Action vs. Suspense

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

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?

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