Thursday 24 June 2021

Carquake! How to write high-speed action!

This week I’m going to be talking car chases. Not real ones of course. Fictional ones.

It’s mainly in response to a question that was put to me recently by a good friend and fellow writer: How do you write a car chase sequence?

I can only describe my own method. Whether it works or doesn’t is a decision that rests with my readers.

In addition this week, because we’re essentially talking action-thrillers, I’ll be reviewing and discussing US author Boston Terran’s ultra-compelling combo of crime, horror and gut-thumping action, GOD IS A BULLET.

If you fancy seeing the most fiendish elements in society – Satanist / rapist / mass murdering drug-dealers, no less – dealt with in the harshest way possible, this one could definitely be for you.

You’ll find that review, as always, at the lower end of today’s blog, in the Thrillers, Chillers section. Scroll straight down there if you wish. However, if you want to know how to compose an on-page car chase first, perhaps hang around a tad and we’ll discuss …

Run, rabbit, run

     ‘Heck!’ she all but shouted. ‘You know we have rules up here about police pursuits?’ 
      ‘I have a rule too … I pursue the bastards till I catch them.’

A brief extract from my sixth Mark Heckenburg novel, ASHES TO ASHES. It’s taken out of context here because, despite appearances, it doesn’t mean that Heck will always engage in wildly reckless car chases. It actually means that he’ll never stop investigating until certain crimes are solved. But I guess it does sit comfortably with today’s theme.

And it’s not as if characters in my books have not indulged in high-speed pursuits. The chase sequence in HUNTED, which occurs after an armed robbery in South London, was described by a review in one of the tabloids as ‘the mother of all car chases’ … which was very nice.

There is also an extensive pursuit sequence in the non-Heck novel, ONE EYE OPEN, this time across the Suffolk countryside on a deep-frozen Christmas Eve. Again, I’m pleased to say that it attracted some positive commentary online.

But the question still stands. How do you go about composing a car chase on the written page, and making it exciting but also believable?

Well, the car chase as an entity has been nailed multiple times by Hollywood, but two occasions in particular stand out over all the others. And it might be instructive to look at them.

In 1968, Steve McQueen played San Francisco cop, Frank Bullitt (in the movie of the same name, Bullitt), whose incredible pursuit of two Mafia hitmen took in just about every scenic spot on the Frisco tourist trail and left cinema audiences agog as they’d literally never seen anything like it before. 

But it was topped three years later in 1971’s The French Connection, when Gene Hackman, played Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, a New York narcotics cop out to thwart a major international drugs deal. The scene in which he chases a hijacked train into the heart of the city is one of the most eye-popping I’ve ever seen. It’s a staggering feat of action movie-making for which the term ‘high octane’ could actually have been invented.

Of course, in both the above cases, they have the advantage of being all about the visual (and of having Peter Yates and William Friedkin respectively at the directorial helms), though as prose writers, there are definitely things we can learn from these two sequences.

Before we get onto that, a caveat for those writing in the 21st century. 

It’s important to remember that both these movies were made at a time when rebels were in vogue. Even the cops were buccaneering bad boys, earning cheers from the cinema-going public and only mild censure from their bosses no matter how much of a risk their antics posed to everyday citizens.

And British screen cops aped their American counterparts well into the 1970s. The Sweeney, one of our paciest homegrown crime shows, gave us heroes who were hardworking detectives but also violent, heavy-drinking chauvinists who regularly indulged in car chase sequences that were virtual demolition derbies. I remember one classic episode in which a Rolls Royce got smashed to pieces. 

When I was writing for The Bill in the late 1990s / early 2000s, the cops were better behaved, but we still loved our ruthless heroes and our all-out action scenes. In fact, the only thing limiting fast pursuits was each episode’s budget for stunt drivers and spare cars.

But times have changed firmly since then, in reality as well as on-screen.

In the 21st century, we are a lot more po-faced (quite rightly) about what might constitute reckless police activity. Even in the 1980s, when I was a serving officer myself, chases did happen, but it was more a case by then of keeping tabs on the offending vehicle rather than trying to run it off the road. Staying in touch with it until it either ran out of petrol, crashed, or the offender reached his/her destination (though even then it could get pretty hairy and involve very high speeds).

