My Favorite Opening Scene Of An Adventure Book

illustration: adventure timeline

You don’t have much time to grab people’s attention nowadays: This is one of the things I emphasize in my annual writing workshops, before we read through a handful of first sentences that do just that—grab our attention, make us sit up, engage, and dive into the rest of the story. One of them, which I have memorized:

“We are waiting in the desert to kill our dog.” (Terry Tempest Williams, “The Questions Held By Owls”)

Writing stories for readers is tough nowadays—we all have overflowing inboxes, or we’re on phones or computers where something less boring is literally two taps or clicks away, and a story almost always has to grab you from the start, or at least make you curious enough to stick with it. I wish it wasn’t like this, and we had more options, but if we’re writing online, that’s the way it is.

With a book, a story has a little more time to get the reader’s interest, and convince us that the story in your book is worth buying, or at least borrowing. Maybe we’re standing in a bookstore, reading the first paragraph or first page, or maybe we’ve downloaded a sample of the ebook, and we’re hoping to buy something to read, but not sure what yet. If we haven’t already heard about a book through a friend or a bestseller list or a famous podcast, the first few pages are what pulls us into a story, and helps us decide if we want to spend several hours of our lives reading the book. When it’s good, I find myself clapping the book shut and walking to the bookstore cashier or library checkout, excited to finish washing the dishes after dinner that night and start reading my new book.

As far as adventure books go, there is one opening scene I have been talking about for more than a decade, because it’s unforgettable, and because it does a fantastic job of getting the reader into the story immediately, within four pages.

The book I’m talking about, interestingly, wasn’t written with a 2024 audience in mind—it was published in 1983. So why do I think it’s so great? I’ll break it down here. (I’m not going to copy and paste the entire first four pages here, but they’re viewable on GoogleBooks here if you’d like to read them, or as a sample on Amazon.)

Here’s the first page:

BEWARE Chapter One NEW DELHI (AP)—An American woman cyclist was eaten alive yesterday some 200 miles southeast of this Indian capital city by a giant, wild ape. News of my death would surely make the headlines in all the big newspapers back home in the U.S. of A. Larry, I hoped, would tell the story right, giving it a sensational and tragic ring, conjuring up a horrifying death race between an innocent woman bicycler and an ape with jaws large enough to inhale an entire human being. If he told it right, there I'd be, pedaling through the starving masses of a primitive country filled with cobras, tigers, and bands of cutthroat thieves, when suddenly a wild, semierect primate lunges from its treetop sanctuary and chases me down, killing me with the brutal force of its jaws and limbs. As I watched the ape swing toward me, I prayed that Larry would tell a good story; that he would be kind enough not to tell the truth about the way I was to die.


One of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous eight rules of how to write a good short story is: “Start as close to the end as possible.”

Vonnegut was talking about fiction, but his point, I think, can be applied to adventure writing in that we don’t necessarily want to start at the beginning of the story. Does Barbara Savage start with a scene where she and her husband, Larry, are packing for their two-year around-the-world bicycle trip? Or when they first started dreaming up the trip? No, she starts the book with a scene where she’s about to be mauled by a wild ape, sure she’s about to die. (More on that later)

Also, she gives us some intrigue with that last line: “… I prayed that Larry would tell a good story; that he would be kind enough not to tell the truth about the way I was to die.”

Wait, so what is the truth? Of course we read on.

Savage goes on to explain the actual who/what/when/where/why: It’s November 1979, and she and her husband, Larry, were bicycling through India toward Nepal with a new friend, Geoff, who they’d met after arriving in India. She had suggested they pedal the back roads out of New Delhi, to see the countryside and avoid truck traffic. After five days of riding, they’d made it to Mainpuri, at that time a city of about 1 million inhabitants, where “no one in the shops spoke English, and the people in the town stared at us more in disbelief than curiosity.”

An English-speaking doctor directed them to a boarding house, and when they found it, Larry went inside to arrange for rooms while Barbara and Geoff waited outside with the bikes. At that time in that part of India, touring cyclists were an uncommon sight, and their appearance anywhere drew stares, and crowds. In Mainpuri, she wrote, they were immediately surrounded by curious residents:

Word of our arrival spread instantaneously, and mobs of Indians rushed toward us through the narrow alleyways, oblivious of any obstacles in their paths. Given our foreign appearance and our space-age fifteen-speed bicycles and equipment, we probably drew as much attention as would a flying saucer.

