Does a Writer Have to Sacrifice Story for Action?

One of the more important dilemmas facing a middle-grade writer, particularly one that wants to target boys, is the trade-off between story and action. A good story is crucial to a successful novel as characters and setting are weaved together in a plot to keep forward momentum in the book.

In fact, that’s one of the first rules of writing: Keep the pace of the story moving forward. A good story is almost always moved forward through conflict. (For a great discussion and “how to guide” to using conflict as the basis for crafting story, see the book on screenwriting by Robert McKee titled Story.) But conflict comes in many forms, sometimes focusing on relationships (confict between people), sometimes focused on physical survival (man v. nature), sometimes focused on personal psychological obstacles (e.g., self-doubt or self-esteem).
Identifying the nature of the conflict is criticial for writing for boys. I discuss this is a recent video on Youtube (VL-7), but the gist of the issue is this: Boys are more in tune with action and physical sources of conflict. We hear it all the time (and parents know it’s true): Boys are impatient and are “bundles of energy.” They really don’t become engaged with emotional or interpersonal sources of conflict. Their perspective is framed fundamentally by their developmental stage, which, in the teen years, if more driven by physical development. More importantly, their emotional development is tied to this physical development. The twin forces–physical and emotional conflict–frames the way boys handle conflict. Novelists take note!

For writers focused on engaging boys, the trick is to fuse emotional conflict with physical action in order to create a story. In some ways, this requires the novel to be more layered and complex than in more traditional approaches to writing. Sometimes I think (incorrectly) that a novel for a girl could sustain itself solely on the emotional conflict between her and her mother or best friend. (Importantly, girls like action too, but they are also more open, willing, and accepting of emotionally driven stories.)

Writing action sequences is an art in itself. Combining the physicality of action with the emotional conflict that creates complex story lines can be dauntingt, but it’s not impossible. Thus, I don’t think writers have to sacrifice story for action. I think I achieved some of this goal with A Warrior’s Soul (at least if the reviews are a meaningful indicator). The action starts with the first sentence, but the emotional content is embedded in the lead character’s response:

Hands trembling, Luke crouched behind the plastic trash can and prayed he’d be okay. The crumbling brick wall should have been enough to hide him. The rattling chains from belts and scattering rocks from scurrying books warned him it might not.

The story really takes off from here, using the action to drive the plot and conflict that ultimately results in Luke making a critical decision in the book’s climax that resolves an essential emotional dilemma (and completes his character arc).