Recently, someone asked about the structure of the action-adventure plot.
- How quickly should the writer get to the problem?
- How many pages in each chapter?
- How should the chapter arc work?
- How many chapters until the climax?
First, let me say I totally understand a desire for clear, specific direction on the structure of a plot. When you’re getting into a new type of story, the more you know about how that kind of story is designed, the more confident you feel.
The trouble is that not many writers actually write that way, or even plan that way. I write a lot of adventure. I write mystery adventure and action adventure pretty much any time I’m doing a chapter book. And I stir a good dollop of adventure into all my adult mysteries as well. I just like adventure, and readers do as well. So, having written literally dozens of adventure stories and books, I would certainly seem to be someone who could tell you exactly when to do what.
And yet, it doesn’t work that way. Not for me anyway. Every question about structure and pacing can be answered by vague responses and remarks like “it depends.” Those aren’t the obnoxiously cagey answers you might think. Let’s look at why.
Introducing the Story Problem
Surely, introducing the story problem, the most basic of structure questions will have a standard answer? Not exactly. Most agents and editors will say they like to see the story problem introduced in the first few pages, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule.
The more realistic “rule” would be to introduce something compelling and engaging within the first few pages, but it might not always be the story problem. For example, let’s imagine the story problem for an adventure story will be the disappearance of the main character’s teacher. Now, one writer might open the book with the student arriving at class only to find no teacher. At first the class is delighted by the temporary lack of supervision and the opening might be funny and antic, or it might be tense (since bullies are also prone to taking advantage of missing teachers). But as the time stretches, the class becomes more and more uncomfortable. They are never simply left alone so long. Then perhaps the principal walks in and tells the students that school is closing and they should gather their things and head for the bus. The students do, murmuring among themselves. They walk out into the hall and the main character overhears two adults talking and learns all of the teachers are missing. The teachers came to school. Their cars are in the lot. But they all simply vanished.
As you can see, that structure would thrust the reader into the story problem (missing teachers) right away, certainly within the first few pages. The reader would also be introduced to the main character and see how he (or she) interacts with fellow students. The reader would probably learn who the main character’s best friend is (or learn that the main character has no close friends). So this opening would thrust us into the problem in a few pages and also let us meet the main character. But is this the only way to deal with a plot where the main character’s teacher goes missing? Not necessarily.
Now imagine a story that opens with the main character slinking down the hall, hoping to get out of school without being teased about his dad as he has been teased constantly since his dad got the job on a local children’s show as the world’s goofiest clown. The main character is tired of pretending it doesn’t bother him. Then he spots the two kids who make the bulk of the clown jokes, so the main character ducks into a classroom to hide while the kids pass. To his surprise, the classroom isn’t empty. Mr. Han, the main character’s teacher is in the room, and it’s not even his classroom, which is strange. But Mr. Han shows remarkable empathy and awareness of the main character’s feelings. The main character appreciates that, but really doesn’t want to talk about being the son of Charlie Chuckles, so again he brushes off the issue and heads out into the hall thinking he’s home free now. Then the jokesters step out of the nearest restroom. Busted.
Then the main character runs for the doors leading outside with his tormentors in hot pursuit. He makes it outside only to find Dad in the pick-up line, wearing his costume. Argh. No one knows how the main character feels, well, no one but Mr. Han, the teacher. Then the next day, the main character gets to school and learns Mr. Han is missing. In fact, all the teachers are missing.
This opening obviously gets to the “action adventure problem” much, much later than the first opening. In fact, it’s likely that the disappearance of Mr. Han might either be the end of the first chapter or in the second chapter. It certainly won’t be in the first few pages. But wouldn’t that fly in the face of the “rule” about getting right to the problem? Possibly not, as long as the writer engages the reader right away, affecting the reader emotionally and pricking the reader’s curiosity. In the first opening of these examples, the story is leading with the main plot problem while the second opening is leading with the main internal character problem. Though an adventure story normally focuses first on the plot, it doesn’t always.
So, get to the story problem in the first few pages, except when you have good reason not to. But if you don’t get to the problem in the first few pages, be sure you’re doing something to engage the reader right away. A slow opening can kill your chance at publication, but a gripping opening can occur in more than one way.
