“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:
EVERY STORY IS AN ESCAPE STORY.
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.