How to Write an Adventure Story That Leaves ‘Em Breathless

Abi Wurdeman
April 20, 2023

Ooh, you want to know how to write an adventure story!

You want to write the kind of tale that gets their hearts pounding—a novel that keeps readers up until the wee hours, whispering, “Just one more chapter,” until their eyes dry out.

I don’t blame you. Adventure is fun. And if you’re up for taking on the challenges that come with writing this genre, I think you’ll find that writing adventure is every bit as fun as reading it.

So what are those challenges? How do you conquer them?

You’re about to find out. I’ll take you through the steps for how to write an adventure story one by one. You’ll learn how to create great characters, how to think about the structure and pacing of an adventure, and how to keep readers on the edge of their seats.

You’ll also find that writing this genre isn’t wildly different from writing any other genre. It’s just a matter of learning how to draw out the thrills and perils of the unknown.

Ready to answer the Call of Adventure? Let’s start with the most important step.

Read Adventure Stories

If you’ve been hanging around DabbleU, you’ve probably heard this before:

Writing great books begins with reading great books. Especially books in your chosen genre.

I always suggest prioritizing:

  • Current bestsellers to learn what today’s readers look for in an adventure story
  • Enduring classics to get familiar with the tropes that have stood the test of time
  • A few adventure novels that simply intrigue you, just so you don’t lose your artistic enthusiasm as you analyze successful books to see “what sells”

As you read, note the moments that get your heart pounding. Ask yourself what the author did to manipulate you so effectively. Also notice how each book tackles everything else covered in this article.

Select a Structure Designed for Adventure

If this isn’t the first time you’ve sought advice on how to write an adventure story, you’ve probably already heard about the Hero’s Journey. This story structure is the go-to in the adventure genre.

As one of the more detailed structures, the Hero’s Journey outlines your protagonist’s action-packed odyssey from reluctant adventurer to, well, hero.

You can learn more about the Hero’s Journey here or check out this article to explore other great story structures. The Fichtean Curve is also ripe for adventure, as is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle (basically a less-detailed version of the Hero’s Journey).

Choose an Intriguing Setting

An adventurer holding a flashlight in a dark cave.

In adventure stories, setting is everything. You want to put your protagonist in a world that is:

  • Endlessly fascinating
  • Unfamiliar to them
  • Inherently packed with threats and obstacles this character has never had to navigate before

Also look for ways to continually change the setting. You could do that by making the entire plot a journey across continents and over changing landscapes. 

Or you could make sure your plot ushers the protagonist through the abandoned factories, bustling marketplace, overgrown forest, and underground lairs of a single geographic location.

If you need help building a fictional world for your adventure story, this article has your back. 

One word of warning in all this: as you take your protagonist through unfamiliar settings, be careful about stereotyping. 

Ask yourself things like:

  • Am I using the language, accent, food, traditions, or appearance of an existing culture to create a sense of danger? (The answer should be no.)
  • Have I researched this setting and sought a local perspective of it, or am I drawing inspiration from stereotypes and pop culture references?
  • Have I created a fictional race that’s 1) homogenous and 2) resembles a real-world ethnic group? (You want to avoid this.)
  • How do I present the locals in this story? Do I rely on a lot of race or culture-centered descriptions to make them seem more dangerous, exotic, or magical?

Your adventurer can be at odds with unforgiving landscapes, terrifying technology, corrupt systems, and villains who do bad things for their own individual reasons. If you find yourself positioning an entire culture as a threat to your protagonist, scrap the plan and start again. 

Introduce an Adventurer

Every adventure story needs a fascinating protagonist. You want to create a well-rounded human being—someone with strengths and flaws, dreams and fears

Their adventure should be riddled with obstacles that would terrify anyone, as well as challenges that hit on their own insecurities and weaknesses. So make sure you give them a good internal conflict to heighten their external conflict.

You probably want to set your protagonist up with a transformational arc, too. While some adventurers are heroic from page one, most earn that impressive status because of their quest. 

That’s part of the charm of the genre—watching a common person find the champion within.

If you could use help crafting your protagonist, I highly recommend checking out these articles:  

Establish a Captivating Quest

A magnifying glass, notebook, photos, and camera spread out over an old map.

Every protagonist is on some kind of mission. But we’re talking about how to write an adventure story here, which means your protagonist’s mission should include:

  • Extraordinary circumstances
  • The threat of physical danger
  • A ton of action

Destroying the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom is a great adventure quest. (And I’m sure Tolkien would be relieved to know he has my approval.)

A rich guy trying to get his old girlfriend back by impressing her with nice shirts and pretty lies might make for great literature. But it’s not exactly an adventurous quest.

Create an Unforgettable Sidekick

A sidekick can make your protagonist’s adventure more exciting, more meaningful, and even sometimes more difficult. If you think of your favorite adventure stories, odds are good that a sidekick was involved. 

In fact, characters like Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings), Ford Prefect (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and Short Round (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) can often become our favorite part of the story.

So who’s your protagonist’s right-hand person? And what do they add to the story? 

