Writing chase scenes

I got a question from a writer today: “I’m struggling with writing about journeys/chases/pursuits. Any tips? Who does them best?” He’s writing about a “journey across Russia & into Georgia, evading KGB, switching trains, sleeping rough, some bullet-dodging…” and his question is: “It has to be made possible without being so detailed it’s dull and nitpicky. So, when to describe and when to skip?”

Some general suggestions for building a suspenseful journey/chase:

1. Set up. Build in suspense, tension and questions from the beginning. The hero must get to Kamchatka or Terrible Thing X will happen. The heroine must escape from Moscow with The Tiny Thing the Spies Want, or the truth will die with her. Give the character a goal. Lay out the stakes.

2. Build up. Make the goal important: freedom, rescue, justice, survival. Then start throwing obstacles in the character’s path. Add time pressure. Throw in a monkey wrench: the flight is canceled. The flight is boarded by the police. The flight is brought down in the middle of the steppe by a flock of geese, and now the hero must accomplish his escape on horseback.

3. Climax. Add emotional pressure. Up the stakes. The Tiny Thing the Spies Want starts ticking. The cub scout troop that’s leading the hero out of the forest betrays him to the KGB. The hero finally eludes the cops and arrives at the convent with seconds to spare… only to discover that Sister Mary Margaret has been taken hostage by the bad guys.

Two other points:

4. What to skip. The dull, nitpicky parts. I don’t say that to be snarky — if a section feels dull and nitpicky, cut it. You can summarize uneventful portions of a long journey in a few sentences: “The border cop finally stamped his passport. Sweating, he boarded the train. Four days later, he climbed off in Novosibirsk.” Or you can jump cut: Scene A = the border crossing. Scene B = the cafe in Novosibirsk. Show the scenes where the big action occurs. Allude to everything else.

5. Ingenuity. Chase scenes have become a mainstay in thrillers. The trick is to keep them fresh. Vanilla won’t cut it anymore. You need to think of unexpected twists and build them in from the beginning.

AND: Chase scenes should be designed to reveal, develop, or illustrate character. (Thanks to Jeff Abbott for reminding me of this point.)

Who writes good chase scenes? Examples from novels:

  • Ian Rankin, Tooth and Nail — a car chase through London with Rebus in a judge’s Jaguar. And it turns out that the elderly judge is in the back seat.
  • Michael Connelly, The Black Echo — Harry Bosch on foot in the storm drains and sewers beneath Los Angeles, facing his greatest fear and going back in the tunnels to hunt down major criminals.
  • Lee Child, Gone Tomorrow — Reacher escapes cops who are pursuing him through the New York subway.
  • Justin Cronin, The Passage — this novel contains various intense and inventive chases featuring pursuits on foot, horseback, and on a train. Most of the action is between humans and virals (“don’t call them vampires”).

Movies: We’re spoiled for choice.

  • Bullitt: the ur-chase
  • The French Connection
  • Ronin
  • The Bourne trilogy
  • The Dead Pool: This one puts a twist on the car chase and is a (funny) homage. Clint Eastwood is chased across the hills of San Francisco, a la Steve McQueen in Bullitt — but by a tiny remote controlled car that’s packed with explosives.

If you can’t tell, I love chase scenes. Love to read them, watch them, and especially to write them. Some scenes I’ve written:

  • Mission Canyon: Evan Delaney must flee a murderer on foot through the foothills of Santa Barbara. But: she must make sure he stays on her tail instead of attacking somebody else, who’s injured and can’t flee. And it turns out the murderer is chasing her in a Porsche.
  • Kill Chain: Evan escapes an assassin in Bangkok on foot and by boat, only to run up against her again in London. But: now Evan is trying to rescue a school girl, and the assassin has managed to get on the same crowded Underground train.
  • The Memory Collector: Jo Beckett drives through San Jose, trying to escape the marksman in the SUV behind her who’s armed with a high powered rifle. And: Jo is handcuffed to the steering wheel. And the marksman doesn’t know his wife and son are in Jo’s vehicle. And the only path to escape is across an active runway at a major airport.

I hope that begins to answer the question. As for examples of good chase scenes — any favorites out there?

12 responses to “Writing chase scenes

  1. Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian has an amazingly intense boat chasing boat scene. The last chunk of Michael Mann’s film version of Last of the Mohicans left me feeling like *I* had been running for hours. There are many I can’t remember right off. There are also many examples of terrible chase scenes (which are equally, if not more instructive). For whatever reason, a car chase early in The Rock (film) comes to mind – bloated and entirely without thrills.

    • My kids will shake their fists at me for agreeing with you about The Rock, but — yeah. The skidding cable car and the wheelchair basketball team under threat… ridiculous. I kept waiting for something to careen at a basket of kittens conveniently posed on the sidewalk.

  2. The freeway scene in The Matrix Reloaded.

  3. One of my all-time favorites is the final chase scene in Dana Stabenow’s Hunter’s Moon

  4. I kinda liked Scooby and the gang chasing The Creeper.

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  7. I have the opposite problem. I need my hero to chase down someone who has been shadowing him. I can see that the tension is much higher when the hero is the chaser, instead of the chasee. Well, I will do my best.

  8. sorry, got the chaser and chasee comments reversed. You know what I meant. I hope.

  9. As long as the hero knows, it’s good. 😉

  10. Pingback: Blast from the Past: Writing Chase Scenes | lying for a living

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