If you’ve been a fan of the genre for an extended period of time, you’ve likely found out that for every amazing fantasy novel, there are at least ten average novels—and in some cases, “average” is being too generous. As someone who almost never puts down a book once I begin, I’ve become unfortunately familiar with the qualities of bad fiction. Fantasy authors in particular seem the most likely to ruin the second half of their books with excessive action scenes.
Botching The Last Half
Mishandling the last half of a story is by far the most common mistake published authors make. In the fantasy genre, action overload is rampant and comes in two primary flavors:
Getting carried away with action scenes. Many novels begin with an interesting premise and a few moments of tense action that contribute to character development. The Warded Man comes to mind as a good example. While there is action early in the novel, each scene shows character growth and thus feels meaningful. After the middle of the story, the action scenes became more and more frequent. The vast majority often existed only to show a “cool fight” or show off the protagonist’s moves.
I think the action epidemic stems from a misunderstanding about readers of the fantasy genre. Many fantasy readers do love a good sword fight or duel with magic, but the reality is that most of them think they want more action than they do. The trick is to use action as a delivery method for the substance of your story—the nutritional value, if you will—that will leave readers feeling satisfied. It’s not unlike wrapping a vitamin in cheese so your pet will eat it. But that’s what good writing is about. The elements of your story should be so entangled with one another that all types of readers can’t help but gobbling it down. Every reader has preferences. Some love character. Some love world-building. Some love action. Some love tension. Some love political intrigue. So it only stands to reason that the more you can mix in each element into a scene, the more readers are going to enjoy reading it. Most authors understand this intuitively, but for some reason begin forgetting past the mid-point of their book when it comes to action.
My article on Action Overload goes into more detail on how action can be misused, so I won’t go further here.
Making the climax of the book about a big battle. This is similar to my previous point, but I feel it deserves its own explanation. So many fantasy books choose this route. Whether it’s a castle siege, an open field battle, a confrontation with an evil force in abandoned ruins, it’s the same problem with different wrapping-paper. In an of itself, a battle isn’t a terrible choice for an ending, but some authors seem to forget that more needs to happen. For readers, satisfaction after the middle of a novel should come from characters recognizing their inner-demons (having trust-issues, for example) and overcoming them. The climax should be the ultimate expression of their character arc, showing how far they have come from the beginning of the story in conquering their faults.
In many novels, the character growth gets paused during the entire battle, only to pick up several chapters later when it has all ended, or in the final moments. These novels tend to wrap up with the key characters having shown little to no change internally. Maybe they are stronger or defeated the antagonistic force, but as individuals they are largely the same. If the character isn’t changed significantly by the events of the climax, the climax didn’t succeed. It’s not enough to wrap up the plot at the end of the story.
I challenge aspiring authors to think twice before using action. Ask yourself why you want to use it. Is it because you just want to describe something gory and vicious? Is it because your character has a cool power and you want to play with it? Remind yourself that in real life, action is exceedingly rare and one of the highest points of human drama. If it wasn’t so rare, we wouldn’t be so interested when it happened. The same principles are true in novels. When authors start using action in scene after scene, readers become desensitized. If they have seen the protagonist survive battle after battle, their sense of tension decreases. Use action sparingly so that it remains a naturally compelling element of your story.
And finally, consider a climax that doesn’t revolve around action. A Song of Fire and Ice comes to mind as a series that uses non-action climaxes more often than not. These moments are arguably more satisfying because the author hasn’t lost sight of what readers truly crave in a climax. They want to see characters growing. When a character has been scheming for chapter after chapter and maneuvering politically, it’s just as thrilling to watch the pieces fall into place as it is to see a physical confrontation. The satisfaction comes when everything inevitably doesn’t go as planned and the character is forced to confront their limitations and inner-demons to set things right.