It’s all about the action, isn’t it?
Well, not quite.
In addition to good dialogue, pacing, and keeping the action flowing within the rest of the story, good story-telling is as much a player in a successful adventure as any quantity of action. Weak story or depthless plot means ‘bad adventure’.
So what is it that grabs readers? Is it action, gore, horror, revenge? Perhaps all these components . . . but it’s not just ‘action’ or ‘sensational development’ or vivid descriptions that win a reader’s attention. I find that raw action on its own, is somewhat purposeless.
How the character(s) go about performing their deeds and the emotional response it creates in the reader is more important.
What drives the character? Do protagonists do things in a way that seem congruous with what we already know of their personalities up ’til this point?
The answers to these questions form the basis of what makes a ‘successful’ adventure in my opinion. Good adventure-writing creates that magical shift in the reader, of having enough empathy, or sometimes anti-empathy, for the character(s) to suspend their disbelief of the fact that they are actually reading a fictional tale. If there is no author left in the picture then there are just the characters living out their story. The adventure takes centre stage.
A lot of analysts have described this feature as ‘getting readers to care about the characters’. Well true, I wouldn’t argue it, but I would take it a step further. The suspension of disbelief creates the impetus for the reader to jump into the shoes of the protagonist and not want to put the book down. As readers, we don’t generally remember the minutia of what a character did and what that character said, as much as how we felt about them while reading the story. How did a particular action resonate in our being? Did it suit the author’s theme?
If the effect of the action strikes a chord in our subconscious mind, we tend to examine further the happening and continue to immerse ourselves deeper in the story. The phenomenon of absorption is essentially necessary for a satisfying read, and what the author is ultimately trying to achieve—particularly in epic adventure. It’s all about lasting impression. In epic, universal forces are at work; greater than the characters themselves; too mystical or subtle to pinpoint with any intellectual words, but ones that hit us in the solar plexus, and the heart, and makes us rave about a particular piece of prose forever. At the same time, the emotional impact is the glue that keeps the story moving—and the reader engaged.
Adventure writing is intense; for a long time now I have been immersed in some facet of the craft, usually mixed with fantasy or SF. Having experienced my own adventures on a mountain bike pedalling about the world (Asia and Europe) as well as several backpacking and trekking excursions around the world, I have had first hand experience with adventure—and something that continues to attract me. To the point that I began writing at a fairly early age, in my 20’s—writing about not ‘real’ adventures, memoirs or non-fiction—but more fantasy, inspired by the style of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and R.E. Howard’s Conan adventures. Since then, I have added Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber and Alexandre Dumas to that list of paragons.
Let’s examine some of these great writers:
J.R.R. Tolkien: his indisputably wickedly-descriptive prose, not to mention his innate talent for story-telling, ranks him among the top of the adventurists. He fuses fantasy with adventure, but keeps it real. In Lord of the Rings, the reader finds no deus ex machina tricks or overused tropes: no gaffes ham up any of the heroes’ actions. True, there are not a lot of laughs, but Tolkien’s goal was never humour—it was to convey the impact of a lengthy, serious adventure. Astonishingly, the Lord of the Rings comprises a small anecdote in his masterwork, the Silmarillion. There is an incredibly sumptuous quantity of history in Middle-Earth; there’s a tremendous consistency of character that functions perfectly with this pseudo-mediaeval world. The actions of the many characters are amplified in this setting. The players need only to act their part, interacting within the rich world to create a highly-structured work and a successful adventure.
Two events stick in my mind in this influential series. The events really separate Tolkien’s epic from a lot of other worthy ones floating in the pot. #1: when Gandalf returns from the dead and ‘surprises’ Aragorn and Gimli in the forest of Fangorn. Neither recognize him, but the White Wizard is so unassuming that he doesn’t even alert them to their error . . . until Gimli becomes ornery and then Gandalf shows the proud dwarf a small taste of his power. What majesty! Even the great Gandalf has his limits of small-mindedness. A small event, perhaps, but a great moment for me, and a trigger incident that forms a turning point in the series, making all of Gandalf’s acts from that point on larger than life.
