The Action Ramp – Bane of new writers
Adventure, Sci Fi, Fantasy, all feature one plot device that literary works can sometimes skip: the need to progressively increase the action levels throughout the work.
The ability to properly build tension and excitement over the course of a tale makes or breaks more new writers’ efforts than almost any other story feature in fiction. To succeed, the main character of a fiction work needs to face increasingly more difficult challenges within the tale. Stories must progress from the initial whispers of suspicion to involvement in full blown conflict, to resolution of some kind. From minor emotional upsets to head-to-head crisis, from subtle indications of a problem to dealing with awing disaster. From skirmishes to wars. There are many analogies of this process, many reasons why this feature is so attractive to readers, but for the writer, the important thing is how to achieve mastery of this common device.
One answer is, as with many story progression issues, to pre-plot your story. Short stories and flash fiction can often get by without an outline, relying on a good hook , a cunning twist, executed with style, color, and good characterization. Not so novella- or novel-length efforts. No twist will sustain a reader’s interest over the hours invested. No amount of unique characterization will raise the pulse, if it only details a mundane trip to the supermarket.
Whether you outline your story, use scene cards, goal statements, lists of chapter headings, or whatever, it is wise to revisit these notes and decide where along the line increasingly peak events are going to occur, to whom, and the outcomes. Not every clash need be a win for the lead character, or even involve the lead. Often best it not, in fact. But the conflicts should increase in intensity, build towards the climax event of the story, and, if possible, precurse it. With a guide before you, you will better be able to write so as to carry forward not only the storyline, but all those elements that build the suspense, drama, and the foreshadowing intensity that mark a successful and satisfying read.
Characters wandering off “on their own” is an obvious consequence of not doing this. Characters exist as we create them, line by line. Wandering characters are therefore caused by the wandering mind of the author. While this is a creative process itself, it can also throw a wrench into your plot and action ramp. Usually it happens because the author has not prepared enough of a guide to keep his writing on point, and can cause more problems than it solves.
Maintaining one’s writing in a show, not tell, style, remembering colorful description, keeping the actors in character, offering interesting dialog and ideas along the way, detailing the different kinds of action to the right levels, researching and using the knowledge basis upon which the story draws, (period, culture, mechanical, and technical aspects) is in essence, the juggling act a good writer gets proficient doing. These are the tools used simultaneously in writing out prose. You do not need the additional stress of not knowing exactly where each scene is going, what kind of outcome is being written to, or how to get there. Pre-plotting allows the writer to split away these tasks and do them somewhat separately. It may be the one technique that allows stories of any length to be written all.
With your tool before you, it becomes easy to spot lacks that need to be addressed in the story as a construct.
If you find yourself having to narrate yourself out of a corner, “see the reason this happened was…”, pulling rabbits out of hats… “Then, just at the last minute, er, a giant space-gun appeared, blowing the bad monster away…”, have weak or non-existent endings, “and then, eh, the sun went down – the end”, you suffer from lack of plotting enough.
More importantly, if you see these things crop up anyway, you have the road map to amend, and can make the overall changes that vanish them.
None of the above means your writing is going to win out over several thousand other equally proficient authors in the running for publication, but it will keep you a contender, and allow your skills to grow. Also, as with any other tool, the more you employ it, the better you get with it.
Thanks for another wonderful post!
WRITING PROMPT: Watch an action show on television. Outline the action, including breaks for titles and commercials.