I love chase scenes. I love watching them in movies, I love seeing them on TV, I love reading about them in books, and I love running them in RPGs. There is, however, a problem:
I am a writer, not a movie director or a TV showrunner, and chases are goddamned hard to make work in fiction. The act of description (of showing not telling) runs at odds to the pacing of a good chase. You want the chase to rocket from one moment to the next, you want the reader on the edge of their seat as the chasers/chasees teeter ever closer to disaster as they veer in and around the obstacles set in their path, be they pedestrians, ancient Roman pillars, cliffs, or what-have-you, but describing that in sufficient detail becomes a very delicate balance. Not enough and the reader can’t see what you are trying to convey and too much means the whole things slows down.
I’ve been trying to think of chases in books that work the same way that scene from Bullit does or the ones in any given Fast and the Furious movie. Hell, even the foot chases from The French Connection or Casino Royale would be acceptable. I’m having trouble thinking of one, honestly. There’s the pizza delivery scene in Snow Crash, which is cool (but not really a chase) and Hiro Vs Raven on cyber-cycles (which is okay). There’s some stuff in Tolkien, but Tolkien is anything but an ‘edge of your seat’ writer.
Maybe I’ve struck upon something here. Maybe I just don’t read enough of the right genres for these things to pop up consistently. In any event, I’m going to keep trying to figure out the chase and put it in my writing. ‘Edge of the Seat’ is sort of my fiction-writing mantra in many of my projects, and the chase is a key element of any good suspenseful storyline, I think. Chasing and being chased is an ancient and instinctual activity. We dream about it constantly; the thought of the hounds at your heels, baying into the night with the scent of blood in their nostrils, is the stuff adrenaline surges are made of. The fight or flight response is some healthy, powerful dramatic material that needs dredging from time to time. The ‘Fight’ part is well-established in fiction, but where would it be without the flight? Without that sensation of chasing down your enemy, stretching your fingers out to seize his traitorous throat, only to feel your fingertips graze only the hem of his jacket?
I think there’s a little bit of poetry in action scenes, be they chases or otherwise. Good writers need to embrace that balance of economy of diction with properly evocative turns of phrase in order to elicit dramatic effect. It’s damned hard work, but rewarding if you get it right.
Or, at least, I presume so. I’ll let you know when I feel I’ve gotten it right.
As a writer, there is an inherent risk in reading. It’s a risk you must take, of course, and risk you couldn’t avoid taking anyway, since all writers start as readers and remain such. The risk is reading a novel (or story or poem or screenplay or whatever) that you simultaneously love and realize that you, yourself, could never ever write it yourself. It is a moment that is both inspiring and disheartening; you see, with a clarity that is often unobtainable, the sheer heights you must scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with your would-be peers. If you’re like me, a book like that can put you in a writing tailspin for a week or more as you try to parse out how the author did it and what the magnitude of their achievement means for your own work.
There are a couple authors who do that to me. Ursula K LeGuin, for instance, has an easy, elegant prose style that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Margaret Atwood builds characters so real that it seems impossible that they don’t truly exist. Most consistently in my adulthood, though, the single author that has managed to flabbergast me most often has been, without a doubt, Neal Stephenson.
Now, I don’t intend to make this post all gushy and fanboyish, because in all honestly I am not a gusher or a fanboy over Mr. Stephenson. His books, as impressive as they are, aren’t flawless paradigms of narrative prose. They sometimes have pacing issues, sometimes they seem to end at odd points, and there are moments where Stephenson’s hyper-cool style lead the plot on tangents that, while fun, also seem to dilute the narrative power of the work. That said, they are still a million times better than anything I am likely to write, so who cares what I think?
The feeling you get reading a Stephenson novel is that you are in the hands of a storyteller both infinitely hip and monumentally intelligent. He manages to make Sumerian myth gel with futuristic motorcycle races all while actually educating you about the basic framework of computer science. If the purpose of reading fiction is to be transported into other places and other lives, reading a book like Cryptonomicon or The Confusion is like buying a ticket on Magellan’s first cruise round the world – it might take you years to complete, but oh the places you’ll go! The sheer density of information is overwhelming; the tangents glow as brightly as the main storyline, the secondary characters evoke your senses as much as the protagonist until, eventually, you have difficulty telling whose story this is and what it’s about. Weirdly, amazingly enough, though, you don’t care.
I’ve read five of Stephenson’s books; I find myself constantly recommending them to people. They baffle me at the same time as they impress me. How is this possible? How can a five-hundred page book that goes on innumerable tangents and deals with a half-dozen seemingly unconnected characters still be fun on every single page? How (and why) does he condense so much information about the real world into a single volume, even when very little of it seems essential to the plot? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.
