Genre Focus: Action/Adventure

Genre Focus: Action/Adventure


Thanks to for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: How do you fictionalize a real place without offending anyone? Especially if it’s the best setting for your story? How do you make the town, city, or whatever your own?

AARON: If you’re fictionalizing a town, no one will be offended. That is to say, if you “create” a city called Metropolis based on New York (which DC does), no one will be offended. I wonder if, what you mean to say is, how do you set a fictional story in a real setting, say New York, without offending anyone. If that’s your question, it’s not too tough. One step is to change the name, then it’s a fictional city or town, not a real one. I’ve done this before (for The Bargain). Otherwise, if you’re writing about a real place, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the details right. Visit if you can. Research it. Talk to people who live there. If you make a mistake here or there, no big deal. But if you write about visiting the Statue of Liberty in Chicago,  then you’ll probably get some letters. Hope that answers your question!

Al: Why would anyone be offended? I suppose if the protagonist starts bagging on a real town, then readers who live there might get their nose out of joint, but most readers can distinguish fiction from reality. Most readers also know (there are some exceptions out there) that a character’s opinion is not necessarily the author’s opinion. Stay true to the character and the plotline.

MOLLY: Novels are always a blend of reality and fiction. We don’t start from fiat, we begin with what we know. Our fictional characters are based on humanity as we know it. We place them in situations and places we’re familiar with. You won’t always reference McDonald’s or Starbucks, but if you send your protagonist to a fast food burger joint or popular coffee house, most people will get the idea. I think the question to ask yourself is why do you want to fictionalize the place? Is it a historical site and your story would be unbelievable? Is your story dark and you don’t want to taint the real location? Just as we create characters and situations based on our knowledge of real life, you can do the same with places.

Firsts in Fiction

Genre Focus: Action/Adventure

Aaron: Over the course of last few podcasts, we’ve honed in on a particular genre and looked at what makes them tick. Why do fans love them? What do they expect to see in novels of this kind? What rules should you follow? Which should you break?

A quick disclaimer: “genre” is a fluid term, and most works cross genres (the good ones do, at least). It’s possible to write a fantasy romance, or a romantic sci-fi, or a YA mystery, or an alternate-historical suspense, or a supernatural Amish paranormal dystopian thriller. But there’s no way we can cover all combinations. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the big boys and let you figure out how to combine the ones that most interest you.

Though Aaron has not written a contemporary “action/adventure,” his fantasy novels would definitely fit the bill. Pops has written several of them, most notably, the Perry Sachs novels. He’ll be our sage on the stage this week, and I’ll be lobbing questions at him.

AARON: Okay, before we jump into our typical genre questions, there’s one question we often don’t ask, so I want to get it out of the way real quick. If we’re considering writing an Action/Adventure, what types of books and/or authors should we be reading? Who are the masters and the masterpieces?

POPS: First, let’s define the genre. As you might guess, Action/Adventure is a hybrid genre that includes lots of page-turning action combined with an unusual setting (unusual in the sense that the reader would probably never have been in that location). Clive Cussler has made a career out of the genre. The late Tom Clancy specialized in military adventure, as has H. Jay Riker (Silent Service). Tom Morrisey (an adventurer himself) has written several adventure tales.

It’s a broad category: Action/Adventure can have sci fi aspects, horror, political, spy, even fantasy.

My first book, By My Hands, is NOT action/adventure. It’s supernatural suspense that has action, but an adventure component. The follow up book, Through My Eyes, has supernatural suspense element, but can easily be classified as action/adventure and takes place in several distant lands like Ethiopia and the Greek isles.

AARON: Excellent. Thanks. So, let’s shift our focus to your works. Why don’t you start off by telling us a bit about your Perry Sachs novels. What are they about?

POPS: Perry Sachs and his father headup Sachs Engineering, a company that specializes in government projects including secret bases. He is brilliant and committed and surrounds himself with very able friends. There are three novels: A Treasure Deep, Beneath the Ice, and Submerged. I’ve republished all three and you can learn more about them at my website.

In each book, Perry and his team (it’s an ensemble cast) travel to odd places and find things that just should not be.

AARON: What other books have you done that would fit into this genre? I know you do some supernatural suspense, but those often dip into action/adventure, don’t they?

POPS: They do. JD Stanton is one of my favorite characters. He’s a retired navy captain that gets called back to duty to figure out some bizarre events, including a WWII submarine that returns to the US, 50 years late, in the wrong ocean, and without its crew (A Ship Possessed). He also deals with the disappearance of an entire town (Vanished), and lastly, a ghostship–a Dreadnought class destroyer that was dismantled decades before (Out of Time).