It’s much the same thing now, in the UK certainly. However, writers seeking action shouldn’t despair. Hard-stops sometimes need to happen. Perhaps in the event of an offender driving like a total maniac and leaving a trail of carnage, or someone being held captive in his/her vehicle, or if intel indicates that he/she is en route to kill someone or maybe deliver vital information to a high-level suspect. In those cases, tailing police cars may have no option but to try and pull the target vehicle over.

So, never fear. There are still reasons to put your fictional heroes and heroines into police cars and send them at speed after the bad guys.

And this is how you do it …

Reality or legend?  

Having partaken in real high-speed pursuits, I can assure you that it’s a very different experience from the one you see on the big screen.

Think of it in terms of reality as oppose to legend.

As a police pursuit driver, you tend to be focussed on three things primarily: a) the vehicle you are following; b) your own driving (even when you’re only seeking to stay in touch with the target, you’ll be called on to do extreme things, but you’ve got to ensure that this doesn’t entail too much law-breaking on your part and more important still, that you don’t cause damage either to people or property); and c) messaging, because no police pursuit is ever successfully concluded when it’s one on one – you’ll need to maintain constant communication with other units and with your Comms Suite or CAD (Computer-aided dispatch) office.

So there are the basic authenticity boxes that you need to tick. They are mainly about responsibility and needless to say, do NOT include taking short cuts down flights of steps, along sewers, across crowded markets and so forth.

However, this can’t be the whole story. Because the reading public are also the viewing public and they think they’ll know about car chases from seeing films, and they’ll expect a lot more from you. So you’re going to have to throw in some of the legend as well. And that’s where we refer back to our two classic movies, Bullitt and The French Connection, both of whose seminal car chase sequences were assaults on the senses.

Sensory overload

Just consider what that means literally.

Sound …

Engines cranked to the max, whining with such protracted intensity you’re sure the gaskets are going to burst. Tyres screeching when you swing around bends so fiercely that the rubber shreds from the ply-cord. Gears crunching abominably. Those endless collisions you aren’t supposed to have: with traffic cones and waste-bins and ‘Keep Left’ signs and – yes, it can happen – with other vehicles too, which means thunderous, explosive impacts, bodywork crumpling, glass shattering.

And this is only scraping the surface, as I’m sure you’ll realise.

Touch …

Well, this is one of two advantages we have over the William Friedkins and Peter Yateses of the world. Our audience can actually feel what’s going on. Again, think about it. The pressure of your nerves strained to breaking point, your whole body numb, your forehead pounding. The sweat seething down your body, the gearstick and steering wheel greasy as hell. You’re also going to feel that glass when it showers in on you in a billion fragments. It’s safety-glass these days, so it’s not going to slice you into slivers, but you always wonder when it first happens. And you’re still going to get hurt in other ways. Your torso wrenching and twisting as you’re thrown violently back and forth in your seatbelt. Being knocked dizzy as you bounce up and down, your cranium impacting on the car ceiling, and knocked sick as your backside impacts on the thinly-cushioned steel under-structure of your seat.

It’s only in your head, of course, this torture ride. It’s not actually happening. But if you do your job properly, your readers will still feel battered and bruised by the end.

Smell …

Our second advantage over the cinema audience. Because we can smell it too. The melting rubber, the overcooked engine, the stink of sweat, of petrol, of an air conditioning unit gone kaput and reeking like rotten fish, the choking fog of exhaust from the car in front as it pours through your broken windshield, the foulness of spattering rubbish as bins go flying.

And last but not least, of course …

Vision …

This one takes us into the most familiar territory of all, and this is where we simply must take lessons from those great movies we keep citing.

Of course, those films had the advantage of multiple camera angles and visual perspectives, whereas we, as prose writers, only really have two: the interior of the car, and the exterior. But believe me, that’s adequate. And in my view, to really get the best out of this sequence, you need more of the former and less of the latter.

Allow me to explain.

You can easily describe two cars as they chase each other. In effect, telling your readers what happens blow by blow in straightforward fashion. Which corners they spin around, which level crossings they chance. This can certainly suffice, but if you take this route, you’re denuding yourself of all those other plusses we’ve already discussed.

The sensory overload isn’t going to happen.

However, if you go from the perspective of the driver (or his front seat passenger), which they did a lot of in Bullitt and The French Connection, you are literally turning it into a funfair ride, your heroes encased in this metal box, travelling at breakneck speed, the world whipping by in a blur, all sorts of obstacles coming at them at a hundred miles an hour.

