7 Tips For Writing Action Adventure Thrillers With J.F. Penn

What are the tropes of action adventure thrillers? How can you please readers and sell more books? J.F. Penn shares her own tips and also features excerpts from interviews with other thriller writers.

J.F. Penn is the award-winning, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the ARKANE action-adventure thrillers, the Mapwalker fantasy adventures, and the Brooke & Daniel crime thrillers, as well as horror, travel memoir, and short stories.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Put your characters in difficult and dangerous situations
  • Writing fight scenes
  • Include a ticking clock and high stakes
  • What is a MacGuffin and how is it used?
  • Research into places and experiences
  • Trust your writing instinct and have fun!
  • Help your readers escape to exciting places
  • Using quotes, and source citation
  • Write a series

If you love action adventure thrillers, check out the ARKANE series by J.F. Penn. Spear of Destiny, book 13, is out now on Kickstarter with special edition signed exclusive cover hardbacks, plus paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook, and bundle deals in all formats.

J.F. Penn with Spear of Destiny

You can find J.F. Penn at www.jfpenn.com, buy books direct at www.JFPennBooks.com, and read the blog or listen to the Books and Travel Podcast at BooksAndTravel.page.

7 Tips for Writing Action Adventure Thrillers with J.F. Penn

I’m an action adventure thriller fan from way back, but what are the hallmarks of the action adventure genre?

Clive Cussler said,

“Adventure is just putting characters in settings and locales that are unfamiliar to the reader and then as the writer, having fun with what happens.”

I’ve always loved adventure stories. As a child I read The Hardy Boys, and King Solomon’s Mines, and I remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books where you would flick to a new page as you made your choice of action.

I loved Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series and read a lot of marine biology books, as I thought I might be able to join NUMA or something like it. I was able to meet Clive before he died at Thrillerfest in New York in 2015 and have a selfie which really made my trip.

J.F. Penn and Clive Cussler (Thrillerfest, 2015)
J.F. Penn and Clive Cussler (Thrillerfest, 2015)

I discovered Wilbur Smith’s African and ancient Egyptian adventures, then Michael Crichton, Matthew Reilly, and James Rollins, who also combined the religious aspects I enjoyed into his books.

I love the Pendergast series from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, with its crossover into occult and supernatural. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code came out in 2003, and I jumped into that as soon as it launched. I had previously enjoyed Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but wanted more action and a modern take on the religious themes.

In terms of TV and movies, I loved The A Team, James Bond, Indiana Jones and all the action movies Angelina Jolie did including Lara Croft, and of course, Nicholas Cage in his action movie era — Con Air, The Rock, and Face Off. I loved Arnie in End of Days, Keanu in Constantine, both a blend of action and religious thriller.

I have a Masters degree in Theology from the University of Oxford, and although I am not a Christian, I am fascinated by religious history, relics, conspiracy, and places in Europe and the Middle East in particular that have so much rich religious culture. I’m also glad to be able to use my degree in my books since it was pretty useless when I used to implement accounts payable systems as an IT consultant!

Adventure is generally a male dominated field, and that’s part of why I wanted to write an action adventure series with a strong female protagonist.

Morgan Sierra is my alter-ego, but she has a lot more practical fighting skills. Think Angelina in Mr & Mrs Smith and Salt, or Charlize Theron in The Old Guard. Morgan is most often joined by Jake Timber, her partner at ARKANE, a secret British agency investigating supernatural mysteries around the world.

joanna penn pentecost
Back in May 2011 with Pentecost — since then I have re-edited, re-covered, re-titled, and changed my author name 🙂

I started writing the series in 2009 and Pentecost by Joanna Penn came out in 2011, which I later rewrote and rebranded to Stone of Fire in 2015. I did another rewrite in 2022.

I’ve written 13 ARKANE books and a short story across 13 years, during which I’ve written many other books of course, but my ARKANE adventures have to be inspired by real life, and they take a while to research and percolate before writing. They cannot be rushed! 

