Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.16: Adventure as a Subgenre

Let’s be adventurous. Let’s move beyond simply being cooks, and strive to become chefs. In this episode we explore using the element of adventure as an ingredient in something that has far more than adventure going on in it. Why do we like adventure? What draws the reader forward?

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Take your favorite piece of media that is NOT primarily an adventure, and look for the places where elemental adventure is used. Make note of where and why, and consider what the story would have been like without that element present.

Thing of the week: The Shootout Solution: Genrenauts Episode 1, by Michael R. Underwood, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Don’t just be a cook, following a list of ingredients, be a chef who knows what each ingredient does and how to add spice to your stories! Adventure adds a sense of wish fulfillment, of everyman victory, of the normal person doing great things. Adventure takes us to exotic locations, and lets us accomplish things. Adventure gives you external adversity. It also gives you “oh, awesome” moments that come from action, from derring-do, from swashbuckling! Why do people like adventure? Wish fulfillment. Stand-up-and-cheer moments! Creative fulfillment — how are they going to do this? The “We did it” moment at the peak of the mountain. The expectation of success. The moment of triumph. Using adventure as a subgenre? Consider the chase scene embedded in heist stories and others. Adventure can raise tension, or relieve it. Adventure lets the reader have fun! Chase scenes, fight scenes, other adventure scenes need to have bits pulled in that are important elsewhere, that the characters care about. You can use adventure as the glue, to keep it interesting and provide an external motivation to push characters together. Adventure also is a good setting for banter, to illuminate character. Show who people are under stress by adding adventure.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 16.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Adventure as Subgenre.
[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] And it is time to dig into elemental adventure once again. In this podcast, we will look at how to add adventure to a story that may not be primarily an adventure. Before we do this, I want to talk about a concept I’ve been telling my students a lot this year in my class. My goal, and I think our goal is podcasters, for you is for you to stop being a cook and start being a chef. As defined by the cook is the person who can follow a list of ingredients and create a perfectly acceptable meal. The chef knows what each of those ingredients does and knows that by adding the spice of… From one thing into another, how much flour… What it’s going to do to the final concoction. I want you to be able to do that with these genres. I want you to be able to say, “Ah. Adventure. If I add some adventure to my fiction, it does…” Well, what? What does adding some adventure to an established piece do?
[Dan] One of the great things that you get with adventure is a sense of wish fulfillment.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] The example that is coming to mind… A common theme that you’ll see in both adventure and in thrillers is the normal person is caught in something bigger and is just trying to make the best of it. In a thriller, they’re on the run because the men in black are after them or whatever is chasing them. When you turn that into an adventure, you get that moment of kind of everyman victory, of I have turned the tables even though I don’t have all of the training, even though I’m not amazing, but I still managed to jump off of a moving train, whatever it is.
[Brandon] You get to see that progression. That’s part of the fun of that, is your normal person is now going to become a superspy. There have been how many countless movies that have been made about you, normal person, are going to become X, Y, or Z? It’s that exact wish fulfillment, that training in something awesome and then watching the character accomplish it.
[Howard] I’m thinking of adventure as a subgenre in the movie Warm Bodies which is fundamentally a Rom Com. It’s a romantic comedy. It’s a relationship story. But it’s set in zombies. There is zombie fighting and shooting and running, and there is plenty of adventure built into that. But fundamentally, the story is a romance.
[Brandon] A lot of classical adventure stories are romance/adventure hybrids. Romancing the Stone is a perfect example of this, where it’s Indiana Jones plus a strong romance. You might make the argument that one’s not really a subgenre, they’re both equal. But that’s kind of what we’re talking about. Hybridizing these stories. Why is Romancing the Stone so much more fun than just a regular romantic comedy with the same characters? It’s this idea of adventure, of going to the exotic location, of accomplishing something and moving the story along. Kind of, you can show these characters in that one growing together through adversity. I think adding that adversity is helpful.
[Dan] At the risk of being crass and mercantile about this, that is a perfect example of a date movie because you are attracting two very different audiences. So you are attracting all the people who want the romance, and you’re attracting all the people who want the cool adventure and through the jungle and whatever.
[Mary] And the people who want both all the time.
[Brandon] I mean, Titanic, I would say, is combining a bunch of different things. It turns into horror, right? But the first half is adventure. We’re going on this grand adventure on this cool boat, and romance…
[Howard] And sense of wonder.
[Brandon] And sense of wonder.
[Howard] There were elements of wonder in the size of that ship, which was so much smaller than the thing that we got on.
[Howard] I still can’t get over that.
[Brandon] But it’s this idea of adventure gives you the external adversity so that two characters, but it’s a romance or a buddy cop or what… relationship or whatever else you’re doing are brought together. It gives you almost the timebomb for another… Like, you’re doing a mystery, add in the adventure element to it, and the clues come as they’re tied together by these exciting elements and exciting events.

