Good Action Sequences In Thriller Novels Are Like Puzzles – A Ramble

Although I’ve almost certainly written about this before, I thought that I’d take a look at thriller fiction today. In particular, one of the most important parts of writing action scenes that can often get overlooked by people who are new or inexperienced with the genre.

Simply put, good action sequences are puzzles.

Yes, they might contain dramatic gunfights, martial arts, car chases, spectacular explosions and/or “special effects” that can easily surpass the average Hollywood movie, but even the most mainstream of published thriller novels aren’t actually really about this stuff. No, the real heart of any good action sequence is puzzle-solving, strange as it may sound.

In short, you need to make sure your main character is outnumbered and/or out-gunned enough that they can’t just rely on mindless violence in order to get out of this “impossible” situation. If your main character has to actually use their brain (eg: clever tactics, strategy etc…) in order to survive, then your action sequence will be about ten times more compelling than if you just write about them standing there and shooting at the villains.

But, why? First of all, placing your main character in an “impossible” situation where certain death awaits them builds suspense in the reader. But, since your reader has almost certainly read enough thriller novels to know that the main character almost always survives, this exciting feeling of suspense then quickly turns into curiosity. How will they survive? And then the reader gets to see how and this feeling of satisfaction is enhanced by the fact that it involves a “weaker” person defeating a stronger enemy (eg: the “David and Goliath” thing), which is one hell of a power fantasy.

So, the basic cycle of a good action sequence is suspense, curiosity and then satisfaction. And this cycle is very similar to watching someone solve a puzzle. After all, a puzzle might look challenging or unsolvable at first glance, but if you know that it can be solved then you’ll wonder how and when you either find or see the solution, there’s a moment of satisfaction.

This movement from suspense to satisfaction also enhances your reader’s feeling of satisfaction, because of the large amount of contrast between the two things. It’s kind of like how a cold drink feels a lot more satisfying in summer than it does in winter. So, action scenes that don’t put the main character in an “impossible” situation lose out on a lot of this, and watching the main character defeat the villains just feels less satisfying.

This also makes the main character appear even cooler or more formidable too. After all, it doesn’t take much intelligence to fire a gun or swing a punch. However, coming up with a clever way to escape from a squadron of heavily-armed henchmen whilst armed with little more than a toothpick and a piece of tinfoil requires a lot of skill and intelligence. And it’s a lot more fun to read about!

So, remember, compelling action sequences should be like watching your main character solve a fiendishly difficult puzzle.

A good metaphor for this can be found in computer games. Try playing a modern “AAA” first-person shooter game with a generous aiming system, regenerating health, plentiful supplies, weak enemies etc… and then try playing a classic FPS game from the 1990s like “Doom II”, “Blood“, “Quake” etc.. (or a modern 1990s-influenced one like “Devil Daggers” or “Ion Maiden Fury”) that has a strict health system, pinpoint aiming, limited supplies and/or powerful enemies.

Although the games from the 1990s might not look as fancy as the modern ones, they’re a hell of a lot more fun because they don’t wrap the player in cotton wool. If you mess up in those games, you’re going to lose very quickly. So, you have to learn tactics, search for hidden supplies, try different things, practice etc.. And winning feels a lot more satisfying as a result. Why? Because the player has to use their brain, they have to do more than just mindlessly hold down the “fire” button and wait for the level to end. When faced with a challenging situation, the player feels suspense, then curiosity and then satisfaction.

So, to recap again, compelling action sequences aren’t about big guns, gigantic explosions or even cheesy one-liners. They are about the cycle of suspense, then curiosity and then satisfaction. In other words, they are like puzzles.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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