Everyone here has read something that just plods along and doesn’t seem to go anywhere or do anything. The ‘fortunate’ among us have read pieces that should be exciting – they should be riveting, edge-of-the-seat reading – but they’re not. They trudge.
I’ve certainly gone “What?” when I see these – they’re plentiful in fanfiction, mostly because fanfic contains everything from the sublime to the gor-blimey as it were, and in typical fashion, the vast majority of leans to the latter (yes, the same applies to traditionally published items as well as self-published and small and independent presses). Since I’ve been on something of an Overlord fanfic binge lately, that’s where I’ve been seeing the range of interesting.
I’m not going to claim I never committed this particular sin, either. I can guarantee I have. What matters is why it happens and how to fix it.
Part the first of course is why it happens. This, believe it or not, is the easy bit. It’s not pacing. It’s not how big the stakes are (unless you’re talking vampire-killing phallic symbols, in which case there’s no hope and you might as well go to the sparkly side where they’re really pervy). It’s whether the piece gives you a reason to care what happens.
For starters, one person’s drag-you-in-and-sink-claws-into-your-heart exciting is someone else’s ho-hum (of course, if everyone falls asleep when you hand them your precious to read, you have a problem). You’re never going to catch everyone, even if you’re baiting the hook with gold.
Then there’s the simple fact that it’s not easy to write anything that appeals to other people. The usual flaws I see in fanfic are either too much of the wrong information, or not enough of any information.
Not enough of anything usually happens first – all writers start out rather fuzzy on the notion of what to put in there and usually what ends up on the page is like the Cliff’s Notes version of what’s in their heads (and let’s face it, that’s not exactly exciting). This is when the epic, world-changing (and sometimes world-destroying) battle is over in half a page, most of it antiseptic overview. Yes, I have done this, and no, you can’t see it. I’m pretty certain I euthanized most of that a long time ago, and I’m not chasing through my archival files to find what survived.
The next phase usually ends up being too much of the wrong information. Here, that epic, world-changing battle would be wrapped in the best part of a chapter on the finer details of everyone’s armor, including what color it was. Yes, I’ve done this too. A slight variation would include all the technical specs of said armor, and of all the assorted weaponry in use. You know, so-and-so had a chestplate of unobtainium with gold filigree, and an unobtainium sword, and his bodyguards all had compound bows with fifty arrows apiece and and and and…. You get the idea. (Yes. Guilty. Everyone does it, okay. Shush.)
The thing that gets missed, at least until the writer matures a bit (which does not mean ‘gets older’, by the way) is what makes this battle so epic for the characters. If it’s your lead character’s last stand against the Big Bad, we know the stakes. If you’ve given us reason enough to care for the lead even a little bit, we’re going to be interested in what happens.
The Big Bad needs to have a stake, too. The epic last stand against the all-powerful Evil doesn’t work too well when the all-powerful Evil can just wave a hand and wipe out the other side (you do that battle at the start, to establish how difficult it’s going to be to take down the Big Bad).
The Overlord games do this part remarkably well. In Overlord (the original), the protagonist is facing a much more powerful wizard who not only set him up to fail from the start, he’s by implication going to steal the protagonist’s body and everything the player’s spent the game building. In the expansion, Raising Hell, the protagonist can’t even fight the Big Bad directly – and the Big Bad is a God who’s planning to kill the protagonist so he can finally escape the Overlord universe’s version of Hell (where his former wife – yes, a Goddess – banished him after she caught him playing a bit more than footsie with one of his worshipers). In Overlord 2, it’s win or be annihilated along with everything else with any kind of magic. Within the frame of the game world, they’re epic battles with massive stakes for the player character.
In written fiction, of course, you don’t have the easy visual cues or the immersiveness of a game world. We’re primarily visual critters, biologically speaking, with hearing taking second place. A game that has involving visuals and good sound will give the illusion that you’re there and effectively remove the externals of manipulating the game controls. In a book, the externals that go away are the awareness of words on the page and turning said pages, whether you’re holding a physical book or reading with a computer, ebook reader, smartphone, or whatever. Writers do have to work a bit harder to make this happen because we don’t have the quick and easy shortcut of graphics on a screen.
So what do we do? My primary tool is close and focused point of view. If I want my readers on the edge of their seats and crossing their legs rather than put that book down to take a much-needed bathroom break, I work from so deep into the character’s perspective that I’m not showing anything they didn’t see, hear, or otherwise notice. Then I drop that character so deep into the brown material meeting rotating blades that they don’t have room for anything except action and reaction. They’re moving, they’re responding to everything around them, but it’s all very choppy and disconnected, and they don’t think about anything because they’re too busy just staying alive.
Then I hurt the character. I drive them into pure reflex by throwing impossible odds at them and letting them almost fail before they find the key to survival (which can be as simple as pure pig-headed stubborn). For an example of it done perfectly, I’d suggest the Koom Valley sequence of Thud!, or the river sequence in Snuff (Yes, of course I’m citing Pratchett). If Pratchett isn’t your thing, look at the chase from Flinders Island in Dave’s Cuttlefish.
Sarah’s technique is a little different – she tends to have a two-pronged climax, with the inner one being the more action-oriented and the outer being more of a psychological thing – but the psychological/emotional sequence is the one that resolves the underlying danger. I’m not good enough to swing something like that, so I don’t even try.
If there’s more than one character involved, put them all at the same level of risk, and drive them all to their limits. And focus on what’s going on on the inside. It’s much more satisfying to everyone when your hero overcomes having assorted important bits broken, cut off, bleeding or crushed and wins on pig-headed can’t be having with that. Then passes out. Describe the pain. Use short words (trust me, short words really do make a piece feel like it’s moving fast), short sentences, and short paragraphs. Save the lyrical descriptions for when the hero romances the love interest, or when you’re taking a break to admire the scenery.
And don’t be afraid to get a bit purply or overdone. Half the time what you think is excessive isn’t going to register with most readers, and the rest… well, that’s what betas and editing are for.