One of the things that seems to happen a lot with action-packed books and movies is this barrage of events that become increasingly tedious to sit through, when they should be exciting, edge-of-your-seat scenes. My mom and I call that phenomenon “one damn thing after another”.
This is something I’ve had to work to avoid in my own current novel, so it’s been on my mind lately. The thing is, the individual events may be interesting and gripping, but they can still become boring when you stick them all together into a giant blob of action without substance. Throwing peril on top of peril followed up by peril can be just as lousy to read as description after description after description in tedious detail. But you’ve got to have conflict, right? And some stories require a lot of action, right? And lots of peril for the characters should make for a great climax, right?
Here’s what separates a well-built increase in action-based tension from One Damn Thing After Another: consequences and revealations. Okay, so your main character just had to fight off a zombie football player to save his dog from having its legs eaten by said zombie. (Totally random example, there.) In the next scene, you want your character to have to face multiple zombies and you want to raise the stakes for everyone involved. But BEFORE you jump into another wave of zombie attacks, wait a second–let’s go back to your character saving his dog. Wow, so he really loves his dog, because he was willing to risk himself for it. That reveals something about the character. It also makes the reader worried that something bad will happen to the dog at some point, because that’s an extra vulnerability for your character. Explore that fear within your character a little in the scene where he saves his dog. It doesn’t have to be stated outright or take a whole paragraph to do. Word choice and/or a sentence or two will do it. And how does your character feel afterward? Relieved that his dog is okay, but scared about what will happen next? What are the emotional consequences for him? How is his dog acting after its brush with zombification? Is it traumatized? Is it too doofy to know what almost happened to it? Did it get wounded and it’s going to be a zombie soon itself? How awful would THAT be for your character??? And when the next scene happens, what if it turns out the zombies aren’t just brain-sucking corpses, but maybe they have attachments to one another–what if the rest of the zombie football team is horribly upset about this guy killing one of their friends, and they want revenge? Now your character is in for it! Always keeping your characters’ personalities in mind, using their quirks and traits and aversions to drive the way the action plays out, makes it a lot more interesting than say, Man Saves Dog From Zombie. More Zombies Attack. Man Kills Zombies.
It also helps break up the action a little, so you have beats of reflection and/or emotion and character development to break the action up AND increase the reader’s attachment to what’s going on.
As an excellent example of One Damn Thing After Another vs. awesome, well-done action, I give you the movie The Two Towers. I’ve read the LOTR books a few times over, and I watched the cut versions of the movies when they came out in the theater. I hated the theater-cut of The Two Towers. It was one long string of battle sequences that felt like it went on forever and ever and I couldn’t have cared less about what was going on. When the extended cut box set of all three movies came out on DVD, I bought the set. The extended cut of The Two Towers is almost twice as long, but felt SO MUCH SHORTER to watch than the short version. It is excellently paced, interesting from start to finish, and the battle scenes are actually gripping. Now, they’re the same scenes, right? YES, but the context is changed. Stuff happens between battle scenes. The viewer sees the cause-and-effect interplay between one action sequence and another. There is emotional impact and storyline impact that results from what happens in those battle sequences. There are revealations about the characters that impact the action, or that result from the action. And suddenly, the action is interesting to watch. Suddenly, I cared how things were going to play out.
Now, a lot of what is gripping or not is a matter of personal taste, so what’s One Damn Thing After Another to you may not be the same as what’s One Damn Thing After Another to me. In light of that, I say, pay attention to the things you watch and read. What bores you about one action scene, when another has your heart pounding? What makes that difference for you? Did one throw in an unexpected quirk (Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes), and the other didn’t? Or did one lead to unexpected complications that ramped the action up AS A RESULT of a character’s own decision? The more you can pinpoint what you like and dislike in the things you read and watch, the easier it is to troubleshoot things you want to avoid in your own writing.