by James Lincoln Warren
You are not having a sudden attack of déjà vu. You really have been here before.
Titles, as most everyone is aware, can’t be copyrighted. Deborah has already used the title of this piece for one of her columns, but since it also perfectly suits my (completely different) topic today, I feel no guilt whatsoever in recycling it. And the illustration I picked for her. (I first visited Disneyland when I was 3 years old and it left a deep and lasting impression on me—the second time, I was in my 30s, but I had just as much fun.) Deborah was writing about real-life adventures and the adventure of writing; I’m concerned with adventure fiction itself.
I am a big fan of adventure stories, especially if they have nautical themes. At its best, as with Frederick Marryat, Robert Louis Stevenson, C. S. Forester, and Patrick O’Brian, a good nautical adventure stands with the best of fiction of any kind. (N.B., Rob, my dear colleague, that I say nothing about “transcending genre”, as ridiculous a claim as any that can be made—when I read an adventure story, I want to have a vicarious adventure. Transcend genre? Whatever for?) But even when adventure fiction is not great literature, as with, say, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series or the science-fictional military imaginings of David Drake—I absorb it like a sponge. Lest other adventure aficionados think I’m being disrespectful of Cornwell and Drake by considering them at a lower echelon than Marryat, RLS, Forester, and O’Brian, let me state unreservedly that both of them are at the pinnacle of the genre among contemporary writers, master plotters whose rich action sequences breathlessly hurl the reader through conflict like a big wave on Oahu’s North Shore rocketing a surfer across the treacherous sea. (Both of these writers also demonstrate a profound knowledge of military history, a fact which brilliantly informs their tales.)
The keys to good adventure fiction are (1) the author’s skill at building the action to a prolonged and seemingly unsustainable state of tension, (2) attractive and only slightly larger-than-life protagonists, and (3) perfectly paced comic relief. These are good ingredients to toss into the roiling cauldron of crime fiction, too. (Cornwell has also written a number of fine sailboat-themed mysteries, by the way.) I like to put action scenes in my own stories, sending my heroes into harm’s way, but such scenes are usually brief, and not just because I write short stories—creating and sustaining intensely exciting action sequences is a narrative high-wire act, not something you should attempt at home without professional supervision.
Easily the most recognizable technique for picking up the pace and increasing tension is to switch from long descriptive sentences to short transitive ones. The story speeds up, not only because things are happening with increasing rapidity, but also because the reading itself speeds up, imitating the quickening pace of the action.
Another of the techniques that I’ve noticed among good adventure writers, a more advanced trade secret if you like, is a kind of narrative counterpoint, an interleaving of two separate plot lines occurring simultaneously. Our hero is fully occupied with one plot line while the other relentlessly develops, threatening to blindside him if he can’t resolve the first one in time.
As an example, imagine that our intrepid hero is battling a gale wind to keep his frigate from shoaling on a lee shore—a yard may give way or a sail split at any moment, sending the whole crew to roaring death—while at the same time, an enemy squadron is beating to quarters from windward, cutting off the only route of escape and running out its guns. One paragraph describes the ship bucking on the waves, orders being shouted and lines being desperately hauled, while the next shows the enemy maneuvering to engage. The following paragraph returns to the hero, who now realizes his only hope is to club-haul the ship, itself an act fraught with mortal risk. In the next paragraph, the enemy commodore lifts his long glass to observe his prey and orders the squadron into line of battle. The hero gives the fateful order and the crew scrambles on the wet, heaving deck. Flags fly up the enemy’s halliards. And so forth.
The beauty of this method is that the author can keep the tension growing by battering the reader in a series of waves, so to speak. By the time our hero can turn his attention to the second threat, a third may already be building up on the horizon. Only courage, skill, and of course, the hero’s inspired guile—all fictional military heroes show as pronounced a talent for guile as any master criminal in a complicated heist caper—and audacity can save the day.
One of my favorite people of all time, the always-gracious Mary Higgins Clark, says that the way she learned to write thrillers was to write the first and last sentences of each chapter of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, and then map out how each chapter’s first sentence led to the last one. I think that this is excellent advice, and not just for writing thrillers.
Maybe I’ll try my hand at an adventure tale myself. The worst thing that can happen is that the attempt will make me a better mystery writer.