Adventure stories were many readers’ first introduction to the joy of reading. What is an adventure story? How do you write an imaginative, engrossing journey? Learn about key adventure story elements, plus tips to write incredible journeys:
What is an adventure story?
As Don D’Ammassa writes in The Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction, all stories are adventures to some extent.
Stories take us on journeys of imagination, leading us to places we have never been and into lives we have never led.
D’Ammassa gives a good definition of adventure stories in his introduction:
In one sense, almost all fiction involves some sort of adventure, exposure to new experiences or knowledge, changes in the shapes of the characters’ lives. Although there is no easily definable line of demarcation, we will assume that an adventure is an event or series of events that happen outside the ordinary course of the protagonist’s life, usually accompanied by danger, often by physical action. Adventure stories almost always move quickly, and the pace of the plot is at least as important as characterization, setting, and other elements of a created work.Don D’Ammassa, The Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction (2009), p. 7 (our emphasis).
Many novels fit the adventure category to some extent,. From historical fiction to fantasy, from spy novels to travel-featuring romance.
It is worth mentioning and remembering that adventure novels also have often had complex relationships to social history and power.
Beware of adventure writing that may be read unfavorably in time and fall out of fashion due to exoticizing or stereotyping (for example, the way the art style of the Tintin comic books has come under fire for reducing people of various nationalities and ethnicities to practical caricature). To read more about the relationship between adventure as a genre’s history and political issues, see this article).
Ed’s note: The above paragraph was edited for clarity thanks to feedback from a reader in the comments on tone and word choice.
Famous adventure story examples
If you Google ‘adventure novels’, one of the titles that will most likely appear is Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne.
The title alone fits the definition above. A journey around the world in just 80 days would have been ‘out of the ordinary’ (and full of the unknown dangers) in 1872 when the book was written, three decades before the first airplane.
Other famous adventure stories include:
- The Swiss Family Robinson by Johan David Wyss (about a Swiss family shipwrecked on an island in the Indian Ocean)
- Dune by Frank Herbert – a sci-fi epic with adventure elements that was allegedly inspired by a trip Herbert took to Oregon
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – one of the oldest surviving adventure stories, first published in 1605, about a man who reads so many romances he loses his mind and tries to recreate their quests and adventures, accompanied by his despairing sidekick
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – maybe the most famous epic fantasy cycle combining high fantasy with adventure elements
- The Lord of the Flies by William Golding – a group of boys is stranded on an island and tensions emerge as they fend for themselves
- Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, about a man who spends 28 years as a castaway on a remote tropical island
- The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola – one of the first African novels published in English outside of the African continent, drawing on oral folk tales with quest/adventure elements
For more adventure story examples, see Reedsy’s list of 100 of the best.
How to write a gripping adventure novel:
- Find exciting adventure story ideas
- Include engaging adventure story elements
- Use setting to create transformation
- Use action to reveal and develop character
- Keep important objectives in sight
- Find ways to raise stakes
- Keep up good pace
Let’s explore these ideas further, with examples:
Find exciting adventure story ideas
From its Latin roots, the word ‘adventure’ carries the meanings of ‘something about to happen’ as well as ‘to arrive’.
Adventure stories thrust protagonists into places and situations that are full of the sense of ‘something about to happen’, and arrival and departure.
How can you find interesting adventure ideas for extraordinary travels and out of the ordinary excursions?
5 ways to find your next adventure story idea:
- Make a list of places you would love to learn more about and pick one to research.
- Start with an objective, e.g. ‘Lost [character] must find way back to [place]’.
- Brainstorm unlikely journeys (a la Verne’s 80-day journey).
- Use Google News (search adventure-related phrases, e.g. ‘discovered in’).
- Read true-story travelogues and famous adventurers’ memoirs for inspiration.
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Include engaging adventure story elements
An adventure story typically has one or more of the following elements:
- A challenging, quest-like objective (e.g. throwing the One Ring into Mount Doom, scaling Everest, circumnavigating the world by boat)
- Stark changes or contrasts in setting/location (e.g. city slicker climbs Kilimanjaro; Hobbit from the rolling green Shire travels to dangerous, death-filled Mordor)
- ‘Person versus environment’ conflict (e.g. deadly river crossings, hair-raising hurricanes, fire and flood)
- Survival (e.g. climber has to cut off own hand when trapped between rocks in 127 Hours)
- Transformation (e.g. climber finds bravery they didn’t know they had, gap year travels and adventures teach a school-leaver valuable lessons)
- Encounter the adventurer meets with novel or awe-inspiring sights and experiences in a world entirely different from their own (e.g. Alice meeting a cat who fades away leaving only its grin in Alice in Wonderland)
TV tropes has a list of subgenres that often overlap with adventure. It includes what they call the ‘Robinsonade’ – a story of being stranded in wilderness modelled after Robinson Crusoe.
