Ah, Adventure! It has always been my favorite genre, and a lot of people love good adventure stories. But why? What makes an adventure? What do people want out of adventures? What do you (as an author) want out of an adventure when you are writing it?
‘Adventure’ is defined as ‘an unusual or exciting experience’, and what’s great about that definition is that it can be applied to so many things.
Adventure stories are, in essence, stories that have settings which explore the unknowns of their worlds, and leads (or sometimes forces) the protagonist(s) to face an overarching problem that they would only be able to conquer by developing as a character. Whether they succeed or not isn’t too important, but what does matter is the journey, the struggles they face, and how they face them.
When you ask a reader why they like certain adventure stories they’ll often say that they loved a specific element in particular. “I loved that magic system.” “I loved the way the world felt dynamic, like there was reason for everything even when the characters were just passing through a new location.” “I loved the political turmoil and the way the kingdom was pulled into war and strife and everything fell to pieces.” Often it is these elements that we point to when we think back to a story years after reading it. These memorable elements are the pinnacles of complex ideas forged from the process known as ‘world-building’.
World-Building is the cornerstone to all adventure, and it is the biggest draw to readers of the adventure genre. World-building is essentially exploring any facet of a fictional world and it is entirely necessary in any work of fiction.
But world-building covers many more things than you might initially expect: Geography and introducing new locations, new cultures, monsters and animals, plants, history, economics, politics and intrigue, religions, and even off-screen character actions (including gaps of time in between scenes, the bad-guy’s unseen actions and the repercussions of such actions, and other off-screen characters’ actions).
So why World-build? Simple: you want the readers to be immersed in your writing. You want them to be able to focus on the story you are telling and wonder what is going to be around the next corner—the next chapter.
For a reader to be immersed in a world with unbelievable and fantastical events, you need to craft a very believable world that explores believable consequences to those unbelievable events. In other words, if you are going to use magic, then understand how magic works. If you are going to make a town be over the next hill, know how that town was built, what it’s made out of, who lives there, why they live there, what they do, why they do it, and whether or not they want to be doing that. Look at the new place (town) or concept (magic) and ask why? Why does it work like that? Why is it here? Why did the townsfolk act that way? Why did that spell blow up instead of working as it should have?
As an author practicing world building, there is no greater power at your disposal than questioning your own world. If you can’t give an answer to one of the questions, then think about it until it is answered. Eventually, after thousands and thousands of questions thrown at every element of your story as you introduce it, the world will start to feel like it could actually exist. If you do not ask these questions and consider their answers, readers are going to point out flaws in your world as they crop up—those jarring inconsistencies. Because they are going to be asking those same questions that you should be asking.
The best part of world-building (read facetiously) is that maybe only ten percent at most of those questions will ever be revealed to the readers themselves. So much effort and so little to show for it… right?
Wrong! If you do it right and clear out all the troublesome wrinkles and kinks in your story’s world, then you are going to have some readers who are going to enter a whole new world as they read your story. They are going to see it as a place to explore with potentially exciting characters to meet. Think of the world-building as giving a reader a pair of glasses. Every question you answer makes the glasses have clearer lenses. They still might not like what they see, but at the very least, if they see something they do like, they won’t have cracked glass and weird splotches marring the sight.
Fun simile aside, we now have world-building out of the way. So let’s look at Starting an Adventure. To start an adventure, you need one thing above all else: Reason. You need a reason for the character(s) to leave the confines of their safe and peaceful village and go on a grand adventure in the first place. It could be that the character makes the choice, or that some unavoidable event forces them to leave their hometown. What really matters is that the character has reasons that make sense and drives them into the adventure in the first place.
You don’t want the readers thinking, “Why would she go on and adventure in the first place? Shouldn’t she be more inclined to stay at home and let the X and Y characters handle it?” These are the sorts of thoughts that distract from the reading experience and will have the character seem flimsy and misused (or perhaps even out of character) in the eyes of the readers. And since characters are the ones that carry your story, you can’t afford for them to be flimsy, or the whole thing will come crashing down partway through.
Another thing to look at when starting your adventure is the themes. What themes do you want to use? War? Magic? Love? Duty/responsibility? Destiny/Fate? Hatred? Good vs. Evil? There are tons of themes that adventure stories use, and knowing which ones you are going to pursue is always a good idea. You should try to establish some of those themes in the first chapter. If the story is going to have fight scenes with blood and gore, then let the readers know about that in the first chapter by showing them. Have a farmer being murdered and give as much of the graphic details as you plan to use in the story. If you want the tone of near-hopelessness in the story, then have the protagonist’s world fall around them and leave them nearly sunken into that pit of despair.
