Keep Moving with Action Fiction

Jul 5, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Kris Bock

A version of this article first appeared in the 2012 issue of Writers Guide.

Action fiction, while not a clearly defined genre in itself, encompasses other fast-paced, plot-heavy genres from crime and spy novels to adventure tales, sports stories, and Westerns. “I love the emotional impact of action fiction,” says Karen L. Syed, President, Echelon Press. “It’s about a well-written scene that puts you on the edge of your seat and dying to turn the page before you are truly finished reading it just to see what happens next. Action in fiction is about putting the reader in the jump seat and making them hold on for dear life.”

That appeals to writers who crave intensity, at least in their writing. Suzanne Morgan Williams is the author of the young adult novel Bull Rider, about a teen who decides to ride the meanest bull around to help his injured soldier brother. She says, “I love reading books where things happen. I like writing about risk and challenge and prefer settings that play into that. I get to write about things I might never do.”book

Jason Hunt is the author of A Midsummer Night’s Gunfight, about a man who hunts down the people who killed his family. He says, “I write Westerns because they are the sole genre that is wholly American. Sure, Edgar Allan Poe (an American) is the father of both horror and detective fiction, but those genres now deal with every time, location, and theme you can imagine. The Old West, or the Wild West, will always be about the Americans in America. It will always be about rugged individualism and justice.”

The quest for justice shows up in spy and crime novels, too. P.A. Brown is the author of L.A. Boneyard, about human traffickers. “The hard science and search for answers to solve intricate crimes fascinates me,” Brown says. “Each novel I’ve written requires research into a new field and I learned something new each time. While researching human trafficking for L.A. Boneyard, I became aware of the disturbing fact that there are more slaves in captivity today than at the height of the African slave trade.”

Addressing these issues is a way for authors to reveal and comment on the world. Jenny Milchman is the author of Cover of Snow, where a woman wakes to find her police detective husband missing. She says, “For me the joy of writing suspense boils down to this: it rights an unjust universe, parceling out equal amounts of satisfaction for every danger faced and obstacle overcome.”book

While action fiction has created its share of stereotypes—the laconic cowboy, the suave spy—modern authors are demolishing those clichés to share their own worldview. Neil Plakcy, the author of the Have Body, Will Guard series, about two men who are partners in life and as bodyguards in Tunisia, says, “I love writing about strong, intelligent gay men who defy stereotypes and become action heroes.”

Action fiction can also blend genres, which appeals to those with multiple interests. Rob Kresge, author of Death’s Icy Hand, set in 1872 Wyoming, says, “I love combining mystery, history, and romance. When I started writing this series, there were few historical mysteries set in the Old West. Before I got published, though, my friends Ann Parker (1880s Leadville) and Steve Hockensmith (1890s Montana and beyond) became successful with their sleuths.”

Keeping Action Real

Action fiction, by definition, needs plenty of intense action. But it needs character depth and believability, too. “Getting the plot right—read: believable—is always the hardest part for me,” Milchman says, “especially those niggling small details. When I write, my justification for each scene often tends to be: because it is so freaking cool. I have to pull back and remind myself, Yeah, but it has to do double duty for the story and work for the character, too. Interesting action isn’t enough.”

“I tend to immerse myself in my subject and never stop researching,” Brown says. “I own a growing variety of books, some actually textbooks used at police academy. A lot of research material can be found online through Google and Google Scholar. I’ve also toured police stations, taken citizen’s academies and attended a three-day workshop at a police academy taught by the school instructors. The biggest challenge is being as accurate as possible in the police procedures and forensics I use, but never let the action slow down or become tedious.”

A historical setting adds complications. C.K. Crigger, the author of Three Seconds to Thunder, an action-packed mystery set in the late 1890s, says, “With a female wannabe detective, matching China Bohannon’s persona with the strictures of the times has to fit.” book

For Kresge, “The major challenges are getting the real history right without being pedantic, giving readers a rewarding mystery to unravel and keep readers engrossed in the evolving relationship between my two protagonists.” For the research, he uses “Everything, from the internet, to actual site visits, including forts and towns in Wyoming, historical societies and museums, and libraries.”

Fortunately, the internet makes research easier. Plakcy says, “For my most recent book, Olives for the Stranger, I watched YouTube videos of the protests in Tunisia, read news articles, and constructed a timeline for the political events. Lots of online research, including viewing images and travel diaries, to get the details of my locations correct.”

The internet doesn’t always take the place of hands-on experience, though. John Brantingham, author of the thriller Mann of War, says, “Sometimes I use the internet, but I like to be out in the field the most. I want to see and smell a place or a thing before I write it.”book

Jody E. Lebel, author of Playing Dead, is a court reporter who works only criminal cases. For research, she says, “I show up to work every day.” But even that direct experience needs to be adapted for novels. One challenge is “balancing the black humor used in court rooms and by cops at crime scenes – used to help us handle the horrific things we have to deal with – with the reality of crime. I don’t want the humor to come across as callous or cold.”

Character must pull its weight as well. “The challenge is to find a balance between the action and writing a true story about believable characters with hopes and dreams the reader can care about,” Hunt says.

“I write action-adventure stories with a romantic heart,” Plakcy says, “and it’s challenging to find new ways to explore the romance between my protagonists in the midst of an action-oriented plot.”

That heart is important for the action scenes to ring true. “Anytime you write about something you haven’t actually experienced, like bull riding, the challenge is to find the emotion and physical responses to the action and report it accurately,” Williams says. “That requires talking to people who do do it, and translating their experiences to something you and your readers understand. It’s challenging but amazingly cool.”

That accuracy requires more research. “I interviewed professional bull riders, ranchers, and people who work with wounded veterans,” Williams says. “I watched some kids take their first bull ride. Then I had a couple of my contacts vet the manuscript for corrections.”

As a final challenge, some action genres have a traditional literary style which readers expect. “For me, the most difficult part was learning to write in the style at the sentence level,” Brantingham says. “There is sparseness to the writing and that’s often difficult to attain.”

Today and Tomorrow

Traditional styles may still matter, but action fiction has changed over the decades. With more explicit violence on TV and in movies, it’s no surprise that action novels have followed suit. “I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but action fiction has taken a turn toward the violent,” Syed notes. “I remember the days when action might involve being chased down a mountain by a boulder, or being caught in a storm on the sea. Now, it almost always means exploding bombs and lots of automatic weapon fire.” book

The pendulum may be swinging back to more traditional styles of suspense, however. “I think the readers are bored with serial killers,” Lebel says. “I think we are returning to richer stories in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock. More tension, less blood and guts.”

Trying to mimic media violence can actually weaken storytelling. “In fiction, you don’t have visual aids,” Syed points out. “You must rely on your word choices to make an impact and so few authors these days know how to do that.” That means writers who do know how to balance dramatic action with emotional authenticity have the best chance of impressing readers.

Action scenes keep the pages turning, but ultimately, you have to have heart.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark involves archaeology and intrigue among ancient ruins. What We Found features a young woman who stumbles on a murder victim, and Rattled follows a treasure hunt in the New Mexico desert. To learn more about her latest work, visit or her Amazon page.

1 Comment

  1. What a deal!


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