Running Away From Home…
It Works Every Time In Fiction

The writer must face the fact that ordinary lives are what most people live most of the time, and that the novel as a narration of the fantastic and the adventurous is really an escapist plot; that aesthetically, the ordinary, the banal, is what you must deal with. — John Updike

By PJ Parrish

The first time I tried it I was five. I didn’t get very far, just up to the shopping center where a nice sales lady gave me a lollipop and called the cops. They stuck me in the cruiser and we drove around until I recognized our house. My mom didn’t even realize I was gone. Such dangerous times back in the Fifties…

The second time I tried it was about two years later. I was mad about something, so I took the jar of peanut butter and crawled out the milk chute. But it was really cold and I couldn’t get back in, so I sat on the swing set in the backyard until my mom saw me and let me back in.

I am a wanderer by nature.  Luckily, I am now married to a man who loves to travel as much as I do.  But he still gets upset when I wander too far ahead down the hiking trail.

I am going nuts staying put. Which is why I seem to be gravitating right now to books and movies about trapped people who run away.  I am re-reading one of my favorite books right now — Madame Bovary. It’s beautiful and great for many reasons, but I am particularly drawn to the idea that Emma Rouault , before she became Madame Bovary, had possibilities. But she married a Dick Decent, and now she’s imprisoned by the walls of her house and she’s bored stiff. Her only outlets are shopping and affairs. She tries to run away. Things don’t end well.

Books about women who run away (usually to find a better version of themselves) have always appealed to me.  I loved Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her 1,000-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. (made into a decent movie starring Reese Witherspoon). Then there was Richard Yate’s novel Revolutionary Road, a devastating story about a couple trapped in a suburban hell. The tragic character is poor deluded April, who fails as an actress, marries for security, and dreams of running away to Paris:

“Sometimes I can feel as if I were sparkling all over,” she was saying, “and I want to go out and do something that’s absolutely crazy, and marvelous…”

Which reminds me of the line from one of the most famous runaway novels, On The Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who …burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

The main character Sal is depressed after his divorce and wants to run away. (Men running away in stories are seldom seen as neurotic. They are just…adventurous!) So Sal takes off with his friend Dean on a cross-country journey with the hope of finding…something:

“Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

The trapped character who runs away to find the pearl is a classic fictional archetype/trope.  I created one myself in my stand alone She’s Not There, an amnesiac who, thinking her husband is trying to kill her, takes off on a cross-country run and eventually finds the truth. And herself, of course.

These characters can be really attractive in normal times. Right now, when we all feel so confined and isolated, they might speak to us in especially powerful ways.

I’ve been watching a lot of old movies lately. I doubt the programmers at TCM realize it, but they’ve been scheduling a lot of runaway movies lately.  In just one week, I have watched Kramer vs Kramer, Under The Tuscan Sun and Shirley Valentine.

Tuscan Sun has Diane Lane, freshly divorced and pathetic, taking off on a friend’s ticket to a “Gay And Away” bus tour of Italy. There, on a “bad idea” whim, she buys a broken down villa and tries to unblock herself enough to work on her novel, which she abandoned when she got married, — even as she takes up with the juicy Marcello.

Shirley Valentine is an English matron who was a firebrand in school but life intruded. Now she’s married to a schlub workaholic husband and making cocoa for her ungrateful daughter. She spends her days in her tiny kitchen talking to the walls and staring at a travel poster of Greece. A friend drags her along on a holiday, where she meets Costas and…well, it doesn’t end the way you’d expect.


And then there’s poor Joanna Kramer. She gave up a promising career to marry and have a child. But she snaps one day and leaves them both, disappearing into the feminist ether until she realizes she needs her boy — but not her man.

On my last plane ride, I watched Where’d You Go Bernadette? It’s about a self-involved neurotic architect who has lost her creative heart. She hates pretty much everyone because she hates herself. Or the version of herself she has become. Bernadette is really an unlikeable character and after the first half hour, I was ready to give up and watch ESPN, but the story got better. And then really good. And the ending is terrific.

But for women on the run stories, you can’t beat the golden oldie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Anyone who says Martin Scorsese doesn’t get women needs to see this. Newly widowed Ellen Burnstyn packs up her surly pre-teen and heads west, hoping to make it to Monterey Calif where she will go back to the singing career she abandoned when she got married. Marooned in Arizona, she becomes a waitress and finds love in the arms of a hunky woke rancher Kris Kristofferson. But after she tells him to kiss her grits, things don’t turn out like you’d expect.

