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

11.17: Elemental Adventure Q&A

You may still have questions about how to apply elemental adventure in your work. Hopefully your questions are similar to the ones we collected below, because these are the ones we answered:

  • What do readers like more: protagonists going through lots of different incidents and locations, or through a few that are similar to each other?
  • What lessons can we learn from adventure games?
  • How can we make action scenes that adventurous, but that are not fight scenes?
  • Are there tropes we should stay away from in adventure fiction?
  • Do you have suggestions for non-western styles of adventure fiction?
  • How do you safely skip the long, boring parts of a journey without missing out on necessary character development?

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

Homework: Make a list of cool set pieces that people could visit. Figure out how your characters’ entry into these places will change the places, your characters, and the story.

Thing of the week: Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, narrated by Sanjiv Jhaveri.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: In an adventure story, what is more liked by readers? If protagonists go through many different incidents and locations, or a fewer number of incidents and locations, but that are similar to each other and have a theme?
A: Do them both! It depends. Big globetrotting tale, more cool exotic locations are better. Smaller scale, more focused. Adventure stories need lots of exotic settings, using the element of adventure to enhance may not need that.
Q: What lessons can we take from your favorite adventure games for writing adventure fiction?
A: Multiple levels of terrain and that environment you can interact with are more interesting. Different characters, different strengths; so include different kinds of adventure, chase scenes, fight scenes, talking scenes. Make sure there is something personal at risk for the character.
Q: With all the superhero franchises around, what are some tips on writing adventure stories outside of fight scenes and world ending consequences?
A: Exotic locations don’t have to include a fight scene. Great adventures don’t even need villains. Use accelerated timebombs – escaping the burning building, getting out of the path of the avalanche, getting to the hospital. Two different people trying to get the same thing in an exotic location makes an adventure!
Q: Are there tropes that have been overdone need to be avoided in regards to adventure fiction?
A: Tropes are ingredients, not inherently bad. What you do with it and the ingredients you combine it with make the difference. If adventure is the only thing a scene is doing, that may be a problem. Advance the plot, reveal stuff about characters, mix in other ingredients. Make your adventure scenes complications that change the story or the characters, not just obstacles in the way.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for non-Western, nontraditional styles of adventure that could provide variety or a fresh take on things for readers?
A: Grab a bunch of books and read them. Consider the kung fu final fight where the bad guy faces a whole group of heroes.
Q: How do you make the journey exciting? Do you have to include all the details to it? If you skip a bunch of it, how do you get across to the reader the character moments that I have taken place during the parts that you skip of the journey?
A: Think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Different stories focus more or less on the journey. Skip the boring parts, trust the reader to fill in between the high points. If you can find a way to make the journey not boring, put it in.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 17.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Adventure.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And you’ve got questions.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’ve got answers.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] I’m glad I’m with my friends.
[Brandon] Well, we’ll see how good they are.
[Howard] Yeah. Yeah, we will.

[Brandon] We went to twitter and Facebook, and these are your questions about the element of adventure.

[Brandon] In an adventure story, what is more liked by readers? If protagonists go through many different incidents and locations, or a fewer number of incidents and locations, but that are similar to each other and have a theme?
[Howard] Wow, both of those sound awesome. I think that you should write one book about each, because readers are different.
[Dan] It just… It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re doing a big globetrotting James Bond, Indiana Jones kind of thing, then the more cool exotic locations, the better. Whereas if you’re trying to tell something that maybe is a little more personal or a little more smaller scale, then…
[Mary] I mean, I would say that even if they are thematically linked, part of what people are looking for with adventure is the sense of going to someplace new. So that you would actually want to have multiple locations.
[Brandon] I think this also might be a distinction between an adventure story and a story using the element of adventure to enhance… an adventure story, I think Mary’s got it, you need to be going to different locations and things, or at least having different phases of exciting, exotic adventure.
[Dan] If you got two pieces that are set in the same or in very similar locations, you have to do something super new with it the second time.
[Brandon] Right. This isn’t to say that you have to go to different countries all the time, but like part one is climb the mountain. Part two is find the cool caves in the mountain. Part three is find the hidden city underneath the mountain. Those are three distinct set pieces, but taking place in the same location, but they are so different.