If you’d like to read more action adventure by indie authors, check out RD Brady, David Wood, Alan Baxter, J. Robert Kennedy, PJ Skinner, Ernest Dempsey, Nick Thacker, Avanti Centrae, and Kevin Tumlinson — and yes, several of the list are women. You can recognise us by our initials!

Right, let’s get into some tips for writing action adventure thrillers.

Tip 1: Put your characters in difficult and dangerous situations

Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher thriller series says,

“The three essential things are: Put the characters in danger early; keep the stakes high; and make sure the danger grows throughout the novel.”

Gillian Flynn, author and screenwriter of Gone Girl, said,

“I like writing about people who are flawed and human. It’s what I enjoy reading and what I enjoy writing. Thrillers are all about how you break somebody, in the best possible way.”

In 2011, I was writing the early books in the ARKANE series. Stone of Fire was just out, or Pentecost as it was back then before the rebrand, and Crypt of Bone was almost done.

I was still wrestling with writing fight scenes, and I was also slightly worried about writing violence and hard times for my characters. It’s strange to think that now because I love writing fight scenes, and in Spear of Destiny, Morgan Sierra has a particularly good fight with a mysterious soldier in the gorgeous State Library in Vienna. That was fun to write!

Vienna State Hall Library. Photo by J.F. Penn, featured in Spear of Destiny
Vienna State Hall Library. Photo by J.F. Penn, featured in Spear of Destiny

But back then, I was still early in my career, so I interviewed David Wood, author of the Dane Maddock Adventures about writing these kinds of scenes. You can find David at DavidWoodWeb.com.

“People expect that your main character is going to make it through to the end with some scars, and so you need to create suspense as to how they’re going to get there.

You need to make them care about the supporting cast and will the supporting cast survive, and also by making the challenges they face greater, you can show more parts of their abilities and their skills with those on display. This book has got more action throughout. I really wanted to develop the antagonist by making their role bigger and bringing them in from the start, I needed to bring them into conflict earlier on.

Now I don’t do gratuitous, gory things. I’m not Quentin Tarantino. We don’t have Kill Bill with the blood jetting out of the necks and things like that. So I try to have a purpose for it, but I think there also is an expectation in thrillers that there’s going to be a body count.

I think as long as you’re not a sicko person, it’s pretty easy to compartmentalize and just let your imagination run wild. I know as a kid I like to read about World War II, now that I’m older and I know about war and I’ve known people who have been killed in it, it’s not a glory thing anymore, but it’s still interesting. I think, people coming into conflict on that level is fascinating.

I listened to the Hardcore History podcast, which is a favorite, and the host, Dan Carlin did an amazing series on the Punic Wars, and he did such a powerful job of describing that hand to hand, eye to eye, chopping each other apart. And it makes you realize how horrific it is. But it’s also fascinating because you want, what does that feel like? How does your psyche react? How does your body react? And we wonder what we would do if we were ever faced with a life and death situation.”

Fight scenes are part of what readers expect in an action adventure thriller.

Personally, I expect a high body count in the thrillers I read. These are no cozy mystery or domestic thrillers where there might be a body or two. These have much higher stakes!

Fight scenes are also a staple of the genre, but writing a fight scene when you are not a fighter is a skill you need to learn.

I interviewed martial artist and multi-award-winning horror and thriller writer Alan Baxter back in 2011, in the early days of my ARKANE series. I asked him why readers love fight scenes, and in this clip he explains why:

“One part of it is escapism because most people have never had a fight. Generally, that’s a good thing because even people that do train fighting, it’s best if you don’t fight. When people fight, people get hurt. Horrible things can happen. I train fighters all the time, and the thing I’m always saying is the first defence, the first block, is to run away. Never fight unless you have to.

And so by reading about these things, we get to experience those things from that third person perspective of what’s going on. And I think it’s just a natural extension of fiction.

Most stories at their core are dealing in one way or another with conflict. If it’s a love story, it’s emotional conflict or if it’s a mystery, it’s a sort of cerebral conflict or whatever. But what makes an interesting story is conflict and challenges and tests for your characters in all sorts of shapes and forms. So of course, the most distilled version of that is actual physical conflict and people literally fighting against each other in a physical sense.