Okay, to be fair, not every great runaway story stars a woman. Remember the ending of Mad Men? Poor tortured Don Draper, drummed out of the ad biz, escapes from New York and goes west of course. In an Eselen therapy session, listening to someone describe himself as food in the refrigerator that nobody wants, Don breaks down. The last image is Don seating in a lotus, smiling. Cue the music: the groundbreaking 1971 TV ad for Coca-Cola,  implying that Don will probably not escape after all.

I’d like to buy the poor tired world a Coke right now.

Any favorite runaway books or movies?


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at

32 thoughts on “Running Away From Home…
It Works Every Time In Fiction

  1. There’s _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ that I HAD to read in high school, was MADE to read in college, and WANTED to read to my youngest boys – who enjoyed it so much that we read it at least twice before they were old enough to read “big books” on their own…

      • Okay, I am going to fess up. I have never read Huck Finn. I am ashamed of myself. I don’t know how I escaped it in school, but it was never required reading and in my days, we read all the old classics. I promise to make up for it soon.

        This reminds me of the time I was selected to be on a panel talking about the works of John D MacDonald and the only thing I had read of his were his short stories. I fessed up in public. You’d have thought I had shot a kitten on the spot.

        I have since made it through almost the entire John McD rainbow.

    • Yeah, it’s Twain’s quiet parody of the episodic travel novel with a white-trash kid and a slave instead of the upper-middle-class idiots the English wrote about. Most public schools no longer teach it because it is “problematic” with its use of the vernacular of its time. Twain was “obviously” a racist in his novel about a bigoted kid who realizes that slave Jim is human and more a father to him than his drunken dad. Anyone who doesn’t believe it’s The Great American Novel can bite me.

  2. My favorite runaway novel was one I discovered in the fifth grade called My Side of The Mountain. It’s about a thirteen year old boy who runs away to a mountain his family owns in the Catskill mountains. He’s completely unprepared but manages to overcome the challenges and create a comfortable life before his parents figure out where he is.

  3. Gee, when I was a kid and threatened to run away, my dad offered to pack my lunch. Took all the fun out of it.
    Many of my romantic suspense books have a “finding oneself” them … “The trouble with running away is you take yourself with you.”

    • My mom wouldn’t even do that… she just called my bluff and said, “See ya…”

      My brother, on the other hand, hopped a Greyhound when he was in middle school and went to Maryland or Virginia – from west Georgia – in pursuit of a high school aged crush who’d just started college up there… he planned it so that the folks thought he was in school, and he still got off the bus at around the same time as he would have… just 700 hundred miles further north… he called before they got TOO worried… but not upset, and Pop’s working for the airline got him home later that night or first thing the next day… and his crush was maybe flattered… and definitely a bit embarrassed…

      • Your brother’s tale reminds me of a movie I love — A Little Romance. Two young teens fall in love (one French boy and an American girl) and want get to Venice to kiss under the bridge of sighs. Lawrence Oliver, in a great old coot role, helps them.

    • Yeah, my dad told me the same thing. Once, he even handed me a dollar bill. 🙂

  4. Good idea to talk about run away stories, Kris, since we are now living through Waiting for Godot.

    As a kid, my favorite movie was Toby Tyler, the classic Disney film based on an 1881 novel about a boy running away to join the circus. I even tried to do that myself once. But after walking four blocks I had no idea which way to turn. So I went back home.

    • I recall (all too vaguely) a book I read as a child about a kid who was part of the circus (bareback rider) and ran away FROM the circus. I’m sure there was a good reason, but he ended up at a farm and tried to keep his skills a secret. Maybe someone was after him. I remember reading it many, many times, but the title and author totally escapes me.

    • Oh geez…I remember that movie!!! You guys are really taking me back to my childhood, the ultimate run away.

  5. Books and movies don’t spring to my mind. But dreams…

    Since I was about 5, I’ve had a recurring dream. Not so much anymore, though. I think the last time was over 6 or 7 years ago. When I was a tot, I slept in a basement room with my 1 year older brother. One of those unfinished basements, a concrete room with small slit windows, hinged on the bottom, set into window wells outside.

