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January, 2008

Losing Patience

Planning The Chase Scene
Packing action into your fiction
By  Joyce Faulkner

Is the chase stealthy and quiet down a back alley? Do you feel the tension rising?
In a world impacted by CNN immediacy, novels and short stories still provide a different kind of dramatic tension that the news media can’t touch. First off, your readers get you, the author, and your distinctive view of the world. You get to tell them a story – and control the course of the plot from beginning to end. Folks know what they are getting when they buy your work. If they want to be horrified, they buy Stephen King. If they want a formula they can count on, they go with James Patterson. If they want to laugh, they pick up Bill Bryson. If they want light adventure, they choose Danielle Steele.

Second, your audience comes to know and care about your characters. It’s one thing to watch a car chase being filmed from a helicopter. You are scared for the unknown folks on same highway with the lunatic on the run from the police. You squirm in your seat when he swerves into on-coming traffic. You worry about whether you’ll see a nasty wreck in the end, while you hope that this jerk will get his comeuppance. However, the stakes go up considerably when the guy in the car is your next-door neighbour, the police officer chasing him is one of your best friends, and your daughter is driving on the same highway.
Chase scenes can add excitement and risk to your stories. They speed up the read, move the plot along, change a character’s motivation, and provide opportunities for intrigue and intensity. They give your readers a chance for adventure, confident that they are not in any personal danger.
I enjoy writing chase scenes, and I put a lot of thought into them. Once I decide to use one, I spend a lot of time finding the right setting, researching the area for possible opportunities related to the action, and working out the sequence.
I begin with the plot already in mind and the characters I've already defined. There is usually a reason that I decide on a chase scene as an important element of my story. It has to have a purpose beyond sheer entertainment, although reading enjoyment is a factor in how I lay out the scene.
Let's take, for example, a story about home-grown terrorists sabotaging a cannon in modern-day Gettysburg during a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. The protagonist is a historian who owns an art gallery in town and dresses up as General Meade for the annual activities. The antagonist is a religious and political extremist with a grudge against the judiciary. After creating a diversion in Gettysburg, he jumps into a tour bus filled with explosives and heads for Washington D.C. to blow up the Supreme Court. General Meade sees him leaving and figures he is the bad guy. I need a sequence that will allow the reader and General Meade to figure out what is happening and then find a way to stop the approaching catastrophe.
After a lot of thought, I conclude that a chase scene is the perfect technique to achieve those goals. I can use recognizable locations in Gettysburg as a backdrop. It gives the antagonist time to make some telling moves. It gives the protagonist a chance to digest the clues and counter the plan. It escalates the readers’ emotional reactions – from the shock of the carnage in the battlefield when the cannon blows up to a growing suspicion about who is to blame. As the bus winds its way through town, the protagonist and the reader an begin to realize that it's rigged. This knowledge raises the stakes of the chase. Here we have a pretty scary dude driving a giant, volatile bomb through a place most Americans view with reverence – a place filled with innocent tourists.
After working out these details, I record them. I use my smart phone/PDA to note my goals for the chase. I want to be sure that the scene I devise includes all of the elements I need to write the story I have in mind.
I grab my cell phone, a map of the area, a digital camera, and a journal, and I drive to Gettysburg. I begin my research by getting a feel for the town and the outlying regions. I stop and take photos of all kinds of things – the height of a curb on a corner and businesses that line a particular street. I notice landmarks, traffic patterns, tour bus routes, on-going events, restaurants, and more. I mark everything on my city map.
I stop and ask people if they are local or visitors. I find out a little bit about them. These are the folks that will be endangered by a tour bus bomber. I want to know what they are like. What will they be doing when the bus races through town? How will they react? What are they wearing? Will they run? Are they likely to do anything to change the course of the story?
I sit down under a shade tree and do a few test sketches in the journal. I imagine what the villain will encounter as he comes into town. What would he see if he goes through the middle of town at noon? Would it be different at 3pm? Or 10am? What would happen if he turns right onto York Street? What would happen if he hits the railroad tracks near the diner on the other side of the circle?

I ponder the various routes that he might take. Which one offers the most opportunity for adventure? I watch a family with a toddler getting ice cream. The little fellow licks a strawberry swirl cone standing on a sidewalk a few feet from a main thoroughfare. I see a chance to ratchet up the anxiety in my story, so I sketch it in my journal. I go back and take more photos based on the adventure that is slowly forming in my mind’s eye.
By the time I head home, the scene is set. Gettysburg is a rich and colourful setting. It is well known enough to be recognizable to many folks, but it has not been done to death like many of the locations in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. I am pleased with my choice.
Although a chase scene is a staple of literature, it can take many forms. It can be a creepy sneak through a haunted house, a high-speed pursuit through hyperspace, or a group of Indians ambushing a stagecoach. It can be as much fun for the author to write as it is for the reader to read. Combine your imagination with real-life and let the fictional excitement ensue.

Read Joyce Faulkner's Chase Scene Checklist in our Tool Kit
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Joyce Faulkner is the author of Losing Patience (Red Engine Press, 2004) and In the Shadow of Suribachi (Red Engine Press, 2005), winner of the Military Writers Society of America Gold Medal award for historical fiction for 2006.

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