And of course, when you are writing action and you want all this fast paced mayhem going on, and people running into each other and having fisticuffs and jumping in cars and having car chases and blowing things up, that’s what gets our adrenaline going.

If we were going through that, our adrenaline would be drowning us, whereas we can read about someone else going through it and we can get that sort of vicarious ride by following them without any real threat to ourselves. So I think it’s just a natural extension of the general conflict in storytelling.”

In the interview, Alan gives lots of tips for writing fight scenes and you can also buy his book, Write the Fight Write: A Fiction Writer’s Resource for Creating Realistic, Convincing Fight Scenes. You can find Alan at www.alanbaxter.com.au.

Tip 2. Include a ticking clock

The ticking clock is a thriller trope. There is a deadline and a race against time which drives the pace of an adventure. Usually, the main characters have to stop the baddies from destroying the world, or save someone before it’s too late, or whatever the plot is, before the time runs out.

In Spear of Destiny, I have two ticking clocks. One is the countdown to the US election as my antagonist is military and a politician who intends to use the Spear to galvanise his campaign and summon a supernatural power to propel him to the White House.

The other ticking clock is more personal for Morgan. Her young niece, Gemma, is dying, because of a curse that should have affected Morgan. She will do anything to save Gemma and the Spear can be used for both healing and destruction. The stakes are both political on a country and global scale, but also much more personal and intimate.

Tip 3. Feature a MacGuffin

Action adventure thrillers in particular usually have a MacGuffin. It’s the thing that the characters are searching for, usually some kind of object of power, or historical importance. In Spear of Destiny, it is, you guessed it — the Spear of Destiny!

Spear of Destiny, Hofburg, Vienna. Photo by J.F. Penn
Spear of Destiny, Hofburg, Vienna. Photo by J.F. Penn

Morgan and Jake must recover the pieces from various locations around the world before the bad guys put them all together again and summon a great evil.

Your MacGuffin doesn’t have to be original. In fact, among action adventure writers, we often use the same objects because it’s so fun to write them. We often use the same places as well, but of course, we all have different characters and different adventures.

Tip 4: Research thoroughly. Details matter.

My ARKANE thrillers are mostly based on my travels, and many of my own experiences. One of the benefits of running a business as an author is that you can do tax-deductible business trips and that includes experiences for research, as long as they end up in a profitable book, of course!

Back in 2014, I interviewed multi-award-winning thriller and mystery author, David Morrell, who is most famous for his book First Blood, which became Rambo, although he has written many other books.

David has always been very generous and welcoming to indie authors, and he loves his research! Here’s an excerpt from the interview, where he talks about some particularly exciting experiences. You can find David at DavidMorrell.net.

“I did a novel called Testament, which was about a man on the run from a terrorist organization who’s forced to live in the mountains over a winter. And I heard about an organization called the National Outdoor Leadership School, which is based in Lander, Wyoming, in the United States, and basically takes groups into the mountains and teaches them how to survive up there.

And so, prior to writing Testament, I went and I lived above timberline in the Rocky Mountains for thirty days. And the graduation exercise — I remember this so vividly. There’s a mantra: You can go three minutes without air, three hours without heat, three days without water, and three weeks without food.

So they took our food away and then they showed us the map, and it was on the other side of the continental divide. Three days from now, we’ll pick you up over here. So you had to know how to use a compass and a map. We kept our canteen, but we didn’t have any food and basically for three days, there were five of us in this particular group, and so we just kept going and kept going, and I lost twenty-five pounds. So I did that. That was one of an exciting thing.

I went to the Bill Scott Raceway in West Virginia where people go to learn how to drive in emergency situations, and so for five days I learned how to car fight, how to ram through barricades, and at fifty miles an hour we were doing all this stuff. And the movies have it all wrong, but it was a glorious time. I never had so much fun doing all this car fighting on this raceway. And I used that in a novel called The Protector because it occurred to me that car chases in the movies are fake and I hardly ever see them in novels. So I thought, well, why not do a car chase in a novel that’s authentic in the way a professional would really do it?

And I think the one that really transports me the most. I was doing a novel called The Shimmer, which is about mysterious lights that appear in West Texas and have been for since like 1889. And they’re real. I’ve seen them. They’re very strange. And the government or the military for a time tried to investigate them using aircraft.

And so I knew that the novel, if it was going to be realistic, would have to use aircraft. And then I thought, well, what do I know about aircraft? And I’m not gonna fake that. It’s like, if you’re writing about guns, it helps to go out and shoot one just so you know what it’s like. And so I went, I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I went down to the local, , airport and found a place that taught flying. So I started paying flying classes and I liked it so much, and I eventually became a private pilot. So I have my license, which has the Wright brothers on it and it’s very cool. I’ve had a lot of fun doing the research.”

Trust your writing instinct and have fun

I love that David mentions fun in that last segment, because research trips to interesting places are part of why I write my ARKANE thrillers. They give me an excuse to travel and delve into some really fascinating history and culture, and it’s one of my favourite parts of being an author.

It’s great to find author friends who enjoy the same fascinations, and I’ve interviewed multi-award-winning author Rebecca Cantrell multiple times over the years.

JFPenn and Rebecca Cantrell Berlin 2013
JFPenn and Rebecca Cantrell, Berlin, 2013

We actually first met in Berlin when I was on a research trip to visit the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum which I included in End of Days, and we have also been at Thrillerfest in New York and at a conference in Oregon together. We both have an international mindset and we always geek out about cool places we have traveled to and written about.

In terms of action adventure, Rebecca has the award-winning Joe Tesla series of thrillers which begins with The World Beneath. I also particularly love her supernatural thrillers, co-written with James Rollins, which start with The Blood Gospel.

This is an excerpt from an interview in 2016 about writing award-winning books where Rebecca talks about trusting your instinct when you feel something about a place, and the importance of having fun. 

“For the Joe Tesla stuff, which is set in the subway under New York, there’s a lot of urban explorers who go down there with cameras and they just film themselves walking through the tunnels and what’s going on. And so you get to see all these hidden places and even ten years ago, unless you happened to be in New York, you’d never ever see that material.

There’s so many places that seem kind of magical, where you go there and just like, ‘Ooh, this place has some kind of energy or some kind of story inherent in it.’ And I think that writers pick up on that and you’re like, okay, there’s something about this moment and this place that strikes you, and it strikes every writer differently, but I think there are certain places that just resonate a lot.

I think that you need to trust your instinct and then really do the research and immerse yourself in it. It’s okay to have fun. It’s okay to go someplace that you think is fascinating and wander around and sit in.

Like I had a book that I was going to set in Venice and I happened to be in Venice and I didn’t write that book until years later, but I sat in a cafe in Venice on St. Mark Square, and I drank hot chocolate in this little cafe that had been around since the 1700s, and it was real chocolate that they melted in the milk. And that feels completely indulgent because it was nothing but fun. It was fantastic hot chocolate and the setting was gorgeous, and you know, you can’t take a bad picture of Venice.

I’m not sure you can sit anywhere in Venice that isn’t just beautiful, but as a writer, it’s okay to have fun. It’s okay to enjoy those moments, and it’s okay to really indulge your senses because that’s where the gold is. Those specific moments that you love and you connect with will connect with the readers, and that took me a long time to really believe.

And I think I was working with James Rollins on something and I was like, so I think this, but is that dumb? And he is like, no, I found that if I think it’s cool, other people think it’s cool. And I think that’s true trust. Trust the readers and trust yourself. Have fun. If you have fun, it’ll show.”

Tip 5: Help your readers escape into an exciting setting

Action adventure thrillers are about escaping your current situation and delving into a fast-paced adventure for a time. Setting is a huge part of that and action adventure is usually about a realistic present day setting used as part of the plot, although there are also adventure categories under Fantasy as well, and my Mapwalker thrillers fit there.

My ARKANE thrillers are all modern day, real-world settings. Spear of Destiny opens in Vienna, and also has scenes in Nuremberg, Oxford, and Washington, D.C.

Nick Thacker also writes similar adventures in his Harvey Bennett series and other books. I interviewed Nick about writing action adventure in 2020, and here’s an excerpt about escape and setting.

