Six Elements of a Good Adventure Story

November 20th, 2012

Sometimes I write notes or instructions to myself. For example, one evening while I was waiting for my son to finish his swimming lesson, I wrote the following “six elements of a good adventure story.” I wrote them because I’d been wondering what it was about certain stories, novels and films, that I liked so much. What things did the good stories have in common, I asked myself, and what were the mediocre or bad ones missing?  Six things came to mind, so I wrote them down.
I’ve found these six elements useful, and you might too. I don’t offer them as the six elements, rules that all writers must follow, but present them simply as my six elements. You may have more elements, or fewer, or different elements altogether. But these are my six, with brief descriptions that are by no means complete.

Every story is an adventure story!

Before I start, I’d like to say that “a good story” isn’t one of the elements. Assume you already have a good story, or a story worth telling. This is about the how, not the what. In the phrase, “a good story, well told,” this is the “well told” part.

Every story is an adventure story!

1. Likeable Characters
All my favourite books and movies feature characters that I want to spend time with, characters that would make good friends or colleagues (if I lived in the imaginary world of the story, that is). Dark characters are fine too, but they need to be real and they should be sympathetic in some way. All of them. They can’t be bland, and they can’t be generic. They should stand for something.

2. An Injustice
The inciting incident and subsequent conflict in this adventure will be powerful if it involves a universal injustice, a great wrong of the common sort (historically speaking), by which I mean the kind of injustice we can all understand and condemn and see the need to fight. Something that will get the reader or audience mad!

3. Authenticity
I could also say ”realism,” but you don’t always want that. But you do want “the truth.” What I’m talking about here is authenticity of events, physical authenticity, but also authenticity of human action and reaction, and of voice and conversation. When I read a novel and the dialogue doesn’t ring true, it ruins it for me. Good storytelling should be real within the context of its own world, the words and actions of the characters true to themselves and true to life.

4. A Complex Antagonist
This goes along with No. 1, but needs its own category. The villain needs to be big. The villain needs to be recognizable (even likeable). And the villain needs to be complex and, as mentioned, authentic. Maybe a little subtle. Evil is rarely so obvious in real life, and the bad guy should reflect that. All of history’s villains thought that they were on the side of right.
The villain, whether human or institution or situation or something else, also needs to be tied to 2 above, of course.

5. A Brisk Plot
Don’t drag it out. The story needs a coherent and balanced overarching plot that is driven forward by a series of shorter plots with sub-conclusions, ultimately leading to the climax. The pacing must be brisk; too much exposition and set-up will try the patience of the audience. Envelope your exposition within the action. That being said, don’t go so fast that character and texture are lost.

6. Texture
I mentioned texture. By that I mean little details that make the world within the story seem real and recognizable. Wardrobe and set design, set dressing, hair and makeup and little quirks and details. A history, backstory. This may seem obvious, but so many writers (and filmmakers) forget it.

That’s it, in a nut shell. Much more could be said, but doesn’t need to be. These are reminders, starting points, and so far they’ve helped remind me of what I need to do when I’m starting out. And that was the point.