All Stories Are Escape Stories

Great Escape“Every story is an escape story.”

I’ve taped that slogan to the wall of my work station.

It clarifies my character’s trajectory.

It helps my story “come true” because it acknowledges a fact of our human condition:

We are all escaping something.

That notion hijacked my brain after a decade of professionally assessing and writing film scripts. I found myself emotionally invested in characters who were trapped. And it remains the case in every good story I encounter.

Here’s what I continue to discover:

All the best protagonists are trapped within the gravity field of an idea, a relationship, or any situation that makes life not worth living. Naturally, they’re going to escape. Or die trying.

Three great escapes:

The Great Escape—Steve McQueen is a prisoner of Stalag Luft III. Of course, he escapes.

A Room with a View—Lucy Honeychurch, on holiday in Italy with her chaperone, tries to escape the company of man to whom she is unsuitably attracted.

In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart is a prisoner of his self-pity. If he doesn’t put his broken heart behind him, audiences will demand their money back.

Three stories, three kinds of prison—a concrete jail, a relationship, a belief system.

Three kinds of escape dominate most story plots.

#1. Escaping a prison or place

Prison stories depict characters whose goal is a physical escape. O Brother Where Art Thou, for example. And the futuristic Escape from New York. And the current The Maze Runner.

Escape or die trying!—it’s box office gold.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy yearns to escape Kansas for a place “where troubles melt like lemon drops.” Once she lands in Oz, the story is all about finding a way back home.

In Casablanca, which is essentially a love story, almost every character is preoccupied with escaping the Nazis by flying to Lisbon and onward to freedom in America.

The escape to greater freedom—it’s a condition of our human condition.

A more subtle and more common escape theme in fiction is…

#2. Escaping a Relationship

Love affair, job, family—these are relationships from which it’s never easy to walk away. A prison break is nothing compared to escaping some relationships.

Fatal Attraction depicts a happily married man who risks a one-night-stand. Big mistake. His partner in infidelity assumes a relationship from which our protagonist struggles to extricate himself. He’s lucky to escape with his life.

In the Booker Prize winning novel, Hotel du Lac, a bride on the way to her wedding instructs the taxi driver to “Keep going! Don’t stop. Pass the church! Whatever you do, keep driving!” She escapes the wrong man and goes into hiding. Close call!

Once again, in Casablanca, Bogey has escaped to the ends of the earth in hopes of never crossing paths with the woman who broke his heart. Who hasn’t felt the need to escape a relationship? Yikes! Let’s not even go there.

But the most subtle and most significant escape theme concerns…

#3. Escaping Oneself

From On the Waterfront, to Moonstruck, to Good Will Hunting, to Silver Linings Playbook, the protagonists are on a trajectory toward escaping their own self-destructive attitudes and beliefs. Casablanca! Again. The protagonist is engaged in all three escapes.

The hero’s redemption (and ultimate victory) hinges on their transcending their self-concern. And it rarely happens unless the writer brings the hero to the point of despair.

It’s another fact of life—and fiction:

“Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.”  ~ William S. Burroughs

Why do we need to escape ourselves?

Because we are all liars. By necessity.

“We tell ourselves stories that can’t possibly be true, but believing those stories allows us to function. We know we’re not telling ourselves the whole truth but it works, so we embrace it.” ~ author, Seth Godin

The delusions that underpin our human condition—and our equally human yearning for the truth—drama depends on it.

It’s as if fiction exists to remind us that we are born to escape.

Born to escape.

If it’s true that we’re born to escape, it’s one of the juiciest facts of life. It may explain why we read and more importantly (for writers), why we are driven to write fiction in the first place.

This week, check it out for yourself—the films you watch and the novels you read—see if it’s not true that:


If you’re writing a story and creating a protagonist—can you identify the prison they’re trapped within? What kind of escape is he or she engaged in?

Any thoughts? Share them in the “Comments” below.

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  1. Sarah says

    You sure held my attention with this, PJ. I look at my current plot line and see the escape as clear as day: though they have come to Elizabethan England together, Walter needs to break away from his life-long friend in order to make his own contribution to their new country.

  2. Kay says

    As more of a reader than a writer of fiction, this is not something I have noticed before. Not that I doubt you. Oh, no. I even like the idea, maybe even especially like the idea, that such structure is buried in a story and that I haven’t noticed it before–as in something more to appreciate, mull over, play with. I think I need to do more of parsing it out in stories and appreciating it, before I am going to be able to do it myself. So today I have three books on the go, I have to stop and think if they are fiction or not, but yes they are, and I am going to start checking it out.

  3. says

    Sarah and Kay… I’ve been looking at this ‘escape’ notion more carefully the last few days… and I see that most of my favourite stories depict protagonists who don’t have the conscious intention to perform any kind of ‘escape.’ In fact quite the opposite; they want to stay firmly put where they are. And yet the current of events they get swept up by lead inexorably to their escape from belief systems that exist only to protect them from life. We’ll talk more about this in my next class.

  4. Yvette Carol says

    You made it into the “Great Quotes” file again, with:
    ‘The hero’s redemption (and ultimate victory) hinges on their transcending their self-concern. And it rarely happens unless the writer brings the hero to the point of despair.’

  5. says

    Y.C… I’m glad someone’s keeping track of what I say. I may have to tap your quote vault some day to find out what the heck I’ve been talking about.

  6. Truus van der Kaaij says

    Thank you PJ. I think you are right. The reason why, as I can see it, is, that in essence we are not of this world. Our spirit does not belong to the physical materialistic world. It takes part in it, because we wanted to come to grow and awareness needs an object, according to a spiritualiteit law. So we are bound in restrictions in wich we feel uncomfortable and isolated. Others are our (limited) instruments to make us grow, for wihch we should be grateful. As we are limited instruments for others. Because of faults in ourselves and in others we’ll keep trying to escape what we are into. I do believe in a happy end. ????

  7. says

    Thanks, Truus. As for “happy,” I see no reason why not to be happy about this human condition that requires us to escape from it. Nikos Kazantzakis assumed this escape to be the “greatest human achievement.” It’s the game we’re here to play. It’s the meaning of our little lives. Isn’t it?

  8. says

    I so agree about the escape theme-especially after writing my last novel about running off to Oregon. I was tricked into trying that great escape by the notion “take what you want and pay for it,” the Law of the Universe. And did I ever pay! The apple does not fall far from the tree—but if that apple takes wings and gives up “self concern,” well, that is one battered apple! So why—when our protagonist is fine and secure would she do something like take up sky-diving? Like leaving the farm? For me, it must have been arrested development. But there is another reason too. I think I (and my character) wanted to know the bottom line. The escape is about shattering the nice satin smooth concept of self to become acquainted with the savage, indomitable inner person.
    This Blog Post was rich. Even more than usual. Reading your blogs, and thinking about them, is like eating caramel ice cream late at night. So delicious. Thanks.

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