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Transcript for Episode 11.14

Writing Excuses 11.14: The Element of Adventure


Key Points: In adventure, the question is “Can I do this?” Pushing your limits, trouble you choose. Thrillers, on the other hand, have an outside threat coming after you. Similarly, wonder is the thrill of seeing something, while adventure is the thrill of doing something. Adventure is often based on the milieu. The challenge is usually a physical idea, whereas the idea story is usually a mental challenge. Adventure stories are often set pieces, doing amazing things, strung together. Adventure usually makes the reader think “I want to go there and do that!” Main character is often an outsider. Take a thriller, lighten the tone, and you will get an adventure. Thriller, survival; adventure, cool things to do. Key to writing adventure is take a competent hero to the edge of their competency, and a list of set pieces, amazing things to do. Make the explosions bigger! Conflict in an adventure story tends to be external. Add improvisation, and avoid a level playing field.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Element of Adventure.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We are continuing our theme of elemental genres. Now, we’re talking about adventure this time. We’re not just talking about adventure fiction. We want to dig deeper. We want to ask why people like this style of fiction, how you can use it, and how you can write an adventure story yourself. To do that, we need to spend a little time defining exactly what we mean by adventure. For instance, some of our other elemental genres kind of stray this direction a bit. Mary, what is the difference between an adventure story and a thriller?
[Mary] So adventure story… Both of them have an element of danger to them. The big difference is where that danger comes from. Your… There’s a lot of jumping and running with adventure and thriller, but with adventure, it’s very much about “Can I do this thing?” It’s about pushing your limits. It’s really things that you… Trouble you get yourself into. Thriller, there’s an outside threat that is coming after you. So there might be a thriller moment in an adventure, but adventure is really “Can I do this thing?” It’s basically the… It is the fiction version of “Hey, dude, watch this!”
[Howard] It’s… For me, I contrast it with sense of wonder, with elemental wonder. Wonder, for me, is the thrill of seeing a thing, and the element of adventure is the thrill of doing a thing. It’s easy to conflate them because, for instance, in Ringworld, we have this big wondrous object and we have an adventure in which they are doing things. But the things that they are doing are not nearly so exciting as the big thing.

[Brandon] Right, right. Exactly. The fun about this is if you start to drill down about how each of these work, you can see how a lot of films will present themselves as adventure fiction, but really, they will be skewing a different direction. I think of like the Pirates of the Caribbean, which some of them have been adventure and some of them have been horror and some of them have been thriller. They all pretend to be the same adventure genre, but you get bored with seeing the same thing. So they present different films and even different parts of the films in different directions to tweak something different inside of people.
[Mary] Whereas Indiana Jones is pretty much straight up adventure.
[Brandon] Straight up adventure.
[Mary] He’s like, “Hey, there’s this cool thing. Can I go get it?” Well, and then the Nazis.
[Dan] Well, the example I was thinking of was the Tintin comics, which Indiana Jones is based on in large part. Which really, the writer of that would just come up with some great idea like Antarctica and then think of how many cool set pieces, what are the fun and exciting things that can happen in Antarctica and then string them together into a story.
[Mary] I think that’s a really good point. That a lot of times adventure fiction is based on the milieu, the place. That it’s… There is an element of exploration to it.
[Brandon] We’ll get into idea stories, where we talk… We’ve kind of put a lot of exploration under that. But that’s more about the discovery of something, the won… The fun from that comes from discovery. In this, it’s really the challenge. The fun comes from the challenge. Tintin’s a perfect example. Indiana Jones is a perfect example of the stories where… Indiana Jones has danger. He’s fighting Nazis. But he has put himself there and it’s the challenge, “Can I beat the Nazis?” Not, “Oh, no, the Nazis are going to kill me.” Very, very different stories doing something different.

