Adventure Stories

At one time, the adventure story could be classified as a vital genre in its own right. Its material was the exploits of adventurers and explorers, men who lived at the edges of civilization and who fearlessly faced scorching deserts, high mountains, hostile natives, impenetrable jungles, savage seas, and frozen arctic wastelands. The adventure plot consisted, primarily, of how the characters got from Point A to Point B, and though the story people might be differently motivated and squared off into groups of protagonists and antagonists, the chief villain was always the environment, Nature herself.

Today, few straight adventure novels are written and published. The non-fiction lists have begun to supply adventure tales that have few fictional equals. Henri Charrier's best-selling Papillon, concerning the author's real-life ordeal on Devil's Island, his repeated escapes from the police, his hazardous ocean voyages in leaky boats never meant to brave the fury of the open sea, his months with a primitive South American tribe and his acquisition of a native wife, has the authority of detail that fiction rarely achieves. Likewise, Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, which concerns the French Himalayan Expedition's heroic climb to the top of the world, contains more high drama than any man could spin in a fantasy. Readers are willing, even eager, to put down the money for a real-life adventure story, but are only rarely interested in an adventure novel.

Adventure stories are still being written, published, and sold, though they are no longer a pure form. They have acquired bits-of-business from other suspense forms, borrowing most often from spy and war stories. Though Nature remains as the primary villain, a secondary plot bolsters the Man-Against-the-Elements theme.

For example, in Alistair MacLean's adventure novel, Night Without End, the victims of a plane crash on an arctic icefield and the staff of an isolated scientific outpost must struggle towards rescue across hundreds of miles of hostile terrain, through snow and ice storms, hurricane winds, and sub-zero temperatures. The bulk of the novel concerns this challenge, though a secondary plot, always in the reader's eye, deals with the espionage agents among the passengers of the downed plane who were responsible for the pilot's death and the crash itself. The protagonist, a doctor, must not only keep them alive despite Nature's worst treatment, but he must identify the agents and keep them from killing whomever Nature doesn't dispose of.

Or, in MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses, a British supply ship is making the Murmansk Run along the Arctic Circle, during the Second World War. The heavy seas, ice, wind, and cold present a challenge that makes for plenty of narrative excitement, but the secondary plot, concerning the attacks on the convoy by German ships, planes, and submarines, gives the piece that final touch that makes it a thriller readers will pay for. The writer does not always need to characterize the enemy in a war-adventure story because, if they fight from planes and ships and submarines, they may never make person-to-person contact with the heroes; they become, in some ways, the same kind of omni-present but mindless threat that Nature herself is.

Once you have familiarized yourself with suspense fiction, have settled upon a sub-type that interests you, have read heavily in the field to learn what other writers are doing, and have chosen a background, thoroughly researched it, and developed a plot against it, you are almost ready to begin writing. Almost.

People greatly enjoy being unsettled, frightened, and even terrified out of their minds—by art. The movie industry goes through periodic slumps, but horror films are perpetual breadwinners, as are movies crammed with wild chase scenes (Bullit, The French Connection, Vanishing Point, Dollars). In a carnival, the most popular rides are those which threaten, however superficially, injury or death: the rollicking, giant roller coaster, the plummeting "dive-bomber," the spindly-looking Ferris wheel. Also in carnivals, the funhouse is always well patronized, and its express purpose is to terrify its paying customers. Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes, Donald E. Westlake, and dozens of other suspense novelists have made careers out of frightening the public. Most any suspense writer can earn a good living if he can learn to supply these vicarious thrills.

Basically, narrative tension is achieved through a combination of three techniques: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. The suspense writer must understand how to use all three methods to keep his reader on the proverbial edge of the seat. Let's look, first, at the chase scene.

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