Three Keys to Adventure Writing

writing craft | Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines
September 29, 2016


One of the most requested genre for short stories (and a popular one for books as well) is adventure. So many writers will put the word "adventure" in the title or the query letter of a piece that is not an adventure at all. Mislabeling doesn't make it so. There are distinct, distinguishing characteristics to the adventure story, and they're worth learning because adventure stories are fun to write and quick to sell.

1. Adventure stories are journeys from the expected to the unexpected.

Often an adventure story begins in a setting that is quite ordinary. Where the Wild Things Are (one of my favorite picture book adventures) begins with Max being sent to his room in disgrace for his behavior. My book A Really New School, begins with the main character in the hallway of her dull, overly strict school. My daughter's favorite apocalyptic adventure, Monument 14, begins with the characters heading to school on the bus. In each, the location at the beginning and the expected (normal) experiences become something very unexpected. Trees grow up in Max's room and he begins his adventure. The main character in A Really New School finds a secret passage behind a row of lockers and decides to enter it, and she begins her adventure. And toxic gas fills the world in Monument 14 and the school bus never makes it to school and instead drives the children into a struggle to survive.

If the experiences in your story are what one could normally, logically expect to follow the set up, then it is not an adventure. If your characters jump in the car for a ride to grandpa's house and see cows and firetrucks and a house being built and a rainbow, that is not an adventure -- it's a normal, albeit pleasant, drive. An adventure is anything but normal.

2. Adventure stories contain an element of risk.

Now the risk in a story like Where the Wild Things Are may see very mild to an adult. The adventure is (after all) in Max's imagination. But very young readers feel the risk inherent in Max's being far from home without his mom and surrounded by monsters. As friendly as they can be, they are monsters. And monsters might just eat you up, even if they love you––maybe especially if they love you. So the risk is there for the reader to feel. As the reader gets older, the risk must become sharper for the adventure to work. But risk will always be there. It might be something fairly ordinary (entering the secret passage at school instead of going on to her classroom carries the automatic risk of getting in trouble––every school aged child recognized that first risk in A Really New School) and it might be something extreme (the risk in Monument 14 is the risk of dying or going insane if the gas gets to you.)

Without risk, even the most unexpected series of events will never contain the thrill of a real adventure. An unexpected series of advents without risk might make for a great comedy story or a lovely bonding picture book (On a Wintry Morning was my daughter's favorite when she was very young because the events were sweet but unusual and the tone was loving).

3. In adventure stories, the risk changes and often escalates during the story and in response to the character's actions.

Adventure stories shouldn't just carry a child main character passively from one unexpected activity to the next. Without agency, the story cannot be an adventure. An adventure forces action from the main character in response to the peril in the story, and the action must then affect the story -- so the story affects the main character and the main character affects the story. If BOTH things do not happen, you almost certainly don't have a working adventure story. In Where the Wild Things Are,  the monsters act scary and threatening toward Max and he tames them, BUT by taming them and becoming their king, he puts himself in a position where they do not want to let him go. Now his handling of it is very mild, as it's a picture book, but we still have the peril, response, increased peril structure.  

In A Really New School, the main character steps into the secret passage and risks getting caught and yelled at. But what she finds as she explores puts her in far greater peril, including the risk of survival.

In Monument 14, the characters ride something of a wave of risk. Sometimes they are risking immediate death, sometimes they're risking injury, and sometimes the risks are emotional rather than physical, but the risks shift constantly because of the choices the characters make. Because Monument 14 is a teen story, the ebb and flow of risk is complex, but continuous.

So, take us from the expected to a place where we'd never expect, give us a sense of peril, and make the main character's actions affect the story even as the story is affecting him, and you'll have an adventure story truly worthy of the name and the sale.

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work  here.


Chandra Shekar kgf
September 24, 2019

Hi Jan, superb and excellent article written by you. The formula you have given is crisp and short. Easy for me to remember and follow. I write and tell many adventure stories for children and adults in India. I live and work in Bangalore, South India. Can you suggest a typical story of yours highlighting your formula. It will help me learn Style, Atmosphere, Setting ambience and character creation. I need to learn how to introduce action, thrill and excitement. I am 76 years old but have the spirit of a youngster in his thirties. People love adventure stories in India and I am creating forums for storytelling and group participation. Please give me more tips based on your experience.

Alice Russell
October 5, 2016

Writing is an adventure - you just never know where you'll end up. I was up against a wall and your article reaffirmed I'm on the right track with my current project. Thanks for the nudge.

Sara Matson
October 4, 2016

Thank you for spelling this out so clearly, Jan!

Vicki Fennern
October 4, 2016

I am truly enjoying all the lessons that are coming to me from the institute. I especially like this one, as all kids are ready for adventure. I had thought of a story line for one, but this really helps me see what it needs to be a successful adventure story. Thanks for sharing!

October 2, 2016

Thank you so much for sharing!

George Busby
September 30, 2016

Indiana Jones in the land of the Giants , might be Adventure but never made it in the movies; Why is that ? I thought the book was great. Lot's of action . I think your right you need to start out like a horse from the gate at a race in writing your story. To grab the person who is reading and keep there attention flowing from one page to next to the end. Thank's for sharing your lesson today I enjoyed it.

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