    My dream consisted of me somehow rising to those windows and trying to get out. I still see the moonlight streaming in, dark trees waving in the wind, and my tiny hand trying to work the latch and pull the window down. I wouldn’t have been able to squeeze through the window-they were only about 1 1/2ft x 2ft. But I didn’t know that.

    Haven’t had the dream for awhile, but nowadays every time I see a hawk floating above our field, I get the itch to go. Just go, anywhere, away from the craziness.

    But I don’t. I pick up a book. Last night I immersed myself in “A Life Intercepted” by Charles Martin. The title kind of describes us right now, yes? Not the same as soaring with my hawk, but it’ll do, I guess.

    (And then, just as I finish this post, I think of one of my fave escape movies. The Sound of Music.)

  6. “Feeling trapped and running away” stories are fun to read and even more fun to write because there is a whole lot of latitude in that phrase from the subtle to taking it quite literally.

    Does a person feel trapped into doing something because they feel a legal or moral obligation to act or not act a certain way and go off to find answers? Are they running away as others might perceive it or toward something?

    So many explorations possible within that framework.

    • You know, Deb, that dream imagery is so vivid, it sounds like it would inspire a plot. Even for just a short story.

  7. It probably isn’t viewed as an actual “run away” book, but The Hobbit is in many ways exactly that. Even if Bilbo had to be convinced, cajoled, and tricked into running away, he does exactly that and is never the same upon his return. This would be my favorite.

    Next favorite and also along the lines of probably not exactly viewed as a “run away” book/series, Jack Reacher is clearly running away from something. We may never know exactly what (though I confess to being several books behind, so maybe we learn later on), but who retires from the military as a major and then just wanders the country righting wrongs he had no intention of getting involved in originally?

    • That’s the novel I was going to mention. Bilbo is dragged away to adventure kicking and screaming but proves to be the brave MVP despite being a couch potato from a race of couch potatoes.

    • I never realized Reacher was a runaway, but you’re probably right. I haven’t read all of the books so I can’t say if anything Lee every put to paper addressed this. Anyone?

  8. The movie channels know exactly what they are doing. There’s a very good reason Tom Hanks’ CAST AWAY is on current repeat. I’ve not reached the point of naming a basketball Wilson, but I’m pretty dang close.

    The woman-escaping-banality novel is much less common except for literary novels. That’s a good thing. The bad thing is now they are escaping abuse and soul-crushing reality. Many of the heroines are much too whiny and self-absorbed for my taste. I want to smack them, not root for them.

    I much prefer the normal woman-has-an-adventure novel, and the woman proves to be a hardass in a time of need. ROMANCING THE STONE is a movie example.

    • I am with you completely on the whiny escaping woman trope. And Romancing the Stone is a good example because the character grows so much from the experience. Thanks!

  9. I’m not a runaway fan, simply because I can’t run away. But my favorite runaway movie is Catch Me If You Can. Have only watched it twice, but it’s so amazing I can’t forget. (Also, it’s much harder to write a “solve your problems with your family around” story, but, fun fact, it’s what differentiates the “eastern” experience from the “western” experience.)

    • Oh, that’s a brilliant example. Excellent movie that holds up to multiple watchings. The Frank Abagnale, Jr. character is literally running from the FBI (main plot). But on deeper level (always look deeper for character motivation) he is also running away from his delusions about his father and mother’s perfect marriage. Thanks the reminder.

      • That’s very true. My favorite scene, the most heartbreaking, is near the end when he’s looking in his mother’s window and can’t go in.

  10. Thelma and Louise, minus the cliff diving. Big plus, Brad Pitt! The combination of that convertible and the girls in their scarves and the angst and thrill of it all. What a trip!

    • I go back and forth with this movie. Some times I dislike it, other times I can’t look away. (Well, there WAS Pitt after all). I wonder if it will hold up well over the years or just be a product of its feminist time? Like “You’ve Got Mail” looks so cutsie-dated now yet “Sleepless In Seattle” still feels fresh?

  11. This reminds me of a completely nuts Aussie movie called Danny Deckchair (with Rhys Ifans). If you have a chance to catch it somewhere, go for it. It’s about a guy who flies away after tying balloons to his lawn chair (yes, like in Up!). It is the ultimate runaway movie… It’s “up” there with David Lynch’s The Straight Story where an old man takes to the road on his tractor.

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