[Mary] I think part of the thing that adventure can do is give you that moment of… The “oh, awesome” moment that you’re looking for. But in this case, the “oh, awesome” moment is coming from the action that they’re taking. One of the things we talked about when we were first cashing out everything was the sense of derring-do, which then required a lot of definition. But it’s basically the Robin Hood, the Errol Flynn, it’s the swashbuckling. There’s a lot of ways to do swashbuckling that don’t involve actually having a sword. You can do that with… With the Jackie Chan ladder. You can do that with the fast talking banter.
[Brandon] Oh, that’s so swashbuckling. Both of those.
[Mary] a certain amount of it, I think, is putting the reader in the position of “Can we get away with this?”
[Brandon] I would say my entire genre… Epic fantasy, my primary genre, is an example of mixing wonder and adventure. Depending on your scene in your book, which one is the head genre and which one is the subgenre will change. But that’s what makes up epic fantasy. “Wow, look at this cool place! Look at these cool things! Now, we’re going to go fight some orcs!” The entire experience of Dungeons & Dragons is let’s mix some wonder with an adventure story.

[Dan] I would say, riding on top of that, that the vast majority of genre distinctions that we make, and people who say, “Oh, I like this kind of fantasy instead of this.” What they’re really talking about is where that line is. What the ratio is between adventure and wonder. The more adventure you add in, I think, the more kind of mass-market appeal that you get.
[Brandon] Generally, yeah.
[Dan] The Matrix movies, at the heart of them, I think, that they’re very kind of deep philosophical nature of free will…
[Howard] Idea pieces.
[Dan] Kind of things, but let’s make this appealing by throwing in a bunch of fights and adventures.
[Mary] Although, I’m going to say that when we’re talking about mass-market appeal, that that is specifically a… What you’ve just described is specifically a film thing.
[Dan] That’s true.
[Mary] Because the highest selling genre is romance.
[Chorus – Yep. Yeah. Yes. Absolutely.]
[Mary] So if you’re talking mass-market…

[Brandon] You’re absolutely right, Mary. Pointing that out. That… Well, I want to backup from this a second. I really want to dig into this why. For… To turn our listeners into chefs instead of cooks. Why do people like this? Wish fulfillment? What else? Why we like adventure?
[Howard] Two weeks ago, you asked me if Schlock Mercenary was primarily adventure, and I said, “No, it’s humor, adventure is a subgenre.” The reason there is adventure in it is because I want you to have the stand-up-and-cheer moment while you are laughing. I want to fire on both of those at once.
[Brandon] So, stand up and cheer?
[Howard] Stand up and cheer.
[Brandon] Wish fulfillment. Stand up and cheer.
[Howard] Stand up and cheer. But for me, it’s a subgenre, because there was something else I wanted to blend it with. Very notably, a year and a half ago, I wanted to do a scene where Sgt. Schlock is riding a scooter, throwing hammers at people.
[Howard] Setting that up to weeks and weeks and weeks.
[Howard] But when I finally delivered on it…
[Dan] It was totally worth it.
[Howard] When I finally delivered on it, where he’s riding like cavalry with hammers and chainsaws and a mouthful of hammers, it’s hilarious. Yet there is a part of us that says, “Man, I wish I could do that.” Or at least watch him do that.
[Dan] I think that that “look how cool that is.” That’s a kind of a different flavor of the stand-up-and-cheer moment that is a big part of adventure. I would say the James Bond movies are mostly thrillers, but there’s always one or two big adventure moments. The one in Skyfall where he runs down a backhoe’s robot arm as it is clawing at a train, and then fixes his cufflinks because he so frigging cool. That’s what adventure adds to your story, is that moment of “Oh, that was so awesome.”
[Mary] Yeah. I want to be that awesome. I think that for me, a lot of adventure is I want to be that awesome. Which is the wish fulfillment that you’re talking about.
[Brandon] It’s accomplishment.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] It’s accomplishment, is what this is about.

[Dan] It’s not so much, if we can move… We keep talking about the wish fulfillment. One thing Mary mentioned before was the sense of I want to see how they solve this. Which is more of a kind of a creative fulfillment kind of thing, like “Oh, that’s so clever. I didn’t see that coming. That guy’s so smart. That girl is so…”
[Howard] Well, that’s our elemental mystery. Your puzzle, at a level…
[Brandon] I don’t think you can discount, though, that moment of “We did it.” Which is climbing the mountain, again. There’s a story about climbing the mountain. There’s a scene at the end where the characters are standing on the peak, and there’s awe, because there’s that basking. But there’s that moment of “Look what we accomplished.” You can look back at this path, this terrible trial, and we are now standing on top of this thing. That’s the… That’s that moment.
[Mary] I wonder, some of… When I’m reading an adventure, I know that this is a story that is… At least this moment, that I’m actually heading for success. I don’t exactly know how they’re going to accomplish it, and the fun is seeing how they’re going to succeed and all of the funny ways… Or different ways that they’re going to fail. Whereas in a thriller, I don’t actually know that we’re heading for success.
[Brandon] So that’s what’s going to turn the page each of these times, is I get… I want these moments. I want to see something new. And I want to have that sense of accomplishment when we get to the end and we have accomplished something.

