I’m currently reading, and enjoying, Joshua James’ Lucky’s Marines series. Lost of action, snarky dialogue, a story-line with loads of twists, and intriguing tech. It’s the kind of stuff I love to read for pure entertainment.
But I had an issue with the first story, Lucky Universe. The start is strong and intriguing—a marine coming out of some kind of deep-freeze sleep state in time for an imminent mission, with his internal AI updating him on the situation. Then we’re off, into the mission. Of course, it doesn’t go as planned, and the characters are thrown from one fight to another, from one action sequence to the next. Each time they think they’ve escaped, there’s a new problem for them to encounter (which usually involves lots of shooting and fighting).
The book’s solid action. There’s no let-up.
And that’s my problem with it.
There’s a technique in writing/storytelling that’s often referred to as ‘scene and sequel’. This states that after an action scene, there needs to be a ‘sequel’, a moment where the characters (and the reader) can catch their breath. After a barrage of stuff happening, there needs to be a time to process it.
This doesn’t have to be a long-winded debrief from a mission. It could even take place while action rages all around—imagine a couple of characters escaping an advancing army and holing up in an abandoned building. There’s still the risk of them being found, and they’ll have to rejoin the battle sooner or later, but for the moment they can pause, reflect on their situation. It might be for a few hours in story-time, it might only be a minute or so.
The action doesn’t have to be fights and battles, either. In a drama, the action will be events unfolding, and character actions that deepen the plot. But after each surprising, dramatic event (or after a few of them), the characters need to take stock, if only for a moment. This might be through internal contemplation, or it might be through dialogue. But without these moments, the story runs the risk of being too full-on.
It’s similar to a well-constructed roller-coaster. If you like coasters, you’re drawn to the twists and turns, to the drops and the inversions. But all coasters have their quieter moments. There’s the crawl to the top of the first hill, building the tension. There could well be slower sections, giving a false sense of security, tricking the rider into believing their near the end, before plunging them into the next ‘event’.
Roller-coasters and action stories are designed to be ‘breath-taking’, to literally leave the rider or reader short of breath. In a well-crafted action sequence, the reader might even hold their breath. But this isn’t sustainable. There have to be moments to breathe—for the reader, for the characters, and for the story.
Lucky Universe, for me, didn’t have nearly enough of these moments. While I appreciated the action itself, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read another eight books like this.
Thankfully, from the second book onward, the action is interspersed with calmer moments. These are often when the characters are travelling to the next battle (so there’s still tension in these ‘sequels’), but at least there’s time to slow down. And this helps the plot—in the midst of action, it’s far too easy to lose track of what’s happening, so the quieter moments can help explain what’s going on.
Scene and sequel. It’s something to remember in my own writing—break up the action with quieter moments. Full-on action can leave the reader disorientated, but having moments of relative calm helps give the reader a more memorable ride.