[Brandon] Next question. JC Holder asks, “What lessons can we take from your favorite adventure games for writing adventure fiction?”
[Howard] I mentioned Peter Molyneux either last week or three weeks ago. If you can find, especially video games in which the… It is not a flat fight… In which it’s… In which there is… There are multiple levels of terrain, there are… There’s an environment you can interact with. I found that those are much, much more interesting to play. I’ve been playing XCOM 2 and I love the environments where there are things that I can blow up…
[Howard] I don’t have to just shoot my enemies. Sometimes I can shoot the car they’re hiding behind. That little bit of…
[Dan] There was a piece of game master advice in the old West End Star Wars role-playing game that said, “Every character in your party has a different strength. So make sure that each adventure session has a chase scene, a fight scene, and a talking scene.” I always think about that when I’m plotting out a book, to make sure that I’m including different kinds of adventure.
[Brandon] That’s a great suggestion. I like that one. I think that’s something we may have missed in the other podcasts.
[Mary] The thing I would say is D&D would be my adventure fiction of choice… Err, adventure game of choice. Naturally, in D&D, there’s something at risk. Your character may die. But it is personal, because you are playing. That is something that I think a lot of times when people are building an adventure, that sometimes they’ll be like, “Oh, I’ll have this explosion,” but it doesn’t put anything personal at risk for the character. I think that that for me would be the thing.

[Brandon] With all the superhero franchises around, what are some tips on writing adventure stories outside of fight scenes and world ending consequences? Well, I think we’ve covered some of this by saying exotic locations don’t have to include a fight scene. The superhero movies tend to play off of this external villain, but you can have great adventures with no villains.
[Howard] The… It’s an accelerated timebomb format. Escaping the burning building, getting out of the path of the avalanche, getting to the hospital before the baby is born or before you bleed out or whatever. These are all cases in which you are racing through a complex and shifting environment, and something very important is at stake, but you’re not actually fighting anybody.
[Mary] Indiana Jones, again, going into the temple and back out of the temple and… The giant boulder. The giant boulder is…
[Brandon] Right. Not a world ending consequence.
[Mary] Not a world ending consequence.
[Brandon] Not a fight scene.
[Mary] Not a fight scene. You could argue that the giant boulder is his antagonist in that moment, but it’s not a person.
[Brandon] Another lesson from Indiana Jones are movies like this in stories like this, is you can have an antagonist who is not a super villain, was just somebody else trying to get the thing that the main character is trying to get. Presenting these kind of two opposing teams, it’s like… The TV show Survivor, right? Or something like this. It doesn’t have to be “I am the super villain bent on destroying the world.” You just show someone else nasty who wants the same thing that the protagonist wants, and then set them against each other in an exotic location, and you have an adventure story.
[Howard] I was watching an episode of Leverage… We mentioned this last week. I mentioned it last week. Sorry. Bringing it up again.
[Howard] Where Eliot’s or Christian Kane’s character Eliot is posing as a cook. Seeing him in a kitchen catering a wedding when not everybody else knows what they’re doing was… It was a whole new adventure side for him, because he’s cleaving vegetables and being super competent and moving with all the grace that he fights with, and yet he’s not fighting anybody, he’s making food.
[Dan] Leverage and Ocean’s 11 and some others are good examples of kind of primarily ensemble stories that have a lot of adventure in them. Ocean’s 11 has so many great adventure scenes where it’s not a fight, it’s a conversation. Or it is… I’m locked in a room…
[Brandon] Or it’s two characters who have to accomplish something that are on the team. They’re like, “You guys go do this thing.”
[Dan] You get that same kind of little mini adventure puzzle solving, how are they going to get out of this, wow, that was awesome, but they were just talking to each other, and… Watching someone lie really successfully is a fantastic adventure scene.

[Brandon] All right. So Christina asks, “Are there tropes that have been overdone that need to be avoided in regards to adventure fiction?” This is a good question. I’m glad she asked this. The point of what we’re doing is to distill down what about an adventure works. We’re not actually talking about the surface level adventure fiction. I’m sure you could say, “All right. For a while, dark jungles and idols were overdone. Because Indiana Jones did them too much, or Solomon’s Mines, or something like that.” But that’s not what we’re looking at with our discussion of adventure fiction. We’re looking at the deeper level of what do you get from that and transposing it. But do you think there are any things that are overdone in this?
[Mary] One thing that I want to say is that people a lot of times get confused by the word trope and think that it is a bad thing. A trope is an ingredient. You can… You could argue that an entire dinner made of nothing but chocolate would be overusing the trope of chocolate.
[Mary] I think that that would be a hard sell. But no one is going to really complain… It’s like, “What? Chocolate again?” So when you’re looking at the trope, it is not so much the trope itself, but what you’re doing with it and the ingredients you combine it with.
[Howard] It’s easy, in adventure… In elemental adventure of any sort of modern kind, we have car chases. A lot. You can argue that the car chase… We mentioned this last week, the car chase in a heist is a trope of the heist, it’s a piece that is regularly there. If you do it the way everybody else does a car chase, you might have a problem. But if you do it the way everybody else has a car chase, and there is a conversation happening during the car chase that is fresh and interesting and exciting, then we’re probably fine with it. So you just… You gotta understand why you’re using the pieces.
[Dan] We talk so much about ways to make a scene do multiple things. You can make this dialogue more interesting by having a car chase during it. When… I think the adventure thing that falls down the most is when adventure is the only thing that that scene is doing.
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] I find when I’m watching movies and TV shows, increasingly, I will just not pay attention to the fight scenes because I know that nothing important is going to happen except they’ll punch each other for a while and then it will be done.
[Brandon] That has ruined several movies for me recently, because it’s like, “Oh. 45 minutes of people punching each other.” It doesn’t have the cleverness of Jackie Chan using the environment, it’s just explosion after explosion with no character. I am bored out of my skull.
[Dan] So that adventure scene, whether it’s a fight or a chase or an explosion or whatever, if you’re not also advancing the plot or revealing stuff about characters, that’s when you’re using the tropes wrong.
[Mary] One thing that a friend of mine, Margaret Dunlap, who’s a screenwriter, said is that she defines the difference between an obstacle and a complication as an obstacle just gets in the way, and a complication changes the story. I think that when we’re looking at adventure, at a fight scene that’s just a fight scene…
[Dan] Yes. Exactly.
[Mary] It’s just an obstacle. It’s not doing anything. But the…
[Howard] It’s an obstacle to my enjoyment of the piece.
[Dan] Now, it’s let’s pause the plot for 10 minutes while cars chase each other around, and then we’ll get back to the story again.
[Brandon] A brief one of those can add some spice and be fun. It’s when the story starts relying only on that… But yeah, I love what’s been said here. We do have to move on to our book of the week. I want to talk about that one more, but I think there’s some questions that will get us that direction as well.

