In a story, things happen. They happen immediately, or at least PDQ. Things that have happened are frequently revealed in dialogue, or, often with less effectiveness, in summarized form in what is called an info dump. Talented writers, in certain types of stories, can have action happening in the dialogue itself, although it’s a rare story that can get along with dialogue alone.
The first line of this essay came in a fit of irritation as I was reading a book from a mainstream SF publisher. It came because this particular book did not illustrate the principle that ‘in a story, things happen.’ By thirty-five pages in, we’d had a dozen characters introduced and had “hints” that a major crisis was threatening earth. (I already knew from the back cover that we were looking at a first contact scenario.) We’d learned a few things about the characters, almost none of it very interesting. We’d also had a nine page conversation in a jeep with a flat tire in the rain, about nothing. Starting with page 35, we got a page and a half info dump about a specific character, including pretty much the character’s whole military service and the honors he’d received. That was it for me. I closed the book and uploaded it to bookmooch. I was irritated enough to vow never to read another of this author’s books again.
The worst thing, from my point of view, is that the first book I read by this author was absolutely wonderful. It was also an alien contact story, but the action began in the first paragraph as a research lab at a major university blew up and opened a gateway to another dimension. The action seldom slacked off after that, although a lot of characters were introduced as the book went on. I was so impressed that I immediately bought two more books by the author. The second one I read was written with a coauthor and was horribly slow with a lot of character description that ended up going nowhere. I blamed it on the co-writer so I still came to the current novel with high hopes. Dashed hopes, as it turned out. If this had been the first book I read by this author I would never have gotten to the one that was really good.
Things happen in a story. Or else it’s not a story. No matter how many characters a writer introduces, it’s not a story until things happen between those characters. No matter how much a writer hints at big things to come, it’s not a story until some of those things actually begin to occur. I think most writers have to learn this fact. I don’t believe it comes naturally for most of us. It didn’t for me, although I never took 35 pages to get to some big happening. Swords of Talera is my slowest starting book. There’s a five page introduction that reveals Ruenn Maclang’s character and sets up a mystery about Ruenn and where he’s been. Then comes Chapter 1, with three and half pages of rather mundane activity until the screams begin and the story is fully launched. Wings over Talera has a three page introduction with a battle happening by page 2 of the book itself. Witch of Talera has a two “paragraph” introduction and an assassination attempt on the first page.
Here’s my plea to writers. Make things happen. Make them happen quickly. I don’t want to put your book down any more than you want me to.