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Setting aside the specifics of my particular plot for a moment, I have need of plot inspiration: how do I set up an escape from a death trap that seems plausible after the fact, and not too contrived?

I'm stuck figuring out the details of such a scene in my story. It's an adventure story, similar in theme to indiana jones or the lara croft series: adventurers exploring a temple, baddies, spells and actual magic, a treasure to be reclaimed, etc. I'm dealing with death traps: the characters are to be sacrificed at dawn in a blood ritual, and they need to discover a way to escape right before the spell is cast. How do I have protagonists escape a death trap? What tropes or mechanics are used to get the heroes out of immediate danger in a way that forces the big baddie to confront them directly?

I considered having them break out of their shackles, but then the villain was inept and this is no good; also, way wait until the ritual to escape? I considered having one of the minions screw up and give the heroes a lucky break, but that's too ... easy. I figured maybe they look around the chamber and see a switch or a trap or something they can interact with, but how could they do so if the villain has them bound? I don't want them to be simply lucky -- it should take both cunning, perception, and luck -- and I want them to have only a brief moment of escape before being forced to face the main antagonist.

And I certainly want the villain to seem competent, not inept and arrogant.

If this question is too specific or not on-topic for this QA site, I apologize; I'm going off this post for justification: Is a "Help me generate plot ideas?" or similar question on topic?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think I see why you’re stuck. Potentially so many ways to escape exist it feels paralyzing, but each idea feels weak. That is, if you think of this problem purely as a plot exorcise. I find that when plot traps me, story and character often show the way. Because this escape is the climax, you’re aware of the need for a quality escape. Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of a meaningful escape. Meaningful to character and story, maybe even to theme.

I think you can deconstruct the problem to a solution from two directions - the protagonist and the antagonist. Firstly, while I understand that you don’t what the villain to appear stupid, recognize that he/she will have to make a mistake. Think about it, if the baddies did everything just right, escape would be impossible. The mistake the antagonist makes reveals his/her character. The mistake serving as a symbol demonstrating the nature of the antagonist. This makes the plot point speak to character and story.

Similarly, because this is your story’s climax, how the protagonist secures his/her escape must speak to character as well. What kind of person is your hero? Since this is an action story, I assume a person of action, but what drives that? Why is the protagonist a person of action? Or what type of person of action? Restless, impatient, angry, desperate? Ultimately the protagonist’s means of escape speaks to strength, while the antagonist’s error speaks to weakness. The contrast of the two has the potential to reveal theme.

Consider this example. I just watched the movie “Pitch Dark.” Early on, the anti-hero Riddick is shackled behind his back to a vertical support beam. He notices the beam has been severed about a foot over his head. He dislocates both of his shoulders so he can swing his arms up behind him and through the opening in the beam to secure his release. This escape works well as plot because it meaningfully demonstrates something about Riddick’s character (they’re introducing Riddick at this point). Specifically, Riddick is a badass with iron will. Similarly, the mistake of securing him to the post (not a big mistake after all, most people won’t dislocate their shoulders) illustrates the antagonist’s sloppiness, later indirectly revealed as a result of his morphine addiction.

So use your character’s character to show you how the hero should escape and how the villain should mess up.

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1  
This is a really excellent and thoughtful analysis. I'd give this way more than +1 if I could. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 6 '13 at 14:34
    
@LaurenIpsum, there's always the bounty option. :-) (One of the standard reasons is "excellent answer".) –  Monica Cellio Aug 6 '13 at 14:42
    
Thanks, mate. This is fantastic. Once again, it's the characterization that comes to the rescue. –  whiterook6 Aug 7 '13 at 2:42

Not knowing the mechanics of the trap itself, I would suggest looking at some real-life daring escapes and escapades, especially some of the head-scratchers. Look at some of the turn-of-the-century magicians (like Houdini) and some of their feats. Prison breaks (from actual prisons or war camps), jail breaks, cop car escapes... there are many in real life that had nothing to do with the ineptness of one side, instead luck and determination being the pros of the escapee. The McGuyver suggestion is a decent start, making something out of something else unrelated, but there are other ways. You can use a Con (Hero escapes by intellectually defeating a guard), a feint (play dead and overpower), a distraction (set something on fire, if plausible), or the Deus Ex Machina route (something extraordinary happens, and the Hero takes advantage of it.

Some ideas.

John Dillinger once escaped jail with soap crafted to resemble a gun, taking a guard hostage until he had access to a real gun.

James Earl Ray (MLK's killer) had outside help to help him scale the wall of his prison.

Edmon Dantes (Count of Monte Cristo) tunneled his way out of Castile d'If, which took him 5 years.

Sir Walter Reileigh made several escape attempts from the infamous Tower of London, including dressing himself up as a woman.

