The year is 2025 (the film version is set in 2019). Ben Richards desperately requires money to get medicine for his ill daughter, Cathy. To stop his wife Sheila from continuing to prostitute herself to pay the bills, Richards turns to a state-sponsored television network, which runs several TV game shows that put contestants at risk of severe injury or death. Contestants win money by surviving challenges such as Treadmill to Bucks, where a person with a heart or respiratory condition runs on a treadmill while answering trivia questions, or the self-explanatory Swim the Crocodiles. After an extensive screening process, Richards is selected for the country's most popular and dangerous game, The Running Man.
After being declared a public enemy on the show, Richards is given $4,800 cash and a pocket video camera and turned loose. His family will win $100 for every hour he stays alive; if he can survive for 30 days, he wins the grand prize of $1 billion. He also gets a 12-hour head start before the network sends out a team of trackers known as "Hunters" to find and kill him. He can travel anywhere in the world, and each day he must videotape two messages and courier them to the TV show. Without these videotaped messages, he loses the prize money but the Hunters will continue their search. Despite the producer's claims to the contrary, as soon as the Network receives a videotaped message, the Hunters immediately know from the postmark the runner's approximate location. Viewers can earn cash rewards by calling the network with tips on his whereabouts. To date, there have been no survivors - and the producer frankly states that he never expects there to be any. The survival record is eight days and five hours.
The story, written by Stephen King under his Pen Name of "Richard Bachman", is better known for its film version with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson, which turned the story into one of a Blood Sport played by condemned criminals, and Richards' reason for entering the contest changes — he was framed for a massacre that he was actually trying to stop.
The book provides examples of:
- Affably Evil: Killian tries to be this, but winds up coming off as a condescending Jerk Ass instead.
- All for Nothing: Richards joins the Running Man contest, being pursued by groups of 'Hunters' and receiving money for every hour he stays alive, in order to provide for his wife and his sick daughter. He makes it further than any previous contestant in the history of the show, eluding the Hunters for almost two weeks and managing to escape on a plane after he publicly threatens to blow up the airfield (which is a bluff). Killian then offers him a job, but reveals that Richards' family had been killed (not by the Network or anyone affiliated with it) in a home invasion only two days after the start of the contest. With nothing left to live for, he hijacks the plane and flies it right into the Games Tower, killing both Killian and himself, not to mention who knows how many Network executives. He couldn't save his family, but it wasn't truly all for nothing after all.
- Anti-Hero: Richards. Of the Pragmatic Hero type.
- Big Bad: Killian.
- Bittersweet Ending: When Ben Richards with his last ounce of strength flips the jetliner out of autopilot and crashes it into the Games Network skyscraper. Also, the few allies Richards makes in his journey are either heavily implied to die or are outright said to, his warnings about the mega corps poisoning the air being the cause of all the cancer and emphysema spreading among the lower class citizens are censored, and his wife and daughter are revealed to be have been dead since before he even appeared on the show.
- Bread and Circuses: Everyone has access to "Free-Vees" which are free televisions airing stupid shows that keep citizens occupied and distracted. Ricards notes that it's still legal to turn them off, implying that may not last much longer at the rate things are going.
- Cop Killer Manhunt: Richards kills five Boston police officers in a gas explosion during his underground escape from the hotel. He already had a target on his head, but now every cop in the city wants his blood.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Dan Killian is the smarmy head of the Games Company, overseeing the Immoral Reality Shows that are broadcast to the poor populations to distract them from how the network is poisoning the air.
- Crapsack World: Oh so much. A future Dystopia that is slowly dying of both pollution and its own corruption. The government and the Games Network provide the sadistic games shown on the "Free-Vee" in order to keep the rabble content and docile. Anyone who dares stand up is blackballed from any work, if they're lucky. If they're unlucky they're forced to take part in the aforementioned Deadly Games or simply hunted down outright.
- Deadly Game: The eponymous Running Man, along with other wholesome family entertainment such as Treadmill to Bucks, a trivia game where contestants with heart or lung problems must answer questions while running a treadmill and trying to avoid passing out or dying.
- Deadpan Snarker: Richards. In spades.