Attempts to Solve the Problem
In short stories, many writers use the “rule of three” as a way to create a strong plot structure. The human brain likes things that come in threes. It plays a part in why we’re so captivated by Harry, Hermione, and Ron (there’s a lot more in play there, of course, but the rule of three helps). It is why the three pigs tried three types of houses to keep out the big bad wolf (and why two of them didn’t work out so well). So, it’s always good to look for places where threes can smoothly come into play in a story. And it is a nice “short hand” for structure in a very short story. But it isn’t a straight-jacket and working out plots in chapter books and novels are a bit more complicated.
As an action-adventure writer, I normally choose to think about structure in terms of pressure and seeking relief. Problems create pressure on the main character. A boy who is being teased about his dad’s job will look for ways to avoid being teased. A kid whose favorite teacher disappears will want to know why. A child whose snake escapes will want to reclaim it. This motivation can come from negative pressure: teasing is unpleasant, and when a pet is lost, we worry, and curiosity demands to be satisfied. The pressure will force action (and the intensity of the pressure will be reflected in the responding action.)
• Curiosity is a fairly mild motivation, so the child whose teacher isn’t at school may begin by simply asking questions.
• Teasing is more uncomfortable but confrontation may be even more uncomfortable, so the first response may be simply to hide from the teasers.
• Losing a pet is worrisome, so the child is certain to look for it.
Now, here’s what makes an adventure story. In a normal story, the initial attempt will nearly always fail or only partially succeed, but in an adventure story, the response to the pressure almost always makes things worse. Asking questions might get the main character yelled at. In fact, the anger of the response to questions may make it clear to the main character that something is very wrong, thus creating more pressure. Hiding from teasing only postpones it and perhaps puts the character in a situation where his teasers are now following him outside where they see his dad in the clown suit, giving them a new wave of hilarity. Hunting for the pet may alert the mom who wasn’t comfortable with a snake in the house to begin with and now she gives the main character an ultimatum: find the snake before supper or else!
Now for a Break
Book length adventure stories will tend to layer this pressure-respond-escalate pattern, building up more and more pressure in the plot. Periodically some of the pressure must be released (giving the reader a brief respite) but that usually happens just before things get much, much worse. For instance, in one of my Monster Hunter series books, I had the main character fall into the river. The immediate danger was that he would drown and it had to be dealt with. After considerable struggle and peril, he is eventually out of the river, but now he’s cold, wet, and lost in the woods. Only shortly thereafter he is reunited with his older brother, and they begin to head through the woods. The main character is feeling better. The reader recognizes the older brother is a responsible adult, so the reunion offers a moment of respite right up until they are confronted by a monstrously large lion-like creature.
These periods of respite are important in a full-length book as tension can only be maintained so long before the reader loses the ability to care. This can make the book feel as if it is stretching on too long. Tension is a delicate thing, you want enough to get the most engagement and interest from the reader, but you have to avoid that wearing out problem. That’s why so many plot structure diagrams will show the escalation of the plot in waves. Those waves occur because of the need for respite and the respites are normally followed by even more intense problems.
But On What Page Does It Happen?
The exact structure of a good book belongs to that book alone. The skilled writer may be more effective at stretching tension without breaking it, and thus their waves will be longer before the respite. Some writers may like rapid-fire action inter-spaced with comic relief (which brings its own kind of tension as comedy and horror have more in common than you’d think). Because your own style has so much effect on the right structure for you, it’s virtually impossible to give any useful guidelines about how many pages for this or how quickly to do that. What works perfectly for one writer will simply produce awkward pacing if forced on another.
If you want some patterns to look at, the best suggestion is to read widely and note your absolute favorite adventure stories. Then analyze those books and stories, counting pages and looking at how often there is a respite and seeing how quickly the author introduced the story problem. An interesting thing happens when we focus on the stories we love personally. Often the stories we’re drawn to are the ones whose structure and sensibility most matches your own. So your favorites will have more to teach you than my favorites would. You may find that even your favorites have considerable variation, so look at why they have so much variation.
Keep in mind that the main thing an adventure story is doing is grabbing the reader, holding interest, and picking away at the story problem. So if the two books have different pacing or begin in different ways, what are they doing to (1) grab the reader, (2) hold onto the reader’s interest over time, and (3) pick away at the story problem?
Ultimately every writer and every book must do those things, but we don’t have to do them the same way. Keep those three goals in mind and know how you’re working them out and you’ll have the story structure that best works for you.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.