Or, “We’re about to enter Hot Pursuit!”
There’s something very primal about a chase scene. It goes all the way back to when humans were still hunter-gatherers and before. We revel in the thrill of the chase, whether it’s from the perspective of the hunter chasing after the prey or from the perspective of the fugitive fleeing before the predator. Either type of scenario gets our blood flowing and witnessing one on film or reading one in a book can have the same kind of cathartic response. The essence of a chase scene is very simple: one character is trying to escape from another. What makes a scene exciting is how that escape attempt happens and whether or not it is successful.
All chase scenes boil down into one of two varieties: the chase can be on foot, or it can be in vehicles.
For a chase scene on foot, your Hero can either be the pursuer or the escapee. Weapons may be utilized during a chase scene on foot, but remember that certain weapons are ineffective to use while running, such as two-handed swords, crossbows, man-portable rocket launchers, etc. A more likely scenario is that the use of weapons will be suspended during the chase and brought to bear if the chase ends by the pursuer catching the potential escapee.
When writing a chase scene, remember that it cannot be a single Stunt. A chase is always an Engagement, with the characters moving through a set piece or series of set pieces. It’s useful to plan the route your characters will take ahead of time, taking care to note any points along the path which present an opportunity for specific stunts or interactions.
Chase scenes can be written in first-person point-of-view, third-person close, or third-person omniscient. This last affords the writer the opportunity to narrate stunts and interactions from perspectives of both the pursuer and the pursued, although it’s imperative to avoid head-hopping.
Typical Stunts that occur during a chase scene on foot include the following:
- Running, jumping, falling, and climbing through portions of the set piece.
- Crashing through solid or apparently-solid parts of the set piece such as walls, doors, windows, floors, and ceilings.
- Knocking set pieces in the way of the pursuer. Think of a typical foot chase scene in a movie. The characters probably run through a hotel kitchen at some point, and there’s always a handy rack of trays or hapless waiter to pull down, presenting an obstacle to the pursuer.
- Firing ranged weapons if possible. Often, this means either the pursuer or pursued has to stop momentarily to fire/shoot/throw a weapon.
- Avoiding dangerous parts of the set pieces such as moving cars, low-flying air-speeders, robotic factory equipment, or any number of traps.
Some excellent examples of movies with great chase scenes on foot include the brilliant opening sequence to Casino Royale (2006 version), the tremendous parkour chases in District B13, and although Jackie Chan has made numerous films with foot chases, one of his best is in the movie Mr. Nice Guy.
Chase scenes in vehicles offer the greatly-increased thrill factor of speed. Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt topped out at about 27.5 miles per hour at his world record sprint, but that’s nothing compared to a high-speed chase down a highway at speeds over a hundred miles per hour, or space opera chases a hundred times faster than that. Even a chase on horseback adds that additional thrill of greater speed (for these purposes, anything the characters are riding counts as a vehicle, even if it’s a creature).
Characters in vehicular chase scenes may be drivers/pilots or passengers. Each has advantages and disadvantages. A driver/pilot must give a significant portion of his or her attention over to guiding the vehicle, which limits the activities that can be performed. A passenger has much more leeway to act independently, but has no direct control over the speed, orientation, and direction of the vehicle.
Combat is more likely to occur between characters in a vehicular chase than in one on foot. This is because although vehicle operation may be strenuous and stressful, the characters don’t generally also have to devote attention to keeping their feet moving as well. There are two types of combat involving vehicles:
- Using weapons, either mounted on the vehicle (such as a tank’s gun or the laser cannons on a starfighter) or handheld by passengers (like the prototypical ‘70s cop hanging his pistol out the window to shoot at somebody’s tires). Related to this is the Fight which takes place on board a moving vehicle, such as a cowboy wrestling with a Sioux warrior over a knife on the roof of a stagecoach.
- Using the vehicle itself as a weapon (such as intentional collisions or running an opponent off the road), which is more common in settings where vehicular weapons aren’t common.
Narration for vehicular chase scenes works best in first-person or third-person close point of view. Third-person omniscient can be used, but it becomes exponentially more difficult to keep track of numerous characters and vehicles.
Stunts in vehicular chase scenes may include:
- Collisions/Ramming (of other vehicles or set pieces which may or may not shatter to permit passage).
- Jumping (cars, motorcycles, boats, horses, etc.), Flying actions (planes, helicopters, spaceships, dragons, etc.)
- Firing weapons and taking fire from opponents.
- Characters transferring from vehicle to vehicle, which generally leads to a Fight. Note: a Fight taking place under these circumstances does not mean the Chase has stopped. It’s an Engagement within another Engagement. High-level stuff. Go for it.
- Avoidance of set pieces, either moving (pedestrians, other vehicles, etc.) or non-moving (fruit stands, towers, bridge abutments).
Some excellent cinematic chases to consider as examples include the horseback guards chasing the wagon in Willow, the amazing freeway sequence in The Matrix: Reloaded, and the TIE fighters chasing the Millenium Falcon through the asteroid belt in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
A chase scene will end when one side is dead, surrenders, or is caught, which may then lead to a Fight and continuation into a new Engagement (thus creating a complete Sequence).
Things to take into account when writing a chase scene:
Who’s Chasing Who? If the characters are the ones being chased, their goal is simple: escape. If the characters are the pursuers, their goals may be more widespread. Their objective may be to destroy those escaping—the easiest method; to stop (but not necessarily destroy) them from escaping—more difficult, and it requires the opponents to be blocked or disabled; or to capture those escaping—most difficult of all, because the opponents have to not only be blocked or disabled, but each one must be recaptured without too much injury.
Collateral Damage. Chase scenes realistically do enormous amounts of collateral damage to set pieces, bystanders, etc. For writers interested in creating lots of realism, there should be lasting consequences for characters involved in this type of sequence, and it may affect the plot.