is, I think, excessive streamlining and/or efficiency.
By this i mean the first chapter gets the plot going immediately and the book zips on from event to event, smoothly progressing the plot without a paragraph out of place. The irony is that books like this, despite being very fast-paced, tend to bore me to death. “Cut out what doesn’t progress the plot” seems like good advice, but I feel like it makes it actually very difficult to care.
A story needs downtime. Having characters constantly be in life-threatening situations and just never letting up from beginning to end sounds like it would cause nail-biting suspense, but it does exactly the opposite. I find I can’t bond with characters if I don’t see them just hanging out, goofing off, or being themselves in a situation where they are relaxed enough to do that. I’ve read a lot of books where every single second someone is in danger and they have to run again or fight again and the relationships never capture me because the characters have not been given time to develop the relationships or even be themselves because they are constantly in survival mode.
When a character is trying to run from death, their priority is going to be that. You can shoehorn in information drops of supposedly emotional backstory all you want, but if no one ever gets to genuinely kick back, we don’t get to see what they’re like when they’re fully themselves. We don’t get to see what kinds of things they say when they feel safe, what might spill out of them when they are relaxed. We don’t get to see what makes them smile and laugh and the mundane details of who they are, because they don’t spend more than a few paragraphs trying to not die.
Downtime is not just important to allow room for character development, it’s important to establish a status quo or at least a “what could be.” What is at stake? What has the antagonist/problem taken away from the characters? What will they lose if they don’t succeed in their fight? What do they have to lose?
Many of these action-packed books I read try to make the reader care by dropping in references to a past or a future in which characters were able to do things like bake cakes or sit in the windowsill and watch the rain and not have to worry about things and being told about those things never has the same impact as experiencing them. If a character thinks “hmm, what if someday we could hang out and have fun together like friends,” that’s sad, I guess. If we get to see the characters hanging out and having fun together like friends, and then a disaster happens and that is brutally ripped away, that’s WAY more effective. If a character comes home to their house burned down or their dad murdered, that’s…supposed to be upsetting, I guess. If you first wrote about the character sitting on a porch swing with their dad identifying bird calls and eating partially burnt banana bread that dad could never make quite like mom used to…and then murdered the dad…now we’re talking.
Repeat after me: if you don’t give it to your readers in the first place, you can’t cruelly rip it from their arms!!
I’ve found it a lot better to alternate downtime and more “actiony”/high tension scenes instead of trying to maintain the latter all the way through. Quiet, relationship building scenes and fast-paced, suspenseful scenes are not antagonists, they are sisters and perfect complements of one another. I exploited this fact to the max on my last WIP. I let my characters have fun and joke and laugh. Then I hit them with some scary event that reinforced the overhanging tension again. Then let them relax a bit, developed them as people and the mundane facts about them. Then out of nowhere, things get worse. They try to pull themselves together. I add in a little bit of fluffy goodness but before my characters can contemplate what this means for their relationship–BAM. Shit goes down. And more things fall apart. And more. And now some more fluff, you deserve it ‘kay? But all of a sudden…
The “down” periods didn’t make the book boring, they seem to have made it nigh unputdownable (one of my readers had to go to work on like three hours of sleep after staying up half the night finishing) because they made my readers really, really, really, REALLY want to see my characters safe for good. I was able to develop the relationships just enough to whet appetites for more, and cause immense frustration when I broke up the good stuff with serious bad stuff. Do you want your betas to curse at you and threaten you? This is how you do it, it seems.
I read YA novels that give the main couple like 2 pages of breathing room so they can kiss. And then their noses are back to the grindstone. Do I know these people, or care? No idea, because they’ve been too busy running from laser sharks to have much by way of a conversation. But letting them sit down for a chapter or so is “”””boring.””””
Give your characters downtime. Keep the tension going in the background, but give them a bit to rest here and there. Do it right and it’ll make things hurt so, so much worse.