11.14: The Element of Adventure

We’ll be looking at the element of adventure in April. Our exploration begins with a description and definition of this element, and how it is discreet from other elemental genres.

The easiest way to describe it is that the element of adventure evokes “I want to DO that,” but obviously there’s a lot more to it.

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


Take an expository scene, and set it during something exciting. Give us an adventure while the exposition happens.

Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey, narrated by Jefferson Mays

24 thoughts on “11.14: The Element of Adventure”

  1. I really like the comparison with ‘dude, watch this!’. Adventure to me is very boyish*. Pirates, Spaceships, Transformers, Mummys, Zombies. You can really get into it once you think of it as ‘what toy can I use next?’. It doesn’t matter if it’s a playground like a pirate ship, or a computer console in a spaceship or a giant robot. It’s basically all toys. Or if you want older boys it’s all about cars and explosions and fighting bears with your fists.
    James Bond is a perfect example. You can even go so far and say the Bond girls are merely there to ‘play with’. As mean as that sounds, that’s basically their narrative function.
    Also guns, did I mention guns?

    *note: this doesn’t mean girls aren’t allowed. Gender equality ftw

    1. You are probably talking about the James Bond movies? They certainly have a strong Adventure feel in addition to Action & Thriller. The books, a lot less so. In the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Bond does play around, but there’s mostly serious espionage going on, if in a form that’s rather fancy (or maybe even ridiculous, but that’s what espionage often comes to, fictional or otherwise) .

      What you call boyish may be the form of excitement that doesn’t need explanation or scrutiny. In this, the difference between Adventure and Action/Thriller is similar to the difference between Wonder and Idea stories.

      Indiana Jones fighting the Nazis is an Adventure, because it’s about outsmarting them, using a whip and a gun. Alan Turing fighting the Nazis is a Thriller, because it’s about outwitting them, using brainpower and intricate knowledge.

      In general, while the protagonists of Adventure tend to be more active and those of Thriller tend to be more reactive, I don’t think that’s the defining characteristic. There are many counterexamples: In Tinker, Taylor Soldier, Spy the protagonists put themselves under the Thrills in order to find the mole. In Treasure Island, the protagonist is abducted and forced to go on an Adventure.

    2. “Boyish” is the wrong word to use here, unless you’re deliberately setting out to malign adventure stories. The word has too many negative connotations to be useful for anything other than looking down your nose at something.

      Many adventure stories ARE boyish (negative connotation accepted here) in that they fail to engage in ways that make them truly interesting, but those are absolutely not the kinds of adventure stories we’re setting out to create when we explore Elemental Adventure.

      1. Boyish might have been the wrong word, since I’m no English native. :) I meant it the way of ‘in the field of interest of what we consider typical for boys’ and not in the sense of ‘childish’. And yes I meant the Bond movies, not the books.

  2. “Can you have an adventure story that’s not in an exotic location?”

    Short answer: Yes

    Long answer:
    I first thought of what sometimes can be a ‘trope’ of the YA/coming-of-age/indie genre[s], in that you have a coming-of-age that’s a literal journey (via the ‘roadtrip’ scenario). I think of things like An Abundance of Katherines by John Green or something like the indie film Chef. There’s a sense in which it’s all about the adventure–even though we’re not going anywhere particularly ‘fantastic’ and the characters themselves aren’t necessarily doing anything ‘cool’ (as in–they’re not running from Nazis and boulders).

    Chef, for instance, is all about a guy who takes a food truck cross country, and while there may be some ‘milieu-ish’ moments when stopping in different places (like getting the different feel for Miami and New Orleans and Dallas…etc), it keeps its focus on the premise of ‘let’s make good food while we drive across the United States’.

    John Green also does this well in An Abundance of Katherines which is another ‘roadtrip’ scenario, but one that doesn’t even take place in a city-like area. Their final destination/goal is in the middle-of-nowhere Tennessee. But it’s a good example of a protagonist who is entering into a world that’s not his own–even as it’s just the contemporary, ‘normal’ world we’re all used to.

