Generally speaking, you want to small small and go big later on. You start with little problems: the main character’s late to school, the heroine wonders if she’ll get a raise, or now it’s hailing and Mr. So-and-so’s garden will be ruined. As the old JRPG meme goes, however: you start by helping a dog, you end by killing a god.
Your hero will go great places and do great things…in time, that is. Assuming that you’re not the tomfool that started out with heartstopping action and never let off the gas pedal until your reader has a stroke, or until the story ends (whichever happens first), you followed the principle of starting small and going big.
Action, however, is like alcohol: once you get a taste, you want more. And you’ll continue wanting more until you wake up the next morning with a bad memory and a hangover. You might find yourself with a crippling addiction for those sweet, sweet stakes, those juicy end-of-the-world disasters, and gruesome character deaths
I’m not saying right off that that’s a bad thing: as long as you get your reader to share in your love and enjoyment of epic stakes, high-octane chases, and daring raids, you should have no problem. But, nine times out of ten, the writer is far more invested in their work than any reader, at least in the beginning. The reader is more easily detached from the story than you are, because reading is far easier than writing.
Here’s the deal: as you raise the stakes in your story and the plot starts to come to its climax, your action must go faster and faster until you reach it. This requires compounding threats and stakes every second, making you reader feel like the clock is ticking, and their time is only growing shorter. And most writers are happy to oblige: after all, what’s more fun than describing an epic meatball-spaghetti monster tear open a planet and devour the core? (spoiler alert: not much)
The problem comes when you have too much action.
I should probably break that down a little bit. For starters, there’s really no such thing as “too much action”. Not in a vacuum, anyway: the stakes of any fictional conflict can be exaggerated up to and including the demise of the multiverse and even beyond. It’s not scale I’m talking about: it’s duration.
Lemme put it this way. Let’s say you’re at an amusement park. Now, you’ve waited all your life to visit this particular amusement park, and after a pricey opening fee, you’re free to go on whatever rides you want with an all-day pass. You initially had five or six rides in mind, and you’re convinced you’ll have a great time.
The wait times seem short in comparison to the fun you’re having on the rides. You’ve been here for three hours before you sit down for lunch. As you munch your sandwich, you look out over the park and the many happy customers waiting in line for the rides. It’s all so fun. You think. But I’ve already been on the rides I like most. Well, I guess I can try out the smaller ones.
And so you do. You wait through the lines, but the wait seems longer than normal since these weren’t the rides you initially wanted to go on. In another hour, you’re bored out of your skull, looking for the ice cream shop because it’s basically the last place you planned on going to. But it’s now 1:34 PM, and you have six hours before your parents come to pick you up. You might give up in disgust and sit down somewhere, scrolling through Facebook on a park bench in the heat of the day for the rest of your time. Maybe you’ll leave a bad Yelp review. But one thing’s for certain: you’re probably not going to enjoy the rest of your time there.
Writing about rising action is similar. Throughout the plot of your book, you’re probably going to make a few plot promises: the hero will defeat the villain, get the girl, and live happily ever after. Overdelivery is fine…up to a point. Because there comes a time when the reader realizes we’ve basically done everything they want to have done, or are being hung up a really long time to get to the ride they’ve been craving to go on.
I’m not saying don’t overdeliver when it comes to writing rising action. By all means, screw the universe and its inhabitants to your heart’s content. But when the action has been the highest-octane chase throughout the second half of the book, the reader will begin to get fatigued from all of it. The action should only peak for a very small part of the story compared to how much time it spends building up to that action. But when you do…fire in the hole.
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 2 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!