The best adventure story ever told?

What makes a great adventure story? Is it all about danger and daring getaways, or can the quality of the writing turn ordinary escapism into a literary classic?

From the recently published surveys about the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World, the one about adventure novels is the most popular. Readers love to indulge in a good adventure story! 

However, when it comes to defining ‘literary’ fiction, people often overlook adventure stories. Terms such as ‘airport novel’ are frequently used to describe novels with adrenaline-filled plots, cliffhangers and larger-than-life heroes and heroines – stories we might be tempted to classify as ‘easy reads’.

From The Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings, some of our culture’s most celebrated stories are also rip-roaring tales of adventure.  The quest – in which the hero or heroine embarks on a difficult or dangerous journey full of obstacles before returning home – is classic form. Quest narratives can be found in the literature of many different societies at many different times.

One of the aims of Novel Perceptions is to investigate the difference in how adventure novels are viewed, either as light reading or high literature. That is why we are asking you to tell us which adventure stories you think deserve the label ‘literary.’ We will compare reader’s responses to literariness with detailed analyses of the novels themselves in order to understand how public perceptions of the books match, for instance, the degree of difficulty and linguistic patterns in the texts.

Our team has designed the experiment to accompany the BBC’s The Novels That Shaped Our World project. We have already made a start and undertaken computer analyses of the language use in the ten adventure novels themselves. The results may surprise you!

One thing we were interested in was whether we can assign a measure of ‘difficulty’ to each text.  One way to do this is by comparing the average sentence length across the different books.  Novels by Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway scored the lowest at just over ten words per sentence, and Walter Scott the highest at nearly twenty-five words.

Another clue to the difficulty of a text is the range of vocabulary used. Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane – which many readers find challenging – ranks as the most diverse, averaging 11,215 unique words per 100,000, despite his book being virtually the shortest on the list.  (All other things being equal, longer texts will tend to average fewer unique words).  

Known for his sparse writing style, Hemingway averaged less than half of that – just 4680 unique words per 100,000 – though his book was more than twice as long as Barry’s. And it seems that length is one of the prerequisites of adventure stories. 

Time for the Trilogies: Linguistic clues reveal underlying themes

So exactly how large is the vocabulary of the longest books in the BBC’s adventure list? The three trilogies listed – The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials and The Hunger Games – provided illuminating points of comparison. The Lord of the Rings is the only trilogy not ostensibly written for a younger audience, yet it scored lowest of the three in terms of linguistic diversity, with only two-thirds as many different words per hundred thousand as Collins’ The Hunger Games.  

Further investigation into the most commonly used words in each text also revealed illuminating results. The Lord of the Rings has frequently been criticised for containing few female characters and is the only trilogy of the three which does not feature the female pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ in its top hundred words.  

Our project team also compared the three trilogies with the other novels.  The other seven books, all by male authors, featured more male titles such ‘knight’, ‘captain’, ‘general’ and ‘prince’.  The words ‘gun’ and ‘guns’ were also more common.  The trilogies had more references to ‘mrs’, ‘children’ and ‘folk’, while ‘knife’ was the weapon of choice.

The Hunger Games revealed a 21st century interest in surveillance, with the words ‘television’, ‘camera’ and ‘audience’ all featuring more frequently. 

These metrics alone do not tell us everything about how easy readers find a text, or which themes they find interesting. But with your help, the Novel Perceptions team wants to find out whether these results bear any relation to how ‘literary’ readers judge the texts to be. It will be fascinating to see whether patterns in the language of the novels – patterns we can now spot easily with the aid of computer analysis – bear any relation to the responses of human readers!

Which adventure stories shaped your world? Let us know by taking part in our survey:

Recruiting Readers 

With our survey series on the BBC’s Novels That Shaped Our World, Novel Perceptions is asking the British public to help select more texts for analysis. 

We believe that it will be revealing to examine choices from a wide range of readers – including those who don’t have any formal literary training. The goal of this project is to look beyond the narrow ‘canon’ of texts that are usually chosen by literary critics and academics. Novel Perceptions aims to build a people’s canon that emerges out of understanding what the public find important books. We want to explore people’s attitudes to the texts that are important to them