The Trouble With “Action”, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

L.E. Modesitt. Jr.

The Trouble With “Action”

I’ve often been criticized for the “slow” pace of my books, especially by the “action junkies” who expect a fight, revelation, or surprise in every chapter, or at the least every other chapter. Now, I’d be the first to admit that even my books aren’t completely realistic, because there’s more action in them than in corresponding events in real life, but I try to give the feeling of real life and action by providing more lead-up events, and a certain amount of routine, than do many authors. Possibly that’s because I’ve experienced more “action” in life than I anticipated and because it wasn’t much like the way I’d visualized and imagined it, especially in how much time and preparation for “action” takes.

I was a competitive swimmer in college, and even more than fifty years ago, to be competitive required at least 3-4 hours a day of practice six days a week. Yet we generally only competed once every week at most. Today, it’s more like twice that and a lot more work with weights and machines. All that for a few minutes of “action.”

But the same is true of any action in life. A one-hour military flight mission for one single aircraft will require from 10 to over 200 hours of maintenance, depending on the aircraft. So what does this have to do with writing and battle scenes? Simply that no society, especially a lower tech society, can support a lot of battles top of each other. There’s no time for recovery, resupply, or even travel.

All right. Then why shouldn’t a writer skip over all that dull but necessary stuff in a few sentences or paragraphs and get on with the action?

In fact, a lot of writers do. Even the “slowest” writers condense the events and maintenance in between the exciting stuff. But there’s a balance. If it’s all action, the reader loses the “reality” of what’s occurring and a book becomes the unrealistic verbal equivalent of a video game. If it’s totally true to life, most readers won’t finish the book because they get overwhelmed by the details.

As an author, I give more details than most fiction authors, but that’s because I feel that those details are real to the characters and shape the way they see the battle and the action. The “boring” training, or the trade-offs between trying to make a living and also trying to prepare to fight an invader are real to those people. They’re choices they have to make, and they’re in many ways far more important than most people think because they’re what determines how the battle and the action turn out.

There’s an old saying about war, to the effect that the competent officers concentrate on tactics, the brilliant ones on logistics. Or, put another way, WWII was won on logistics [while that’s an over-simplification, at its base, it’s true]. And for reasons like that and the fact that I don’t want my books to read like verbal video/computer games, that’s why “logistics” and “routine” are a vital part of what I write.

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5 Responses to The Trouble With “Action”, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

  1. Rosemary Hill says:

    Thank you – this is the reason I now possess every book you have written. It is also the reason that I discover something new to ponder with each re-read,

    I know a book is a ‘keeper’ when I actually stop reading to think about the sentence or paragraph I have just read – to savour the words and ideas,

  2. L. E. Modesitt, Jr. says:

    Thank you for the kind words.

  3. Jimmy says:

    Keep them coming.. Some of the best books I have read have been yours.

  4. Sera says:

    I would add that the choices the characters take are how they develop as a person and reveal so much about them – the way they think and how they process the world. There are limited choices in those action moments compared to the lead-up and tear-down. And that preparations and subsequent consequences are what makes the action more interesting and engaging.

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