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I'm trying to write an escape scene in a fantasy novel. My problem is that I've spent a fair amount of effort explaining what a dire predicament my hero is in, and now I don't know how to get him out. All my latest tries have involved someone else rescuing him. I need him to escape by himself. How can I do this?

(In my specific case, it's a forester and an elf who have been captured by Werewolves and are about to be delivered to the Goblin King. I'm asking the question in general, but using this situation in your examples would be great.)

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Hi! This question is what we call a "what to write" question, in that it's describing a specific situation, and asking "OK, what should happen in my story now?". Such questions are off-topic on Writers.SE, because they're easy to bikeshed, and because they're not very helpful to any other writer. –  Standback Aug 10 at 11:13
    
However, I think the fundamental question of "How do I write an escape scene?" and "All my tries involve somebody else rescuing the hero" is a very good one. In other words, with a very light edit, this will be an excellent question. So I've just edited the question to put the focus on that. Please feel free to comment or re-edit if you feel like I've mis-represented your question, or if you have any corrections :) –  Standback Aug 10 at 11:15

8 Answers 8

Unless your hero's enemies are all intensely stupid, he and his companions will be totally unarmed, and will have been carefully searched for anything valuable. Really, unless your goblins are nobler than those in most stories, readers will expect goblins to take everything from their captives. Your hero can't pull a lockpick or a poisoned pin from the seam of his coat or sole of his shoe, because he has no coat and no shoe. He's wearing goblin rags (if that). So, that's your hero's big problem. You've put him in a corner with no way out.

Or does he? Your hero's bad situation is also your hero's opportunity. His enemies assume he is now helpless. Naturally, being lazy goblins, they're not going to guard him too closely. Now is the time to reveal that he soaks his hair in poison, or that he knows a couple magic spells, or can talk to moths (!), or can control weak minds (especially drunken ones). Or has a pixie in one lung. (THAT's why he's been short of breath!) Perhaps also now would be the proper time for him to tell his companions that he PLANNED all along to get caught, because that was the only way to get to the Goblin King, and that he is, in fact, a walking time-bomb.

The problem for you, the writer, is to put a twist on this age-old formula. In real life, of course, the hero would just die. That's often how RL is: good people die, ignominiously and needlessly, for no good end. The bad guys win. But that makes for a lousy story, unless your story has multiple heroes so that one or more is expendable. Assuming you don't want to kill off this guy, you have to think of a way to save him that readers won't expect but also won't reject. You both need and don't want a Deus ex machina. So, after you've saved your hero with this totally unexpected twist, you have to go back (like Mac Cooper said) and set it up in the earlier part of the story.

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+1 for going back and hinting at this secret ability earlier –  Liath Aug 5 at 7:42

What strengths does he have? What weaknesses do they have? Especially, hidden, non-obvious, difficult to trigger.

That's all up to you, foreshadowing given strengths and weaknesses, and letting them shine when the time comes. There are countless. What weaknesses can be exploited? Gambling? Ambition? Greed? Gluttony? Stupidity? Arrogance? What strengths can be employed? Cunning? Obnoxiousness? Confidence? Kindness? Wisdom?

Game them against each other, and then think of the scenario to employ them. Maybe a trade - be it real, or a trick. Maybe a challenge they won't refuse. Maybe just skill of stealth and subterfuge. Maybe a song so annoying they throw the prisoner out, unable to suffer him any longer.

I don't know your story, and neither should I - it's your story and it's up to you to decide upon what to write and how to write it. I'm here just to offer a help - don't start from the very bottom - events of daring escape. Start higher, at what makes the characters tick, and how the protagonist is stronger than the enemies. Once you know the strength, pick the method of using it, and with the method write the events.

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Seconded. I'll comment because it's really just an extension to your answer: I assume the OP is on Draft 1. So, OP can have his hero do ANYTHING, from pick a lock to morph into a fire engine and drive out. What's important, is to set this UP in Draft 2. At this point, getting the story down is important. Making it make sense is Draft 2. –  Mac Cooper Aug 4 at 22:14

Possible routes to escape (they can be combined):

  • Luck - the captors make a mistake, or something completely unexpected happens that the hero can exploit.
  • Preparation - the hero, knowing that capture was possible or imminent, prepared something (a tool, spell or ally) that would help him escape.
  • Knowledge - the hero knows what the captors want, need or fear, and can use that against them.
  • Charm - the hero negotiates with or sweet-talks the captors into releasing him. May take the form of a bluff.
  • Connections - the hero knows someone the captors respect or deal with. Or maybe one of the captors knows him.
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Treason - A member of the captors helps the hero to escape because it furthers his/her own personal agenda. –  Philipp Aug 6 at 7:08

He'll have been carefully searched, sure, but that might not be enough to find everything. And a good idea when hiding something, is never do - always hide two things, because when one gets found, they usually stop looking.

A character of mine (with a reputation for low cunning, but not exactly intelligence) was captured. Before leaving, his captor gloated that she'd found his set of lockpicks strapped to the inside of his kilt. (The 'obvious foreigner=stupid' assumption was something he'd made use of before.)

After waiting a while to make sure his captor had left, the character stuck his fingers down his throat, and threw up. This produced (apart from the obvious) a small, sealed plastic capsule (of a size difficult to swallow, but not impossible), and inside was a length of serrated wire wrapped around two finger grips. (A flexible saw.)

A funny moment came shortly after, when the captor tried to use the lockpicks for an unrelated task, and they snapped. This led to her finding out they were fake lockpicks (he'd originally bought them from a joke novelty shop), so he couldn't have used them anyway, even if he'd known how (he didn't have a clue about how to pick locks) and been capable (he was hamfisted and fairly clumsy) anyway.

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What you're forgetting, and no one seems to be mentioning, is that you are the AUTHOR. You CAN and SHOULD go back, rewrite a section so that he can pull a rabbit, pixie, lockpick, magic spell, etc. from his ass, so that he can save the day (or his ass) in this situation. Go back several chapters. Reveal that he has been studying the forbidden and damned works of the Qkuiktolp sorcerers in secret. The spells there are cursed for a reason - whoever uses them damns their soul and the souls of all their friends to the wastes of Kquidlpl. BUT, they save the hero and his friends PHYSICALLY. Now what do they do, since the Goblin King and his entourage have been transported physically to hell? They interrupt their quest to find a way to save their souls of course!

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Another route you could take with the story is for your hero to use trickery on one of his captors.

for example: Hero shows a few gold coins to a guard. Guard reaches his arm through the bar to get them. Hero grabs guards arm and pulls. The guards head hits the iron bars and renders him unconscious. Hero grabs guards keys. Freedom.

Another great escape that comes to mind would be Game of thrones by George RR Martin. Tyrion lannister escapes from the Eyrie.

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Another possibility that has not yet been mentioned is magic that works differently on humans and goblins. For example, the hero could have worn an amulet that offers some magic protection for humans, but has a very bad effect on any goblin wearing it. Of course the goblins would have stolen that amulet, but not knowing about its special properties, some goblin (maybe the guard taking it away from the hero, maybe even the goblin king) would put it on (the hero wore it, and is known to be knowledgeable on all types of magic, so it must have a good effect on the wearer, right?). Whatever effect it has on the goblins weakens them enough for the hero to escape.

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Werewolves or goblins? Which one captured him. Perhaps just say the werewolves are bounty hunters and the bounty was to bring them alive to the goblin king. I don't consider werewolves to be the merciful types so there needs to be a reason they didn't just eat the heroes outright.

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protected by Neil Fein Aug 5 at 17:59

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