Action vs. Suspense

By Joe Moore

BREAKING NEWS: On the 15th of March, 44 B.C., a group of Roman Senators approached Julius Caesar while he sat on his golden throne, produced daggers and assassinated the emperor by stabbing him 23 times. His death paved the way for the Roman Empire and made his name a household word. Even now, Beware the Ides of March still carries a dark warning. Hopefully, everyone made it through the Ides of March unscathed.

A similar event occurred on the Ides of March, 2016. Yesterday, Barnes & Noble put the final kibosh on the future of the NOOK by giving customers a week to salvage their purchase content. NOOK sales decreased 33% for the quarter. Digital content sales were down 23%. Device and accessory sales down 44%. Online sales declined 12.5%. Kindle is now and always was the undisputed Lord Of The E-readers. And one Amazon to rule them all.

And now this.

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 it to create suspense. They load up their stories with endless gun battles, car chases, and daredevil stunts as the heroes are being chased across 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?

Do you like the anticipation of action more than the action itself?

40 thoughts on “Action vs. Suspense

  1. What was it Willy Wonka said?

    “The suspense is terrible.
    “I hope it’ll last.”


  2. I enjoyed this. I’ve only ever read one action scene that I enjoyed (a chase scene in an abandoned hospital). I found that in an otherwise mediocre book. For me, suspense is king! Thank you for the post: sharing!

    • Thanks, Adrian. Most movie chase scene’s are just BULLET wannabees. BULLET set the standard and is rarely equaled. There is a chase scene in the movie NIGHTCRAWLER that will blow you away. Check it out.

  3. Great post, Joe!
    I am one of those who confuses action with suspense. And mostly because I understand action as synonym for suspense and less as action in a gun-shooting scene.
    But I agree there is difference. Action can lead to success (and suspense 🙂 ) if it captivates the reader and if it brings the story forward.
    Thanks again for clarifying this for me. 🙂

      • Yes, TKZ definitely rocks and I read almost each post, although I don’ manage to comment each of them. And I advertise it a lot at the courses I teach and with my friends (both students and teachers).
        And thank you for all the work behind the scenes of this page. I really like the layout and the way it is organized now. 🙂

  4. First — Based on the interpretation of the email I got, B&N said it was APPS, not Nook books that were going to stop being offered. No new app purchases, but anything already on a device would be there. In the UK, they’re stopping the nook books, but they’re still functioning in the US.
    From the article you linked to:

    “That’s when the firm will no longer offer third party applications from the Nook Store. That’s a decision fuelled by the success of Google’s Play Store which runs on B&N devices and has been inevitably far more successful.

    This decision impacts every tablet B&N has ever made, but the company insists that all existing Apps previously downloaded from the NOOK Store will remain in customers Nook Library and will continue to be accessible on compatible Nook devices.”

    Is it the first step in the demise of the Nook as an e-book reader? Maybe, but for now, you can still buy and read ebooks on a Nook.

    I’ll go back and read the action/suspense part of your article and comment on that later, but I wanted to get my take on the B&N article out there first.

    • No company will continue to sell and support a product that produces dismal numbers like the NOOK. I believe that no matter how soft they try to make the blow, the NOOK is on its last leg.

      • That’s all well and good, but it’s not removing nook books in the US yet. There was another dedicated ebook store (not an e-reader; those hadn’t been invented yet) that closed, and made content available via other channels. I think it was the Nook store that transferred content. And when Sony gave up the ghost, Kobo took over. I just hope the world’s largest river isn’t going to be the only option.

  5. And, as for your action/suspense discussion. If you don’t care about the character, you can’t care about the fighting, chasing, explosions, and the rest. I recall the pilot episode for the then new Hawaii 5-0 television series. A whole bunch of fighting going on, but who were the players? Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Same goes for opening novels with battle scenes, etc. Until your reader knows who your characters are, and why they should care, it’s asking them to invest time in something they don’t understand.

    In my first Blackthorne book, I summarized an action scene with a reference to how what seemed like hours had been only seven minutes. My editor asked for those 7 minutes on the page. But since this was near the end of the book, readers (I hope) were invested in both the characters and the outcome.

    As a reader, I skim action scenes. I figure the good guy’s going to win and I don’t need the choreography.