AARON: We always like to talk about reader expectations in terms of plot. What types of events or plot devices are readers looking for that put a novel firmly in the action/adventure category?

POPS: As I said early, it’s a broad category. You can have historical action/adventure and futuristic action/adventure. Think Michael Crichton.

Here’s what I think every good action/adventure should have:

  1. A unique setting. Unique doesn’t mean distant lands, just some place most readers will know very little about. Create an intriguing stage for your actors. Jurassic Park takes place on an island; an island with cloned dinosaurs, but not just an island of South America, but an island that has been turned into an amusement park–one with teeth.
  2. A determined hero, self-sacrificing. Dirk Pitt for Clive Cussler, James Bond for Ian Fleming, Jack Ryan for Tom Clancy, etc.
    1. Be careful not to make plastic superheroes. There needs to be a reality about them.
    2. It doesn’t hurt to have a character that is somehow incomplete or has a weakness or a quirk. (Indiana Jones had a phobia about snakes.)
  3. New challenges, setbacks, and impending danger. Remember, the genre is called ACTION/adventure.
  4. High concept/premise just this side of impossible. Believable enough that readers will suspend disbelief.

AARON: Now that we know what particular “notes” we should hit while composing our novel, let’s talk traps. What particular pitfalls do writers fall into when doing action/adventure novels?

POPS: There are several possible pitfalls for the writer.

  1. Thinking action/adventure is nonstop action. [I once read a first draft of a new writer whose character was involved in three separate gunfights–in the first ten pages.] Even comic book writers make an effort to develop the character.
  2. Heroes that are too good to be true.
  3. Heroes are too emotionally shallow.
  4. Presenting a problem that is too easy to solve.
  5. Lack of high stakes. No greater-than-the-hero stakes should the protagonist fail.

AARON: Any advice on how to avoid these?

POPS: Sure.

  1. Make the problem bigger than your hero.
  2. Make the antagonist more powerful and resourceful than your hero.
  3. Take your hero out of his/her element.
  4. Imagine the worse thing that could happen if the protagonist fails and make it a little worse.
  5. Remember that readers will be drawn to the hero more than to the action. Develop your character.
  6. Make an unbelievable premise believable. This is tough to do.
  7. Avoid easy solutions. Make it tough on yourself. I usually come up with a scenario that is impossible to win then spend hours figuring out how my characters are going to win anyway. There have been sleepless nights.

AARON: Let’s talk characters. Popular action/adventure characters off the top of my head include Dirk Pitt, James Bond, Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, even Katniss Everdeen. What qualities do good action/adventure heroes have?

POPS: The protagonist is usually someone the readers will cheer on, and if the protag is an anti hero type, then be someone willing to undertake a noble task.

The hero should also have or be able to acquire the skill and knowledge to win, but…

The antagonist(s) must be be bigger and badder than the hero. That means he/she/they must be stronger, or smarter, or richer, or better connected, and as driven to personal success as the hero is to saving the day.

Supporting cast is important in action/adventure. Supporting cast help flesh out the protagonists background, weaknesses, strengths, failings, etc. Dirk Pitt has Al Giordino and other NUMA characters.

AARON: So if we create a character with all these qualities, we’ll end up with a “stock” character. How do we differentiate our characters, specifically our protagonists and our antagonists, so that they don’t seem like cardboard cut-outs of common archetypes?

POPS: Several things:

  1. Give them an interesting or unusual background.
  2. Give them an interesting or unusual job.
  3. Give them a unique weakness or failing or tragedy. (Sherlock Holmes had a drug addiction and was uncomfortable around women.)

AARON: Let’s talk pacing. Action/adventure novels move pretty quickly from start to finish, yes? How do we start with the proverbial bang and keep the pace up throughout the novel without getting bogged down in the middle?

POPS: Several things:

  1. Start in the middle of things. I once started a scene with an old man being chased by a gun-toting young guy. He’s chased down an alley. He clutches at his chest and falls. Bad guy levels the gun. Makes a few rude comments. Impossible situation. Then Perry Sachs appears, saves the day, but the old guy is too far gone to save. At this point, the reader knows very little about the old guy, why he’s being chased, and how Perry came to be there. They find out later.
  2. The hero should be sucked into the problem.
  3. Reveal information slowly and in chunks. Let the reader try to put things together. Action is best when there’s some mystery involved.
  4. Make sure there’s something bigger and more dangerous waiting in Act III.
  5. The hero needs to be the one to solve the problem. He or she can have help, but the protag must be the catalyst of resolution.

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