Friday, October 9, 2009

But They Don't DO Anything!

Is every moment in a book supposed to be crammed with incident? I understand the allure of car chases or teetering on rooftops or jumping out of planes, but can't these poor characters sit down for a minute?

I seem to get two diametrically opposed messages coming at me from 'how-to' books or other writers. The first message is the book must be crammed with action, action, action. If people are having a conversation then they must have it while they're driving somewhere or while they're hiding from the bad guy or a similar situation. The second message is no, let them take a breath. Exposition is good. Describe that meadow, that oak tree. Let the reader hear the birds or appreciate the cat sunning himself on the porch.

What's a writer to do?

In my current WIP I seem to be traveling on a path somewhere between the two extremes. I'm not writing a thriller so no one in my book is diving in shark-infested waters or saving the world from a nuclear attack. My story takes place in the very civilized world of dressing for dinner and afternoon walks along the river. People roll up the carpet and dance to phonograph records on the gramophone. Even after the murder occurs, my characters still live in this rather highly-polished world; although it has been somewhat knocked askew.

I like books where everyone enjoys a glass of iced tea; or Aunt Mabel's famous chicken once in a while. Real life isn't fraught with peril every minute; there is time to eat breakfast or walk the dog. You may be saving the world, but did you remember to buy milk?

Real people get hungry; so should characters. Real people can only go so long without sleep; so should characters. For me, the more real the characters, the more real the plot.

Do your characters have time to enjoy Aunt Mabel's chicken? Or are their days filled with disarming a nuclear bomb followed by a speed boat chase after drug lords?


  1. Yes, they take little breathers. But their breathers usually somehow end up influencing the plot outcome, too (they have a useful conversation with someone, etc.). My books aren't all that fast-paced, though. And, since they're only 65,000-75,000 words, I'm cramming in the breaks with some mild conflict. :) 'Mild conflict'--can't believe I even said that! But I guess conflict has different levels.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. "You may be saving the world, but did you remember to buy milk?" A nice & practical (female?) approach to writing.

    I just finished reading a thriller yesterday. A fine plot etc, but I think they spend amazingly much time shooting at each other. Well, I did like it, but now I am ready for Aunt Mabel´s chicken ;D

  3. My character's will enjoy Aunt Mabel's chicken, but not for long. I need happy moment intermixed within the story.

  4. Elspeth - What an important question for a writer to ask! You're absolutely right that too much action isn't real. In real life, people do eat, sleep, talk, get dressed and pay the bills. The most compelling mysteries are stories where suspenseful things happen to people who are living ordinary lives. That means the author has to talk about their ordinary lives, too.
    I think a story holds together much better if ordinary things serve as the glue that holds the story together. They can also serve as a very suspenseful backdrop (e.g. characters holding a dinner conversation when all them are holding something back...).

  5. The ones I'm reading now are filled with fast action, lots of guns, and folks in danger. Very little time for eating or strolling.

    Straight From Hel

  6. My characters interact in a leisurely way every so often. Usually, however it’s to explain some plot point, or develop and issue that is ill developed through action. Maybe what we’re talking about it the difference between plot driven and character driven books. Dunno, but maybe.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog

  7. What was that workshop I attended...? Something about action/reaction? Scene and Sequel, I think it was called. You have some action, then the next scene you read the characters' reaction to that action. Then more action, then more reaction. If it's all action, you never get a chance to take a breath and get to know the characters.

  8. I try to walk that line between the 2 extremes as well -- kind of how I live my life :)

    I love action, but I also love Aunt Mabel and her culinary delights, so I think the middle is a good place to be.

  9. I like fast-paced books, but I find that too much action just leaves me exhausted as a reader - I've stopped reading books where the characters were just doing way too much all the time. I think (I hope, I mean!) I have a balance in my writing between lots of action and lots of exposition.

  10. Elizabeth: I love "mild conflict"! Is it from the same dictionary as "casually well-dressed"?

    Dorte: Nothing wrong with thrillers, they make great reads. I'm just suggesting that the hero has a moment to think every now and again. Thanks for dropping by!

    Carolyn; Chicken (even as wonderful as Aunt Mabel's) doesn't take that long to eat. Then back to the game!

    Margot: You've completely understood my point! I'm not asking for a book of the mundane, but stopping running for a minute isn't going to ruin the pace; it just changes for a few pages.

    Helen; They can be great reads. In this house those type of books are known as "You'll pay for the whole seat, you'll only need the edge" books.

    Galen; I don't think it's plot-driven or character-driven. It's just a wish for a small note of reality. Surely even Jack Bauer gets hungry! (although I've never seen him eat)

    Stephanie; That sounds like an interesting workshop.

    Jemi; Welcome to the middle of the road! It's comfy here.

    Belle; I agree completely. Thanks for dropping by!

  11. I have these same questions, Elspeth. When my characters stop to munch on Aunt Mabel's chicken, I try to make sure the interlude advances characterization or plot in some way, even if it's a small way.

  12. Carol; That's it exactly! I'm not advocating the plot comes to a screaming halt; just that pace can slow from time to time.

  13. It all depends on what sort of book or story you're writing. I don't read all that many action-packed books, so I don't write action-packed books. But stuff happens, you better believe it. Without conflict there is no story. Have you read the bestseller, The Help? There's a reason why that book is so popular, it's chock full of tension, but the characters do stop to take time for the everydayness of life.

  14. I think the TV show "Medium" is a good mix of tension and real life. The husband and kids bring in the breakfast scenes and squabbling kid situations even while the bigger evil is swirling throughout the story line. Makes the story so much more real than a book where it appears the main characters have no life outside the immediate plot.

  15. Both. Ya gotta have both. It's all about timing and rythmn, just like life. Ebbs and flows. My opinion.

    The Old Silly

  16. "You'll pay for the whole seat, you'll only need the edge" books -- That's cute, Elspeth.



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