    Again, they’re not doing anything particularly action-packed or awesome (when you compare it to kicking butt and climbing mountains), and it focuses a lot on the internal conflict of the characters (as most coming-of-age stories do), but I still think stories like these can still be considered adventure stories, at least in part.

    Just thought I’d add in that thought. (Been a lurker for quite a while, thought I ought to finally participate.)

  3. Going back to the original idea behind this season, each elemental genre is supposed to be defined by an “emotional beat.” Considering the group’s philosophy that writing is a form of manipulation, the whole point of this season (in my opinion) is to explore ways of inducing specific reactions. I feel like this episode danced around that topic without really defining the “Adventure” elemental genre from that perspective. So I’d like to offer my very humble opinions on how Adventure, Thriller, Idea, and Wonder invoke unique reactions from a reader.

    The “Adventure” elemental genre (“Action/Adventure” would be more appropriate, in my opinion) is defined by invoking excitement. The story is usually driven by the character’s actions or physical journey. The reader should wish that they could do what the character is doing (action) or travel to the places that the character visits (adventure). Peril, when used, is usually portrayed as exciting, rather than terrifying.

    The “Thriller” elemental genre is defined by invoking suspense. To contrast with the “Adventure” elemental genre, Thriller stories don’t usually involve situations that the reader would WANT to be in; they put the character in adrenaline-inducing situations – often at impossible odds (e.g., being chased by government agents, fighting drug cartels, being stranded on Mars). The reader should feel a certain amount of fear that the problem won’t be resolved.

    The “Idea” elemental genre is defined by invoking contemplation. It incorporates a significant change from what the reader would consider to be “normal” and explores the implications of that change. The reader should ask themselves “how would I/people react to that?”

    The “Wonder” elemental genre is defined by invoking curiosity. It should push the boundaries of the reader’s knowledge or imagination. If the story involves real-life science, architecture, art, nature, etc…, the reader should be inspired to learn more about it. If the story involves fantastical elements, the reader should be inspired to imagine extensions to what is described in the story.

    I have similar expectations for the remaining seven elemental genres. I would love to know if anyone else agrees with these thoughts, so far.

    Thank you for a great podcast.

    1. First, I feel the need to correct myself. Please replace all uses of the word “invoke” with “evoke.”

      Second, upon further reflection, I think part of the problem with defining the Thriller elemental genre is because it’s a misnomer. I think it should be called Suspense, like in the old days. A “thriller” is really the combination of Suspense and Adventure, so the podcasters were having a hard time separating the two in an academic sense.

  4. Was it just my imagination, or did this episode suggest without quite saying it that Adventure is more suited to film than to prose? (Based on the film-heavy examples given.)
    This does align with something I read elsewhere about the three levels of conflict – internal, person-external, world – and how they are most suited to prose, theatre, and film respectively.

    1. @Rick I think it’s the other way ’round. Film is really well suited for adventure stories, because the intricate visuals can be delivered at a rapid pace. It’s hard to do that in prose. Prose, on the other hand, is really well suited for experiencing what the character experiences, and there are adventure stories in which that is far more important than the choreography of a dozen stunt performers when the explosion is set off.

      1. By that reasoning, wouldn’t video games make for an even better medium to experience the adventure? You can have both the rapid-fire visual excitement, as well as the immersion that comes with identifying with the main character (through the interactive nature of the medium).

        Speaking of video games, these episodes seem to overlap quite a bit with Bartle’s taxonomy, if you’re familiar with that. (thank you Extra Credits)

        It seems most of us Sci-fi/fantasy people are explorers by nature, seeing how those aspects have been highlighted on your recent podcasts.

  5. @Barry I think you’re right that the emotional underpinning wasn’t explored as much as it could here.

    @Howard I don’t think we see a lot of adventure in TV despite it sharing the qualities you mention movies having. I think there used to be more of it. Star Trek (especially The Original Series) had a lot of it. So did Flash Gordon from what I know.

    I’d wager the disappearance of adventure from TV has a lot to do with the shift from “X of the week” formulas to denser, continuity-heavy stories. I feel like these things are somehow at odds. Maybe the excitement is hard to sustain for long? If so, then being able to wrap a story up in a single viewer sitting can be important.