  6. I completely agree with you, Joe. I seldom read books characterized as pure suspense anymore because they are filled with action scenes and bore me. I will read suspense (like yours and Lynn’s) if reviewers or someone I know recommends it for more than its action sequences: great characters and great story.

    • Thanks for the endorsement, Jagoda. Keep an eye out this spring for our next thriller, BRAIN TRUST. We dig into the dark side of big pharma.

  7. Wow – first I heard about Caesar (I’ve been in Gaul for a while). According to the Daily Gladiator, the perps escaped in modified turbo-chariots. Two centurions were wounded in the ensuing sword fight. Last reports indicate that the Senators may be heading for an impregnable fortress called The Capitol. Stay tuned!

    • Stephen, news out of Italy is very slow these days. I’m doing my part to get the word out. Thanks for adding your colorful commentary.

  8. This is exactly why I almost gave up on Daniel Craig as James Bond. Quantum of Solace was so boooooring. BAM! BOOM! SCREECH! DEAD GUY…CRASH! FOUR DEAD GUYS….yawn.

    But on a rainy cold night in Paris, with only CNN available on TV, we decide to go to the local cinema and try our luck on “SkyFall.” What a good movie, even with French subtitles! And as Joe says, it was because it wasn’t all action and mayhem. It had story, quiet moments, and…wait for it…character arcs.

    • You just had to get that Paris thing in again, didn’t you. 🙂 I totally agree, Kris, SKYFALL was as good as QUANTUM OF SOLACE was bad. I’m still a big Daniel Craig fan and really enjoyed SPECTRE. Hopefully, they’ll stay on track now.

  9. I asked essentially this question last week: what is the difference between a thriller and an action-adventure novel? I basically got a collective shrug or guessed-at answers from several writers. I’m not blaming them, though some of those writers were college professors and heads of college and university creative writing programs. (I had written them to ask whether, in their creative writing MFA programs, they taught the literary or generic novel; I told them I write thrillers.)

    The blog today gives me a whole lot more advice about my question than I had yesterday.

    Now, my answer to today’s question is a matter of my personal preference. Do I like the action more than the anticipation of action? For me, the answer is, no. I like the action. I kid my wife when she’s watching one of her women’s movie channels, and I’m reading a novel, doing research, or other. I tell her that I could watch the love story, or what I call the sappy stories, with her if someone would occasionally blow up the dad-gummed ranch or the country inn. Or if the Loris and the Lisas and the Jennifers had sometimes to hold off invading terrorists in raging gun fights. Or if the beloved horse or dog would disarm a bad guy. We don’t watch television too often together. But she loves me anyway.

    • Jim, my wife and I solved this dilemma many years ago. On Friday nights, we have Loud Movie Night. I get to pick out a movie that, based on its content, should be viewed with the audio turned up higher than normal. Pretty much anything that has Arnold Swarchenegger in it would fall into this category. On Sunday nights, we have Comedy and Romance Movie Night. The title says it all. Turns out, she’s liked quite a few of my picks, and I hers.

      Let me add that the last person I would ask a question concerning writing fiction would be an academic. What is it they say: Those who can’t do, teach.

      • One of my favorite movies is The Guns of Navarone. Great story, some cool quiet moments, and big giant explosions at end with whooping war ships!

    • Sounds like our house. We promise each other 15 minutes of a movie on movie night. Hubster keeps asking “When’s there going to be a dead body? When are they going to blow something up?”

  10. Good suggestions. Thanks.

    And you’re right about academics. I’m wondering whether or not an old man–I–would benefit from getting into an MFA program.

    (I once wrote a best-selling author, a writer-in-residence, at some school or another. In those days, writing meant typing a letter with carbon copy, addressing an envelope, affixing a stamp, and depositing it into a mailbox of some kind. I told him I wanted to write thrillers, action-adventure, and science fiction. You could hear the ahem and the sniff all the way from Tucson. He essentially said, “Don’t waste the university’s and my time applying for admission. We teach novel writing, not Tomfoolery, here.” And, by the way, he and I were of the same tribe but not of the same mountain. His mountain, well . . . )

    God bless.

