Here’s something you may not know: In the 1300s, King Edward III banned a childhood game of tag known as “Chevy Chase.” The game was to escape across enemy lines to rescue a prisoner and involved daring pursuit and capture tactics.
Here’s something I’m sure you do know: the game of tag is alive and well and has endured through the ages as a best-loved playground activity. Think of the endless varieties—British Bulldog, Flashlight tag, paintball, Manhunt, Zombie tag, Kick the Can, Blind Man’s Bluff, and the list goes on.
Why are these games so appealing? I think it’s because they play with our emotions and instincts as hunters and hunted. They stir the elemental embers of our flight response. As an adult, you may not indulge in actual games of tag, but I’ll bet you still love to participate by proxy in the pages of a thrilling book or on the screen.
As a writer, learning to use a chase story, also known as the pursuit plot, will strengthen and diversify your toolbox and may help you create an awesome book.
What Is the Pursuit Plot?
One of the simplest plots in existence, pursuit is hide and seek, put into words. One entity chases another.
The hero may be tracking down the villain, or the other way around. And the tables could turn, making the hunter into the hunted.
How to Start the Chase Story
To make a pursuit plot work, the writer has to establish some groundwork up front. The reader has to know who to get behind—who to cheer for—and what’s at stake. Without these fundamentals, the reader has no way to keep score and no entry point into participation.
Use the magic of point of view to ground your reader and let her know who to follow, but don’t forget to give her reasons to care about your protagonist. Like writing action scenes, the success of a pursuit plot will depend on getting your reader emotionally involved with your characters. For a refresher on the seven strategies I learned from James Rollins to make this happen, check out this article on action scenes that thrill.
Set the stakes, and set them high. To the pursuer, capture means everything, and to the pursued, life depends on evading that capture.
Also, though you may start the story in medias res, don’t overlook the power of the motivating incident. What happened to start the whole thing off? You can wring a lot of drama out of that important element, so let the reader know about it.
Obstacles and Complications
So, we’ve covered how to get off to a great start, but what happens when you get past the beginning and into the middle muddle? In a pursuit plot, the bulk of the story is just that—pursuit. The middle build is pure chase, filled with conflict in the form of obstacles and complications.
You may not see the difference between an obstacle and a complication, but there is a distinction and I think it’s an important one.
An obstacle is something that stands between a character and her goal—she must find a way over, around, or through, that obstruction. Once she does that, she’s back on track. Imagine your character must reach the top of a mountain. She’s hiking her way up, and finds the trail has been wiped out by an avalanche. She’ll have to find another path. That’s an obstacle.
A complication, on the other hand, might look something like this. She falls and breaks her ankle. Now, she can no longer hike to her goal. Finding another path won’t help. She must change tactics entirely. Now, she hires a helicopter. Same destination, completely different method to get there.
An obstacle creates a temporary roadblock. A complication changes the game plan. You can use both to keep your pursuit plot on a solid trajectory.
Examples in Print and on Screen
When I was a small child, I fell asleep on the couch while my parents watched TV. I woke up during the late movie, Steven Spielberg’s first made-for-television film, called Duel. I pretended to sleep so I could continue to watch, both horrified and mesmerized by the relentless pursuit taking place on the screen. Just one of the experiences that shaped me into the suspense monger I am today.
There are countless examples of the pursuit plot in books and movies:
- The Terminator
- Die Hard
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- The Fugitive
- Romancing the Stone
- The Hunt for the Red October
- Eye of the Needle
- The Pelican Brief
- The Bourne films
- Les Misérables
- Just about anything Clive Cussler writes (I love the Isaac Bell books)
- And perhaps the quintessential specimen, The 39 Steps
I’ll bet you can name a dozen more off the top of your head. This type of story is a perennial favorite.
The 39 Steps, written by John Buchan, is pure pursuit. Buchan spends minimal time setting the stage before plunging his hero, Richard Hannay, into mortal danger and keeping him there to the very last pages. One sticky situation after another presents itself before the inventive Hannay, who manages to squirm out of each. And there you have it—the pursuit plot.
7 Strategies for an Exciting Chase Story
The challenge in keeping your pursuit plot barreling forward is to sustain the chase for as long as needed. To facilitate that, especially through that middle muddle, keep these strategies in mind.
- Present plenty of ruses, desperate dodges, and daring escapes. This seems obvious, but when things are flagging, throw another one in the mix and see how that revitalizes the story.
- Incorporate mystery, keeping some aspect of the plot in the dark, such as whom to trust, ulterior motives, and so on. Generate questions in the reader’s mind.
- Make the danger real and the stakes high.
- Stack the odds against your protagonist. My apologies to Effie Trinket.
- Confine your characters. Trapping the action in a confined area increases the tension. There’s no place to run. The entire story doesn’t have to take place in a closed area, but try to include some scenes where the character feels trapped and capture seems inevitable.
- Keep the chase close. Tension is greatest just before the moment of capture, so let your reader feel that before providing some means of escape, whether by cleverness or fortuitous event.
- Be unpredictable. Satisfy your reader by giving him what he expects, but do it in an unexpected way. Shawn Coyne talks about this a lot on the Story Grid podcast. Innovate the conventions, he says. This is no easy task, but start by brainstorming and then try twisting some of the ideas you come up with.
Harness the Thrill of the Chase
As children, we loved playing tag. All grown up, our methods of play have grown more sophisticated, but for many of us the thrill at the heart of it hasn’t changed. We love that pure exhilaration of pursuit.
The pursuit plot is simple, but powerful. It engages emotions on a visceral level and plays on fundamental human instincts, making it an excellent addition to your writer’s toolbox.
Do you love a good chase story? What’s your favorite book or movie based on a pursuit plot? Tell us about it in the comments.
Let’s write a chase scene! Pick one of the confined spaces below and write a scene where one character pursues another within that setting. Use the strategies listed in the article and don’t forget to let us experience the scene through your character’s point of view.
- A cruise ship
- An Arctic research lab
- An oasis in the Sahara