As writers, we all know that we have to ramp up the action. Find new and deadly ways to make life hell for our characters. But sometimes this can actually cause a problem almost as bad as a flat plot.
Today, I present to you the sad case of the Scarlet Pumpernickel. Yes, you read that correctly, Pumpernickel. I'm not refering to the classic play The Scarlet Pimpernel, I'm refering to the not quite as classic (but should be) tale by that great screen writer, Daffy Duck.
In this saga, Daffy, tired of being type cast in only comedic roles, presents his own script-- The Scarlet Pumpernickel. As he's laying out his story, the producer keeps asking, "Then what happened?" Each time it pushes Daffy to even more outlandish events that befall him, the hero. After he's gone through every horrific thing he can think of, and being covered in a mountain of script pages, Daffy finally answers the "And then what happened?" question by answering that "the Scarlet Pumpernickle had no where else to go, except blow his brains out--which he did."
Daffy built himself into such a mess by piling more and more tragdies on his hero, that he had no way out. He just kept going and going until he had to "end it all" to end it all.
I do love Daffy Duck, but I never really want to emulate him. And sadly, I have read books where, while the character didn't kill themselves at the end, the "then what happened" really got out of control. In both cases, I stopped reading the books before it got to the end so I never did find out how the authors resolved it (but judging by the books--not well).
What put me off as a reader was the fact that the increasing tension was a sharp angle, instead of a more graduated incline leading to the big bad climax. I really almost felt like the author was next to me saying, "but wait! it gets worse!" I never had time to process what had happened. The characters never had time to process what happened. As readers we see and learn so much about how these characters respond to crises, and these authors--and Daffy--took that away. There need to be lulls inbetween the action. Drop in some character development, a bit of the world building, emotional arcs, to remind the reader these are "real" people, not crazed automotons that just race from one bad situation to the next.
From a writer's point of view, racing into the "and then what happened?!" pit causes you to hit the climax without steam. You've had so much bad stuff happened that nothing you can throw at the reader is going to be enough to make their heart race.
So next time you're looking at ramping up the action, keep Daffy in mind, and ramp things up incrementally and with some good pacing.