Should You Write Ideas Or Action?

Reading & Writing
Seconds (1966) Directed by John Frankenheimer Shown: Murray Hamilton, Rock Hudson

‘Seconds’ (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer

You have a great idea for a novel. You want to explore a particular theme. As you develop your characters, who adopt alternative viewpoints and lay out their arguments that you have spent a long time researching, you start to worry if the tale is becoming too dry. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of putting in too much detail. I often wonder if Dorothy L Sayers felt that about bell ringing in ‘The Nine Tailors’. If she did, it clearly didn’t stop her. The whole first half of the book is about campanology.

But it’s an old, old problem, and one we’ve become less sure about in these painfully risk-averse times. What do you put in, what do you leave out? And if you feel the story is getting a little too discursive do you pep it up with more action?

Films are more literal and defined than the books they stem from, and as the British film industry discovered in the 1930s they get boring if they just consist of people talking in rooms. However, in a story of big themes action needs to be used with discrimination because they’re often a sign of a lack of confidence in the work. I’ve written a few such scenes over the years, and apart from being dreary to produce they actually hold up the story and stop it from developing. The one film director who seamlessly incorporated them was of course, Alfred Hitchcock.

Author David Ely found fame for a novel made into an excellent academy award-nominated film by John Frankenheimer. In ‘Seconds, a monosyllabic, unfulfilled banker undergoes a midlife crisis and is offered a way out; after receiving a call from a supposedly dead friend, he visits a discreet service which will stage his death and reinvent him with a new identity. While they can change his outward appearance their retraining programme can’t fix his inner yearnings or his temper, and his new life starts to unravel from the outset, culminating in a nightmarish climax. He has returned only to find that his new life comes with old baggage.


In Tarsem Singh’s ‘Self/Less’ the same idea surfaces, but this time the theme gets buried under a welter of gunfire and car chases. Frankenheimer was able to have the courage of his convictions and avoid dumb set pieces because he was making a low budget film. The remake came with summer blockbuster expectations and satisfied neither the action fans nor those interested in something more cerebral. Tarsem Singh is an intelligent director who you feel was hampered by the need to tone everything down for maximum cross-demographic appeal.

In Lee Falk’s story ‘In Time’, time is literally money. Andrew ‘Gattacca’ Niccol’s film version is set in a future where everyone stops ageing at 25 so long as they have the money to buy more time. The story is rich in ideas, but the film degenerates into action set pieces. The studio didn’t trust the audience to be engrossed by the story.

If an action scene is not integral to the plot, remove it. We usually know how those scenes turn out, anyway. There are exceptions, usually when a film consists of nothing but action. Recently I saw ‘Avengers: Civil War’, which recreates a half-century old comic book trope – outsiders falling out among themselves. It does so brilliantly, and without offering any concessions to those outside its purview ie. non comic buffs. In its own way it’s as ascetic and pure as the original ‘Seconds’ because it doesn’t compromise to widen its fanbase. Don’t know who the Black Panther is? Your tough luck.


There’s a problem with action scenes in filmed stories, though – most have been seen before, and not just once or twice but hundreds of times.

I know a thriller writer whose prose is pitch-perfect when he’s writing close-up observational scenes, but the moment he adds in broad action he starts copying chunks of old TV shows into his stories, killing interest. Ideally the idea should provide enough suspense to not require a car blowing up every ten minutes. Again, there are exceptions. Lee Child’s books cleverly trade on action tropes. He’ll blow up a truck but make it fresh because of his hero’s downright peculiar mindset.

It’s worth remembering that even Ian Fleming hardly wrote action scenes – the big chase in the novel ‘Goldfinger’ is not through mountains but around the sedate South coast countryside by the seaside resort of Herne Bay, a town so dull that I used it as the model for Cole Bay in my novel ‘Calabash’. If fashioned well, words speak louder than actions.

3 comments on “Should You Write Ideas Or Action?”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    For the action to work there has to be an element of danger, a plot that zips along can cover up a whole lot of weaknesses and plot holes, but as noted they have to be written well or it’s just dull filler. The ideas can be harder to write, again it depends on the skill of the writing and what the publisher/editor want or the film company. personally I prefer a book with ideas in it and as long as the writing is good, ideas are always the winner.

    Nyctophobia was an excellent ghost story with plenty of ideas, and because of this a lot better than if it had just been jumps and scare moments. a book with depth always wins out, but they take more courage and skill. As a pulp reader the better writers will smuggle in big ideas, which is easier to do with fantastical plots, which always makes a more enjoyable read.


  2. Roger says:

    I thought the campanology the best bit of “The Nine Tailors”!
    David Ely wrote a long short story, “Time Out”, in which the UK has been accidentally obliterated in a nuclear accident and the USA and the USSR set to work to build an exact replica.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The campanology was pretty important to The Nine Tailors, since you had to understand what was happening and how long it would go on for. If you don’t want the details just don’t read the chapter heads. We have one church (1!) that has a peal of bells used for change ringing. One of the first books I started repeat reading.

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