[Mary] I think the other thing with this is that the challenge is again, almost always, a physical challenge, whereas with an idea story, it’s usually a mental challenge. That… It’s exploring an idea as opposed to exploring a “Can I do it?”
[Dan] Exploring… Idea stories are often exploring an idea or place to learn how it works, whereas an adventure, we’re just trying to get out alive or we are trying to…
[Brandon] Accomplish something.
[Dan] Jump from one thing to another.
[Howard] Another really good example of adventure stories is the Jackie Chan movies. Because it’s set piece after set piece in which we are seeing Jackie Chan do cool things. The fact that… Sorry. The evidence for me that this is just straight up adventure is that the linking story is usually quite weak between these elements. Often the best part of the film is the pseudo-documentary at the end which is outtakes of Jackie Chan trying to do these things he did for the movie. It was all about doing amazing things.
[Mary] The other thing about this doing of the amazing things is, for the reader, I think one of the emotions that you’re trying to convey to them or revoking them why they read it is that the protagonist is doing cool things that the reader would like to be able to do.
[Brandon] Yeah. There’s great elements of wish fulfillment in almost every one of these, as we’ve talked about. But in this one, it’s the “I want to go there and accomplish this thing.” It’s the… It’s one of the reasons you watch a documentary… Which, I love documentaries and films on Everest. Right? Stories about Everest. It’s because that’s one of the greatest challenges that someone can face in our world, is “Can I climb this mountain? It is there, can I get to the top? It kills a lot of people, can I go do this?” Now some of these stray into having subgenres of other elements, but at their core, every “climb a mountain” story is an adventure in the same way that going against Nazis is an adventure, in the same way that going and finding… King Kong could be an adventure. All of these things are… There’s this element of go and do this thing.

[Brandon] The question I have for you guys is then you mentioned the milieu. These are often milieu stories. Can you have an adventure story that is not in an exotic location?
[Mary] I think definitely you can, although it’s… I think that one of the core elements of an adventure story is that the person having the adventure is an outsider. So I think that it’s possible to have an adventure story that’s in a city, but that the… I think that the main character would not be from the city.
[Howard] Coming back to Jackie Chan, Rumble in the Bronx. The Bronx. It’s a place any of us can go. But our protagonist was not from there. He was an outsider. So it wasn’t an exotic location. Plenty of adventure in it.
[Dan] Well. It’s worth pointing out that in Jackie Chan movies and movies like it, even if the setting is familiar, each set piece makes sure to add something unique to the environment.
[Brandon] That’s true. The set pieces are quite dynamic.
[Dan] This isn’t just a fight on stable ground, this is a fight on a moving platform or a hover car or in a factory full of flames and televisions and things.
[Howard] The scene in Live Free or Die Hard where [Shylaboff? Matt Ferrell] says, “You shot down a helicopter with your car!” Yeah. We’re in a fairly ordinary place, but somebody launched a car at a helicopter.
[Brandon] That’s an excellent example, because I think the Die Hard films started as thrillers and transitioned into adventure stories. Actually, the ratings went down as they transitioned to adventure. The things accomplished got more extravagant.
[Howard] Well, in part that’s because they… And now I’m maybe blowing the Writing Excuses horn a little too hard. They didn’t understand that their core element that attracted people to these films was thriller.
[Brandon] You could make that argument, certainly. You could also make the argument they understood that, but said the wider audience… We’ve done this so many times, we need to take the genre a new direction, and build into it this other idea.
[Dan] I think there’s a lot to be said for tone as well. If you take a thriller and lighten the tone, you’re going to get an adventure story. So just depending on which audience you want to grab, as soon as they make a… I think they already made one of the Die Hard’s as PG-13.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Like two of them have been, or something.
[Dan] It instantly… that almost by definition changed it toward adventure.
[Mary] I’m thinking that one of the… The differences then is part of what you’re looking at with… When you’re looking at the hero’s solutions to the problem. The same threat could arise, but with the thriller, one of the things that you’re setting up is, “Is he going to survive?” With an adventure, you’re looking at “I want to see what cool things he does to get out of this.”
[Dan] Yeah. Exactly.
[Brandon] Can he or she accomplish this thing?
[Dan] That balance of power.
[Brandon] Can they do it?