  11. I’d give a big “like” to this post if it were possible. The key is understanding basic concepts like suspense, action, surprise, thriller, mystery, etc. It surprises me how often people aren’t able to distinguish these. I always like the way Alfred Hitchcock described suspense: “Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you’ve given them that information. In five minutes time that bomb will go off. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they’re saying to you, “Don’t be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There’s a bomb under there.” You’ve got the audience working.” (There are other similar quotes from him on this.)

    With suspense you are waiting for something significant to happen. Will the bomb go off? The audience knows X is the bomber, but will Y figure this out before X shoots him/her/sets off another bomb? In a mystery it’s all about the quest for the revelation.

    An action scene can be suspenseful – Will Luke kill the Death Star? – but sometimes action is just action. When the action is divorced from character development and/or narrative propulsion it becomes boring. I like a good explosion as much as the next person, but explosion after car chase after explosion without a narrative purpose is a waste.

    IMO action is also much more difficult on the page than onscreen. Take that 10 minute car chase in Bullitt, and write it out. It will be boring. Without the visual it can’t be sustained. It’s hard to make it meaningful, and not just mechanical.

    And here’s why the above mentioned Skyfall works (I’m referring to the final sequence). It combines suspense, action, and surprise. Our heroes are few, isolated, and outgunned. You know the baddies are coming. Will our heroes make it? How? This is pure suspense. The action comes after dark. How many baddies are there? Where are they? The action, the gunfire, the makeshift explosions, all have meaning in this struggle. And don’t forget the surprise, i.e. the fate of a major character. Who saw that coming 20 minutes earlier?

    As to my preference I like the suspense, but I want a payoff, too. And I’m good with an explosion or two along the way. 😉

  12. Thanks for this topic. What always confuses me is this advice: Start your novel mid-action. I did this, sent the novel to an editor, and she said, “Back up. Tell me about the characters.” So there’s the challenge, starting a novel with tension that will eventually lead to action.

    • ‘Scuse me for barging in again. But see? The matter of back story STILL hasn’t been settled. I support back story inclusion.

      • Jim, be careful here. Backstory is important but not at the beginning. Through a character’s actions and reactions, we get attached to them–just enough to care what happens to the character. Don’t confuse that with backstory. Like Brother Jim Bell always says, “Act first, explain later.”

    • Nancy, I suspect that the editor wanted you to tell us just enough about your protagonist that we form a connection with him/her. This is why the first chapter of just about every book is the most re-written.

  13. This comment has very little to do with writing—it only relates, in as far, as writing relates to books and book sales.
    I’m sorry for Barns & Noble, I really like their books stores—a little pricey—but aren’t they all? However, my digression asside—B&N listened to bad marketing advice with respect to the Nook when it first appeared. They should have taken a page from George Eastman’s marketing book, regard to Kodak at the turn of the last century. Eastman realized that he was not in the camera business, he was in the film business and subsequently he gave cameras away in order to sell more film. The same should have been true at B&N; they were, and still are not, in the business of selling books—thay are not, and should never have been, in the electronic business. The Nook should have been given away FREE from the very beginning. If they had done that I’m confident that they would be on the top of the e-book business mountain now, and not Amazon. Now, as for Kodak, the newer generation of management leaders at Kodak dragged their feet with regard to digital photography (they waited far too long to embrace the newer technology) subsequently they are no longer the dominate company in photography, and they’ve lost a lot of the film business as well. Good management decisions, ie. Kodak, can be profitable for a company, and bad decisions ad management decisions can kill a company.

    • Little bobo there—it pays to proofread

      The same should have been true at B&N; they were, and still are not, in the business of selling books—thay are not, and should never have been, in the electronic business.
      That sentence should have read:
      The same should have been true at B&N; they were, and still are, in the business of selling books—thay are not, and should never have been, in the electronic business.

    • Thanks, Tom. Kodak dominated the film industry for decades until one day there was no more film industry. Like you said, they’ve struggled since then. There’s a story that Eastman once asked an employee what business they were in. The man replied “film”. Eastman said no, Kodak was in the business of “preserving memories”.

  14. Examples of real suspense are the stories of Cornell Woolrich and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. They came together in the movie Rear Window (1954). Even after all these years, that movie will make you squirm in your seat.

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