Story Craft #20 Action, not World

Mike Grist Story Craft, Writing Leave a Comment

I’ve now written 1 and 3/4 thrillers, after writing 12 sci-fi novels, 2 epic fantasy and mostly only ever reading sci-fi and fantasy, and it has taught me 1 major lesson that is already helping me write better in all genres:

Action, not world

In a thriller, it’s about original action, not about an original world. World-building is far less of an issue. The world itself is not the draw – because to a large degree, it’s the same world we all know. So you can’t hook with fascinating stuff about the world.

Yet I have always focused on world in my writing. I didn’t do this exactly on purpose, but I did have awareness. I wrote this way because I didn’t know any other way to write. I’d lead with the bizarre world as my hook, and follow through with bizarre characters in that bizarre world, sometimes doing things, but more often sort of drifting in all the weird.

Earliest drafts of my Saint’s Rise books were predominantly large tranches of world information with characters didn’t do much. They just existed to float within the interesting soup of a bizarre fantasy world.

The same goes for my Ruin series – I’ve rewritten it numerous times, but rarely chopped into it deeply. A few words simplified here and there. I rewrote book 1 just a few months ago to up the pace, then came back to it again now, and realized so much more needed to go/be changed.

All these earlier versions involved me reveling in the world. Often repeating myself to show this world in different ways. Weighing the quite thin early story down with maudlin reflection, unnecessary information and mysterious new concepts. You might enjoy it, if you read it in the same way you’d read Wikipedia – for interest, not fascination or emotional connection. Not in the same way you’d gulp down a thriller.

Thrillers can’t rely on the world in itself. They can’t use novel concepts and made-up words and bizarre character histories to hook the reader. There has to be action. The action itself has to be novel. The action itself has to be bizarre and fascinating, even as its strung out on a clear, well-defined, motivated line.

It’s like having two LEGO sets before you. One is full of the weirdest, wackiest pieces. The other is humdrum standard bricks. If you get the wacky set, you focus on bringing out the wackiness. You make alien structures, and you forgive a lot of elementary mistakes because it’s all so fresh. It might be hard to look past that wackiness to function. You let the wackiness speak for itself.

With the humdrum bricks, you have to make something very different to stand out. The components are familiar, but the way you put them together may not be. There’s nothing at all to hide behind.

In thriller-writing, I’ve largely got humdrum bricks. I can introduce a few novel concepts, but it’s mostly all standard. Then it becomes what your characters do with that standard palette that is interesting. The characters’ actions are where all the originality goes. It forces linear pace. There is little exposition, little description. Things must move, and move in an emotional, linear way.

Now I’m seeing that thread of linear tension clearer than ever. Events are strung together not because it’s an interesting tour through a world, but because that’s what the hero is driven to do next. Original action after original action.

Now I’m applying this lesson to Mr. Ruin, and seeing it in a whole new way. In previous versions, the experimental narrative style hid a lot of sins. For example, I see now that the first conversation with Mr. Ruin is almost exactly the same as the letter in the following chapter. I added it at least in part to double down on cool world information I had. But it doesn’t make sense, and it over-explains.

In that over-explanation, any thread of tension is lost. If the reader was wondering -“Well, what does Mr. Ruin want?” – I squash that wonder away with all the explanations. How much better to leave that wonder hanging and fuel it with little nibbles here and there, as the tension and threat increases, as the lead character Ritry actively seeks out answers?

This way, we go along with Ritry. We know as much as he does, and we’re engaged in his quest to learn more. It makes sense. It becomes taut.

It took writing thrillers for me to see this.


The weird stuff is still there, but it’s not the selling point anyore. The USP is not the world, it’s the story. The action. What the characters want and how they chase it down.

I think this is going to be a big deal for me. When Mr. Ruin finally comes out again, I have high hopes now that it will sell. People will want to read it.

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