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week. I actually have the book of the week this week. It is Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Correy. This was actually written… Half written by a friend of mine, Daniel Abraham, under a pseudonym, along with Ty Franck. This was a really good book. I enjoyed it. It has that sense of adventure. It’s a grand space opera with some hard science fiction trappings. Just hard enough to make you believe. It’s exactly what I love in a science-fiction story. It follows primarily two protagonists as they navigate what’s going on in the politics and adventure and weirdness of space. It’s a small system, though, kind of like Firefly in that. They are not traveling to other star systems. It all takes place in our solar system, except all the asteroids have been mined and there’s people living in them and each of the moons has a colony on it. I like this because you can kind of grasp the size, even though you can’t really. But you can say, “Okay. There are like 50 places that people can go in the solar system. I can keep these all straight.” Mars is a superpower. The Earth is a superpower. The astroid belt is a bunch of Belters living in these little kind of hollowed out asteroids. It’s very fun. It does transition genres, about at the halfway point. I won’t give that surprise away to you. But it’s very interesting how they transition genres in the middle of this. I will give a content warning on this. They curse a lot. So if that’s something that bothers you, this may be something to avoid. It is an excellently written book, and there’s a companion television show now, which I believe Howard is watching?
[Howard] The Expanse. The Expanse takes us to the halfway point in that first book.
[Brandon] Great book. Written by James S. A. Correy, read by Jefferson Mays. You can pick it up at Audible. Start a 30-day trial. Go to, support the podcast, get a free book, and enjoy Leviathan Wakes.

[Brandon] Alright. Second half of the podcast. Let’s dig into this. Let’s say, “Okay. We know what an adventure story is. How do we conceive and come up with one of our own? What are the elements we need to put in and how do we do it?”
[Mary] So, the things that we’ve been talking about that adventures have is that there are cool set pieces. This means that you’re looking for cool action scenes. You’re also looking for a protagonist to his competence, but pushed to the edge of their competency.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great… Indiana Jones is the perfect example of this, because… I often reference this intro to the first Indiana Jones, but it does this perfectly. You see how competent he is, and he still fails. He’s right at the edge. You know that he could pull something great off, but he’s going to have to push himself.

[Howard] I had a fun experience with the very first story that I did for Privateer Press. I’ve related aspects of this before. Scott Taylor, the editor, told me, “This is adventure fiction. We need something to happen.”
[Howard] “Something needs to go on here in this first act.” He said, “It can be a runaway cart.” So what I built was the cart which was being pulled by a mule. The mule gets spooked because a steam jack explodes. And our very competent protagonist is paying attention to the steam jack. He’s like, “It should not be making that noise. Guys! Guys, pay att…” And then there’s an explosion, and then he doesn’t have control of his cart. Then we’re caroming through the city. Scott read it and was like, “Oh, yeah. See. More of this. And make the explosion bigger.”
[Howard] Which was a fun learning experience for me, because I didn’t realize at the time that that was what I wanted to be [cranking?]
[Dan] Now, see, that is a great example to bring up, because it is a way to add adventure but without diluting the story you are trying to tell. You still made sure that the character’s competency was involved, that specific character was a scholar, and so he was noticing something wrong with the machinery. So you were using it to expose character and to make the story fun, but without losing all the rest of the stuff you wanted to tell.
[Mary] I think in some ways, one of the things to actually look at when you’re looking at your conflicts, is actually what Howard just said, is “Can you do this conflict in a way that the explosion is bigger?” Which sounds a little facile, but it is… When something goes wrong, it’s like, “Okay, so this is the level of wrong I planned for it to go, but this is an adventure. Can I take that ‘this has gone wrong’ to another level?” It’s like, “So you’ve got the one Nazi who comes in. Why not a squad of Nazis?”

[Brandon] I want to raise the concept here though, that when I’m plotting… I’m a planner. When I’m plotting, I’m often looking at, “What are the payoffs? What are people looking for? And what’s going to pull them from page to page?” We’ll spend some time next time when we come back to adventure about this idea of pulling people page to page. But I think you want to look at an escalation with adventure fiction. Often there’s a really big ex… thing at the beginning. It’s not your biggest set piece. But it’s a good one, to give your promise to your reader. Then, you de-escalate for a while, and do set up for a while. Have small escalations building up to grand set pieces later on. You do need to make the explosions bigger through the course of your story, as well as having some at the beginning that will draw people in.
[Mary] Something that I do when I’m dealing with adventure in my stories is that I will write down a list of the set pieces. Then I will order them and figure out where they need to happen structurally in the book.
[Brandon] You can escalate other things than the explosions. We’re using that as a metaphor. You can raise the stakes. You can… It can be very personal with the main character saving a room full of people and at the end, you make it a building. This sort of thing is okay. Or you can just have the… Show the character being pushed to their limits trying to achieve this so that even if the end one is not necessarily as big as the beginning, we are there with that character, and what they accomplish should be bigger.
[Mary] Actually, I think, in some ways, now that you said it, I think I was wrong when I said it’s about making the explosions bigger. It’s actually about making the way the character solves it cooler.
[Brandon] Yeah, there you go.
[Dan] Yes.

