The Chase Scene

The antagonists will pursue the hero for only one reason: he has something which they want. This "something" may be vital information, or a commodity of more immediate value such as jewels or money, or it may be knowledge which would incriminate them if he were to release it to the proper authorities. If the last is the case, their only reason for giving chase is to catch and kill him. Even though the hero's death is not implicit in the first two circumstances, the threat of death is desirable, for it will strengthen his motivation for flight and put an edge to the tension that will make the reader more concerned for his welfare than he otherwise might be.

Occasionally the protagonist will be the pursuer, usually in those cases where the protagonist is some form of sanctioned public official, like a spy or a policeman. However, in this sort of story, the writer must match his antagonist and protagonist evenly, so that the possibility always exists that the villain will turn the tables and start pursuing the hero. In Brian Garfield's Relentless, the hero is a policeman with Indian heritage, forced to track government-trained mercenaries—now civilians, gone bad and become bankrobbers—through Western wildlands in order to retrieve their loot and hostage. Throughout the story, one expects the villains to turn, unexpectedly, and take the initiative. Indeed, at certain points in the story, they do. In short, even if your hero is doing the chasing, the threat of a reversal must be there, so tension can be generated concerning his own personal safety.

Depending on the suspense plot-type, the chase may be established between these factions: A spy will be pursued by enemy agents or by members of his own bureau, depending on the nature of his trespasses—and he may do the chasing of these same people, depending on your story. A detective will be pursued, if at all, by the killer he seeks—usually, he will pursue. A criminal may be pursued by the police, by other free-lance criminals anxious to relieve him of his loot, or by the Mafia, which frowns on individual effort within its territory—or he may pursue a crooked cop or another criminal. An ordinary citizen may find himself the subject of a chase by police who have wrongly accused him of a crime, by a psychotic killer from whom the police cannot or will not protect him, or by enemy agents he stumbles into by accident. A soldier will be chased by other soldiers in enemy uniforms. The scientist—while rarely pursuing anyone himself—may be chased by an enemy who seeks his secrets, or by his own people who want a secret that he doesn't believe any nation should possess. (The scientist, though, is the one type of suspense hero who is rarely involved in a chase story, of any kind.)

The hero should usually be the subject of the chase, for he is the one the reader least wants to see suffer or lose his life. Also, he should be pursued by more than one man; otherwise, if he were a true hero, he would not run but would turn about, confront his lone opponent and deal with him at the first opportunity. The use of several implacable villains not only strengthens the protagonist's motivations for flight, but makes his situation all the more perilous. (How will he foil six determined men? He hasn't got a chance against those odds!)

Each step of the chase should build suspense by making the hero's hopes for escape grow dimmer. Every time a new ploy fails to lose the chasers, the hero's options should be narrowed until, at last, it seems that each thing he tries is his only hope, each momentary reprieve from death looking more like his last gasp than the reprieve before it. This narrowing of options can be created in two ways in the chase story. First of all, the distance between the hero and villains should constantly narrow. When he stops to rest, the villains should go on; every trick he tries to throw them off the trail should only slow him down and give them a chance to get nearer; when he thinks he has lost them and stops to rest a few hours, they should pop up unexpectedly, nearer than ever. Second, options may be narrowed if the villains drive him out of places where he moves with relative alacrity, into landscapes he is unfamiliar with and where he becomes further alienated from hope. For example, a tough city hero might be less formidable in wild country. Likewise, a country man might be forced to flee into the city where everything seems hostile and dangerous to him. A rich man may be driven from the halls of power and wealth into the city's slums where he can find no succor and make no friends.

Few suspense novels generate narrative tension exclusively through the chase. A rare exception is Alan Dipper's modern chase story, The Paradise Formula, which seems to have been modeled on the more famous but inferior The 39 Steps by John Buchan. The new suspense writer is on more solid ground if he augments his chase sequences with other tension-generating techniques.

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