The thoughts and work of Sam Witt

Drawing An Escape Map

Writing is a difficult, tricky process. Oh, it may seem simple from the outside – you’re just moving characters from Point A to Point B and describing what happens along the way – but so many things can go wrong. Before I try to write anything more complex than a shopping list, I sit myself down and draw out my Escape Map.You may have heard other writers refer to this as an ‘outline.’ When I’m neck deep in my first draft, though, I don’t need an outline, I need a map that explains in explicit detail where I need to go to get out of the quicksand before I get overwhelmed.

I may be atypical, but I find the act of writing fulfilling. Just putting words on paper in a logical order is soothing to my nerves and fills my ink-stained soul with an empowering sense of accomplishment. This is why my first draft novels at one time ran to 300k words, with subplots twisting all over the place like a pack of garter snakes high on crystal meth. I needed an escape map to guide me out of the writing swamps in as clear and direct a manner possible.

My escape map isn’t super-detailed, it only has five landmarks on it:

  • The Starting Point. Every writer’s journey starts with a single step – but you have to find solid footing for that step or you’ll end up off a cliff by your second step. You want to kick your journey off with a bang, so find a starting point that’s filled with drama, loaded with potential conflict, gives your journey a sense of mystery, and is maybe even a little scary. The road may go ever on, but no one cares about the trip from your front doorstep to the point where your journey really begins. Get a good grip on your starting point, imagine the scene in your head, because without a good start your adventure isn’t going anywhere.
  • Here Be Dragons. This is the first landmark in your story, the point by which everyone involved should realize that your protagonist is in a great deal of trouble and there are dragons, proverbial or real, on all sides. Imagine the scene and how you will convey to your readers that the character they’ve become invested in is about to become dragon chow. From this point forward, the hero is trying to deal with/or escape his problems. He has to do something, but it’s important for you to realize that he’s not going to be successful. Not yet.
  • The Abyss. After your protagonist starts trying to do something about the dragons, even if that something is just running like hell, he will fail. The monsters catch up to him. His brilliant plan to save the day has failed. The princess is captured again. Some asshole with a shotgun has turned up at his apartment. You get the picture. At this point, the hero has responded to the problems in his life and he has failed. The Abyss is the moment when that failure manifests, when he realizes he can’t run, or that his original plan is a piece of crap. He has failed and he needs to do something about it. Things look bad for the protagonist, but he has to pull himself up by his boot straps and get ready to go to war with his problems. From this point forward, it’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and your protagonist is all out of bubble gum.
  • Point of No Return. The ass-kicking has gone well for your protagonist. She’s doing what she needs to do to get the job done and overcoming the challenges before her. It’s not easy, but she is starting to feel like she’s going to prevail and the bad guys are going to pay for what they’ve done. And then someone yanks the rug out from under her. She take a cudgel to the back of the head. Someone blows up her house. Her son gets taken hostage. Success is right there – but now someone’s raised the stakes and really turned up the heat. If she’s going to win, your hero has to dig deep and overcome her personal demons. She has to earn the title of hero if she wants to save the day.
  • Home Again. This is the end, the moment that you tie everything up and put a bow on it for the reader. This scene should be one of the most memorable in your book – don’t be one of those authors who makes the last fifty pages a slog to get through. Your hero has prevailed, so let her bask in the glory of it, but don’t be afraid to make the victory bittersweet and show us the price she’s paid for her success. Make this scene stick with the reader, so they’ll be hungry for more of your work.

Naturally, there are a lot more than five scenes in any book. But armed with that escape map, whenever I’m working on a novel, I know exactly where I need to be heading at all times. This gives me the freedom to enjoy what I’m writing, because I know it has a point and I’m not just wandering aimlessly.

Let me know if it works for you, or if you have an escape map of your own that you’d like to share.

About Sam

I am the author of the popular Pitchfork County series of horror novels. I also write a newsletter with great reading suggestions and free fiction.