[Howard] There’s one more reason to include adventure as a subgenre. That is to betray you in exactly that moment. If I’m blending adventure and horror, and you don’t know that horror is one of the subgenres, we are going to do something cool and then it’s going to go badly. Disastrously.
[Dan] Or even if you do know. Cabin in the Woods does this multiple times, and it’s effective, even the fifth and sixth time.
[Brandon] I think you need to be clear at the beginning if you’re going to do a horror twist, but… Yeah.
[Mary] But this is… What we’re talking about is, again, when readers are signing up, what they’re looking for… The brain hacking that they’re looking for from an adventure story is that moment of triumph.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is by Michael R. Underwood.
[Howard] I’ve got that this week. It is The Shootout Solution: Genrenauts Episode 1 by Michael R. Underwood. I loved this. This was so much fun. It’s a… It’s adventure fiction. The concept is the universe we live in has parallel universes that have sprung up from the kind of stories we tell. When those parallel universes, when the stories in them break, when their genres go off formula, bad things happen in our world. So obviously, somebody has to travel to those universes and make their stories go correctly. As a writer, I love this idea. It’s a very, very high concept. The Shootout Solution is a Western which very much pulls the adventure strings. It’s… Brandon is pointing at Mary to remind me who read the book.
[Howard] Yes, our very own Mary Robinette Kowal, I say possessively, as if…
[Mary] Mwahaha.
[Howard] Read Shootout Solution: Genrenauts Number 1. You can pick it up on Audible., you can start a 30-day trial membership and select this or any other book as a great way to start.
[Mary] I will just say, as the narrator I love narrating these. They are so much fun.
[Howard] Oh, and our protagonist is a comedian.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] That’s great.
[Howard] Sorry, that’s the other reason I love it.
[Brandon] All right. So,

[Brandon] Let’s talk about how to construct a story, specifically using adventure as a subgenre.
[Mary] So, I’m going to talk about heist novels.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Because they have many things going on in them. But there is always a point in a heist novel, the heist novel or film, where there’s the chase scene. That chase scene is the adventure that is embedded in everything else.
[Brandon] Right, right. Either adventure or thriller, depending.
[Mary] Depending on the…
[Brandon] Most of them are adventure.
[Mary] Most of them are adventure.
[Brandon] Like The Italian Job. That’s so adventure.
[Mary] The ridiculous driving of the… Through the tubes that… So that’s one thing that I look for when I’m looking for a moment in my story where I want to ramp up the tension, where I know that I’m going to be heading for a solution and I want my readers to have fun while they… While my characters are in danger. That’s where I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to be… This is where I’m going to use adventure.” That element.
[Brandon] Excellent. Yeah.
[Howard] Modeling that… I’ve been watching, for the third time through, Leverage on Netflix as I ink comics. One of the reasons I love doing this is because we have elemental ensemble at a high level, we have mystery as we’re putting this puzzle together, and there is adventure every time the actor Christian Kane is on screen punching something, we are back into an adventure story. And I love those bits. I say it’s fun for me to watch as a writer because the way these episodes are constructed, all of Eliott’s set pieces have elements in them that have been pulled from earlier in the story that are part of our… That are part of our mystery, that are part of our puzzle, that are part of the… Part of the ensemble stuff. That’s the thing when you’re using… When you’re using element… When you’re using… Yeah, elemental adventure as a subgenre, the bits that you are pulling into that fight scene, the bits that you are pulling into that chase, have to be important elsewhere in the story. They have to be things… They have to be things that the characters care about and have interacted with.
[Dan] One of the things I love about all of the fight scenes in Leverage is that most of them start with Christian Kane walking into this scene and kind of looking at everybody and you go, “Oh, man, he’s going to punch them all in the face.”
[Dan] And then he does. That’s what adventure gives you, is it’s almost kind of a pressure valve. You can use them… You can use adventure to ramp tension, you can also use it, I think, to release tension.
[Brandon] That’s a great point.
[Dan] Things have been so tense, things have been so whatever. “Oh, man, he’s going to punch all these dudes in the face.”
[Howard] And then Eliott walks on screen. The good guys can see him, but the bad guys can’t. Good guys smile and we know “Oh. Punching is going to happen.” And tension has been released.
[Dan] You get that moment of “That’s so awesome” that adventure brings to the story.
[Brandon] You can use adventure as glue, also, to kind of… You’ve got a story, like I want to tell the story about these two characters, and this is what they’re going to accomplish. They’re going to become good friends and then… Whatever. You can use the adventure as the glue to give that external motivation, that external force, I guess, to push them together. You can take a mystery, for instance, and you can stuff a bunch of adventure into it, so that piece-by-piece you are getting this wonderful story, while some things that might have otherwise been boring are given to you point-by-point in a really interesting way.
[Mary] I think that’s one of the things that you can definitely use adventure for is to mask the boring stuff. Like in the homework that we gave you from two weeks ago, where we said add adventure to your exposition. I think that that’s one thing, when you look at something like “This is really dull” and like, “All right…”
[Brandon] I had… A perfect example of this is the various different versions of Sherlock Holmes that are out there. Which are all primarily mysteries. The BBC one is fantastic. It’s going on a higher level. It’s using mystery and character drama and internal conflicts between… All this. It’s brilliant. There’s also the… What is this, Guy Ritchie movies, the ones that had Iron Man in them, that starred Kim… What’s his name? Robert Downey, Jr. Where it’s like, “We’re going to take a Sherlock Holmes story and we’re just going to make an adventure.” It becomes an adventure story. Often times, they’re taking the same source material. One is a true mystery. A true mystery with a subgenre of this messed up guy. The other one’s adventure story with a mystery. Analyzing those and saying, “What does this one due to someone versus this one?” is a great way as a writer to start learning how to use these things.
[Mary] The other thing that we’ve talked about a lot is that… With the pressure release… Is that adventure is good for making things fun. So it can… One of the things that it can do, when you like… When you’re talking about the… Illuminating character. Having banter in there, which is, I think, one of the key elements of an adventure, is a really great way to illuminate character while things are happening. So that it’s not just a lot of navel gazing.