Chaos continues as the mob of people builds; a rickshaw is overturned, people are trapped underneath, they became claustrophobic, and then Geoff, who hadn’t quite recovered from dysentery he picked up in Iran or Pakistan, tells Barbara he’s about to poop his pants—which is not funny when it’s happening to you, but can be funny when you’re reading about it happening to someone else. And also funny if you’re Barbara Savage, standing next to Geoff, because she started laughing—which quieted the crowd:

The more I laughed the quieter the crowd became, and the men squeezed in even closer to get a better look at the strange phenomenon before them—a woman laughing. To set eyes on a foreign woman on a bicycle was probably in itself a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the men of Mainpuri, but to hear such a woman laugh seemed to fascinate them even more. It was as if the Indians hadn’t really expected me to be human, to be capable of speech or laughter.

They get into the boarding house, and once in their room, Barbara needs to use the toilet. Except the only toilet is a bucket up on the roof. She makes her way to the rooftop, where she squats over the half-full, reeking bucket to relieve herself. And then she sees the ape:

When I first spied the animal, I wanted to believe that it was either stuffed or on a leash. I wanted to refuse to accept what I was seeing while I squatted over the pail, but my mind would not allow that. I was forced to acknowledge the terrible fact that only a few rooftops away from me and my bucket was a live, unfettered, four-foot-tall ape, which at that very moment was swinging over the alleys and leaping along cement roofs straight for me. So this is how I'm to die, I thought to myself. Ever since the day Larry and I first came up with the idea of bicycling around the world, deep down inside I'd always known I wouldn't make it.

She sprints to the stairs and manages to get downstairs into their room before the ape reaches her, and survives. But of course, we know she survives—she wrote a book about the trip. In the final paragraph, Savage brings us up to speed:

Now had all this happened to me at the very beginning of our trip, I am positive I would have called it quits and headed for home that very evening. But by then, after eighteen months on the road, Larry and I had come to accept, and at times to thrive on, the bizarre and demanding situations of our journey.

So that’s Chapter 1, or the beginning. Do I want to read about more of those bizarre and demanding situations from their two-year, 25-country, 23,000-mile bicycle adventure, in the late 1970s? Well, for one, I like this narrator—for several reasons:

  1. she has obviously seen some stuff and has the grit to survive tens of thousands of miles of human-powered adventure;
  2. she knows how to tell a story with humility;
  3. she seems more concerned with telling a good story than impressing the reader, and
  4. she is able to laugh when things get crazy.

The other reason I love this opening scene is because I can summarize it in about 15 seconds when I’m talking to someone about the book: She’s bicycling across India, using a bucket toilet on a rooftop, and a wild ape is bombing across neighboring rooftops straight for her, and she’s sure she’s going to die, getting mauled to death by a wild animal while using the bathroom.

Barbara Savage masterfully illustrates a technique I try to impress upon workshop students about writing adventure stories: You should try to start your story with the “No shit, there I was” moment.


illustration of Adventure Timeline vs. Adventure Story Timeline

This is not the only way to begin an adventure story, but it usually works to get me reading further. A couple examples from other books:

“I saw the avalanche coming. It charged over the step of dirty brown ice above like a breaking wave of black water. It hammered back down into the gulley, driving into us like the fist of God, and I screamed.”
—Barry Blanchard, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains
(Bookshop) (Amazon) (public library)

“I’m standing on the bank of the swift Chandalar River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska, trying to gather the courage to swim across. My husband, Pat, is by my side. We’re alone, as we have been for most of the past five months.”
—Caroline Van Hemert, The Sun is a Compass
(Bookshop) (Amazon) (public library)

“The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. For most of the men, however, no order was needed because by then everybody knew that the ship was done and that it was time to give up trying to save her. There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly for three days and had lost. They accepted their defeat almost apathetically. They were simply too tired to care.”
—Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
(Bookshop) (Amazon) (public library)


Tragically, Barbara Savage died in a cycling accident just before Miles from Nowhere was published in 1983. Her husband, Larry, donates the proceeds from the sale of the book to the Barbara Savage Memorial Fund in cooperation with Mountaineers Books, to encourage and enable adventure writing in the spirit of the book. If you’re interested in buying or borrowing the book: