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Ten Tips on Writing a Riveting Action-Adventure

As a writer of YA fiction, it is important to learn what grips readers. When I was growing up, we didn’t even have a television (let alone a Samsung HD with hundreds of channels), so to entertain ourselves it was either go and poke the mud at the bottom of the road, or read a book. For me that choice was a no-brainer. Nowadays there is so much going on in the lives of young people, and so many exciting things to entertain them, that writers have to make sure their novels are more riveting than ever. If a teen puts your story down to go and switch on the x-box, it has to make them come back to it and read on.

So here are my ten tips on writing a riveting action-adventure.

1. Start with action.

The introduction of your story should do a number of things:

a. Introduce your character and show the reader what they want / need and fear. By page three of Raising Hell we know that Ivy is trying to protect kids ‘I had no illusions about my role here – it was to put my body between kids not that much younger than I was and the inevitable.’ ­and that she is terrified of an innocent dying on her watch ‘Perhaps this failure wouldn’t mean some innocent died. I almost choked on my delusion.’).

b. Generate reader sympathy for your character (either by showing undeserved suffering or them doing something good). In the opening chapter of Raising Hell, we see Ivy trying to protect students from magic users.

c. Grip the reader by the throat, making them want to read on. By the end of chapter one Ivy is already facing a fear – the appearance of something she thinks she won’t be able to stop. ‘I reached for my machete. I was too late.’ Will she save the kids? The reader will have to read on to find out. My first chapter builds up the atmosphere – we know that something awful is about to happen and at the end of the chapter it does, so that chapter two is a riveting action scene involving magic, fighting, gunfire, hell-hounds and an edge-of-the-seat exorcism!

2. Get to the inciting incident quickly.

Now the reader cares about the character, get to the inciting incident, which should launch the main body of the story, as quickly as possible. By page 40 is my usual aim.

In Raising Hell, the opening of the novel, where Ivy is battling a hell-hound at school, is pretty much a bad day at work. It isn’t until Norah turns up, demanding Ivy’s help, that the story itself actually gets real traction and we see how the introduction links to it. Norah is asking for Ivy’s help on page 38. ‘you have to help me.’ Her voice was arrogant, but her hands were shaking. ‘I can hear it,’ she whispered. ‘Howling in the back of my head. It’s hunting. C-coming for me.’

3. Raise the stakes.

Here you need to show the reader what your character’s aim for the whole novel will be, what is the key emotion of the story, i.e. what emotion drives the character’s decision making (in a horror it is often fear, but here it is Ivy’s need for atonement) and what are the stakes for failure?

Make the stakes significant – life or death! No-one wants to read an action adventure about someone who wants to get a McDonalds because they’re hungry, but what about a hero who has to stop Ronald from poisoning every Big Mac in America?

In Raising Hell, we know that if Ivy doesn’t save Norah from the hell-hound, she will be killed and Ivy will have lost another chance to atone for her own crimes. The stakes quickly escalate, and Ivy faces saving London from a zombie apocalypse while trying to close the magical rift that she created in the first place. The key emotion however, remains atonement and the central stake, the life of Norah Ortega.

4. Never let your main character have it easy.

I put constant obstacles in Ivy’s way. She never has an easy moment, from the fact that she is injured and loses her job, which means she has to complete the rest of her heroics on crutches (abandoning my crutch, I hobble-ran as best I could to the bedroom.’ … ‘My leg ached like Gran had been clawing at it. I wished I could take more pain-killers.’) and with a hurt arm, to the fact that a shady organisation is working against her, to the reappearance of her old (dead) boyfriend, to a zombie plague, Ivy doesn’t have much in the way of respite.

5. But do give occasional ‘quiet moments’.

Unrelenting action can get numbing. You need moments where your character can take stock, think about what has happened and what it means and take a breath. These moments exist not only to give your reader a break, but also to allow character development and the growth of character relationships.

In Raising Hell Ivy has a rest in the café, and gets to know Nicholas a little better. ‘To Ortega’s horror we were now sitting in a greasy spoon – my crutch leaning against the table leg, the smell of bacon and charred toast in our noses … a radio chat show rumbled in the background … I tuned it out, leant back and enjoyed the sight of Ortega trying not to touch anything.’

6. Make sure the character has something to lose.

Ivy thinks she has nothing to lose, only her job, which goes early on. But then I give her back hope in the form of the possibility of closing the rift and the return of her old love. Now she really will lose if things go sideways!

7. Action scenes

Make sure that these are ‘high-octane’ and imagine what they would look like in a film. Add ‘special effects’ for example my big battle against the zombies takes place in a silent disco filled with teenagers, with strobe lighting, and all of the horror of young people, with no weapons, facing a horrible death.

Do also ensure that action moments feel real. If your character fights, make sure that they are doing movements that are actually possible. I learned karate early on in my writing career (I’m a purple belt) so that I can write convincing fight scenes. And let your character get tired and hurt, and let that pain and exhaustion affect them (unless they really are the Terminator).

8. Gore.

Don’t use gore for the sake of it, make sure it is not gratuitous, but otherwise, go for it – shock the reader.

However, don’t bathe the story in blood, or it loses impact. Save the real horror moments for times you need to bring the reader to a particular emotional point. For example, the moment Ivy sees a zombie who has eaten her own baby, or when she has to cut the head off an infected teenager who came to her for help.

These moments lead into the conversation Ivy has with her Gran, wherein her Gran apologises to Ivy for failing to do her job as a grandmother and allowing Ivy to shoulder the whole burden of this new life.

9. Climax

Make sure every scene contributes to the climax of the story. If the climax can happen without a scene, then that scene should be removed. That way the whole thing should feel like a breathless escalation to an explosive conclusion and will be satisfying to the reader.

10. Resolution

Don’t just jump out of the story, give the reader time to take a sigh of relief with the characters and wipe their fevered brows. Let them say goodbye. Give your characters a resolution and hope for the future.

I hope you enjoy Raising Hell and I hope my process was of interest to you.

Do follow me on Twitter and Instagram (@BryonyPearce) for the occasional writing tip, and to keep up to date with my news. And check out my website to find out more about me!


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