Adding in action

Some books are just cozy. Good things happen. There isn’t a lot of action or stress. Characters have calm conversations, take baths, eat delicious meals. Kind of the opposite of one of those page-turners where every other paragraph the main character’s life is imperiled in a new way.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I read two books recently that were extremely cozy and enjoyed them. Personally, I’d love to see “cozy speculative” be an established subgenre, where we can watch robots run coffee shops and trolls find love. Especially after the couple years we’ve all had, I’m seeing more people want this.

That said, maybe you wrote a book but keep getting the same kinds of rejections and negative feedback:

  • “It isn’t very exciting”
  • “I wasn’t grabbed”
  • “There aren’t clear stakes”
  • “Pace too slow”

Very often, these are comments that mean “too cozy, I wanted some danger.” And maybe, in this case, you agree: you weren’t trying to write a cozy novel, you meant it to be more exciting.

Why does this happen so often to new writers? There are a couple reasons.

You can’t bear to let bad things happen to your hero

You’ve been daydreaming about them for months or years now. They’re your friend. You don’t want to write something awful happening to them! That’s just too terrible! You’re here for good feelings.

My answer to this is, the best feelings happen after a little stress. For instance, what’s cozier: a hot bath after a day spent reading in bed, or a hot bath after a day spent hiking in the snow? What’s tastier, roast chicken, or roast chicken when you’ve had nothing to eat all day?

Tolkien, Lewis, and Jacques are what I might call the triumvirate of coziness. Each paints lush scenes of hot baths and sumptuous feasts. But those happen after a lot of unpleasantness. Tolkien himself wrote:

“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

Believe me, if you let your couple fight, their first kiss is going to be that much better. You’re actually doing your characters a favor if you make them suffer!

You don’t have much in your outline but you’re still trying to stick to it

When I was in college, I read a friend’s Thranduil fanfiction. It was good, but I couldn’t figure out why Thranduil wasn’t marrying his girlfriend. He loved her, she loved him, why were they spending chapters on chapters (and a thousand years) stalling? She said, well, according to the canon timeline he can’t marry her yet.

If you know you don’t want X to happen yet, there have to be obstacles. Your character wants X, right? Or else your character wants Y and doesn’t even know X is on the horizon. Either way, they’ll be trucking as hard as they can toward their goal and will promptly get there if you don’t throw a ton of roadblocks in their way. Ideally, the roadblocks should stack on each other and get increasingly difficult, so your character is constantly having to adapt. So put that stuff in your outline.

If, on the other hand, you’re mostly pantsing with a vague idea of the ending, you might be saving too many things for later. I find my writing goes much better when I “waste” the fun stuff I meant for the end early on, and then come up with more stuff to happen later. You have a cool secret to want to reveal? Don’t save it for the final showdown, reveal it around the 1/3 point! That way you get a ton of plot off the character’s reaction to that reveal.

When you’re new to writing, you might underestimate just how many events it takes to fill out a novel. You need a lot! In general, I feel you need at least one major problem or conflict per chapter. When each chapter has its own arc of problem-struggle-solution (begetting a new problem) the story just feels tighter.

You don’t like fight scenes

Good news, I don’t either! I don’t think action has to mean fighting at all. And in fact, taking a tense negotiation scene and having a brawl break out in the middle of it sometimes makes it worse. Action can include things like:

  • escaping from danger
  • battling against the weather
  • having a tense, conflict-ridden conversation
  • fixing a broken piece of tech that’s endangering lives
  • getting dressed down by a superior
  • revealing a secret

The difference between action that makes a book exciting and tedious busywork isn’t whether anyone’s bleeding. I’d probably say it’s whether there are consequences on the line. Is this conversation your character’s chance to achieve something important to them? Could they die if they mess up this repair job? Then there’s enough tension for the reader to feel they need to keep flipping pages.

And, of course, variety is the spice of life. You don’t want the same kind of conflict (being chased by monsters, fighting an enemy army) in every single chapter.

The actual action-to-other-stuff ratio can vary a lot between good books. Some are meant to be cozy. Others are page-turners, with new developments on every page. I don’t think any of those are wrong. But if you want an action-heavy book, make sure to include some in every chapter.

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