If you’re a new writer and want to write a good adventure story, that’s great! I’m on that same path myself. You and I just have some important things to think about. Remember the adventure stories you’ve read and loved? What did they have in common? To me, and to many people, what makes a good adventure story is a set of common elements:
1. Location, Location, Location
Most adventures have people go to a place that’s exotic and fascinating – or at least totally unfamiliar. So many examples of this exist. My biggest favorites are The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series. The characters encounter so many new things – mountains, dark forests, elves, orcs, dragons, and so much more.
The only story I’ve read that happens in one place was Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. But even that story has an island and people that need description because they’re unfamiliar to the reader. I’ve made a point to read more good adventure stories to learn from them. I’m sure I’ll find more single-setting stories.
But as long as those locations are unfamiliar and as effective as possible, they’ll heighten the excitement and risk. Done correctly, they’ll also affect the plot and the characters’ actions.
2. Risk and Danger
Well, what would a good adventure story be without some kind of risk to the characters? It wouldn’t be so adventurous at all! Depending on your target audience, the risk could be something minor to nothing less than death. No matter what, though, the risk should be there, be credible, and even vary as the story progresses.
I’ve read Louis Sachar’s Small Steps. In that story, a teenager named Theodore “Armpit” Johnson is trying to stay out of trouble after a stint in a juvenile correctional facility. He plans to stay out of trouble, graduate high school and college, get a job helping people who have cerebral palsy, and lose the “Armpit” nickname.
Through the book, there is a risk of him getting arrested again and/or failing at one of his other important goals. With Theodore’s kind personality, I found myself seriously rooting for him and hoping none of that would happen. That and the risk drove me to read the story to completion to see if any of that happened.
On the extreme end of the risk factor, I recently finished Stephen King’s The Stand – the complete and uncut edition. In the story, things start out like normal life in the 90s. But as a superflu plague wipes out 99 percent of the human population, death is everywhere. The risk of death is still high for the characters who survive and journey to Boulder, Colorado. That risk doesn’t just come from the superflu, either. It also comes from lack of medical help, electricity, police, and food preservation. The risk does seem to decrease a lot when the survivors get to Boulder.
The most important risk of all comes from Randall Flagg, a “Dark Man” of chaos. He takes advantage of the situation to build and lead a fascist community in Las Vegas. This threatens the benevolent, peaceful Mother Abagail’s community in Boulder. The survivors have to choose between the two leaders – and their choice could seal the fate of all humanity. So the risk is not only death for the individual characters, but also the extinction of the human race.
That summary on the book’s Amazon page was enough to make me buy it and read all 1,153 pages of it! Which should make you wonder – who would slog through 1,153 pages without all that risk going for the story? It’s that important!
3. Likeable Characters and A Believable Antagonist
Now, “likeable” doesn’t mean “perfect.” 100 percent perfect characters – known as Mary Sues and Gary Stus – are very much disliked by readers. I know they bore me so much and don’t make me care that much for them. Protagonists and their allies should have mostly good traits and some flaws. This will make them seem like real people that we can see being our neighbors or co-workers. Additionally, it helps to give them some interesting traits and abilities.
It’s like this: A middle-aged 19th century bar maid?
A middle-aged 19th century bar maid who is gifted at shooting and plans to kill the outlaw wreaking havoc in her town?
Now that’s a character!
Let’s think about Theodore Johnson from Small Steps again. The reason I like him so much is that he’s very down-to-earth. He’s determined to stay out of trouble and work for a better life for himself. He’s also very kind and a good guardian to his young neighbor Ginny, who has cerebral palsy. She’s the one who inspires him to go to school to help people with her condition.
But even he has his flaws. A friend of his from the same juvenile facility, X-Ray, tempts him to get involved in a get-rich-quick scheme. Naturally, things don’t go over well. But he does have a chance encounter with a very famous someone, which kicks off the events in the rest of the book.
This complicates things for Theodore. A police detective questions him about the scheme while he tangles with being in a relationship with a celebrity. Through this, you can see him make some dumb and even selfish decisions that make you facepalm at him. He’s not a 100 percent gold-hearted Einstein.
