Facts of Fiction: Why Every Story Is An Escape Story

    facts of fiction

    “Every story is an escape story.”

    I hold this bold idea in mind as I write a story.

    I’ve printed it up and taped it to the wall beside my computer.

    It serves as a story overview that acknowledges a fact of our human condition:

    We are all escaping something.

    This radical notion hijacked my brain after a decade of professionally assessing and writing film scripts.

    I found myself getting emotionally invested in characters that were somehow imprisoned.

    I discovered that this is true of every good story.

    All the best protagonists are trapped in the gravity field of an idea, a person, or a situation that makes their life not worth living.

    Naturally, they’re going to escape.

    Whatever else a story is about—revenge, love, courage, honour—at its heart, we find a protagonist escaping something.

    Three great escapes

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

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

    In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart is a prisoner of his “broken-hearted” point of view. If he doesn’t escape from under the weight of his self-pity, audiences will demand their money back. As they should!

    In each of the above examples, it’s a different kind of prison from which the protagonist must escape.

    One is a concrete jail, the other is a relationship, while the third is a belief system.

    These three kinds of escape dominate most plots.

    Let’s look at them more closely.

    #1. Escaping a prison or place

    Obviously, prison stories concern characters whose goal is an actual over-the-wall escape. O Brother Where Art Thou, for example. And Papillon. And the futuristic Escape from New York. And the current The Maze Runner.

    If the protagonists don’t reach freedom, they will die physically, mentally, or spiritually.

    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.

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

    Even in Casablanca, which is essentially a love story, almost every character is preoccupied with escape. Casablanca is a staging ground for desperados waiting anxiously to flee the Nazis by flying to Lisbon and onward to freedom in America.

    Who isn’t trying to escape to greater freedom?

    It’s a condition of our human condition.

    #2. Escaping a relationship

    This is a more subtle and more common escape theme in fiction.

    Love affair, job, family—these are relationships it’s not always possible to simply walk away from.

    The generic dig-your-way-out prison break is a piece of cake compared to the difficulty of escaping some relationships.

    Fatal Attraction comes to mind. The film depicts a relationship more horrifying than any real prison. Michael Douglas, a happily married man, 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.

    In Casablanca, Bogey 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?

    #3. Escaping oneself

    This is the most subtle, most common, and most significant escape theme.

    From On the Waterfront, to Moonstruck, to Good Will Hunting, to Up in the Air, to Out of Africa, to Silver Linings Playbook, the protagonist is on a trajectory toward escaping themselves.

    I mean escaping their self-destructive attitudes, and (very often) narcissistic beliefs.

    The hero’s redemption and ultimate victory hinges on their rising above self-concern.

    And this rarely happens unless the writer brings the hero to the point of utter despair.

    Here’s another fact of life:

    “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

    Desperation followed by escape—that’s what kickstarts radical personal change.

    Why do we need to escape ourselves?

    Because we are all liars.

    “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.” ~ Seth Godin, author

    It turns out that our delusional stories protect us from inconvenient truths.

    We are all liars by necessity.

    But the truth has a delicious way of coming out.

    The truth always escapes—drama depends on it

    However many enemies we invent to challenge our heroes, we writers must keep in mind that the ultimate victory is always the escape from the small and misguided self.

    Nearly every good story I’ve studied features a protagonist who only earns the right to enter Act III after they’ve escaped the belief system that’s holding them back from true happiness.

    Take Moonstruck, for example:

    Loretta (Cher) is marrying Johnny who she is not in love with. Her heart is safer that way.

    Then she meets her fiancé’s younger and more feral brother, Ronny (Nicholas Cage).

    The story is all about a woman holding herself back from true happiness in order to avoid any chance of a broken heart.

    Listen to Ronny trying his damnedest to help Loretta escape her self-destructive belief system:

    “Loretta… love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything, it breaks your heart. We’re not here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people, and die!”

    This is the scriptwriter (John Patrick Shanley) bringing us to the moment of the protagonist’s escape.

    Will Loretta abandon her belief system and risk real love? Or will she become a tragic character?

    It’s human nature to play it safe, but we want our heroes to live dangerously. We want them to transcend themselves.

    Heroes escape themselves — it’s a fact of fiction because it’s a fact of life.

    Consider Casablanca once again:

    There’s a good reason why this 1942 Oscar-winning film is rated one of the best flicks of all time. The protagonist is engaged in all three escapes at the same time.

    1. Escape from the Nazis
    2. Escape from ex-lover
    3. Escape from self-pity

    But it’s escape #3—Bogey’s escape from the prison of his self-interest—that gives viewers their money’s worth.

    Every story is an escape story.

    A writer’s duty

    This is more than a story overview.

    It’s a writer’s duty to her fictional heroes.

    By orchestrating their escape, a writer proves how truly, madly and deeply she loves her protagonist.

    We might think we’re proving our love for our heroes by handing them victory at the climax.

    But if we don’t also force them to suffer the pain of shedding their outmoded sense of self, we have failed to love them to the max.

    If we love our protagonist, we will help them escape from their small self. It’s hard to write a satisfying story without including this personal victory. It’s almost as if fiction exists to remind us that we are born to escape.

    And we are!

    If the foregoing is true, then “born to escape” is one of the juiciest facts of life.

    And therefore one of the most powerful facts of fiction.

    Escape stories hook us because they speak to a deep human yearning.