[Brandon] Mary, you’re going to tell us our book of the week?
[Mary] That’s right. So the book of the week is Aylif… or Alif the Unseen, excuse me, by G. Willow Wilson. It’s narrated by Sanjiv Jhaveri. I loved this book. I picked it up blind in a bookstore. It is… It’s adventure, but it is a wonderful example of blending a lot of these things because it is… It’s a cybercrime novel in which the main character winds up getting hooked up with djinnis and going into a fantasy world where he has to deal with cyber… So it’s total… It’s like cyberpunk and secondary world fantasy and there’s also this adventure, because there is all kinds of car chases and sometimes not cars, sometimes flying carpet chases. But it’s… It is wonderful at all of the different elemental genres she is combining in there. It’s great, beautiful character, fantastic world building and setting. I loved this book. I kept turning the pages and going, “You did not just… Oh, my God, you did. You did.” It’s great.
[Brandon] That is excellent. They can start a 30-day trial at Audible by going to and they can download Alif the Unseen for free.

[Brandon] This actually transitions really well into the next question, which is gonna… I’m gonna point at you, but anyone can answer this, because someone asks, “Do you have any suggestions for non-Western, nontraditional styles of adventure that could provide variety or a fresh take on things for readers?” You spent a whole year reading non-Western stories, so I…
[Mary] Yes. I… so last year, I decided that I was going to read things that were not written by Americans.
[Brandon] So I guess it wasn’t non-Western, but… It was non-American.
[Mary] Right. It was non-American. Yes, there’s a whole bunch of fantastic adventure things. I read… I mean, it’s Western, but this is something set in Finland. So, yes, absolutely, you can go other places. One of the things that I would recommend if you want to do that is actually to grab books and read them. Because if you… If you just look at it and go, “Oh, this would be nice set dressing,” you’re not really going to take advantage of the place. An adventure is very much about the place, and the connection of the character to the environment, and the way all of that plays around.
[Brandon] Did you notice anything in them that were different styles of adventure? We’ve talked about the dialogue as adventure, and that sort of thing. Was there anything in any of these books that was an adventure that, as we normally wouldn’t conceive it, but still evoked the same emotion? I’m kind of putting you on the spot.
[Mary] I have to…
[Brandon] Why don’t you think about that, and I’ll point another question at… Oh, Dan’s got [something]
[Dan] I actually have an answer to this one.
[Brandon] Okay, go for it.
[Dan] I have a new baby, which means that I have to watch TV with the sound turned off. So in other words, over the last couple of months, I think I’ve watched every kung fu movie on Netflix. One of the things that has stood out to me, that strikes me as a distinctly non-Western form of storytelling, is very often in Chinese movies, the final fight will come down to the bad guy and a whole group of heroes. In American stuff, we always have this, “No. I have to face it alone.” The Chinese mindset seems to be, “Well, if you can defeat him all by yourself, he’s not much of a bad guy. You’re going to need your sidekick and this other guy to help you.” That just… I don’t know what I can tell you to go do with that information, but it stood out to me as something very non-Western.
[Mary] That was one of the reasons that I was spending a lot of time staring at the ceiling when Brandon asked me that, is that there were a lot of non-Western, but to talk about what they are… The book that I would tell people to read… Actually, grab anything by Nnedi Okorafor, because her books have a lot of adventure elements in them, but their structure is very much not the traditional Anglo-American story structure where it is “Here is my problem. Now here is… I will go do these things and I will be awesome. Here’s my solution. It’s solved.” The problems are often more layered and they’re very… a lot of the books that I was reading, the problems that people were facing were very much societal. It was just… They’re…
[Brandon] So go read a bunch of them.
[Mary] Go read a bunch.
[Howard] One of the challenges…
[Mary] Basically, go read a bunch of stuff.
[Howard] That we have is that not only are we steeped in the Western fiction, we’re also steeped in Western terminology. I don’t even know how to describe the things that are happening in Princess Mononoke that make it different from the other things that I watch. But I can tell that it’s different. That the structure is weird.
[Mary] Let me use an example. Because this is… Actually, this is an adventure story. Karen Lord’s Best of All Possible Worlds. Her main character goes off into the hinterlands and has to solve a whole bunch of different things. For me, I kept looking for the bad guy. This was a story where there was no bad guy. It was about her needing to apply her skills to overcome a lot of different problems. The problems were not directly linked. They were linked to an underlying societal issue but it was not this is something that we have to fix. It was this is the way things are, and I have to deal with the fact that this is the way things are. So it… The first time I read the book, I bounced off of it a little bit, because I was… I kept waiting for the conflict to emerge. Because that’s what I’ve been trained to read. The second time, I read it… Or attempted it, I had been reading a lot of other books and realized that that was not the way this structure worked. So it’s still…
[Brandon] Go read a lot of things.
[Mary] Go read a lot of things. But Karen Lord’s Best of All Possible Worlds is…