If Theodore had been a complete Gary Stu, could all this happen? No, no it couldn’t. Things would go perfectly smooth. It’d be hard to imagine him doing something to end up in a juvenile corrections facility in the first place! As much as I wished the best for Theodore, it wouldn’t be interesting at all.
As for the “believable antagonist” part, of course you don’t want to have a likeable antagonist. I know when I see an unlikeable antagonist, I do care – I just care that the antagonist will get his or her comeuppance. Even so, you can’t make the antagonist all evil – that’s too far, and makes them a bit comical. At least one redeeming trait in them won’t go amiss – and is very much needed to make them more believable. Readers will take them more seriously.
Thinking back to Randall Flagg in The Stand, he is the personification of evil. He thrives on chaos and creates a fascist community in Las Vegas in the aftermath of the plague. He uses cruel punishments like crucifixion and torture to deal with lawbreakers. When he even smiles, he intimidates creatures that see the smile. He can shape-shift into animals, and uses this to spy on people.
But what makes things complicated is that he is very charismatic. He can be smiley and very pleasant if he needs to, which can and does catch people off guard. He also has the capacity to do good, even if it’s for ulterior reasons. He saves a few people from certain death right after the plague, but only to gather them for his community. And he does have insecurities, like fearing that his power is decreasing later on.
With all these, I can say Randall Flagg is a complex villain – which is just what any adventure story needs.
A Word About Survival Adventure “Antagonists”
On a different note: in survival adventure stories, the antagonist could be a bad situation or place that the protagonist has to survive. A good example I remember is Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, in which a young man flies to Canada to visit his estranged father. Halfway through the trip, the pilot driving his plane has a heart attack and dies, forcing the young man to crash-land the plane in a Canadian forest. From there, he works to survive the forest day by day and hopes for rescue. He was fighting against death, and against the environment’s potential to inflict death on him.
Some kind of wrongdoing by someone is the primary catalyst for conflict in most adventure stories. Someone could kidnap the princess of a kingdom. A dragon could burn down a dwarf kingdom to get its treasure. A master outlaw could wreak havoc in a town. Someone could find an ancient, magical artifact somewhere and use it for evil. The possibilities are unlimited!
Of course, the wrongdoing has to be something that people can universally see is wrong. It also has to be serious enough to get people angry! The reader will sympathize with the victims of the wrongdoing, root for them, and read through to see the perpetrator(s) brought to justice!
Think about this: If it wasn’t for the murder of Harry Potter’s parents by Voldemort, the rest of the series would have never happened.
What this means is that the story should be believable in context of its setting. When characters speak, their dialogue should sound like something they would say. Characters’ actions and reactions should be true to what they would do. Also, if your story is set on a non-magical Earth, make sure everything that happens follows the laws of nature, time, and space.
In The Stand, there’s a character named Tom Cullen. He’s intellectually disabled, such that he’s like a child in a 40-year-old man’s body. If Tom suddenly started talking like a normal man with no reason or explanation at all, that would be jarring. It would have pulled me out of the book and made me think Stephen King, what happened here? Explain this!
6. Fast Pacing
The adventure stories I like usually have a fast pace, with the exposition going with the action. There is a solid main plot, of course, driven by a sequence of mini-plots and their mini-conclusions, leading up to the climax. If the story stops to let out a lot of exposition, it bores me and I end up skimming just to get to the next thing that happens. But I also recognize that too fast pacing can leave very little room for character development and details of the setting that readers would actually love to know.
As much as I liked The Stand, there were a few parts with a lot of exposition that had me skim to the next thing that happened – like the description of Fran Goldsmith’s mom’s parlor. I can also remember parts like that in The Hobbit, too.
By now, I know you have some great ideas for how to craft your story. If you have some story written, you might have even spotted some flaws in what you have. Whatever the case is, keep these essential elements in mind, and you’ll have an adventure story people can’t ignore!
What do you think? Do you have other ideas of what makes an adventure story good? Do you think I left something out? Leave your thoughts below!