On “Action” as “Tension” In Fiction, and Different Manifestations of It

1159083_superheroSome people might view “action” differently than I do, but for me, “action” in fiction means tension, risk, and the possibility of something really bad happening.

When we look at action in that sense, it becomes clear that there are two types of action. The first is the kind of action we think about when we envision a superhero, James Bond, or (because I just watched this movie, and it’s brilliant) Men in Black III. (Or the first MIB. It’s just as good.)

This type of action is physical. There are people physically in danger, running risks to their health and possibly to their lives. Taken to the extreme– where many spy, science fiction, and fantasy epics do take it– it can mean the physical risk of a world or a civilization.

The second type of action is far more subdued. You find it exemplified in movies like “12 Angry Men.” This wonderful film tells the story of a jury deliberating the verdict of a murder trial. That’s it. The jury deliberations are pretty much the entire film. There are no chases, no heart attacks, no maniac bursting into the jury room or poisoning jurors to throw the verdict.

Just the plain old deliberation of justice. And that’s the key: JUSTICE.

This subtler type of action is all about justice.

If there is one thing authors can take away from this post to reflect upon, it is this statement by G.K. Chesterton, referring to George Bernard Shaw:

He has based all his brilliancy and solidity upon the hackneyed, but yet forgotten, fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.

We expect fiction to make sense in a way we cannot make sense of our world. We didn’t create our world; to me, it seems logical that the human mind can’t always or can’t fully understand it. But we DO create fiction. And so, fiction should make sense to us.

One way we readers make sense of fiction is to find in fiction affirmation that justice is eventually done, in some form or fashion. There are some exceptions in nihilistic fiction, etc, but those are exceptions to a very real general “rule” or “state of being.”

Readers will hang on a thread for an author when it looks like justice might escape someone, but we do hope and even expect that in fiction, justice will occur. The chance that it might not provides all the tension, all the gripping angst of the second, more subdued kind of “action”: the tension we feel because what SHOULD be might not happen.

I feel like our world today has gotten hooked on physical action and has lost the ability to savor its more subtle form. I think that’s a real shame, because we can learn a LOT about ourselves from considering the tension between justice and mercy.

If you’ve never seen “12 Angry Men” I highly recommend it. There are two versions, a black and white version from 1957 and a remake from the 1997 or 1998, something like that. They are both well-done and can teach a writer a lot about that second kind of action.

Of course, “12 Angry Men” is a rarity in its almost complete emphasis on the second form of action. Usually, the two find some kind of mix to greater or lesser degrees. Legal dramas usually incorporate SOME kind of physical threat in some episodes to the lawyers or police officers.

Police procedurals constantly put the main characters in physical danger. It’s not JUST a question of “Will they make an arrest?” It’s a question of “Will they get hurt or killed in the process of making an arrest?”

We writers are always seeking out our personal balance of the two kinds of action. Writing is truly a balancing act of SO many different things. This is just another…. We don’t only have to balance action with “being deep” or with “character development.” We can find two contrasting manifestations of action/tension itself, pure and simple


8 responses to “On “Action” as “Tension” In Fiction, and Different Manifestations of It

  1. Really good stuff. Good examples too. Have you ever seen an oldie called The Oxbow Incident?

  2. Never really thought about the second type of action. Also put the word with the first school. I can see how it works though and wonder if many authors do it out of practice and instinct. Only because I never really try to do ‘action’ in those arenas, but it still happens.

  3. I’m currently re-reading the Harry Potter series (for like the 5th time), and this time through I’ve noticed that there is surprisingly little action in most scenes. Of course there is action, but a lot of the narrative seems to hang on justice vs injustice, much like you said here.

  4. As a romance author, I rely on “subdued tension” and the hope that justice–or fairness–will prevail. Without those aspects, there’d be no HEA. Sadly, you are correct in your assessment that emotional conflict does not rate as highly as physical conflict in today’s entertainment environment. Stories or movies you and I might find engaging, other people find boring!

    • It’s true. Part of it comes down to just simple taste, and I think that aspect is a good thing. If we all liked the same kind of art, the world would be dull. But I do think part of it is not as harmless. Part of it is that we have, culturally, lost the human intuition to value thought, to value an exploration of the deep questions. We clamor instead for “bread and circuses” and ignore the higher things to a real extent. It kind of frightens me, to be honest.

      • I’m with you there, Victoria, all the way. Sometimes, I wonder if people have become so desensitized to everything that they’ve lost their ability to be empathetic or compassionate. I hope not–but that’s what scares me.

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