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Exciting Adventure!

Flickr Creative Commons: Mike Boenig Photography

It makes you think of movie trailers from the CinemaScope era, the words splashed rapidly left to right across the wide theater screen: Exciting Adventure!  The font is 3-D to emphasize the scope and depth of the soon to be released Exciting Adventure!

It makes you think of fairy tales, fantasy quests, Nancy Drew mysteries.  You expect to journey, maybe in disguise, perhaps in a circus.  There will be danger, or better still peril.  You anticipate romance, glass slippers, sleeping princesses kissed awake.  There will be villains and rescues.  Ogres.  Giants.  Skeletons with swords.  Young protagonists will defeat fierce beasts and cruel bad guys by dint of their wits.  The words “dint”, “wits” and “peril” are not out of place.

In short, Exciting Adventure! is a bygone experience, a memory of our childhood, a thrill for a more innocent time, a pleasure no longer possible for we adults who live in a shades-of-gray, no-one-can-be-trusted world of antiheroes and unreliable narrators.  We’re too mature for that now, right?  We must be serious.

While it’s true that superhero movies are pitched at a teenage level of sophistication, and good-versus-evil is a simplistic theme most resonant in children’s literature, there is no law that says that any story for grownups cannot be exciting.  Every novel can capture a sense of adventure.  It starts with grasping the true meaning of those words, and utilizing the methods of providing readers with that experience.

In physiology, exciting means stimulating a nerve.  That in turn causes a muscle to twitch, or a signal to race to the brain.  In electricity, exciting means causing movement or creating a magnetic field.  In physics, exciting means making an atom or molecule more active.

In fiction, exciting means stirring emotions, arousing, awakening, and impelling protagonists to go places and do things.  You don’t need castles, magic mirrors, captured princesses or handsome princes for that.   The key effects are: 1) stirring emotions in readers, and 2) stirring characters to action.

Adventure is most often associated with travel: going somewhere, seeing new things, being amazed and challenged by what is unfamiliar, unexpected, exotic, romantic, risky and/or nerve-tingling.  Adventure is something that cannot be experienced at home, we imagine, but in truth a sense of adventure is not dependent on going anywhere.

Having an adventure means experiencing what is unusual.  It means facing danger, taking a risk, seeking one’s fortune, trusting in luck.  It means feeling anticipation, expectation, hope and fear.  The root of the word adventure is the Latin adventūra, meaning what is about to happen to anyone.  Think of it as the arrival of a venture.  Adventure.

So, let’s see how these ideas might apply to your WIP:

What sort of actions by others cause you to feel outrage, alarm, dismay or helpless fury?  As you bring us into your story world, what happens there that is the most like that?  Open with that event.

What would rock your protagonist’s world, upend his or her assumptions, knock him or her for a loop, cause him or her to question everything he or she believes and holds sacred?  What can shatter your protagonist’s trust of someone or everyone?  Introduce your protagonist at that moment.

What does your protagonist want?  Turn that into something your protagonist must do.  Make it big. 

Having set that task, twist and complicate it until it becomes impossible.  Make your protagonist unprepared or incapable.

Who rules this world?  Give that person more power, and more unwillingness to allow your protagonist to act.  Forbid your protagonist from acting.  Warn of punishment.

Who believes in and encourages your protagonist regardless?  Who says, take a risk?  Who proclaims, I believe in you?  Who promises, you can do it…and you must, if not for others then for yourself?  What reward is in store?

Who begs, charges or challenges your protagonist?  In what way does your protagonist know that what is to come is a test?

What are the three riddles, tasks, or dangers your protagonist must answer, do, or face in order to succeed?  What must be brought back as proof, and to whom?

What would be reckless for your protagonist to do?  What would be a gamble?  What might fail miserably?  What could succeed against all odds, and how?

How can your protagonist have more at risk?  How can the story’s outcome become win-or-lose, get-it-all-or-get-nothing?  Bring it down to a single moment: win or lose, success or failure, hope against hope versus certain defeat.

In what way is your protagonist clever?  What trick can your protagonist work that no one else thinks of?To what are we human beings blind?  Make your protagonist blind to that as well. What single sight or event will open your protagonist’s eyes?  Plant that.

Whom does your protagonist encounter who is unusual?  Make that person odd or puzzling. 

What happens in your story world that is uncommon?  Make it utterly strange or bizarre, something that doesn’t happen here, something unexplainable or magic.  

The big thing that happens (inciting incident): twist it until it becomes strange, stunning, weird, lurid, creepy, curious, provocative, base, attractive, awful, amazing, tempting, seductive, dangerous or in any way unsafe.  Draw your protagonist to it.

To what weakness does your protagonist succumb?  What sin can he or she not resist?  How does he or she regret that, or show remorse?  What does his or her conscience demand?  How will we know that he or she still has a good heart?

Who in the story can cast a spell or create a magnetic field?  To whom is everyone attracted?  Who does everyone fear?  Give that person a bigger role, more to do, and a singular focus on your protagonist.

Does your protagonist crush on someone?  Tease us with will-they-or-won’t-they?  Make the love interest reluctant.  Delay gratification.  Make your protagonist first prove himself or herself worthy.

As your protagonist faces defeat, what would be a piece of luck?  Who can ride to the rescue, or arrive at the last minute with help?

An exciting adventure can take us to faraway lands or take place in our own back yards.  The biggest risk is not a loss of fortune, but a loss of face.  The love we yearn hardest for is not the one we can’t have, but the one we don’t deserve.  The outcome readers cheer for is the one that’s the most impossible.  The greatest hope we have for protagonists is for a happiness that’s out of reach.  All of that potential exists in the story you’re telling now.

Can your story become an exciting adventure?  It already is if you take the time to go there, do that, and bring it back.  Close your eyes and click your heels three times.  There.  We’re off to see the wizard, on a journey to get safely home.

How can your WIP become an exciting adventure?  What will you add, twist, heighten and risk?  How will you grab us in the gut, raise our pulses, and put our hearts in our throats?






About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].