    Doctor Who, which remains more episodic than most contemporary TV and it pulls off great adventure stories. It also helps that each episode can shift genre significantly, so that it doesn’t try to evoke the same emotion each week.

    Come to think of it “Tooth and Claw” seems to be a great adventure story. I can’t pinpoint any set pieces though. Unless I simply forgot them, I think this supports @Barry ‘s concerns.

    PS I don’t wish to sound too harsh. I really love the podcast and think you’re smarter than you give yourselves credit for in the tagline. ;)

    1. @Karol Elemental Genre in Doctor Who is really interesting. They definitely shift genre/tone from episode to episode. I have to feel like many episodes are on a continuum between thriller/horror and adventure…and I think the reason is at least partly because of the split POV. The doctor is flinging himself into these situations, right at the edge of his competence, so that he can overcome some challenge that (mostly) would never have sought him out. The companion character, on the other hand, often begins in adventure/wonder (“wow! Travel in time and space–count me in!”) and finds themselves plunged into situations way way beyond their competency, and you have a shop girl, teacher, etc. running around in war zones or stalked by deadly aliens–and that character is often soon in a suspense/horror situation. Note one of the most effective/acclaimed suspense/horror episodes, “Blink,” doesn’t even have a companion as POV, but a random normal person who hasn’t even met the doctor and therefor is even less prepared for what comes to find her. When I skim the episode list, I keep thinking for most episodes “that’s a little more toward horror than adventure” but abstractly I think of the overall tone of the show as adventure. It’s an interesting effect.

  6. Writing Excuses has improved my writing a ton. Does any one know of any other similar websites/ Resources useful for writing?

  7. You discuss in this episode highly competent characters pushed to the edge of their competency, where we are wondering just how they are going to overcome the large obstacles they are taking on…this brings me to a question a friend of mine and I have been debating since the beginning of this season which is what Elemental Genre is in play in other high competency stories where *whether* the protagonist will succeed is never in any real doubt by the promises made. The fun is in watching *how* they do it. It feels like in an action-heavy premise this easily fits into Elemental Adventure. But what about things like Burn Notice or White Collar where physical action often takes a backseat to cleverness and intrigue/deception?

    Both of those might be Adventure anyway on the basis that the threat is often quite physical even when the means of defeating it aren’t, though sometimes they would have ones where the threats was things like “he’ll get away after stealing the pensions from hundreds of little old ladies!” where there are no guns or punching at all. But I feel like there are examples that are even more in the direction of just watching someone be highly competent in an unusual non-action/adventure skill the reader/watching presumably does not have and watch them go. That fascination/joy of watching super-high-competent characters do what they’re best at has to be at least a sub-element if not a primary one of a lot of intrigue and politics stories like House of Cards–sorry to use all TV examples today!

    1. The answer is pretty simple, Erica: like the other Elemental Genres, “Adventure” is something that can be used as a supporting element in a story where the driving element is something else.

      “Burn Notice” is a great example. Sometimes we’re carried forward by suspense. Sometimes it’s romance. Sometimes it’s intrigue. Occasionally it’s even a high-concept, “what if” idea. Adventure is usually there too, of course.

      The Elemental Genre model is GREAT for analyzing television series because you don’t have to pick just one element for the whole thing.

  8. Would House of Cards qualify as an Adventure story?

    “Dude, watch me climb the ladder of political influence by not only sticking a shiv in my enemies, but also stepping on my allies!”

    1. @Seth Gordon – I’m pretty sure that House of Cards is more on the side of intrigue/thriller rather than adventure. There are no external factors that propel the characters in a way that most adventures seem to have. I think the internal/external nature of the conflicts really help in trying to pinpoint whether something is an adventure or not. Adventure is often noted by the external factors–whether that’s a visually ‘cool’ or interesting action, environment, location, or premise which directly affects the characters. But when the focus starts drifting to primarily internal aspects–focus on revenge, seeking political influence–it starts veering to more of a story of intrigue, possibly suspense and thriller, but not particularly adventure.