Sometimes it isn’t quite possible to establish that tone and themes properly in the first chapter. As the transition from happy Shire, to Samwise fighting an impossibly evil giant spider while his friend slowly succumbs to it’s poison is quite the jump. Well, that’s what prologues are for. Any particular themes and general tones can be tossed in there, and thus the readers will know thematically what they are going to get themselves into, and some will be quite looking forward to it. It is unfair to the reader to drop these themes on them without a bit of warning.
Now, I’ve seen adventure stories written in two particular styles. One way is what I call the ‘planned’ way, and the other is what I call the ‘organic’ way. In a ‘planned’ adventure, the author plans out all the major events that are going to happen and finds a way to get the characters to end up on that planned path. The characters growth and reactions are planned for and build into future events. While the ‘organic’ adventure has the author make it up as they go. The characters drive the story onward with their actions and lead them to unexpected places. Most of the plans that the author might have made earlier on are scrapped as the characters make different choices, causing the story to be unpredictable to the authors themselves.
In the end, both writing styles are almost indiscernible from one another if they are done well enough, but I feel as though the ‘planned’ style lends itself to stronger overall cohesion of themes and narrative, while the ‘organic’ style lends itself to stronger characters. Both styles have their downfalls as well. With the ‘planned’ style, your characters can easily become two-dimensional in nature, as if their purpose were just to be the vehicle that dishes out themes and plot points of the story to the reader and their actions come across as contrived. While with the organic style, it’s all too easy to have the characters take the story away from where you wanted it, and end up getting you into pointless situations that have no bearing on the overall story or they end up tackling themes that were not part of the original concept.
Another point that needs mentioning… Cliffhangers. The point of cliffhangers is making the reader ask ‘what?’ or ‘why?’ But make sure they aren’t asking because it doesn’t make sense; they have to be asking because they know it has to make sense, but they don’t have the full story and they want to know. The way to get them to understand that it will all make sense is simply through using cliffhangers more than once. If you can make a cliffhanger and then answer the readers questions in a satisfactory manner that doesn’t break the laws of your world in the following chapter, then your readers will know they can trust you as an author. As such, they’ll accept your cliffhangers more readily.
There also has to be a good reason why the information isn’t known to the readers other than: “It’ll be revealed at the beginning of the next chapter”. Often, you can have one of the characters struggling to answer the same question that one of the readers would have, which allows for an immersing cliffhanger. The questions that the reader has should be addressed, and the reader should know it will be answered in the coming chapter(s). That way, they don’t have to worry about whether or not it will actually be answered, but they will instead look forward to how it will be answered and perhaps have some fun guessing at the possibilities.
Be careful with cliffhangers though. It’s nice to have people looking forward to your next chapter. Adventure stories use them fairly often, but you don’t want to write cliffhangers all the time. Consecutive cliffhangers can get really draining on readers and lessens the effect with every one that you use. You need to balance them with chapters where the characters end with getting some rest and having no huge lingering question over their heads. A calm chapter where characters put things together after a cliffhanger is a really great thing for a reader to come across from time to time.
But, what about those little adventures? The ones that are not grand and epic, but still are out-of-the-ordinary experiences?
Premise and setting can be on either end of the spectrum as it is important to note that not every adventure needs to be like the Lord of the Rings. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with writing a grand, sweeping tale with war, love and a quest to conquer evil, there’s so much more that can be explored in this genre.
Sometimes, an adventure can be as simple as a bunch of kids getting lost in the woods and having to work together to make it back home. Along the way, they might meet strangers who help or hinder them, or they might encounter dangerous beasts that try to eat them. Whilst it may not be something grand or world-changing enough for bards to sing about, it can certainly feel like that for the characters. It’s about the experience. It’s about conveying to your readers how that experience is unusual and exciting to your characters.
Often, the setting and premise can be exotic enough that they alone are enough to propel the story into adventure territory. But sometimes, it is the character that makes the setting or premise adventurous, even if it may be something that readers are familiar with. An example of the first would be some hot shot adventurer exploring ancient ruins and discovering artifacts possessed by evil spirits or some such, whilst the latter may involve a young scholar falling asleep in the library and getting locked in after hours. Neither setup is inherently superior to the other; I simply wish to highlight that both are viable options for an adventure.
In either case, I believe that the most important thing is to show your readers how and why your character’s experience is special.
What are your characters feeling? Is it sadness when they are lost and alone? Is it fear when they are thrust into a hostile environment? Excitement at a chance to get away from a monotonous job? People are going to react differently to a given situation based on their past experience, and an adventure is a great chance for you to flesh out your characters through their actions in an unusual environment.
You might have noticed that my definition of adventure doesn’t align very well with what usually constitutes adventure. Most people’s definition of adventure leans more towards the grand narrative type.
