Characters, setting, action!

One of the slowest and most painful part of downsizing for a move to a much smaller house is the process of evaluating our books: what to donate, what to keep? The First Reader and I are accumulating a stack of once-loved books that we just want to read one more time before giving them away. This led, last night, to his abandoning an old novel of Roman Britain halfway through. “There are just too many words for too little action,” he told me.

Hmm. What about the reverse? For instance, I read a lot of urban fantasy because that’s sort of what I write. Well, I try to read a lot of urban fantasy, ok? And I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve discarded after a couple of chapters because they’ve got too much action for too few words – or, specifically, for too little character and setting. Nowadays I check out the free samples from Amazon rather than downloading the whole book – even if it’s “free” with Kindle Unlimited – to weed out a type I know I won’t like.

It’s a cliché by now: the young woman with various supernatural skills engaged in no-holds-barred magical and physical battle with werewolves, or vampires, or evil mages, or what have you. Page after page devoted to descriptions of lights and magical auras and this spell and that spell, plus a generous helping of wounds and gore… By the end of the sample, at best I’m thinking that I don’t really care about what magical trick the author pulls out of her sleeve next; at worst, I’m rooting for the protagonist to go down, because the werewolves are more interesting.

I feel that there’s been a steady progression over the last couple of hundred years from words to action in novels, and if some of that is an improvement, now a lot of new writers have taken it too far for my taste. I’ll admit that I find it hard to read some of Dickens’ novels without muttering to myself, “Paid by the word, paid by the word!” There are huge chunks of Trollope that make me feel that his vaunted work ethic wasn’t always a good thing, that on some days he must have been thinking, “I have no idea where this story is going, so I think I’ll fill up my allotted pages with ruminations on architecture in this century.”

They were, of course, writing without the competition from movies and TV that modern-day writers have to deal with. Probably most of their audience liked a big thick book because it would last longer. (In the case of the early three-volume Gothic romances, I frequently felt as though the book would outlast my projected life span. I read a lot of them for Salt Magic. Research isn’t always fun.)

Now? Well, we’re advised to start with an opening that grabs the readers immediately and draws them into the action. We notice that a lot of TV shows depend on orchestrated fist fights to pad out the plots, because evidently the scriptwriters can’t think up a mere forty-five minutes worth of story. One shudders to think what they would have made of the requirement to come up with three volumes of words. And so a lot of writers don’t bother setting the scene or letting readers get to know the characters. They start in medias res. If it was good enough for Virgil, it’s good enough for them, right?

Trouble is, I get bored after too many pages of constant sword-and-spell play if I don’t have a reason to care what happens. It’s as bad as too many pages devoted to the early lives of the protagonists’ grandparents.

What’s the approximate blend of action and setting that gets you interested enough to continue reading? Or, what blend do you aim for in writing?

Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay

20 comments

  1. I’m a terrible judge of action and setting in writing; I think my own books are slow and filled with lots of non-action moments, certainly very few fight scenes. *checks reviews* My readers clearly think otherwise.

    On the one hand, I also agree that word upon word is painfully tedious: it took a long airport layover for me to finally read The Fellowship of the Ring, because there was nothing else to do and I had to stay awake. It then took two years for me to plow determinedly through The Two Towers, and I’m pretty sure I ended up skimming parts of it and of The Return of the King anyway. (I know, this makes me a heretic.)

    On the other hand, I want a reason to care about the main characters besides “Oh no, they got jumped by werewolves”. I am heartily sick and tired of “I am a Strong Female Character who’s emotionally abusive of any male who likes me, and half vampire, half werewolf, half lamia, with a touch of pheonix on my mother’s side when the author needs a deus ex machina. And my arch rival Studly Non-Human is in lust with me. But I live in a run-down part of town and totally have money problems, and I just got threatened, so sympathize with me me me!”

    The more I care about the characters, the more setting I’ll explore along with them, and the more slow scenes I’m happy to savour. (To a point. Sorry, Tolkein, Tad Williams, and Brandon Sanderson.)

    1. I am heartily sick and tired of “I am a Strong Female Character who’s emotionally abusive of any male who likes me, and half vampire, half werewolf, half lamia, with a touch of pheonix on my mother’s side when the author needs a deus ex machina. And my arch rival Studly Non-Human is in lust with me. But I live in a run-down part of town and totally have money problems, and I just got threatened, so sympathize with me me me!”

      I agree so much and this type of female character is spreading outside of urban fantasy as well.

  2. Oh wait, you mean we’re supposed to do this on purpose?

    Umm, I tend to do a lot of balancing after the first draft is done. Not that I actually have any numerical goal, I just sort go, this is getting boring, enough naval gazing. If not a fight, at least something else to change the tone or pace.

  3. An old novel of Roman Britain? Gimme.

    As to those cookie-cutter urban fantasies with their relentlessly snarky and perky protags and their self-made problems, yonder is the dumpster.

    As to where the balance lies… sometimes with scads of action, sometimes with words and words and words. It Depends, on the story and on my mood.