'Mexican Rally Runs' is a term for when Mexicans try to cross the border into America by stampeding it in the hundreds, guarenteeing that most will succeed.

Odysseus escaped an island with his crew by blinding the Cyclops that was threatening to eat them, taunting him all the while.

Patricia Hurst, kidnapped by an extremist group in the 70's, was forced to rob a bank. She avoided prosecution by saying that, despite being seen aiding the robbers, she was forced under duress to rob the bank, and was told that her gun was unloaded (which, in fact, it was loaded).

Harry Houdini regularly escaped straight-jackets and chains because he could dislocate his shoulders, and break out of 'inescapable' boxes by keeping a set of lockpicks secreted upon himself.

The Great Escape is actually based off a real WWII prisoner-of-war camp escape.

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Here’s a guy notorious for his ability to bust out of prison: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Lee_McNair –  Seth Gordon Dec 25 '13 at 3:22

Design the trap with the character in mind.

Maybe the character has a flaw or limitation. Early in the story, demonstrate this flaw or limitation in a small way that does not call attention to itself.

Then: Brainstorm the ways that the character might use this flaw or limitation as a tool, or might compensate for it, or might overcome it. Find a surprising twist on the flaw or limitation.

Try to list as many twists as you can, without regard for their quality, without regard to their use against any particular trap. Just list a whole lot of them as fast as you can.

Then: Pick the twist that is the most fun or most surprising, and design the trap so that it can be defeated only by that surprising twist. The villain, of course, has overlooked this quirk of the trap. It might be fun if the villain designed the trap with the character in mind, but overlooked the possibility of the twist.

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Several possibilities come to mind:

  • One of the trapped characters unknowingly has a mechanism to provide escape. E.g., this might be an amulet containing magic Rusting Water (which when applied to the shackles frees the prisoners). If the trapped character did not know about this, the villain probably would also be unaware. Under stress the character puts various clues together and recognizes the means of escape.

  • A colleague of the villain betrays the villain. This betrayal might be motivated by secret affection for one of the prisoners, by a desire for revenge, by a loss of trust that the villain will treat colleagues well after gaining the benefit from the prisoners' deaths. This betrayal might only give the prisoners a chance but not a guaranteed escape (perhaps the colleague felt ambivalent or wanted the potential means of escape to be undetectable and/or untraceable to avoid risk of the villain discovering the betrayal). E.g., the traitor might spit on a character and give some cryptic hint about how to use it (e.g., the spittle — which might be slightly oddly colored — combined with two ingredients that the characters happen to have might enable the casting of an unlocking spell).

  • The spell requires unbound victims and automatically unbinds them as part of its operation. (The villain might have considered the sedation of victims an unimportant detail — or not known about such being part of the traditional ritual — and wished the victims to be conscious for their final defeat.) To add an element of cunning, perhaps one of the prisoners suspects the spell undoes certain types of bindings — e.g., manacles being unknown to that culture — and convinces the jailers to change the bindings (e.g., intentionally being caught trying to pick a lock so the bindings are changed from manacles to ropes).

  • Luck intervenes. E.g., if the spell of sacrifice generates bolts of electricity, perhaps one heats up a link in a chain and causes the bound character to simultaneously convulse with extraordinary strength that breaks the chain. Perhaps an element of perception/cunning (and daring) might be added by requiring the character to recognize the possibility that such might occur if the chain is placed in a particular location at a particular time. Perhaps the character must convince one of the others to act, possibly before the bolts of electricity appear (requiring the character to recognize the ritual and to know the sequence of events).

  • A supernatural power intervenes. E.g., a spirit being might appear with a seemingly useless gift — perhaps coming from limitations of interference or a sense of humor. (A cup of Rusting Water could be ironic if the character given the gift had earlier made a statement like "By the Spirit of Zah, I would give my right eye for a cup of water." The character might then think "Now that I am about to die you give me a drink?!") The cunning/perception would be involved in recognizing the use of the gift.

  • A character realizes that all inanimate matter within the sacrificial area will be destroyed and no one killed (leaving them unshackled and alive but naked) if one of the group is killed within the area before the ritual is completed. If the victims of the ritual were traditionally volunteers or sedated, this aspect might not be revealed in descriptions but only recognized by an understanding of the rules of the magic.

  • A friend of the characters or an enemy of intruders (or the villain) intervenes. This intervention might only indirectly provide a means of escape (e.g., if the person with the keys to the shackles is killed and falls close enough to the prisoners that the keys can be retrieved with some effort while the fighting continues). An element of cunning/perception might be added in the effort to retrieve the keys. E.g., if bursts of flame periodically come from holes in the Circle of Death and the key-holder happened to land on such a hole but to generate a burst strong enough to lift the body so that it can be pulled closer [perhaps a belt is caught in the Circle] other holes need to be plugged. Even the arrival of the others might be a result of a character's cleverness (e.g., leaving a clue about the villain's intention and location, knowing that they would not be in the area when the angry natives arrived if things went as planned).

