Sunday, September 6, 2009


I recently reread Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghost military SF Series. This is a rightly highly praised collection that has sold extremely well.

A couple of things struck me when I was trying to deconstruct the books to see why I liked them so much. Here are my thoughts in no particular order.

1. The pages crackle with high energy. The reader is taken on a breathless ride. Something is always happening.
2. The line-by-line is remarkably simple and clear. The writing never gets in the way of the story. The author never tries to show how clever he is at the expense of the reader.
3. The plots are essentially very straightforward. The action is not lost in complexities of chance or motivation.
4. There is an interesting cast of characters who spark off each other. You care about the protagonists.
5. There is no deeper message than the essential truths of people acting under pressure. The author does not try to force you to buy into his personal conspiracy theories.
6. Each book has a different theme - trench warfare, haunted house, siege, insurgency etc. This refreshes the interaction between the characters and their responses to situations. You are not reading the same book a dozen times.

OK, I am sure I have missed some points. Can you suggest other characteristics of a great action story? How much do you agree with my analysis, or not?



Jonathan D. Beer said...

I would certainly agree with all your points on how Mr Abnett crafts an excellent action story, particularly point two: in good action I think the line-by-line has to be kept crisp and clear for it to hold the reader and to not get bogged down in description. To suggest another authour, I would say Bernard Cornwell is the master of writing action precisely because of this ability.

Your point about the lack of deeper messages in an interesting one. I certainly agree that the Gaunt's Ghosts books have no other agenda than to explore the actions of people under pressure, but I would not say that this is a necessary feature of a good action story (and, indeed, fiction in general). I am of the opinion that if the writing is good enough, any number of themes can be examined without getting in the way of the story.

I have just finished reading book two of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (oh, where have you been all my life Mr Martin). These books are masterpieces of character-driven storytelling, and are examinations of human motivation - no small undertaking, but one which is done without intruding on the events of the story. In fact, the events of the story occur because of the motivations of the characters (I realise this isn't the glittering revelation I thought it was when I started writing the sentence). Perhaps that is the mark of great storytelling - that events are shaped by the motivations of the characters - indeed, the characters of the characters - without the writer subconsciously shouting to the reader "He did this because he was angry/sad/missed his wife!!!"

This is turning into a waffle, so I shall round off quickly with my own opinion of Dan Abnett's series. Personally I think Necropolis is by far the finest book in the Ghosts series - Abnett crafts the siege from beginning to end in a magnificent way, without losing focus on his characters (I would also recommend Double Eagle on this point; if you want to read the Battle of Britain from a Warhammer 40K perspective, you need look no further). I would like to say however that the very next book after Necropolis, Honour Guard, is by far one of the worst books I've ever read, and in particular highlights the one major failing of Mr Abnett, which is rather disappointing and abrupt endings to books (in the case of Honour Guard, one which stretches the believability of a deus ex machina well past breaking point).

But on the whole I agree with your points John about good storytelling, especially the last one. In the 40K universe it can sometimes be difficult to stay fresh - after all, there are only so many action cliches that can be formed from the English language. Abnett manages to write fresh and interesting books time and again - a noteable achievement.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Jonathon

Well perhaps I overstated the message angle. 1984 is wonderful and has a strong message but it wasn't an action story and Orwell was a politically sophisticated man who let the reader draw their own conclusions rather than preaching.

There are authors whose story telling and writing talents are very good but who turn me off reading their work because they want to convert me to the 'true faith'.


Jonathan D. Beer said...

Dear John,

Thats a fair point. Some writers can definitely come on too strong and overstate their messages, and conversely there are many writers who can get the balance perfectly. As a newbie writer I have a tendency to want to have a thematic message going through my short stories and the novels and things I plan out(although I realise there's a lot of difference between a short story and a novel). I look at it as a means of improving my ability to characterise, but perhaps this is actually getting in the way of a good story in my work. Hmm...

Last night I finished reading Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, and I must say that it's messages are perfectly pitched to fit within the story, and the story-telling perspective. I am currently recommending it to all and sundry, so thought I would mention it here since it is pertinent both as a book which gets its message across perfectly and is a superbly-told story.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

John, I like you analysis.

I've been trying to do something similar with the near future (used to be cyber punkish) SF books of the last 10 -15 years.

Agree Jonathan, you can have a message and tell a good story.

Anonymous said...

I think the flow of action is important.

But for me a lot of the satisfaction in an action story is the way the characters come to appreciate and trust each other. I walked away from watching "Duplicity" very dissatisfied. The foundational lack of trust between the two main characters made for witty reparte, but left no desire to ever visit them again.

Any author leaving me with such distaste is in trouble. And not just in action stories.

Kate said...

I guess my standards for good action must be too high. I want the story to carry me along for a fun ride with breathing space here and there, but if the underlying premise doesn't work or the plot has holes you could drive a small planet through, I'm not going to be reading more of that author, no matter how much fun the book I read was.