Dead ends – and how to rescue your characters from them

Sometimes, we writers can be a heinous bunch. We give birth to our characters, write life into them, give them hopes and dreams, and send them out into a world that we loveingly created just for them; only to dash their hopes, torment their dreams and torture them hideously until they are forced to change in order to cope.

The problem comes when we’re too mean to them. It’s not uncommon for a writer to lead their characters into a trap from which it appears impossible to escape. Then what?

Case in point

My main character, Jal, and his mentor Witteum find themselves in the temple of the predominant religion in the Citadel. They discover a horrifying secret in its catacombs, but are trapped during their escape in a treasure room, where the ill-gotten gains of the cult are stowed.

In a room with two exits, both of which covered by a dozen club-wielding monks, the pair stand back to back, repelling the attacks of their assailants with a diamond-studded crosier and a ceremonial dagger plundered from the cache of valuables.

The rector of the cult, Matthias, arrives – he cannot afford for the secret to reach the population and so keeps them talking as his monks edge closer to the pair.

Death seems inescapable.

When I get to a point like this in the narrative, I stop and list all the possible ways my characters might prevail, and note next to each suggestion why it is shit and awful and inherently impossible. Here’s mine:


They fight through the monks
unlikely – Jal has no training and they are outnumbered 10 to 1. Also, the monks are double-‘ard.

• Witteum sacrifices himself so Jal can escape
why would he? They are not close friends and Jal got him in this mess in the first place.

Persuade Matthias to hand them to the authorities
why would he? He can’t risk the secret getting out.

Rescued by Rewa (the leader of a guerrilla insurrection)
but how does she know they’re down there?

o She has spies in the temple? – then why did she need Jal & Witteum?
o She just fucking assumes? – WEAK
o Saw them go in? – ALSO WEAK

War occurs
too soon (war will break out, but not yet)

• They manage to take Matthias captive
hard to do (and done once, when they first arrived!)

• They manage to turn some of the monks, who don’t know the temple secret
there’s no way Matthias would bring someone into his inner circle without revealing everything and ensuring they were loyal.

Barter with Matthias
what does he want that they have? He’s the most powerful man in a corrupt religion with the Senate at his feet…

o He likes maps? – THIS IS SHIT
o Sexual favours? – Too important to risk on a blowy!

I don’t even

• One of them has some explosives
they haven’t been invented

this exists nowhere else

• A giant dragon squeezes itself into the room and eats their souls

• It was all a dream
you’re not helping

• Rewrite to make it easier to escape
now THIS is a decent idea

• Jal has bloodlust and manages to kill the monks next to Matthias?
with no training? He just goes crazy with a knife? Ñññyyyyyyynnnññyyyy no

• Jal starts destroying the valuables
wouldn’t Matthias just kill them?

• There’s a trapdoor/manhole
it’s a dungeon’s treasure room, there is no reason for a trapdoor

• Sod it, they all die.

So, which did I pick? Well, I’ll leave that as a surprise. But which would you pick? Or maybe you think you’ve got a better idea? (God, I hope so.)

6 thoughts on “Dead ends – and how to rescue your characters from them”

  1. There is nothing – NOTHING – wrong with a well timed natural event. Worked in “King Solomon’s Mines” (Lunar Eclipse), the film Shortcuts (Earthquake), King Kong (volcano) and, I’m sure, many many others. Obviously, you should use such devices sparingly, i.e. no more than once every 3 to 5 chapters – but surely it’s a matter of degree, rather than dogma – and, if you’re smart, you’ll be able to figure out a way to rationalise the timing later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha. Yeah. I’m already using the outbreak of a war to get my characters out of a tight spot in a few chapters’ time, so I figured another deus ex machina might be too much.

      King Solomon’s Mines… ha ha. You might have just said Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Nazi bird runs off with the grail and OOPS – EARTHQUAKE YOUR NAZI ASSES.


  2. Definitely a rewrite with an escape in mind… I haven’t had this issue before, thankfully–my characters always have a retreat somewhere, even if it’s only as far as a robot’s head (as happened to an AI in my current WIP).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, yeah, I’m definitely erring that way. I put them in that situation. Who’s to say I can’t just NOT put them in that situation? (I like the challenge though, and the trap felt natural.) Thanks for reading!


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