Is the sidekick good-natured and loyal? Reckless and self-centered? Are they the angel on your protagonist’s shoulder? Or are they the devil? How did they get roped into this adventure? Do they have their own character arc?

Clearly, there’s a lot to think through here. This article can help you flesh out a sidekick your readers will remember forever.

Create a Multi-Dimensional Villain

You knew no guide to how to write an adventure story would be complete without mentioning the villain.

Your protagonist’s foe does so much more than create conflict (though that’s already a pretty important job).

Done well, this character can also show your reader who your hero(ine) is. The villain can force the protagonist to face their greatest weaknesses or deepest fears. They can create dangers your main character can only overcome by conquering their flaws and growing as a person.

A great villain can even reflect the hidden darkness within the protagonist.

But to accomplish any of these, you’ve got to give some thought to who your baddie is, how they came to be so terrifying, what they want, and what motivates them. In other words, they need a deeper personality than just “evil.” 

These tips will help you get started on creating a villain that keeps your protagonist—and readers—on their toes.

Shake Things Up With the Inciting Incident

Hikers wearing backpacks approach a moving train in the jungle.

In the Hero’s Journey, the inciting incident is known as the “Call of Adventure.” That’s a great way for an adventure novelist to think about it. This beat doesn’t just kick off the story. It’s adventure itself beckoning the protagonist, tempting them to take a daring step into a bold new world.

A wizard shows up at Bilbo’s door with a bunch of dwarves and a literal invitation to adventure.

The U.S. government asks Indiana Jones to please find the Ark of the Covenant before it lands in the hands of Nazis.

After battling M’Baku, T’Challa becomes king of Wakanda.

When adventure calls, it asks your protagonist to abandon everything familiar and charge into the unknown, often with a target on their back.

To really raise the stakes and drive home the danger, create an inciting incident that forces your main character to make a decision they can’t unmake. Shove them across a point of no return, like Katniss volunteering for The Hunger Games.

Set the Clock

It’s true in life and it’s true in fiction: nothing induces rapid heartbeats and sweaty palms like a looming deadline.

That’s why a ticking clock is one of your most powerful tools as an adventure writer.

Make sure your reader knows how much time your adventurer has to reach a goal or escape a situation. And make sure they know what will happen to their hero(ine) if they fail.

Indy has to get to the Ark before the Nazis do. Katniss has to kill before she’s killed. MacGyver has thirty seconds to disarm the bomb before this whole place blows.

You can (and probably should) apply the ticking clock to your protagonist’s quest. But don’t forget that this tool can also be used to add tension to individual scenes.

They have to escape the car that’s rapidly filling with water. They have to learn how to operate a wand before the big battle. You get the idea.

Raise the Stakes

A person stands on the edge of a jagged mountain peak, looking out into mist.

This is everything when it comes to writing adventure stories. It’s essential for any story, really, but you especially don’t want to skimp on heightened tension when it comes to adventure. Your readers chose your book trusting it would continuously stress them out.

And to keep them stressed, you have to make the quest increasingly dangerous for the adventurer. 

Introduce new antagonists. Stir up a storm or some other natural disaster. Break your hero(ine)’s bow or sword or ankle. Let the villain take a hostage.

Make the danger greater and the potential consequences more horrifying than they were when your protagonist first pranced across that point of no return. 

Keep it Moving

When you write an adventure story, you want to avoid lengthy inner monologues, introspection, and long flashbacks that dig into your protagonist’s psyche.

That’s not to say your characters shouldn’t have an inner life. They absolutely should! Your protagonist’s background, inner conflict, and emotional baggage are key for building tension.

But as an adventure writer, your first priority is action. Let your characters’ inner lives come through in dialogue, fight scenes, and big decisions. Go ahead and reveal their thoughts from time to time, but drop it artfully into scenes where they’re actually doing something.

Complete the Transformation

Finally, when you wrap up your great adventure story, don’t forget to show your readers how the protagonist has changed. How has their quest forced them to grow into someone as extraordinary as the situation they just survived?

You might start by asking yourself what you think it means to be a hero. Are heroic people exceptionally brave? Calm and cool-headed? Driven by integrity or compassion? Willing to ask for help? Good at swordplay?

How could your definition of heroism inspire your adventurer’s arc? What would it look like for them to discover and adopt the qualities that make them exceptional?

For more help creating a character arc, I recommend checking out these articles:

How to Write an Adventure Story With Dabble

Writing an adventure story isn’t that different from writing any other kind of story. You need an engaging protagonist, worthy antagonist, intriguing supporting cast, and attention-seizing conflict.

So if you can do that (you can) and make sure your adventure novel includes the essential ingredients above, you’ll be good to go.

But let me leave you with one last tip.

If you want to simplify your plotting, writing, and revising process, check out Dabble

With Dabble, you can: 

  • Structure your story, plotlines, and character arcs with the famous Plot Grid 
  • Create character profiles 
  • Organize worldbuilding bibles
  • Write your manuscript
  • Edit and revise with a co-author

…all in one place. And that’s just the beginning.

Start a free 14-day trial to explore all the thrilling features Dabble has to offer. There’s no credit card required to get started. Just click this link and begin your quest.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.