[Brandon] Excellent. I’m going to end us on a question that was repeated three or four times in different forms by people. They’re talking about the journey, the journey that’s often part of adventure fiction. How do you make the journey exciting? Do you have to include all the details to it? And, really interestingly, if you skip a bunch of it, how do you get across to the reader the character moments that might have taken place during the parts that you skip of the journey?
[Dan] Okay. So…
[Dan] First answer is to think hard about what you’re trying to accomplish. Thinking of the fantasy adventures that I’ve read, in Lord of the Rings, the journey is the whole point. Not so in the movies, but in the books, you get 95% of that book which is about where we went and what we ate and what songs we sang while we were there. In contrast to that, the Bernhard Cromwell Saxon Chronicles jump to mind, which are adventure stories that are essentially fantasy even though they’re historical, but the plot is entirely focused on we did this, then we left, and a paragraph later, we got somewhere else and did another thing. It just depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. Basically. Which answers one of those three questions.
[Howard] I think of…
[Brandon] I would say skipping the boring parts is a good idea. Try to skip the boring parts. By definition, those parts won’t have big character moments. We accept the fact when were reading a story… That’s one of these suspension things we do… That characters will change more dramatically because of specific moments that we show to evoke their character arc to you as the reader. Really, the illusion is that they’re changing all along and we’re seeing these important points. So you don’t have to show every moment of that. You can show those points and the reader will fill in the rest and create a character arc for them.
[Mary] One of the things about this is that I think this is something that is in some ways easier to do in short fiction than it is in novels. In short fiction, we will accept a lot more readily the we’re going to show you this moment and we’re going to jump, just show you this tiny little character moment and then jump. Whereas in a novel, if you jump and you show a character moment that’s only five minutes long, like that’s a half a page, it’s going to feel…
[Brandon] Dark.
[Mary] Out of balance… And dark. So I think one of the things you can do with that is looking at how to combine those moments so that they happen more together. So that they aren’t…
[Brandon] They overlap. Good idea. It’s a really good suggestion.
[Dan] Now because I mentioned the Saxon Chronicles, it occurs to me that my single absolute favorite scene of the entire nine book so far series is a moment of travel. It’s a journey. It’s when the main character is on a boat in the North Sea and sees a whale for the first time. If this absolutely kind of primordial monster coming up out of the unknowable ocean in the year 1200 whatever. It was incredibly powerful. It didn’t necessarily add any character. It didn’t advance the plot. But it’s my favorite scene of the entire series. So like Brandon said, skip the boring parts, but if you can find a way to make that journey not boring, put it in.
[Brandon] That’s even better.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Make the journey not boring.

[Brandon] I’m going to have to shut it down here. I’m sorry for all of you that put questions. There were 54 responses and we answered like seven of them, if that many. But we thank you very much for listening. We’re going to point you at some homework for next time, for our next elemental genre. So I want you for your homework to make a list of set pieces, really cool places that people could visit. I then want you to go a step further, and I want you to say, “How does my main character entering this place, interacting this place, change who they are?” We don’t want you to just go to cool places, we want those cool places to change your story and change your characters in interesting ways. That is what I think will make adventure fiction kind of go up a level for you. Now, as I said, we’ll be moving on to horror next week. We want you to brace yourselves for that. Dan’s going to make you afraid. But until then, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.