If you were willing to forgo the immediate confrontation of the villain, two other possibilities come to mind:

  • The trap has a secret escape mechanism provided by the designer for the designer's own safety (or the safety of a political leader). This would not be documented in any priestly literature and might not be obvious to anyone. E.g., if a trapdoor could be opened by pressing a sequence of stones, one character might be so interested in interpreting the markings at the location — "Professor, we are about to die and you are still trying to read glyphs!" — as to notice a symbol out of place, improperly oriented, or otherwise not quite right. (After sliding down the escape shoot the characters would then have more opportunity to unshackle themselves.)

  • The spell of sacrifice actually teleports the victims to the actual death chamber (perhaps separated because its operation is so dangerous that the spell caster would be injured otherwise) but the death chamber is not in working order. (The remains of a previous sacrifice might facilitate loosing the bonds and a means of leaving the death chamber might be found.) Perhaps an element of cunning/perception might be added by having a character recognize that the actual death chamber is elsewhere and probably no longer functional (perhaps a previous attempt at the ritual had failed or the failure of the actual death chamber contributed to the collapse of the previous users' culture) and prepares the others for the transfer (e.g., telling them to take a deep breath and hold it since the death chamber is under water, perhaps translating some glyphs as "send you to Yugarei [the goddess of water and death]").

As Tom's answer states, the mechanism of escape should reflect the nature of the characters (both heroes and villains), but perhaps the above examples might stir some helpful creativity.

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The classic method is to have the villain over-gloat. Written badly, it will fail, unless you are being purposely campy. But it can be done believably -- at least, believably enough to not destroy suspension-of-disbelief.

Example: Lord of the Rings (books, not movie). [spoilers] At the Black Gate, Sauron can't help but gloat, via his emissary, the Mouth of Sauron. But his gloating reveals that he does NOT have the One Ring, that at least one of the hobbits is still alive, and that he fears both Aragorn and Gandalf. That info gives the heroes the extra courage they need to fight just a little bit harder and longer (against impossible odds), which gives the hobbits the time they need to destroy the Ring. Also, Sauron's pride and confidence prevented him from assassinating Aragorn during the parley. [p.s.: Aragorn assassinating the Mouth in the movie version = unforgiveable "artistic license", totally out of character.]

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The best, most climactic climax is when it seems every single route of escape seems blocked and there is no hope, only to fire a well-hidden Chekov gun.

First, give the protagonist a geis. A weakness, a lasting, recurring problem, a burden to struggle against, that gradually becomes such an ingrained part of the character we just forget about it. It can be such a deeply ingrained phobia it causes completely irrational and disproportionate response. It can be a rare sickness with weird symptoms. It may be a curse of complex mechanisms broken when touched by that person. It may be a dire secret connected with a classic geis, that would bring doom to its bearer as soon as uttered out loud. Whatever it is, make it a burden, and NOT crucial to the plot, nor in any way centric to the antagonist and endgame - make it seem like a flavor, not a plot device.

Then design the multi-layered trap - with multiple ways out, each requiring the key, and the protagonist in possession of all, or most of the keys - and then every of them is "out of the game". All backup allies caught. All secret weapons confiscated. All tricky gadgets broken, used up, lost. Secret power words appear to be fakes. Apparently unlocked escape routes got re-locked. There is no hope.

Then the antagonist, taking it all away from the protagonist, triggers the geis. Say, they stole the secret from the mind of protagonist, and say it out loud, as in a "Well, interesting that..." manner. They contract the weird medical condition or it happens to thwart the key element of the trap. The phobia makes the character perform an act of strength they would be completely unable to perform normally. What until now was always a burden and never an advantage, turns out to be beneficial - and critical, possibly as the antagonist simply has no clue how to deal with it, or the "reflective" nature of the item makes whatever power, corruption, or other strength of the bearer act against them, manageable in protagonist's hands, destructive in the antagonist's.

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Well, I guess it depends very much on the death trap. You've already established why they need to remain alive this long, since they are a major part of the ritual, so that is a good start. I think you really just need to think of every way of escaping, eliminate the ridiculous and work with what's left. Maybe watch a few episodes of MacGuyver.

If there's more than one of them then maybe one can feign injury, meaning the antagonist has to intervene to keep them alive but exposes themselves in the process. This could lead to a conflict around a bloody altar with a time component because the sacrifice has to be made at the right time. The time can work better if something bad happens (like the temple they are in collapses for instance) if the spell is not cast as well.

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I can't just think of every way of escaping. There's too many, and too many of those wouldn't serve the story. The MacGuyver suggestion is good, though. –  whiterook6 Aug 7 '13 at 2:41

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