    Check it out for yourself—study films and novels—and see if it’s not true that every story is an escape story.

    What kind of escape are you or your fictional characters engaged in? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

    About the author

      PJ Reece

      "PJ Reece has been a professional writer for 25 years. His latest book,"Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story" is now available on Amazon."

    • Amina says:

      Thanks very much for this post. I’m a children’s author who is trying to write for older readers. I’ve done fan fiction as practice but it gets hard when trying to create my own characters. Thanks for this

      • PJ Reece says:

        Amina… Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure the rules change all that much, writing for kids or adults. Probably, kids are all the more keen on “escaping.” — escaping childhood! We’re all trying to shed a less mature part of ourselves. I just noticed that the blurb that accompanies my name mentions a book of mine called “The Writer in Love.” It finally came out as “Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story.” It has lots to say about escaping the gravity field of home. it’s on Amazon, not quite free but almost. Let me know what you think of it. Cheers. ~ PJ

    • Margaret Munice says:

      WOW! I hadn’t thought of it this way. But now, when I’m reading fiction – it’s quite clear that the protagonist wants to escape in some way.

      Thanks for the excellent post!

    • Sunny Bill says:

      I enjoyed the post. I think ‘escaping from ourselves’ is a huge topic. Just think of drugs and alcohol, or getting into unhealthy relationships.

    • We’re still having problems with some comments not appearing. If you have difficulties writing a comment for WTD, could you please click on ‘Contact’ in the navigation bar and let us know. We’ve changed some coding – so we hope it’s okay now… fingers crossed.

    • Alex says:

      Every story is an escape story, or in other words: Every story contains the good old “conflict” they harp on in screenwriting classes (physical escape/conflict; social escape/conflict; inner escape/conflict).

      In the same way, we could also say every story is about love: Somebody going after his love for a thing, for a person or for himself; in the same way as every story is a quest (a character is looking for something). We could also say every story is about death (physical death on the outside, something between people dying, or something within somebody dying).

      A really well written story can be looked at from many angles – it’s that diverseness, that multi-layeredness that makes great writing interesting!

      • PJ Reece says:

        Alex… yes, plenty of good overviews with which to approach a story. By featuring the “escape” theme I was hoping to point out that the best stories aim to free the protagonist from him/herself. It’s an escape of a different order. It’s an escape that occurs as a bi-product of all the other mayhem that leads up to it. It renders the plot into a misdirection! We thought it was a story about a character who “loved” something or “wanted” something or was “escaping” from something, when all along it turns out the struggle was in aid of bringing the protagonist to the kind of despair needed to break him/her free of themselves. I argue for this dynamic because I think it might prove to be WHY WE READ FICTION in the first place. It’s a theory. What say ye?

    • ben smith says:

      Those are some of the truest words spoken. We are all trying to escape-today, tomorrow, the past, this moment, this life…..great article!

    • Once you read this post, it becomes crystal clear that the author has nailed it. Makes me feel a little foolish I hadn’t had this insight myself. As someone who has immersed himself in the memoir genre for the last few years, I would add that “escape” is a recurring theme in that genre as well, so let’s fold creative nonfiction in here!

      • PJ Reece says:

        Thanks, Patrick… and consider creative nonfiction now in-folded into the theory. I can hardly imagine what a memoir would be if it wasn’t in part about “escape.” As for your own recently published memoir, “Committed,” I love the escape thread that runs through it. I’m halfway through it, Patrick, and find it compelling. Cheers.

    • Denise says:

      This is by far my all-time favorite WTD post EVER.

      • PJ Reece says:

        Denise… that’s the kind of comment that can make a writer’s day. You just made my year.

    • I love the escaping oneself idea. That is what a lot of my writing is about. I love having characters get in their own way due to their desires. I love having them unable to fight the urges and get themselves into deeper trouble.
      Great post.

      • PJ Reece says:

        Logan… from the way you describe your characters as fighting in vain against their urges and spiraling ever downward… I want to read your books!

    • Virginia says:

      I really like the way you used movies as the analogy to demonstrate your points. Interesting concept that we are always escaping from something. Very true, I just had not thought of it in quite that manner. Thanks.

      • PJ Reece says:

        Virginia… for a great case study of a character who escapes his belief system… check out the George Clooney character in the film “Up in the Air.” And please note that this escape is not the film’s climax. The escape prepares the hero for Act III and the climax. I’ve written about this in another post: http://pjreece.ca/crisis-and-climax-in-casablanca/

    • PJ Reece says:

      David… sounds like a great story. If you’re writing about Auschwitz, you must have come across Viktor Frankl who is the last word on finding freedom even in captivity. Cheers and good luck.

      And Mary… there’s an argument to made for fiction containing more TRUTH than is contained in our so-called real lives. So maybe you’re escaping to a realm of truth. Can you make a case for that? I’d love to hear it. It’s a blog-worthy subject!

    • It’s so interesting that you share this post now PJ, because JUST LAST NIGHT someone asked me why I read so much more fiction that nonfiction.

      I said, “I have enough reality in my life. I need an escape.” 🙂

    • David Barkey says:

      You’ve been reading my book that I haven’t even published yet. Without realizing it, “A Tiny Package Unwrapped” is an escape story. Johann Stein escaped from Auschwitz when he was 12 but he was past 40 before he escaped from the narcissistic prison he locked himself into. Thanks for the affirmation.

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