I am proud and relieved to announce that the Two Princesses prequel has a title. Alas, the dragons in sales and marketing nixed all other suggestions, including excellent choices from the blog, and I had to cudgel my head again. But finally, I came up with this one, which they like, my editor likes, and I like, and I hope you will like, and which I don’t think I gave you enough information to come up with. Here it is: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Hooray!
So, there’s a lesson in this for all of us: We needn’t seek the perfect title until we have a publisher, because publishers have final say anyway. We can go eponymous and just call our book by the name of our MC and then dig deeper when the time comes.
And, if not a lesson, an idea: To loosen myself up and get out of the title groove I was mired in, I googled “popular fantasy novels for children” and clicked on a selection from Goodreads, which helped me realize that almost anything can be a fine title. Thus freed, my mind started wandering and got me where I needed to go.
Thanks again, many thanks, to all of you who posted title possibilities! I’ll probably ask for your help again.
Now for this week’s post:
On November 20, 2015, Kitty wrote, I need some ideas for a way for my MC to escape a prison cell. However, I would like to avoid anything involving the following:
1. Cliches (air vents and the ol’ fake escape gambit are out).
2. Mary Sue-like abilities (so no “Oh, I just happen to know some obscure physics/chemistry fact that I can totally apply to the situation, plus I can pick locks and dangle from walls). The MC is twelve, so anything that would be obviously beyond the ability/knowledge of a 7th grader is a no-go.
3. Outside help. She has to do it alone. Her friends are in different cells, so she’s not going to get any help from them, or anyone else. And
4. Excessive violence. PG 13 is probably okay. R is probably not. I’ll let you use your best judgement on that one.
5. Deus ex machinas. No “Oh, look, somebody left the door unlocked! Lucky me!”, or “Look, I happen to have a magical door unlocking device with me! I grabbed it when I got kidnapped, but I guess they didn’t notice!”
The cell is modern day with fairly heavy security (though I’m willing to make adjustments on the exact nature of the cell/security system), something that perhaps the CIA or FBI might have at their offices. There probably will be security cameras, though I’m flexible about that one. I don’t need her to escape the whole compound (I already have that planned out), just to get out of the cell she’s stuck in.
NPennyworth suggested: It sounds like the only way she’s getting out is if someone lets her out. Maybe she can use her age to her advantage and trick a guard into taking her out, maybe something like she says she has a stomach bug and pretends to throw up, or insists she needs to go to the bathroom. Once the guard opens the door maybe she could stomp on his foot and incapacitate him, and take it from there.
And Poppie said, I agree with NPennyworth about your escape scene: being let out is the only logical way to get away. I have never written about breakouts, so the only other thing I can recommend, is reading and watching some appropriate books and movies about the subject.
I’m with Poppie, in that research may be useful. We can google “famous prison escapes,” and even try “escapes from juvenile facilities,” since Kitty’s MC is twelve. Then we can mix and match what we come up with to suit our circumstances.
Kitty seems to be after originality in solving her incarceration problem, and the key, in my opinion, to original solutions is character.
Who is our MC? What characteristics that we’ve already established can she use to get herself out? NPennyworth suggests she pretends to throw up to get out of her cell. This becomes more plausible if she has a history of feigning illness to evade going to school, and the reader knows she’s really good at it. She’s discovered ingenious ways to make herself look pale and clammy or turn green or pink with fever. We have her decide which illness will most likely get her out, possibly make the guards uneasy and unlikely to scrutinize her closely. This can be a lot of fun to write–and to read.
But we can give her other useful qualities. She can be artistic or persuasive or over-the-top charming. Let’s go with artistic. There isn’t much to work with in her cell, but she pulls a few strands of horsehair out of her ratty mattress and fashions a convincing tarantula in the corner. It won’t bear close examination, but from across the cell, it’s a stunner. The reader already knows that the prison is in the desert, so tarantulas aren’t an impossibility. Then she starts screaming. Guard rushes in, stands in the doorway, annoyed, says, “What?” She points. He runs in or runs out, leaves the door open.
This escape, or any escape, will be most believable if our MC has tried once or twice before and failed.
When we use character, the qualities we exploit have to be revealed earlier, when our MC is established. If she becomes artistic in her cell half an hour before she makes the fake spider, the reader is likely to be unconvinced and may shout “Mary Sue!”
In fact, Kitty’s Mary Sue example typifies the problem of the solution that pops out of nowhere. We may be able to pull off a knowledge of obscure physics or chemistry principles if the reader knows she’s a genius in those subjects, and this is established very early in the story. But scientific brilliance plus the ability to dangle from walls, even if set up early, will probably be too much for a reader to buy and may move our MC from a real girl to a young super-heroine.
Our MC isn’t the only character we can use. If she’s observant (a really handy quality that we can give to almost any MC, along with whatever else we give her), she’ll pay attention to prison routine, the personality of this guard and that and of her fellow prisoners (which Kitty suggests she already knows). She can plan to use the nice guard in one way, the one who does everything by the book in another. Any other characters in her prison life can also be brought in to serve her purpose.
We don’t want to make the escape too easy. In the same way we use our MC’s character to let her escape, we can use her character to cause her to fail in an early attempt or to almost fail in her final successful one. Suppose she’s the spider artist, but she needs her creations to be admired, she may give herself away the first time. The reader will be terrified for her. An added benefit of an MC’s flaw is that it will counteract any Mary Sue’ishness the reader may have detected in her.
In the same way we use character we can also use the prison setting to develop the escape–although character will usually be part of it. Here again research may help. We can google prisons: maps, routines, personnel. It may be useful to search on well-run prisons and badly run prisons. Think about how your MC can use what you discover. Again, we need to set this up as early as possible so that whatever she turns to her advantage doesn’t seem too convenient to the reader. If there happens to be an abandoned aqueduct, for example, just outside the prison walls, our MC and the reader need to know about it before escape planning begins.
A lovely aspect of writing is that time inside our story doesn’t behave for us as it does for our characters. We can realize as we’re writing her escape that she doesn’t realize a crucial fact she needs to realize. Zip! We jump back three days and twenty pages and sew the fact in seamlessly so it’s there when she has to have it.
Obviously, these strategies apply not only to prison breaks, but also to any pickle our MC may find herself in.
Here are three prompts:
∙ Design an escape for a character using another quality other than artistic ability. Make one up or pick one or use one of these: persuasiveness, charm, taciturnity, short attention span, high energy. Write the escape.
∙ Rewrite the scene, but this time make it fail because of a character flaw. Keep her alive, though, and have her try again. If you haven’t before, bring in secondary characters and use their personalities in the scheme.
∙ Write an escape in which the prison itself, its routine or layout, possibly its computer system, is crucial to success.
Have fun, and save what you write!