[Howard] That’s part of it. The other part of it, and we’ve talked about this with… In our podcasts about, well, about romance in particular, how is the character responding to this? If it’s a very small explosion right next to my head, and I’m disoriented and I now have to be extra super competent in order to accomplish what comes next, that’s a completely different experience than if I’m just running and jumping and whatever.
[Brandon] Howard, would you say that Schlock Mercenary is primarily adventure fiction?
[Howard] No, I’d say it’s primarily humor, because of…
[Brandon] Well, yes.
[Howard] Because of the punchline. But I think that topic would fit better when we’re talking about adventure as a sub genre.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s a good idea.
[Howard] Because I’m definitely exploiting that. One of my favorite adventure moments in anything is the scene in the often maligned Pirates of the Caribbean 4 movie, where Jack Sparrow shows us his plan to escape from the dining room, and he does all the zany stuff that you see him do in the first three movies, except you see him looking at things and positioning the room as he is doing his crazy talk. Then, all of a sudden, a dude goes out the window, and there’s swinging on the chandelier and he grabs the pastry. These are all things that are fun and exciting. But knowing that he isn’t just making it up…
[Brandon] Right. He set it all up so that he could be cool.
[Howard] This was a set piece. That made it so much cooler for me than any of his other action scenes.

[Dan] I like the way that we keep coming back again and again to the environment, and the way that the environment is informing the adventure. Because I think more than anything, that’s how I use this. Is to think, “Well, this story takes place in a big city. That means I’ve got a train and a skyscraper and a big shipping dock. What cool things can I do there? How can I make sure that the character scenes and the investigation scenes and wherever else I’m doing happen in a cool place where cool things can be done?
[Brandon] This is because the conflict in an adventure story is primarily external. It’s the environment, or other people that the main character is trying to overcome in some way . That externality of it… It doesn’t mean you can’t have an internal arc for your character. You should. But that, as the prime story, means that the obstacles put in front of this character need to be great to challenge them. If those weren’t there, you wouldn’t have your story.

[Mary] I think one of the other aspects of the location and all of that is actually that… That there needs to be an element of improvisation. In how… That part of the area of competency of your character is they are someone who can look at a room or look at wherever it is and figure out… Like Jackie Chan. What do I have to fight with? I will fight with this ladder! The ladder fight scene.
[Howard] Peter Molyneux, game designer, very famously once said that he was tired of these fantasy games in which you are upgrading your weapons and really the only thing you do is swing your sword at things. Yes, you develop all these cool moves, but these fights shouldn’t be taking place on a flat battlefield. You are in an environment. Why are we not jumping off of walls? Why are we not throwing bottles? Why are we not setting fire to things? What he was describing was how can we make games look more like action movies?
[Mary] Well, the Princess Bride. The sword fight…
[Brandon] Perfect example.
[Mary] Because that is not level terrain. The entire time you’re watching it, you’re like, “I wish I could be doing that.” It’s articulating character, it is advancing the plot, it’s really cool to watch.

[Brandon] Alright. This has been a great discussion. We will dig into this again in a couple of weeks. First, I want to give you some homework. Dan. You have our homework this week.
[Dan] Alright. Your homework this week. You are going to do what Howard’s editor made him do. Take an expository scene. Whether that is an introduction to a character or dialogue between two characters, something where you’re feeding us important information. But then set it during something really exciting, something thrilling. The room is falling apart. You’re being attacked. You’re running away from something. Whatever that is. Make us have an adventure during an exposition.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.