- Determinator: Ben Richards, in the book and the movie.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Ben crashes his plane into the network tower, killing those responsible for the show. While gutshot and barely conscious. And Flipping the Bird straight to Killian's face through the jetliner's cockpit windshield and Killian's huge office window-wall.
- Dystopia: Similar to the one seen in The Long Walk.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Killian makes it clear that Richards gunning down civilians aimlessly wouldn't be kosher. Killing cops and Hunters is fine, though - in fact, he gets a bonus for each one he kills.
- Flipping the Bird: Richards does this both at the start and end of his time as a contestant on the show.
- Healthcare Motivation: Richards's reason for entering the contest.
- Heroic B.S.O.D.: Richards has one when Killian tells him about his family's murder.
- Immoral Reality Show: Every reality show on TV. The most prominent is The Running Man; other shows mentioned are Treadmill to Bucks, How Hot Can You Take It, Fun Guns, Dig Your Grave, Swim the Crocodiles and Run for Your Guns.
- Inherent in the System: Similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four, the violent, corrupt world of The Running Man feeds off its own degeneracy.
- Kids Are Cruel: The kids who turn in Richards while he's in Boston.
- Killed Offscreen: Richards briefly meets another contestant of the Running Man contest before they're separately sent out into the field. He later hears a news report that the other contestant was found in another town hiding in a container and killed by the Hunters.
- Late-Arrival Spoiler: In at least one re-issue edition, King writes a foreword that gives away the ending.
- Littlest Cancer Patient: Richards's daughter has a case of the flu bad enough to spark her father's Healthcare Motivation, and Richards meets a young lower-class black boy with a five-year-old sister who is dying of lung cancer due to the air pollution.
- Mortal Wound Reveal: Ben Richards gets shot in the stomach when he hijacks the plane. He learned how severe his wound was when he took a step and feels a sharp agonizing pull around his midsection. He looked down and saw that he had trod on his own intestines, which had unraveled from the large wound in his stomach and were hanging to the floor!
- Oh, Crap!: Richards thinks that he is one step ahead of his pursuers after taking refuge in a hotel room in Boston. When he looks out his window he starts to notice that there are way too many police officers in the area, and he realizes that he's walked into a trap.
- Polluted Wasteland: Most of America in 2025. The corporate networks have gained unrestricted license to pump out exhaust gasses that cause a surge in bronchitis cases, to the point where the relatively well-off part of the population use special nose filters.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Richards is racist against black people at first in the book. He uses the words "Negro" and "nigger," the latter being the first thing that pops into his head when the word "doctor" comes up in a word-association test. However, he changes his opinion when a black family in the Boston ghetto gives him shelter and helps him get out of town.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: McCone calls Killian several variations of the n-word when he offers Richards a position as a hunter.
- Pragmatic Villainy: The Corrupt Corporate Executive insists to Ben Richards that he didn't have his wife killed as part of a plan to recruit him as a Hunter. He makes no attempt to convince Richards that he's above such a thing, merely that it would have been a lousy plan and Richards would have seen through it, as evidenced by the fact that his suspicions immediately landed on the network when he heard about the misdeed.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Richards gives a spectacular one to one of his examiners during the Games Corporation's screening process, breaking down how privileged she is and basically sees people like Richards as cattle. It has her nearly in tears by the end of it.
- 20 Minutes into the Future: The setting is 2025, when America has become a polluted corporate dystopia.
- Wham Line: "Your wife and daughter are dead. They’ve been dead for over ten days."
- We Can Rule Together: At the end, CEO Killian offers Richards a job at the network to replace the head Hunter of The Running Man. Richards responds to his offer in the most spectacular way possible, by first accepting in order to put Killian off-guard, then flying the passenger plane he hijacked right into Killian's ivory tower office while flipping the bird at him through both the cockpit's windshield and the huge glass wall of Killian's office while Killian stares right back at him in disbelief.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: Takes place in the fictional Harding, somewhere in the Midwest. The exact state is never revealed.
- Word Association Test: Richards gets one of these when he's trying out to get on any game show he can. His responses are part of the reason he eventually gets tapped for The Running Man.