    When I’m writing, it takes care of itself. I don’t think about it. It takes as many words and moves as much as needs be to reach the end of the scene, and of the book. If it pleases myself, it’s right, and it’ll equally please “my” readers.

  4. There’s a flow to a story, I cannot quantify it, as it changes often, but I know it when I read it. It’s like a cookie, too many chocolate chips and it’s not a cookie anymore, too few and I feel cheated.

  5. “Trouble is, I get bored after too many pages of constant sword-and-spell play if I don’t have a reason to care what happens.”

    There needs to be a -reason- for the action sequence. In a comic book the reason is “fight scene in every issue!” so you get lots and lots of pointless action that doesn’t forward the plot, if there even is one. But in a comic that’s okay, pointless action is the reason for having a comic at all.

    In a book, “and then they got jumped by werewolves” gets old pretty fast. It isn’t believable that all these monsters are lurking around and they all just happen to jump Our Heroine in every chapter. She never seems to smarten up either, and keeps walking into the ambush time after time. Wouldn’t you start looking at your surroundings and say “gee, last time I was in a place like this I got jumped by werewolves. Maybe this time we should go around the back, trusty sidekick.”

    On the other hand, those “jumped by werewolves” books seem to sell pretty good, so maybe there’s something in that. ~:D

    Bottom line, John Wick works as a movie or a comic. As a book? Doubtful. It would take a lot of doing to make that interesting.

    1. If the protagonists of these novels had trusty sidekicks, they wouldn’t get ambushed so much.

      Unfortunately, they are Strong Independent Women Who Don’t Need No Help.

      1. I read a kid’s book in which the heroine scornfully declared that anyone who needs to be rescued doesn’t deserve it. And despite such blatant tempting of Nemesis, does not need rescue. The book did not benefit from it.

          1. Too many, alas. I skim the kids’ and YA sections of the regional B&N every so often. And they wonder why kids don’t like to read? “Self-rescuing princesses,” or one about a prince who wants to stay home and be domestic and a princess who wants to slay dragons, those are the sorts of things getting the push marketing and end-cap space.

          2. The usual sort that seeks access to the children of others?

            Perhaps I am too cynical about the policies and bureaucracies of public school.

          3. That’s just being a Strong Female Character. (And she was saying this to a giant who had just admitted to killing princesses.)

  6. They’re not mutually exclusive. You can show a lot about a character in an action sequence.

    I like action-packed stories, when the action makes sense.
    If the action is just thud and blunder, count me out.

    I like slower stories, where the setting is fleshed out and explored.
    But mentioning an interesting landmark that we pass by does not imply that it needs to come up later, and be significant to the story.

    Contrived coincidence is bad.

  7. I haven’t slept enough, and am too antsy now to sit still, and try to finish the death march early.

    Discussion here is talking about a lot of types of story element, and subtle mixtures thereof.

    I’m pattern matching the thoughts to stuff I’ve enjoyed reading recently. This gives me responses, but not a coherent one.

    Some of the trade off/mixing is personal taste.

    And mine might be way off. If we skip over the one I’ve talked about too much, the second on my list of recent stories deeply into is a fanfic of a grimdark superhero webnovel. And not just any fanfic, it is basically a litRPG, where the MC’s super power is basically getting more super powers curated from a wide range of fiction.

    So, a combination of tastes that may be very strange. It works for me, but I might not want to read a dozen imitators. Even if there were a dozen imitators, or a bunch more imitators and perhaps a dozen are really good. I would get very tired of it were I to search through a bunch of bad imitators finding the great imitations.

    And I say that as someone whose current mess of incoherent story design attempt /is/ considering how to do an imitation. That would probably be bad.

  8. I like a setting opener, with hints of something interesting about the character. I think it was _The Blue Sword_ that begins with Harry waking up early and dressing herself, to the scandal of the poor maid who wants to help her. Harry sits in the window seat and looks out . . . at what? Why is she restless, and self-sufficient, and why is this Odd? Why is she on the frontier of the empire?

    But I’m Odd, in that I like landscape-as-character stories as well as action stories. And I fourth? fifth? the “oh gads, not another one of THOSE paranormerotica heroines.” (Yes, I really do need to get to work on the next Elect story, now that my research book has arrived.)

  9. It needs to have a point. Unless the novel is about armor, I don’t care what happens to your poldruns (or whatever the shoulder things are called). Unless the novel is about strategic war gamming, don’t start every battle with a list of the units and equipment about to engage. In all cases, please spare me from frigates, cruisers, and destroyers – unless you DEFINE THE TERMS!!!! (sorry, pet peeve there – the words are meaningless in our world, let alone some fictional non-naval context.)

  10. There’s nothing like doing a race through the entire Wheel of Time series (14 bks & prologue) competing with my husband to get one thinking about pros/cons in this topic. (I wish I had those hours of my life back, but completism…)

    I’m OK with action starting a book as long as I can get a handle on the characters promptly to give me a reason to care. What I’m really starting to have a problem with (hence my intro sentence) is endless pointless description and endlessly repeated character cliches (of the “do they never change/learn?” variety). Unchanging people and irrelevant setting are not cured by action alone.

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