My Technology in Literature class is about to embark upon Snow Crash, Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic. Though they are bemoaning its great length, I know they’ll love it anyway (even if they don’t finish it). This will be my fourth or fifth time reading the book, and each time I’ve been able to unpack more and more of the dense story and apply it to a kind of thematic framework. It’s fascinating and so unlike so much other science fiction out there. What have I learned from it as a writer? Well, a lot of different things; a lot about how to weave humor into narrative, a lot about how to manipulate style to reflect character voice without speaking first person, a lot about how to show rather than tell. Most importantly, though, is this central lesson:
I will never write a book like Neal Stephenson does, and that is okay. That, ultimately, is the point. Neither I nor anybody else should tear themselves down over the achievements of another writer, because this isn’t ultimately a competition. We are joining a conversation in which writers like Neal Stephenson are part. Should we bring our A-game? Hell yes, but even more important than bringing our A-game, we should also remember to bring ourselves. So be like Stephenson; be your own original.
My friend, David Fisher, posted this on Facebook recently:
Nerd Question: If you were a part of an supergroup or evil organization whose name was a word acronym, what would be more important to you… the coolness of the acronym or the selection of words used that created that acronym?
In other words, would it bother you to be a part of SPECTRE, even though Blofeld had to actually create an organization named ‘SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’ just to get the acronym to work right? Or to be a member of the ‘Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division’ so that you could say you were a part of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
This is an interesting question, especially if you are in the habit of writing science fiction or devising science fiction worlds. It even intersects with the broader question in sci-fi/fantasy of ‘how do you name things?’
Ultimately, all acronyms and, by extension, all names come down to aesthetics. Doing it well is as much poetry as anything else, but it’s very focused poetry – you really only have a handful or, possibly, a single word to convey the mood and tone of the organization, character, or place. Writers obsess over such things and I’d like to think that scifi/fantasy authors obsess over them even more.
I’m wrong, of course. Consider the long list of poorly named things and places throughout speculative fiction. One of my favorites is the character Pug the Sorcerer from Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga. Now, in the start of the series, Pug’s humble name fit his humble origins. However, later on, when he became The Sorcerer and the main power-broker, wiseman, and general savior of all humankind, calling him ‘Pug’ was a bit underwhelming. Likewise I might include most of the human or drone characters named in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels – Flere-Imsaho? Chamlis Amalkney? Urgh – I can’t even pronounce them, let alone allow them to work on my mind in any kind of poetic or emotional sense.
That is, by the way, what names ought to do in fiction or, heck, in real life. They should capture the imagination somehow. Do you know why names like John and David and Elizabeth have lasted so long? It isn’t because they’re boring – it’s because they mean something. They have resonance with the human experience. They wield a kind of poetic inertia. You can feel the name. There are people who look like Susan’s instead of Katies, or Katies that are better called Katherine or Kate. There’s a kid in one of my classes who’s named Nolan but whom, for reasons beyond logical dissection, I feel like calling Calvin. This, of course, is of minor annoyance to Calvin, who is also in my class. He, however, looks like a Calvin, so I never mess up his name.
Writers of spec-fic should pay particular attention to the names of everything, not just their characters or their organizations. They are creating a world and appending to it a phonetic canon of acceptable sounds and meanings. Not only should that place be new and alien, but it should also be relatable enough to our own world to allow the reader to get a fix on it. Consider the master, Tolkien: Gondor, Mordor, Rohan, Rivendell, Hobbiton, Galadriel, Balrog, Sauron, Minas Morgul, Gollum. Tolkien was a linguist; he knew how these things worked. He was well aware of how these things felt in our mouths and would sit in our minds. It isn’t only those who have read the books that can feel what that list of names mean – it’s anyone who’s a native speaker of English. They’re connected to something in ‘the deep structures of our brain’, to borrow Neal Stephenson’s phrase from Snow Crash (wherein, by the way, he has characters named Hiro Protagonist, Vitaly Chernobyl, Raven, and L Bob Rife).
So, when you’ve got some guy pulling names out of his ass just to have something on the page (Asimov comes to mind, who had simply god-awful names in his sci-fi books), it takes something away from the experience. To come back to the initial quandary as introduced by my friend Fisher, I don’t really fault SPECTRE, since it’s a wonderful name for the organization. I’d have preferred the acronym to make sense, too, but sometimes you can’t have everything. I’d rather Ian Flemming did that than come up with something more realistic but less wonderful. Telling stories isn’t always about realism, folks – it’s about conveying truth. That can require a little bit of fudging here and there.