A Padawan’s Journal #39: The End Game.

So, we’ve been building this novel / roller coaster, see. And it has lots of loops and drops and steep inclines and some wild twists and turns.

At some point, the writer faces the final glide home. Which leads to an interesting question—at least one that’s interesting to me: Can you have too much action and too many plot twists and turns in a book?

I ponder this sometimes. Sometimes it’s just a general quandary and sometimes—like now, for instance—it involves an actual decision that needs to be made. Do we give the reader and the characters one more loop-de-lou before the end … or not?

Is there such a thing as too much action or too much high tension writing? I, personally, think the answer is “yes.”

Edgar Allen Poe said that keeping the tension high in a story wore the reader out emotionally, causing fatigue. I guess they didn’t have rollercoasters on the east coast of the US back in the day, so Edgar (one of my literary childhood heroes) described the necessity of having peaks and valleys in a story to keep the reader engaged emotionally.

On a more personal note, I recall having an editor tell me that there was too much action in a novel I’d written. He asked me to ramp it back and increase the level of political intrigue because it … well, he found it intriguing. I made the edits he requested because I agreed with him and I was happy to have an editor confirm what I felt about the story myself. (That novel—Laldasa—is available in eBook format, by the way, here at the Book View Café and on Amazon.com.)

This idea—that a book can have too much action, or too little—is called “pacing.” It’s not just about action. It’s about tension, dialogue, exposition—the pace at which the writer reveals things to the reader. It’s about balancing these things out so that we don’t bore the reader, confuse her or wear her out.

So, here I sit, contemplating one last wild hairpin turn. Will you like it, dear Reader? Or will I have worn you out?

What criteria do I use to decide? I consider such things as the pacing of the story up until now, how “finished” it feels, how logical the turn is (even if unexpected) in the flow of the plot. Ultimately, though, it comes down to a gut level feeling. Intuition or instinct, maybe—a sense of “rightness.”

What do my instincts tell me?

Prepare yourselves for one last hairpin turn.

Visit Maya’s Bookshelf.



A Padawan’s Journal #39: The End Game. — 9 Comments

  1. In the comic books they -often- pile on action and trauma until it becomes meaningless. Let’s kill Gwen Stacy! No wait, we’ll off Aunt May as well, we wouldn’t want to skimp. And while we’re at it let’s throw the entire staff of the Daily Bugle onto the sacrificial pyre!
    Action is pointless UNLESS it has an impact on the characters. And you cannot suck the full impact of it out if there is too much.

  2. I’ve given up reading “thrillers.” The disaster after disaster after disaster with little or no break becomes contrived by p 100 in a 500 page book.

    When the action become artificial, cut back to the plot and tell the story. Don’t just keep piling it on.

    I’m reminded of a production of “MacBeth” in a college drama class. The student director decided it was too long for modern audiences. He cut out all the comic relief and the gentle scenes. By the end of Act III the audience burst into great peals of laughter everytime a head got lopped off. Too much tension is not a good thing.


  3. I agree with both of you. I’ve read any number of books that instead of giving the reader a deus ex machina to save the characters, the writer contrives daemons ex machina to foil them again and again. And “contrives” is the operative word here. The plot feels contrived.

    I just finished reading Laurie King’s most recent Mary Russell novel and while I love her writing and her characters, I found the stack of physically harrowing action sequences left an empty feeling in my stomach while I still had questions about more subtle elements of the book. AND it’s a “to be continued” plot, as well, the story is far from resolved. This would not bother me so much, I think, if there hadn’t been so much action that seemed it was only there to prolong the plot.

    Don’t get me wrong — I loved the book anyway, It was fascinating and a real chance to put my detective cap on. But…

    My favorite part of any book is the dialogue and to me, it’s where the most exciting things happen. Action sequences are also hard to follow if they’re not well written and I have to say, I feel a great deal of satisfaction when one turns out well.

  4. It comes down to what you’re reading the book -for-. People who read porn know exactly what they’re reading for; that’s why the plot is vestigial and the characters are stock. (One of the British papers had a great slide show the other day, on the Ten Standard Porn Openings — the randy plumbers, the lost pizza delivery guy, etc.)
    Action mavens obviously cannot have too much action — there must be people who enjoy books like this, otherwise why would there be so many of them?

  5. For contemporary Hollywood movies, there are several reasons to schedule a car crash or gunfight every six minutes. For one, it obviates the need for dialogue (good for international box office receipts). For another, it triggers the fight-or-flight reaction from the audience, which keeps them too distracted to notice that all too often their intelligence is being insulted.

    Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

  6. some writers claim that coincidence that works against the character is just fine.

    no. even when it’s not a windfall, even when it’s a disaster, there comes a point where the reader think you, the author, just threw that in there to hose down the character

  7. Another great example of Excessive Character Pounding is the Amelia Peabody detective novels. The romantic situation with son Ramses just became too much for me to read them any more.

  8. There’s certainly an audience for all-dark, all-angst, all-action all the time, but I think most readers like a little contrast.

  9. My take on it is that if the reader even has a split second thought that you put a plot development in just to “hose down” the character (I LOVE that phrase), you’ve over-indulged your inner Puppet Master.

    The only book of fiction I ever destroyed outright (literally tore it apart and burned it) was because I found the writer’s manipulation of his characters so egregious that I couldn’t read any more. I usually save books like that for my writings workshops. This one was so bad it rendered me speechless and the lizard brain took over.

    No, I do not remember the name of the author or the title of the book. I made a point of forgetting them so I’d never intentionally insult him.