Writers of fiction are frequently advised to put more action into their writing, instead of description, back-story or even dialogue. Your characters shouldn’t be sitting around thinking, chatting or admiring their surroundings. They should be doing things. The premise behind this is that prose describing action is always more interesting to read than any other kind.
I don’t agree. Yes, action of some sort is necessary in a work of fiction. It moves the plot forward, it changes the situations in which the characters find themselves, it creates tension, conflict and quite possibly excitement. But action isn’t the only way to do those things, and long action scenes unrelieved by anything else are as boring to read as any other long stretches of prose monoculture.
This realization broke upon me about halfway into Dan Simmons’s novel Carrion Comfort. (I am definitely of mixed minds about this book, but this isn’t really a review of it). A good-sized chunk in the middle of the book takes place in Germantown, a part of Philadelphia that is home to street gangs and criminal elements. Members of one particular gang interact with several of the book’s main characters in a mind-numbing series of violent episodes that result in widespread death and destruction. Many pages are devoted to descriptions of people running, jumping, crawling, slashing, dodging (bullets, blades and buses), spinning, leaping, spasming and dying. You would think all those verbs would make for riveting prose that keeps the reader reading. I found myself flipping pages, looking for a quick way out of Philly and on to more interesting things.
Why was this? Part of the problem is that reading should create a mind-movie, but making that movie from extended descriptions of mere physical action is too much work, at least for my aging brain. But there’s more to it than that. I’m thinking of two equally long action scenes in a couple of Stephen King’s novels — Gerald’s Game and Pet Sematary — specifically the parts where Jessie Burlingame finally frees herself from the handcuffs attached to the bed, and Louis Creed breaks into the cemetery where his son has just been buried, digs up the corpse and reburies it in the Indian burying-ground in order to bring it back to life. Both of these sections are prose of the can’t-put-it-down variety, not only because of the inherent grisliness and horror of the situations, but because as readers we totally identify with and care about the characters engaged in the actions, and really want to know how things turn out for them. That simply isn’t the case with most of the characters in the lengthy action sequences in Carrion Comfort. One problem is that there are too many of them. It’s not possible to care about the fate of (literally) a whole gang of new characters who are simply names and falling bodies.
There are only three likable characters in this book, and one who is repellent but horribly fascinating. If Simmons had given us more about their inner workings and less about the antics of faceless, weapon-toting ciphers in baseball caps, the book would be more interesting.
For me that’s the final criterion — a novel has to be interesting or it’s not worth reading, no matter how much action there is. Simmons’s basic premise in Carrion Comfort — the existence of “mind-vampires” — is very interesting. I wish he had worked on that concept more than he did. About three-quarters of the way through the book, we get some quite intriguing stuff about brain waves and memories, but it comes too late for readers who bailed out in Philly.
Real, human characters in interesting situations — those are the absolutely necessary elements for a compelling novel. And I, for one, have more use for vivid, atmospheric description of settings, and even of characters’ back-stories, than I do for arid descriptions of violence, no matter how many verbs are used.
(One last comment on Carrion Comfort: the title is taken from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which these words describe despair. Brief quotations from this poem are given at the beginning of each major section of the book. But this novel is about as distant from Hopkins as anything can possibly be. Perhaps Simmons should have called it Despair and let Hopkins alone).