[Howard] Coming back to the metaphor that Brandon began with, cooks versus chefs. When you eat the hospital cafeteria food, the operating adjective is usually bland. It’s boring. There’s not a lot going on. That’s, in part, because allergens and whatever. When you add a little bit of some of these ingredients, the flavor changes completely, and yet fundamentally, the stuff that’s in the plate is the same. A little bit of… I guess I was concerned, because we talk about a scene that is boring and adding adventure to it. If a scene is boring and it’s not important, then you cut it. But if the scene is boring because it’s expository, because nothing else is happening, then the problem we have is that the scene is not serving multiple purposes. One of the purposes can be fulfilled by putting adventure in it.
[Brandon] There is something I watched online, which is… They’re these really in-depth reviews, really, really, and somewhat weird reviews of the Star Wars prequel movies. You may know… If you’ve seen them, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But there’s a scene in one of them where the person doing… That is analyzing things, shows Anakin and Padma having a conversation and they’re packing bags slowly. This is important information, important character moments. It is so dull! They’re just talking and packing their bags. It’s… We’re supposed to be advancing these characters. Ugh… Blah. Then the person also shows a scene from the new Star Trek movies. The J. J. Abrams Star Trek movies where Capt. Kirk and Bones… Like Bones is trying to give Capt. Kirk a physical and something terrible is going down. They’re like running through the halls, screaming at each other, because they’re late or whatever and Bones is trying to get him to agree to his physical and this stuff. You come out of that scene, you’ve had fun, and you know both characters way better. Because you get to show their actions in a moment of stress which illustrates character. One is adding adventure and getting this across, the other is just trying to do the exposition and fails at it because you don’t have the show, the way to show these characters are. That’s what adventure gives you. It gives you those moments where you can show who people are by putting them under stress.
[Howard] In relationship stories and ensemble stories, often the characters… Well, definitely the characters change because of things that the other characters are doing. The relationship itself changes, but the characters change. Adding adventure allows us to see these characters changing, not only in relationship to each other, but in relationship to outside events.
[Brandon] So, we are out of time. Unfortunately. I think we could keep talking about this one. This is very exciting. Yay!
[Mary] Yay!

[Brandon] But it’s time for some homework. Mary is going to give us our homework this week.
[Mary] All right. So we’re talking about you using adventure as a spice. So I want you to do is I want you to grab your favorite piece of media. But not an adventure film. Not something where adventure is the main ingredient. Grab a romance, grab whatever. I want you to watch it, and I want you to note the moments when they are using the adventure as a subgenre. Also note why. Look at the transitions into the adventure, look at the transitions out of it. Think about what it is doing and what would happen if it was removed from the plot at that moment.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go on an adventure.