Use setting to create transformation and danger
Adventure novels typically take characters to settings strange and unfamiliar.
An example: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which begins with ships of various nationalities reporting sightings of a sea monster.
A new place (and/or time, in the case of time travel) presents great opportunities for fun and danger.
In Shakespeare’s plays, a character travelling in unfamiliar lands often disguises themselves as the opposite gender, for a specific purpose.
Tamora Pierce used a similar device in her The Song of the Lioness quartet, where the twins Alanna and Thom swap genders and identities so that Alanna may become a knight, a role usually reserved for men in their world.
Disguise and assuming new identities are two forms adventure can take.
Aside from transforming your characters (in appearance or persona), new settings also may bring new dangers. Sea monsters and sorceresses. Encounters with eccentrics (such as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland who yells for people’s heads to be chopped off).
Example of setting and danger in adventure: William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies
In William Golding’s 1954 novel, a group of British boys is stranded on an uninhabited island during wartime evacuations.
Golding is quick to establish the island’s various dangers. There are endemic dangers, as well as those that grow between the boys due to disturbing dynamics that emerge in isolation.
Paranoia takes hold as the boys begin to believe in a mythical monster they dub ‘the beast’ that lives on the island. Increasingly divisive group dynamics lead to violence.
The setting of the story is thus a source of dangers – real and imaginary – as well as a testing ground that transforms the boys and brings out the darker impulses in some.
Use action to reveal character
Adventure novels tend to prefer action over long-winded narration and explanation. The emphasis is on doing, whether this be crossing uneasy terrain, building shelter, or forming new social systems as the boys do in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
How will being in a new or unfamiliar location alter or affect your characters?
Some may thrive while others struggle. Some might reveal leadership qualities, while others grow more idle.
Example of using action to reveal character: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s classic, about a poor boy who wins a tour of a magical chocolate factory, is full of action/adventure that reveals character. It has elements of fantasy, as many children’s books do, but also adventure.
Charlie’s family lives in poverty, but he wins one of five tickets to tour an eccentric chocolatier’s factory. During the tour, we meet other, unsavoury winners of the ‘Golden Ticket’, including bratty, pampered Veruca Salt.
Veruca’s actions throughout the tour are used to show that privilege does not necessarily build character. Veruca’s entitled, acquisitive character shows, for example, when she tries to capture a nut-testing squirrel which judges Veruca and her family to be ‘bad nuts’ and throws them down a garbage chute.
Charlie, by contrast, behaves well throughout the tour and is full of humility and awe at the sights he sees, and in the end, wins the factory as Wonka reveals he used the contest to win a tour to test possible heirs and their personal character.
Keep important objectives in sight
In an adventure story, it is important to keep your protagonist’s objectives in sight.
Character goals may change as the adventure progresses. Robinson Crusoe will naturally have different objectives upon first arriving on the island (finding shelter, scavenging for provisions) to the goals he’ll have after a year of survival.
As an example, an adventurer’s overarching goal may be trekking to Everest base camp, but they might miss one of the two seasons and thus have to reschedule their trip for a different time of year.
What curveballs might your setting throw your characters, forcing them to reevaluate their goals or backtrack or find other routes?
Find ways to raise stakes
In adventure novels, there are many ways to raise the stakes or odds your characters face.
Changes that may lead to obstacles in an adventure story may include:
- Changes to environment/terrain: Snowfall, wildfires, flooding, plunging or soaring temperatures
- Conflict between travel companions: For example, Boromir trying to get the One Ring for himself and turning on Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring
- Circumstantial changes: For example, in a story where a character is stranded, you might have a section where a key flight path over their location is discontinued, unknown to them, reducing their chance of signaling to passing aircrafts
Keep up good pace
As stated by Don D’Ammassa in the adventure story definition above, pace is essential in adventure books.
An adventure story without action and a consistent arrival of incident may easily become dull. William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies was rejected for publishing initially for this reason. It was only after it received substantial editing that it was published.
Outline and organize scene ideas to maintain a sense of purpose. Think about what mini adventures can happen during your characters’ broader progress.
What are your favourite novels with adventure elements and why? Tell us in the comments.
Start brainstorming your best adventure story in easy steps in Now Novel’s outlining dashboard.