      Mr. Smith Goes To Washington perhaps could be considered an adventure. It’s a fish-out-of-water story that focuses on Mr. Smith as he makes it to Washington and tries to make a difference–all while experiencing hiccups along the way. The difference is that Mr. Smith… focuses a lot on the journey, and the contrast of this everyday man from a small town trying to make a difference in a big city. There’s a lot of contrast with the environment and situation he came from to that which he finds himself in current. There’s a lot of ‘wonder’ and a sense of the main conflict being a series of external factors and happenstance that has led Mr. Smith there, and how he reacts to the unfamiliar environment/situation around him.

      House of Cards, however, while a journey in one sense, isn’t really focused on the ‘wonder’ aspect or having the external factors propel the story. What propels the story are the internal motivations of the characters–moreso than anything they do, the places they go, or the journey that they’re on.

      That’s just my initial thought. Anyone can feel free to chime in.

      1. I was interested in the House of Cards example as well (and as Howard said, it’s not necessarily going to be all one Elemental Genre).

        They have separated out “Wonder” and “Adventure” as different elemental genres, so I’m not sure we can use a lack of a sense of wonder as a criteria for ruling something out as Adventure. Or can we? (And anyway, there is a certain awe/fascination with watching Frank work).

        I don’t feel like Intrigue is an Elemental Genre–that feels more like a mechanism than a name for what it is evoking in the reader. But since I’m currently writing an intrigue book, I really want to dig into what Elemental Genre(s) are most often at play in classic Intrigue plots–particularly in ones like House of Cards where the main character is willfully wading into it, not having it happen to them (which more evokes the Thriller/Suspense idea to me). And since they discussed Adventure in contrast to Thriller/Suspense in terms of whether you seek out the conflict or whether it comes and finds you…and yet it does still feel like it’s something other than Adventure at play that makes watching Frank work (rather grimly) fascinating.

        1. @Erica Perhaps I wasn’t being particularly clear, since I was still formulating my own thoughts as I wrote that response–but I wasn’t necessarily using the lack of wonder as excluding it from being an adventure. Rather, my focus was on the idea that it might be easier to pinpoint what an adventure is by way of its dependence on external or internal factors that propel the story and cause the characters to act or react. The sense of wonder is just a clue that can help shed light into the ultimate goal of a story. So, in my example, the sense of wonder found in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington keeps the focus on the environment that he’s in and the new situations he finds himself in. What propels a majority of the story are external factors–moving from a small town to the big city, figuring out how to interact in a different social sphere, etc. We certainly do see character development and the motivations for Mr. Smith, but the story itself isn’t wholly focused on the internal workings of him. House of Cards, however, is very much focused on the micro aspect–character motivations and interactions. It’s more an internally motivated story than external.

          So perhaps they may touch more on this, but I definitely agree that there’s something about thriller/suspense that seems to touch the line with adventure, but doesn’t quite seem to be an adventure itself. And, really, that might just be the result of a different set of ‘tools’ (like intrigue) that each use to get similar effects/emotions in the reader, but to create a wholly different atmosphere or experience.

          1. Oh definitely. There’s so many intersecting elements, and different axis/sliding scales, it’s hard for me to tease things apart. I agree the external factors usually seem to be a big part of adventure, and as I believe both you and the podcasters pointed out, it is often in a place that is new to the main character (whether or not it is exotic to the reader/watcher)–and Washington politics are not at all a new space for Frank; we are seeing him in his element. So yeah, I think something else is going on there (though it might appear as a more minor elemental genre, especially for the characters who are newer to this landscape–though there’s a lot of suspense there too, I think).

  9. Great podcast! Thanks!

    As to the distinction between adventure and thriller, it just occurred to me that characters in an adventure have frequent opportunities to turn around and go home. Characters in thrillers do not. Indiana Jones couldn’t just waltz out of that snake pit (that was a thriller moment) but once he did he could have said, “This is too scary, never mind this ark thing, I’m going back to grading papers.” The storyteller can’t let him do that, but the character’s option to do that changes how we connect to the story.

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