doom, and Destruction

I am often suspicious of action movies. They’re not bad, as a genre. Far from it. I’ve seen some wonderful action films, and I would gladly watch them over again. But for me, that list is pretty short. I’m content to watch most movies once. It’s the same with books.

I know this will sound strange, but some action movies just simply have too much action. Hollyweird, or a goodly percentage of it, seems to think all one needs to make a great film is a story line that promotes non-stop action. All the more recent James Bond movies, for instance, have lengthy action sequences featuring one death-defying feat after another just to get the viewer to the title screen.

By the time the moving knothole featuring the intrepid “double-oh” agent rolls across the screen, most viewers are panting. They’re desperate for a break. And they always get one. In the Bond films, the action isn’t non-stop. Viewers get frequent breaks, usually for something funny and/or sexy. Or funny and sexy. Or just… n’mind.

If you’re writing a novel, or even something shorter,  you have a similar option. You can run your characters ragged, plunge them from one life-threatening scenario into another, and never let them — or your reader — catch a break. Or, you can build in something less hectic to tie those scenes together. I’d avoid filling these gaps with backstory (click HERE to find out why). Instead, I’d focus on something to make the character(s) in question more sympathetic. If that doesn’t work, there’s always humor. Or humorous sex. Or just plain old… n’mind.

Take a look at the tension timeline chart. Notice how the line marking the advance of tension is NOT a straight line. It rises and falls, then rises and falls again. It keeps doing that until the story’s climax, the pinnacle of tension. All those dips along the way represent rest stops for both the reader and the characters. They also provide handy introductions to the next bit of anxiety into which you may freely plunge your players. Sink or swim, y’all!

If, on the other hand, you try to push the action lever into full throttle mode, and never let up, as is done in any number of action films, the reader, like the movie viewer, will become numb to it all. Dropping the F-bomb into every sentence, as if no other adjectives or verbs exist has a similar effect. Whatever shock value it might have had quickly dissipates. Eyes glaze over, literally and figuratively, and the audience is lost.

Readers must have some reason to care. Characters who always win, never get hurt, and/or never have an emotional reaction to what’s going on won’t win any hearts. If they die, who cares? Why should they?

Characters can make bad choices now and then; audiences don’t mind that. And when the consequences of such choices prove funny, so much the better. But a character who never makes the right choice will quickly earn a reader’s scorn. The humor which attends the first or second such episode won’t extend to a third.

The same holds true for unrelenting doom and gloom. Your tale may focus on the moral, physical, or psychological decline of a character, and that’s fine. But if it doesn’t offer some relief along the way, readers are likely to abandon it well before the end. There has to be some way to bring a smile or a laugh to the table every once in a while. It may not be easy, but then, writing isn’t supposed to be easy.

Dark humor can be your friend.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to Death, Doom, and Destruction

  1. polinto says:

    I wonder if the way movies present non-stop action is because from youth people have been conditioned to receive all sensory input that way.

    • joshlangston says:

      That never occurred to me, but I suspect there’s a lot of truth in it. One thing that is distinctly different — film vs. book — is that one is purely visual, and for that reason it’s non-participatory. Books, on the other hand, can be multi-sensory and thereby embroil the reader much more emotionally.

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