The Best Action Writer in All of Kid-Lit…
Ten years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing a great Canadian children’s author who described his books as full of “running and jumping and peril!” It was an apt description, and in my opinion, there’s no author who writes better adventure stories for kids than Kenneth Oppel. From SILVERWING to AIRBORN to THE OVERTHROW trilogy, Oppel has been producing pulse-pounding, page-turning fiction for decades.
What makes his action scenes work? How do his adventure sequences feel so seamless?
Today, we’ll dive into his latest novel, GHOSTLIGHT, and illuminate one technique Oppel uses to make all that running, jumping, and peril as captivating as possible.
GHOSTLIGHT is like a Ghostbusters film, but with teenage protagonists, and set on the Toronto Islands. Three friends, Gabe, Yuri, and Callie, join forces with the ghost of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Rebecca, to thwart Viker, a maniacal spectre intent on consuming other ghosts until he’s strong enough to conquer the living as well.
GOOD THINGS COME IN 3s
There’s a lot that goes into making Oppel’s action scenes work, but this post highlights one key technique:
The rule of 3.
Three is a magical number in storytelling. (Think of how many fairytales you know that feature three characters or key events!) There’s a lot of possible explanations for this, which could fill an entirely different post, but there’s no doubt that grouping events in 3 works.
The opening chapter, which is essentially a prologue, kicks off the adventure right away with a scene worthy of Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean. While most of the novel takes place in present day Toronto, Chapter 1 takes place in the 1800s, and shows us how Rebecca and her father die.
By breaking this opening chapter down into its main events, we see how Oppel harnesses the power of three.
CHAPTER 1 STRUCTURE
First, let’s break the opening chapter into its 3 big components: Beginning, Middle, and End.
The twist ending adds a few pages to the End. Otherwise, the End section is only about 3 pages. The Beginning, Middle, and End therefore have great symmetry: 3 pages – 8 pages – 3 pages. What’s more, the proportions are well-structured:
Beginning = 21.5%
Middle = 57%
End = 21.5%
Many story structure models (especially the Save the Cat model) break the overall Beginning, Middle, and End of a novel into 20%, 60%, and 20% sections. Oppel’s opening chapter, which essentially forms its own mini-story before the main novel begins, follows these proportions almost exactly!
If we zoom further in, on the middle “battle” section of Chapter 1, we really see the rule of 3 in action. See how Oppel uses 3 main events in the following action sequence, in which Rebecca helps her father fight ghosts with their lighthouse beam:
Ghost #1: Rebecca ran outside to the catwalk and scanned the water with the spyglass. In the beam’s light, a shape suddenly materialized. Her heart clenched. “There!” she cried, and her father halted the beam. “Back to the south! Yes!” The light now fully upon it, the ghost raised its terrible head, and Rebecca was certain she could hear a shriek from its fathomless mouth. Under the glare of the lamplight, the ghost flailed and quickly dissolved. Ghost #2: “Gone… it’s gone!” she said over her shoulder. But her relief was short-lived. As the beam made another sweep off the point, she gasped at the sight of three bloated shapes, churning the water. “Near the mouth of the harbor!” “They’re heading for the city,” he father barked, aiming the lamp. Rebecca shuddered at the idea of these things crawling ashore. “West!” she shouted back to her father, and then, “A little to the southeast,” and when that ghost had dissolved, “To the northwest… that’s the last of them!” She leaned, spent, against the doorway. [There’s a slight lull in the action for about a page while Rebecca and her father discuss exposition, but this also builds suspense for the arrival of…]Ghost #3: “Look to the south, Rebecca!” She ran around the gallery to follow his beam, lifted the spyglass to her eye. “Papa!” she yelled. It was not a single body, but a monstrosity made of many. Arms and legs jutted crookedly at all angles, and the creature scuttled over the lake like a terrible water beetle. It was headed not for the city this time, but the island–and the lighthouse. “It’s coming straight at us!” she cried.
Oppel could’ve had only two rounds of ghosts in this sequence of events. Or, he could’ve had five or six. He chose the magic number three. Furthermore, he ensures that the events escalate. Each time, the ghosts are more dangerous and fearsome:
Ghost #1 = A lone ghost
Ghost #2 = A clump of 3 (yes, 3!) ghosts
Ghost #3 = The many-limbed ghost monster, who turns out to be Viker, the Big Bad of the overall novel
The scene wouldn’t work nearly as well if Oppel had used a different number of ghosts or if he’d rearranged their order of appearance.
NOT JUST FOR ACTION
More good news: The rule of three doesn’t just apply to action sequences! Oppel uses sets of three events numerous times throughout the book.
In Chapter 10, the characters visit a library to do research. How many books do they consult?
And in the very next chapter, the characters Gabe and Yuri patrol a park looking for ghosts (just to observe, not fight, this time). Even though it’s not a battle scene, they see 3 sets of ghosts, and each set escalates in power, just like in the action sequence in Chapter 1:
Ghost #1 = A cocooned “hibernating” ghost
Ghost #2 = A group of indigenous ghosts fishing on the lake. They’re not portrayed as dangerous, but they are certainly more powerful than the hibernating ghost.
Ghost #3 = The ghost of a mad Scotsman intent on challenging Gabe and Yuri to a duel. The most intense of the sequence!
I won’t go through every instance of the rule of 3 in the novel because that’d end up longer than the novel itself! But, when you’re editing your own work and looking to streamline action sequences or structure chapters, apply the rule of 3 to make the magic happen.