I’d venture to say you have not finished reading every novel you began. Recall some that you laid aside. (Perhaps one or two are within arm’s reach, in which case you can review them to answer this question.) Why did you stop reading?
Perhaps you felt no sympathy for the protagonist. Perhaps the author’s style was cumbersome. Perhaps a dozen other reasons prompted you to snap the covers shut and put the book on your garage-sale pile. Dean Koontz believes—and my experience bears this out—a reader’s interest flags most often because there’s not enough action in the story.
“The more movement you work into your story and the more completely you avoid static scenes in which the characters do nothing but talk at one another, the more likely you are to end up with a novel that will sell,” Koontz says. “…Most readers just want to get on with it.”
Victorian readers tolerated lengthy passages of setting description, philosophical reflection, and drawing-room dialogue in which nothing happened. College professors still compel students to read such books, or they would all be out of print. But these aren’t the sort of books that today’s readers will buy with their hard-earned money or, if they do by mistake, not the books in which they choose to invest a weekend.
We find plenty of tips and tricks for writing engaging action sequences in Koontz’s book and elsewhere, but notice a bit of his counsel that’s completely counterintuitive: Because an action sequence is the most interesting part of a novel for modern readers, we need to make the most of it. How? By making it longer.
We may speed up a reader’s perception of such a passage by making it shorter, but that also disappoints. Koontz advises, “Each time you write a potentially gripping chase—or fight or whatever—in just one page or less, you are throwing away a golden opportunity to seize and deeply involve your audience.”
Here there’s a paradox. When we want to convey speed, we naturally shorten what we write. Short sentences and sentence fragments telegraph a sense of swift action; but if we do that, the reader feels shortchanged. What’s the solution? Write a longer narrative. But how can we do that without padding the story? Remember the secret of plotting: Get the character in trouble, then make the trouble worse and worse!
For example, Koontz opens his novel Whispers with a chase scene in which an assailant pursues a young woman through a farmhouse. She takes refuge in one room after another, only to have him find her again. She desperately tries to find a weapon (a flashlight? a lamp?), only to have him dodge or deflect each one. He keeps gaining on her, even grasping her clothes from time to time, but she manages to break free of his grasp and keep running, while he growls and pursues her ever closer. This breathless chase eventually reached 25 manuscript pages and more 7,500 words.
An action scene doesn’t have to be a chase, of course. It could be a fight between two suitors, a vicious courtroom argument, a child seeking shelter from a ferocious storm, etc. Any scene that puts readers on the edge of their seats is worth prolonging, so don’t relieve the tension too soon.