Suspense vs. Action

By Joe Moore

Back in 1993, country singer Toby Keith had a hit with the song “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action”. That was a great hook for a song, but the concept doesn’t always work for thrillers. I’ve found that one of the mistakes beginning writers often make is confusing action with suspense; they assume a thriller must be filled with action to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across town or continents with a relentless batch of baddies hot in pursuit. The result can begin to look like the Perils of Pauline; jumping from one fire to another. What many beginning thriller writers don’t realize is that heavy-handed action usually produces boredom, not thrills.

When there’s too much action, you can wind up with a story that lacks tension and suspense. The reader becomes bored and never really cares about who lives or who wins. If they actually finish the book, it’s probably because they’re trapped on a coast-to-coast flight or inside a vacation hotel room while it’s pouring down rain outside.

Too much action becomes even more apparent in the movies. The James Bond film Quantum Of Solace is an example. The story was so buried in action that by the end, I simply didn’t care. All I wanted to happen was for it to be over. Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences were visually amazing, but special effects and outlandish stunts can only thrill for a short time. They can’t take the place of strong character development, crisp dialogue and clever plotting.

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.

I believe that writing an action scene can be fairly easy. What’s difficult is writing a suspenseful story without having to rely on tons of action. Doing so takes skill. Anyone can write a chase sequence or describe a shoot-out. The trick is not to confuse action with suspense. Guns, fast cars and rollercoaster-like chase scenes are fun, but do they really get the reader’s heart pumping. Or is it the lead-up to the chase, the anticipation of the kill, the breathless suspense of knowing that danger is waiting just around the corner? Always try for a little less action and a lot more thrills.

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31 thoughts on “Suspense vs. Action

  1. Well now I know what song is going to be playing in my head all day. 😎 Haven’t heard that Toby Keith song in a while….

  2. Yeah, Joe. Thanks for the ear worm song.

    Great take on suspense. The Die Hard movies are a good example of this. The action scenes are abundant, but what makes moviegoers coming back for repeats is the little guy taking down the big bad meanies (plot twists), the relationships in the movie (characters we care about), and the fun humor and dialogue one liners (fun memorable dialogue).

  3. And the sequels – as sequels almost always do – made the mistake of thinking that the explosions and chases were what audiences liked and ignored the carefully crafted characters and relationships that audiences really connected with. When the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie was coming out and in an interview Orlando Bloom promised three times it would be “bigger and better,” all I could think was “Uh oh.” Action has to keep cranking up the tension, keep raising the stakes, or its just a series of visual spectacles and sight gags getting in the way of the story.

  4. There is no suspense if we don’t care about the characters. I took my kids once to an LA production of Romeo and Juliet, in which the lead actors (from American TV) simply were not up to the task of performing or speaking Shakespeare onstage. About 2 1/2 hours in my daughter turns to me and says, “Can’t they just die already?”

  5. What keeps me coming back to a series are the relationships and the humor. If it’s all car chases and explosions, no thanks. The latest Superman film is an example of special effects going on WAY too long. In a novel, you have to balance action with quieter scenes of reaction/reflection followed by a decision that propels the plot forward.

    • Couldn’t agree more about the new Superman movie. Most of the action scenes negated all the good aspects of this iconic character, ie, worrying about innocent bystanders, for the sake of more special effects. Boring fight when neither can actually hurt the other. And then to reverse that premise when one snaps the neck of the other. Really? All that whacking one another did nothing but a simple neck snap takes out the baddie???

  6. I just finished “Gone Girl” and “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I was thinking about how both had little outright action, yet both kept me reading with tension and conflict. When the action did come in these books, I was riveted.

  7. Preach on Brother Joe. I am so with you on this subject…so tired of thrillers that read like bad movie scripts written by guys who watch too many video games.

    Funny you should mention “Quantam of Solace.” Everyone said, oh you gotta see it, it’s so great.” What a yawner. And if you compare it to “Sky Fall” — a really good Bond flick — you really can see what happens when a story is larded with dumb action versus a story that slows down to explore character and motivation.

  8. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for the pep talk. I am currently writing one of the pivotal scenes of my WIP. The cops are revealing what they want from the MC and what they are willing to do to get it. She has a bombshell to offer at the end of it.

    It is 6 people sitting around a conference table. My own tension is palpable as I try to craft the conversation so it is not just a screenplay. I hope I can transfer my own nervous energy to the page.

    There will be a huge chase/shooting/mayhem scene later, but I hope it comes off as part of as gravy, not meat and potatoes.

    Terri

    • What makes dialogue truly effective and memorable is the underlying subtext, like two people maneuvering in a chess match, jockeying for position with something to lose. Sounds like your scene. Go girl.

    • Terri, as a writer, it’s impossible to hide your emotions from the reader. If they’re real, they will come through to the reader. Good luck.

  9. Oh, I agree 100%.

    As with a lot of other things, balancing is the name of the game.

    As for Quantum of Solace…as an Ian Fleming fan, I must say that the movie has NOTHING to do with the short story from which they borrowed the title.

    Funny, the original story has absolutely no action scene at all!

  10. What a timely post! I just finished working through edits on a story where my editor demanded more suspense/buildup before every major scene. My brain’s exhausted from writing five different ramp-ups. But it makes the story so much better!

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