Today’s post is guest piece graciously contributed by the inimitable Max Gladstone.
There’s more to life than stabbing people in the gut. Or melting their faces off with a fireball. Or being dropped out of a helicopter, or tortured with a potato peeler.
I know, I know, I know, some days it doesn’t seem that way. Especially for writers! We get this message all the time: more action, more drama. Raise the stakes. Set threat level to DEFCON 2. And that’s great advice, especially since big brassy external threats are easy for readers, writers, and editors to understand. They’re also a great way to pace up laggy sections of manuscript: everything’s more interesting when you’re running from a shadow demon. When Haruki Murakami wants to discuss Hegel, he’s smart to hide it in a sex scene like a dog pill in a pat of butter.
Problem is, your story doesn’t always want DEFCON 2. Perhaps you’re aiming for a softer pace, or subtler. Maybe your story’s all about careful machinations and schemes, and Jason Vorhees racing through chainsaw held high will wreck your plans and mood both. Maybe you’re writing TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and don’t want it to become James Bond.
The first step (for me anyway) is to realize that action in a vacuum isn’t enough to carry a story. Watch a bad action movie and you’ll find yourself yawning in the middle of a machine gun battle or a giant robot slugfest. That’s the adrenaline wearing off. The pure sweet monkey reaction to BIG STUFF MOVE FAST won’t carry you through a single two-hour sitting, let alone the three to four hours distributed over a couple days it’ll take most people to read most books. But if action by itself doesn’t work, why do we feel action helps stories?
The answer—I think—comes down to clarity of purpose. In a traditional action sequence, desire lines are clear. Your central character wants, desperately, to escape the guy with the gun. To get out of the chair. To force the bartender to answer a question. The other characters in the scene have equally clear and conflicting desires: to shoot the main character. To keep her captive. To keep his damn mouth shut.
That clarity of purpose makes action work for us. We know, in Taken, why Liam Neeson punches any given guy in the throat: he needs to get through him to find his daughter. We know, in Edge of Tomorrow, what Cage wants in every single scene—and even better, he wants something different each time! We know, when Rild blocks Yama’s path in Lord of Light, that he hopes to keep the Death God from killing the Buddha. When Aeryn rides into the valley to fight the great dragon Maur in The Hero and the Crown, it’s clear what she wants, and what’s arrayed against her.
If action doesn’t work for a particular segment of story, your job as a writer is to replicate that same effect. You have to know what your characters want. And I don’t mean want in some nameless, formless sense, or in the Babylon 5 ultimate-answer-to-the-core-of-your-being way. I mean, in this scene, what change do your characters wish to bring to pass in the world, and what’s stopping them? Your nurse might want to replace an IV bag and get on with the rest of his shift, not listen to the wounded detective talk about her daughter. Your soldier might want to justify her actions on the battlefield; hell, she might just want a cup of coffee.
Clarity is all the more important when your characters can’t talk about what they really want—a common issue in my writing these days. There’s a scene early in FULL FATHOM FIVE where one character, Mara, visits another, Kai, in the hospital. This is a huge simplification of a complicated scene, but basically: Mara wants to apologize to Kai, because Kai got hurt trying to help her—but she also doesn’t want to do that, for a number of reasons including she’s afraid to look weak, she’s concerned about Kai’s emotional well-being, and she’s really pissed at Kai for getting herself hurt for what Mara sees as a bad reason. Kai, meanwhile, wants Mara’s support, but she’s completely incapable of expressing that kind of desire. Neither of them is prepared for the level of emotional honesty (and, frankly, intimacy) the conversation they should have needs. So the first several drafts of that scene were delicate character portraits—and worked as such, but were very slow for an early chapter of an already slow-building book.
The solution, which I hit on in the fourth or fifth draft, was to give them a concrete disagreement: in this case, a piece of business advice Kai’s offering Mara, which Mara sees as an attempt to sidestep the conversation she wants to have. All of a sudden, the nebulous conflict crystallized, and the scene felt propulsive—no machetes or chainsaws required.
A simple exercise has improved my sense for this sort of thing. Take a pen and paper, sit down with an episode of your favorite television show that’s not action-driven, and watch. Television’s good because it’s so condensed and vicious: scenes are short, and competition is fierce. I used The Wire for this exercise, which in spite of being about violence rarely features anything a summer blockbuster would call “action sequences.” For each scene, jot down what the principles want, and notice how quickly that desire is introduced—how little want-less air there is. (Often the desire will be finessed in even before the scene starts!) Then note the resolution of the scene for each principle. Two sentences each, maybe four if you’re pushing it. Pretty soon you’ll see the connection between pace and clarity—how a dinner can feel as sharp as an arrest.
Now, TV pacing isn’t always right for literature. Few book scenes should be as short as the equivalent TV scene, in part because audiovisual media with human actors is insanely high bandwidth. A book may need a paragraph to convey what Idris Elba can project in a glance, especially with a soundtrack to support him. But the principles of clarity and desire hold from format to format—at root books and shows both tell stories.
Maybe this exercise won’t work for you; maybe you have little interest in doing anything that doesn’t involve meat hooks and car batteries. But still, I say, give it a shot. Stretch your boundaries. What’s the worst that could happen? If this sort of plotting doesn’t work for you, the potato peeler will still be where you left it.
Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published his most recent novel, FULL FATHOM FIVE, in July 2014. The first two books in the Craft sequence are THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE.
Max’s Website: www.maxgladstone.com
Max’s Twitter: www.twitter.com/maxgladstone
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