The Great Escape

Image Courtesy, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.
Image Courtesy, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

A subject that came up between writing friends… how do you deal with the “escape scene”? Imprisonment of some sort is a much loved staple of the classic adventure story. So what makes a “good” escape, and what makes a “bad” one? How much detail, as a writer, should you go into when putting an escape into the story?

Lets assume that the story in question is not Escape From Alcatraz, or the subject of this blog entry. The escape is not the story, but one of the obstacles in the story.

If the escape is important to the story, as a reader I feel like I need to have a little detail. On the other hand, if the character is a world-class thief escaping the same prison for the sixth time, I’d be okay with you glossing it over a bit. But that leads to the second dilemma… how do you make escape possible without making the captors seem stupid for overlooking things?

In order to not paint the enemies as morons (tension? nope, no tension here) the escapee needs to:

1. Be capable of something the enemy is understandably not aware of.
2. Be willing to do something that the captors would not anticipate (wow, gnawed your own leg off?).
3. Use subterfuge to trick their captors into releasing them, or giving them means of escape.
4. Have outside help.
5. “Convenient Coincidence”

Houdini did something that continues to reappear in movies today: He dislocated his own shoulder joints in order to free himself. This is something that fits both 1 & 2, as not everybody is able to do this. Self-injury falls under #2 for the most part, including things such as breaking your own thumbs to escape handcuffs, or cutting your entire arm off with a swiss army knife. The captor can’t imagine that your character is willing to go there (or, um, has a swiss army knife).

Subterfuge is significantly more difficult to pull off, particularly if you want to avoid having the captors simply seem incompetent. This option require time and planning, and will almost certainly fall flat if you lean on #5 (convenient coincidence). Within this category, pretending to be dead and hiding in laundry baskets are particular favorites, but again, if you want the event to be significant, you may want to put a bit more thought into it.

Outside help is probably the most obvious method… which is a problem in and of itself. In order to keep #3 from turning into #5, you have to take great deal of care setting up the events leading to the break-out. What makes your outside help capable of freeing the captive? How does your outside help know how and when to put their plan into action? If you spring these things on the reader at the very moment they’re required, it’s going to seem a little too convenient… which leads to:

Convenient coincidence, #5. I think this is the hardest one to pull off without eliciting eye-rolling. Of course that happened at that particular moment. Plane, bus, and train crashes are all staples of jailbreak movies (The Fugitive, etc). In order to make coincidence work, you’ll probably have to be creative enough that the novelty of the coincidence makes up for its convenience. Coincidence is also much more likely to work when paired with one or more of the other methods–but again, be wary of pairing coincidence with subterfuge. It’s almost impossible to convincingly sell these two together.

Plan your escapes wisely, unless you don’t really want them to matter that much to the reader. In order for an event to be significant, tension must be created. If your character is a God who can bend time (*cough*DavidEddings*cough*) or the captors are total idiots (or, heaven forbid, both) there will be no tension. If the events are just a little too convenient, the reader will feel cheated.

~ RM

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