“People go to these types of books and movies for the ability to not quite go to a completely fantastical world, that this isn’t fantasy adventure, but to go into a different place of the world that they know. And it just seems like a lot of readers are going to our work because they want to escape to another place that they may not have been or somewhere that they’ve been, but have not discovered enough.

But it’s those little details that I think really capture the realism of a setting. We’re writing fiction obviously, but since it is set in a world that people know, it’s important to get that stuff right.

When I started writing this stuff and really nailed down my brand, what I wanted to do, I have what I call a formula, and I’m putting finger quotes because I know formula is a bad word to a lot of writers. But my formula, if you will, is essentially taking some prototypical technology and giving it to a really bad person or organization and then dropping the whole thing into an exotic location, and the good guys have to go find the bad guys.

I mean, all of my books are essentially that, and I try to put in the history, some of the cyber tech thriller type stuff, the elements of those books that I know like Dan Brown’s and Clive Cussler, James Rollins. And so it’s that combination of it all, but the setting is really key. I try to put the book somewhere that I’ve never been or that I would want to go, that I think my readers would also enjoy experiencing.”

To go deeper into place and my fascination with cathedrals, as well as thrillers, I also loved Sanctus by Simon Toyne when it was published in 2011, the same year Stone of Fire came out. I love strong settings, and Simon’s city of Ruin fascinated me.

Peter James, Simon Toyne and J.F.Penn
Simon Toyne, J.F.Penn and Peter James, Thrillerfest 2015

In this excerpt from our interview in 2014, Simon talks about how he found inspiration for Ruin after arriving in France after a stormy crossing from England across the channel.

“We drove an hour inland, and an hour inland from Dieppe is Rouen and the storm had blown out and dawn was starting to lighten the sky. And I saw the silhouette of Rouen Cathedral up on the hill, and it’s a very weird cathedral Rouen cathedral. It’s got this kind of like hypodermic syringe of a needle of a spire. It pierces the sky and these kind of bits, it’s very gothic and weird. It’s almost like a spider. It’s a strange thing.

And when I saw it, this quote just popped into my head that I’d read years ago and always liked. And kind of carried around with me in, in that sort of way, like picking up a shiny thing and putting it in your pocket.

And the quote is the one that’s the beginning of Sanctus, which is the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “A man is a God in ruins,” and there was something about that quote. The image of the cathedral and the play on words of Rouen ruin that just planted the seed.”

Tip 6. Use quotes for inspiration but be careful with attribution

It’s also a common practice amongst thriller writers to include quotes at the beginning of novels as Simon did there, ‘A man is a god in ruins.’

Many of my ARKANE thrillers include biblical quotes since the series is often about a religious conspiracy of some kind. Spear of Destiny has an extended quote from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus:

“The soldiers put on him a crown of thorns and he was scourged and received condemnation from Pilate, and he was crucified at the place of a skull and two thieves with him, and they gave him vinegar to drink with gall, and Longinus the soldier pierced his side with a spear.”

But there was also a quote I found that became quite pivotal in the story,

“He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world.”

This is a quote from Magic: History, Theory and Practice by Ernst Schertel, and it was underlined in Hitler’s personal copy of the book. Adolf Hitler was of course an Austrian, and although he was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in the early 1900s, he remained in the city painting and selling his work. While he was there, he studied the Holy Lance, the Spear of Destiny, and learned about the occult, which is all woven into the history behind the relic and the modern day thriller.

research for spear of destiny photo by jfpenn
My reading pile for researching Spear of Destiny

As a practical note, whenever I find quotes, I note them down in my journal — always in quotation marks with the source, and I also put them in my Things app (or you can use whatever software you find helpful). I review these lists for inspiration at different times, and move them into the Scrivener project per book when it becomes time to write.

Always note your sources! If I use a direct quote in the text, I will have a character weave in the source, and I also include an Author’s Note in all my books expanding on my research with an explanation and a bibliography.

If you’re concerned about accidental plagiarism or copyright violations by inadvertently forgetting to cite your sources, have a listen to the interview I did with Vikki Carter, The Author’s Librarian back in 2021, where we discuss research techniques, proper ways to use citations, and more.

Tip 7. Write a series

Action adventure readers love a long-running series, so plan for that by making sure you have an episodic structure for the book, and a team for the protagonist to work alongside.

My ARKANE series has 13 books — Spear of Destiny is lucky book 13.

ARKANE action adventure thriller series by J.F. Penn
ARKANE action adventure thriller series by J.F. Penn

Each book can be read as a stand-alone, which is also a common aspect of action adventure thrillers.

My main character Morgan Sierra joins the ARKANE secret British government agency and mainly works alongside Jake Timber, another agent, but various books feature other characters.

Martin Klein, my super geek character modelled on Q from Bond, is popular and even has a stand-alone story, Soldiers of God where he is the protagonist, so you can expand your series into extra material based on secondary and side characters.

In 2021, I interviewed Sara Rosett about writing a series. Sara writes cozy mystery and historical mystery, and she has a book, How to Write a Series, that might be useful whatever genre you write. In this clip, she talks about reasons why writing a series is such a good idea.

“Readers love a series. If you can get your readers hooked in on book one, then book two and three on down the road is an easier sell perhaps than a standalone because your readers are familiar with the characters in the world. If they enjoy the experience, they want to return to that same world again.

Then there’s some financial stability with writing a series. If you know that book one made a certain amount of money, then maybe book two and three may not be that exact amount, but you can predict a little bit.

And not always, but sometimes, writing a familiar series and characters can be a little bit easier and it can go faster because you already know the world. You’re not world-building with each book.

Then, there’s marketing reasons for promotion that make a series a good thing to have. You can save time, you can focus on book one in your marketing, and then you’re not trying to run ads to all the books in your catalog, you can focus on one and hopefully as readers come into that book one, if they like it, they’ll continue on.”

If you enjoy action adventure thrillers, you might enjoy Spear of Destiny!

Available now in all the usual editions plus a special hardback, silver foil, signed edition with an exclusive cover. There’s also a webinar on discovery writing if you’d like to join me for that, and I won’t be selling the replay, so that is also exclusive to the Kickstarter. Check it out at www.jfpenn.com/destiny

A cursed bloodline. An ancient weapon. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.

When a mysterious relic is stolen from a museum in Vienna, ARKANE agents Morgan Sierra and Jake Timber embark on a deadly race against time to recover the legendary Spear of Destiny — the holy lance that pierced the side of Christ.

As they follow clues through Nazi ruins, Tibetan temples, and Washington, DC’s greatest monuments, they uncover a sinister plot that threatens to unleash an unstoppable darkness upon the world.

But Morgan also carries a curse in her veins, a shadow placed upon her that now threatens her niece’s life. To save her, Morgan must find the Spear and unlock its fabled healing powers. Standing in her way is the fanatical Jericho Command and their elite leader, Gabriel, a man both blessed and burdened by strange powers and a mysterious past.

From the ashes of World War II to the mystical peaks of Tibet, from ancient crypts to the hallowed halls of the Library of Congress and the Capitol, Morgan and Jake must brave every danger, solve each puzzle, and face down enemies both human and demonic in their quest to find the Spear before its terrible power is unleashed.

Time is running out and the fate of the world hangs in the balance — will Morgan and Jake prevail or will the forces of darkness triumph?

From New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J.F. Penn comes a gripping and explosive thriller that delves deep into the heart of an ancient mystery and a chilling supernatural evil. An unputdownable story of supernatural suspense, Spear of Destiny is a rollercoaster ride into the dark legends of the past and the shocking evils of the present, with only a cursed relic lying between salvation and damnation.

Spear of Destiny is book 13 in the ARKANE action adventure thriller series. It can be read or listened to as a stand-alone story even if you have never read another in the series. There are also binge-worthy bundles available in the Add-Ons so you can read or listen in order if you prefer.

Check it out now at: www.jfpenn.com/destiny and the link will redirect after the Kickstarter is finished. The book will be out in the usual formats in September 2024.

The post 7 Tips For Writing Action Adventure Thrillers With J.F. Penn first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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  • June 7, 2024