This is where I’d like to point out the difference between adventure as an experience and adventure as a story category. So far, I’ve been talking about adventure mostly as an experience, wherein it’s the characters that make the story feel like an adventure, even though it may or may not be in an everyday, slice-of-life kind of setting. Adventure as a category is taken to mean stories with certain qualities that people often associate with adventure, such as having epic quests and massive world-building.
Confused? Let’s try looking at it another way.
Story 1: A professional adventurer exploring a forgotten, ancient ruin.
Story 2: A scholar as a child getting locked in the library after hours because she fell asleep.
There can be a sense of adventure in both of these stories because the characters are experiencing something new, something unusual and exciting or scary.
I’m pretty sure that Story 1 would indisputably be categorized as Adventure, whilst Story 2 would most likely be categorized as Slice of Life.
People like putting labels on stuff, and Adventure as a label in most of what I’ve seen is taken to mean epic quests, long journeys, etc., which is what Story 1 has. Story 2 gets the Slice of Life label because it’s set in what could easily be a typical day gone wrong in that scholar’s childhood.
Why is all of this important? Because I write first and foremost for the experience, and not necessarily the category. If you share this sentiment and want your character to have an adventure, go ahead and write it out. If certain aspects of your story would make it fall under a different category, then so be it; it’s not the end of the world. After all, labels help people find what they’re looking for, and having standardised labels increases the chance that the right people will discover and take an interest in your story.
Set-up and pacing can make or break an adventure story so I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least talk a little about how you may begin your story and about when you choose to deliver on the experience of adventure that you promise to readers in your story’s description.
Some premises do require a little setting up before you can get to the juicy parts, so to speak. This is often done in the form of a prologue, where you give readers a quick introduction of your character(s) and/or the world that they live in. Alternatively, some authors just include this setup early on in the first chapter. The reason this is done is often to give readers some sense of the scope of your story and where your main character stands in all of it. It gives readers some context so that they can understand what’s going on.
This approach can be good for stories with a large scale adventure, but do bear in mind that this sort of introduction can feel like one is reading a textbook. If you bombard readers with too many facts that they are expected to remember in order to properly enjoy the story, it can get to the point where it feels like a chore. Personally, I feel that an introduction should not exceed two thousand words, but it can be flexible depending on how interesting you can make it.
Alternatively, some authors choose to jump straight into the action. You may start with your character smack in the middle of a battle, or just recovering from a concussion after having fallen into the bottomless pit of an ancient ruin. I think this approach is better at drawing in readers because it gives them the ‘juicy bits’ straight away, but it does come with its own set of challenges.
Jumping straight to the action can mean that your readers are going in blind, armed with only the information from your story’s description. That’s usually enough to satisfy them whilst your character tries to get out of the fix that he/she’s in, but you’ll eventually have to provide readers with more context for the world that your character inhabits to show them why they should care about your story.
This can be done through your character’s interaction with the world, interaction with other characters, or through flashbacks and the like. But this sort of in-story world-building does require a more careful planning and execution so that your readers don’t feel like your characters are spouting facts just for their benefit. It can feel like they’re breaking the fourth wall. At this point, you may see the advantage of the previously mentioned exposition style of introduction, where you can have all the necessary facts provided quickly and efficiently before going into the story.
With the quick action approach, you also have to be careful not to go overboard with what’s going on, otherwise readers might get confused and lose interest before they begin caring about your characters.
Of course, these are just two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum. There are others that fall anywhere in between pre-story exposition and in-story world-building. Experiment and find out what you’re good at!
Consequences may not be necessary for all stories, but I personally prefer stories wherein the character(s) gain or lose something after the adventure. There should be something that changes by the end of the tale, whether it’s something as simple as the character taking home a souvenir or learning a lesson, or something heavier like a permanent injury or finding a partner for life.
These things serve as acknowledgement of the adventure and the character’s involvement in it. And if your readers were engaged, it also acknowledges their involvement in reading the story, perhaps to the point where it feels like they have taken something home from the adventure too. It’s about giving readers a sense of closure and completeness.
Though, do bear in mind that not every story needs to have an ending that ties everything up nicely. It depends on what you want your readers to feel at the end of the tale. Sometimes stories are left with unclear, open endings that are meant to be thought-provoking.
So, I’ll be the first to admit that writing adventures is fun. I love it. But what do you, as an author, want to get out of it? For me, writing an adventure is getting to explore a new world and to play around with and mold it however I want. I enjoy seeing the characters grow and change, and seeing how their actions affect the world. I love when the characters decide to take my own plans and disregard them. They move past and seek the adventure all on their own. Breathing life into these characters’ actions and repercussions is awesome, and being immersed in my own writing is my favorite feeling when writing.
What are you getting out of an adventure as you write it? Only you can find an answer to that.