The other event that specifically struck me, was when Frodo and Sam were deep in Mordor; Sam had the opportunity to despatch Gollum once and for all, but Frodo stays the impulsive hobbit’s hand, explaining that all creatures, wretched or virtuous, have some part to play in the doings of the world. Again, how ingenious of Tolkien—considering the aftermath of the story. From then on, for me, Frodo’s actions rose to a new level, amplified in some kind of angelic exaltedness. His adventure becomes even more spiritual in nature. Frodo is not just a lowly hobbit duped into cleaning up other people’s messes—he’s an agent of chaos sent from the cosmos. Little touches like this, recurring over again, create that hair-raising, visceral quality of a real world adventure gone straight to the top. See Curse of the Crugmut for related Tolkienesque adventure.
R.E. Howard’s main works feature vivid action and profligate description in the pseudo-historical Hyborian Age. His earliest introduction to ‘Conan’ appears in his short tale, “The Thing in the Crypt”. It combines mystery, thriller, survival and history, all in one potpourri. Howard manages to portray that eerie sense of a ‘dark world forgotten’, and one with untold mysteries and pernicious magic lurking around every corner, every mouldering tombstone, every murk-ridden cave, forgotten temple or secret cult. Conan, a young ambitious stripling is fleeing from wolves and is forced to seek out a dubious shelter in a dank cave where he finds a mummified corpse holding a fabulous sword perched on a throne. He commandeers the item and has a somewhat ‘mystical’ experience, which almost results in his demise. The simple premise creates, in the overall scheme of the adventure, a tale so gripping that the reader is stunned. Mainly because of the context, I believe: the dark history behind the cave and the descriptive hints of the powerful sorcery and spellcraft lurking in this one-of-many deep, dark holes. The reader is left wondering what other terrors exist in this fabulous, elder world filled with marvels unimaginable? Unlike popular understanding of Conan’s character—mainly through comic books—the Cimmerian is pegged as being some dull-witted brute barbarian. But in the original stories, he is an intelligent, compassionate man, forced to pit his mettle against a brutal world populated by every monster, demon, degenerate, human or otherwise, one can think of. Conan, being a profound character, infuses a sense of awe and reverence in the reader, so the acts he commits, bloody or heroic, are given respect. It’s not just mindless action and slaughter that Howard is portraying here. Conan is horrified himself at the deeds he must commit—which says a lot about his character. Howard’s collection of his few dozen Conan tales was written a few decades before Lord of the Rings (back in the 1930’s), and was highly acclaimed, even before the concept ‘sword and sorcery’ became popular. Howard became a celebrity; he was an avant-garde pillar of the genre, influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and Clarke-Ashton Smith, and became one of the major players who influenced multitudes of sword and sorcery fans, and writers for decades to come. I was so inspired by the Conan writings that I posted my free novella, The Dragon of Skar, featuring the indomitable Cimmerian; Ahrion's Minions is purely my own creation, written in the spirit of Howard's adventure tales.
Jack Vance’s worlds, particularly The Dying Earth and The Demon Princes and Lyonesse series, are especially exemplary of the good adventure style to which I am referring. This fantasy-SF master was a big fan of Edgar Rice Burrows (writer of the Tarzan series) and Frank Baum (the Wizard of Oz writer) in his early days, and is well known for his elegant and commanding writing style. He typifies the gist of my premise. An in-depth study of his works, both major and minor, will reveal several important masterful devices:
#1: Rich underpinnings of history in the form of dialogue snippets—and narrative footnotes believe it or not!
#2: The characters seem to seamlessly integrate with the intricate worlds; the premise is expressed in the characters’ luxurious and often hilarious dialogues and the manifestation of their motives, fears and actions. So much so, that when Vancian characters begin to do bold or foolish things (which is quite rampantly often), readers are on tenterhooks—or are falling out their chair laughing, or shocked out of their skins. Vance has an ability to toss off such handiwork with facile ease. Such is the craft of the master. I would say that it is his adroitness at depicting characters—notably eccentric and hyperbolic ones, like Cugel the Clever—and his beautiful use of irony richly exercised throughout his books, that make his adventures so appealing, and stand above the pack.
Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers form other bases of this theme. Writing back in the early to mid 1800’s, Dumas was probably one of the first really prolific, modern epic-adventure writers . . . also one of the most influential. His characters, set against a real backdrop of Napoleonic times, are carved in living 3D. Edmond Dantès, hero of Monte Cristo particularly exhibits a rare flair for action. His exploits grab the reader’s attention immediately and keep it there for 1200+ pages! (Penguin edition). How? He is an excellent writer; he has a gift for language; he also hits us with the raw emotion of every act. Scenes are tightly choreographed; the dialogue is polished and aristocratic and never without a far-reaching purpose. Dantès, the dark avenger, is both controversial and brilliant, suffering an inner war with himself: how far should he take his obsession of revenge on his villainous, lower-than-cretin enemies? It almost costs Dantès his life, and the love of his dreams. His own scarred soul is pitiably bared before the reader. Dumas plays on this archetype and with the help of incredibly skilful irony, makes small acts on Dantès part become ever more major events in the overall flow of the epic.
Other adventure/fantasy writers who get top mention are Edgar Rice Burroughs (known for the Tarzan series) and Fritz Leiber (famous for his Lankhmar adventures)—but these authors can fill up a whole other article.
Based on these wonderful examples, I have attempted to incorporate similar depth and vision in my own picaresque manner. I’ll start with Wolf’s-head. This first book of the Rogues of Bindar trilogy was published in Aug. 2011. Although the text is jauntier than what one might find in the Lord of the Rings, the tale makes up for any lack, in humour and style. Wolf’s-head develops the protagonist, Baus—a disenchanted fisherman who makes it his mission to architect schemes, deceits and ploys for the sole purpose of augmenting his own personal advantage. Early on, he runs afoul of a murky magician who tests his mettle and from then on his life degrades and he is plunged into chaotic adventure. His reckless behaviour plunges him into darker and more miserable places, forcing him to be the hero he doesn’t want to be. Books II and III continue his saga as a blithe outlaw into ever more desperate and daring escapades, engulfed in an epic struggle against corsairs, princes and Aurimag the neomancer, his inscrutable nemesis. In fact, the original title for this book was ‘Baus the Bold’.
Wolf’s-head foreshadows the mystery and dark nature of the neomancers, wizards from the far south. The richness of the land emerges in the hero's and his entourage's travels and dialogue. The desolate, stark and beautiful vistas hint of a once-opulent heritage of Bindar of the northern territories. The main character’s contact with the ruins and fanes by the sea, and the eldritch Bisiguth fort-abbey on his flight up the coast enhance this feeling of timeless antiquity. Baus’s actions, large and small, humorous and poignant, create a backdrop of emotional urgency that keep the reader engaged. We generally admire Baus for his mordant ingeniousness, despite his stubborn pride. We follow his saga as raptly as a heron hunting trout, as the borderline anti-hero must go up against the establishment, rub noses with various unscrupulous foes, including lords and ogres.
The idea recurs in the short, fictional works of the Fantastic Realms anthology. In stories like The Bones of St. Isis, Enchantress of Rurne, Ahrion’s Minions and Curse of the Crugmut the reader finds a sense of timeless grandeur, where brave souls, some wise, others deluded, walk the path between dark and light. We automatically feel the protagonists’ triumphs, and their despair through means of the intimate writing style employed. There is no dearth of action here; classic sword and sorcery reigns—but the action is tempered against the richness of exotic worlds, reminiscent of epic quality. The heroes’ deeds seem larger than physical life because of the lavish context.
Similar heroic adventure persists in the science fiction anthology Future Destinies. Stories like The Jisil-ou-az-lar demonstrate a rare high emotional adventure ride, crossing the gap between SF and fantasy.
The more real-life adventure, Denibus Ar, demands a place in the discussion. The tale, set in present-day Egypt, bridges archaeological adventure with the supernatural. It triumphs in creating the spark for something original, and very real in our modern world which is caught encroaching on an elder one—one more sacred, and perhaps more profound. The protagonist, Carl Langley, a young Australian archaeologist walks a dangerous tightrope, crossing swords with black market thugs and the hidebound military, as well as his own bane, and angel, a spectral, deceased pharaoh.
In summary, I wish to emphasize my findings and conclusions on the craft of writing a successful adventure story. Beyond good dialogue, pacing, story line, and thematic development, all which are necessary components of any good story . . . it’s really the visceral thrust in the reader’s nervous system while reading that counts. Such a miracle is manifested by a depth of the world the author creates, and the author’s skill in architecting characters to tread the path of a worthwhile adventure.