‘All right,’ you say. ‘I see that. But we still have to know what’s going on. We have to witness the chase from a grander viewpoint.’

Okay, well there’s no reason why you can’t do a bit of that if you’ve got other characters involved in the sequence who are not engaged in the chase. But in my view, the personal experience is the more immersive one. This is the one that has your reader cringing, flinching, even ducking for safety, because if you can really get under the skin of this, he’s literally in the car with you.

Location location location

You may think that choosing whereabouts to locate your hot pursuit is not hugely important. And I’d agree that it isn’t essential. There’s no reason why your chase can’t just take place along nondescript streets that suit your situation. The time of year doesn’t always matter that much either. In fact it can get in the way if all you want is a straightforward pursuit with no variations on the main theme.

But consider this: every conceivable environment offers its own advantages to the writer.

Which was the better chariot race, 1959’s Ben Hur or 1964’s Fall of the Roman Empire

The former took place in the sun-baked racing arena at Antioch, the latter through a German forest in midwinter. The jury’s out and is likely to remain so, because each in its own way is a spectacular thrill-ride, and each works its unique environment for everything it can. And let’s be honest, returning to the modern age, hasn’t 007 indulged in turbocharged chase sequences on just about every landscape imaginable? And they’re all pretty interchangeable in terms of how exhilarating they are for the viewer.

Therefore, for all that in action scenes like this, where pace is everything (so you use the shortest sentences possible, you avoid thought processes and keep the descriptive work to a minimum!), I firmly believe that adding splashes of this kind of background colour can enrich the scenario.

For example, if your chase is taking place in an urban setting, make sure your readers see the pedestrians scuttling out of the way, make sure they hear other cars slamming on, shunting each other or skidding sideways through crowded intersections. Ensure the engines reverberate deafeningly as they tear through tunnels and subways. Underline the claustrophobic atmosphere of narrow alleyways, sheer brick walls standing only inches to either side of the speeding vehicle, buildings towering to giddy heights overhead.

If it happens in a rural setting, of course, it’s different again. Out in the sticks, there are many more open roads. You can even go off-road, and that throws up a whole new level of opportunity. Thinly spread woods, so that your hero needs to slalom between the trees. Rolling, undulating moors to jolt and bounce (and flip!) across. Even gentle, quilt-work farmland can hit your readers with kaleidoscopic visuals: animals milling about in crazy, panicked confusion, fences collapsing as you rocket through them, tangling your wheels in barbed wire, riddling your driver’s flesh with flying splinters.

See what I mean? It’s limitless.

And if background colour doesn’t round your chase sequence off sufficiently, how about adding some local colour too?

Down our street

In my view there’s always a risk using real life locations in thriller fiction. Mainly because some of your readers might actually live there and could get jumpy seeing their own roads and parks earmarked for annihilation. My policy is to go half and half.

I love using real counties and real towns. But if I’m going to turn a quiet suburb into a war zone, as in STOLEN, or shoot up a pub as in KISS OF DEATH, I tend to make that part of the landscape fictional. The idea is to excite my readers, not upset them. However, I have occasionally made exceptions to this rule. I’ve found (to my delight, I must admit) that when it comes to chases, either on foot or by vehicle, readers seem to respond positively if they recognise the route.

I remember a very pleasing post on Amazon, in response to a pursuit across Greater Manchester in SACRIFICE, which said, and I quote directly: ‘It’s really great. They’ve just gone past the end of our street’.

Of course, if you go for the real life route, it tends to involve a bit more work than if it’s all fictional. I’ll use my own favourite chase sequence to date (that ‘mother of them all’ I mentioned before), as an example.

It was in HUNTED. It occurred after a pub robbery, and it saw DS Mark Heckenburg climb aboard the rear of a hijacked lorry as it sped from the scene, with a single police officer, his occasional sidekick, DC Gail Honeyford, pursuing alone in a CID car. The robbery happened in South London, and as this was going to be the climactic action sequence in the first half of the book, I chose to go at it all bells and whistles.

I decided that the pursuit would commence in Catford and finish at the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel,
five miles away. 

But this wasn’t going to be straightforward. Though I’d lived in that part of the capital for three years, my geographic memory had faded somewhat, plus the London landscape had changed dramatically, and this was long before Google Maps.

I was still plotting the possible route between these two points when I had a huge stroke of fortune. I was at a police function, where my wife and I got into a chat with two Metropolitan Police officers. The subject of my next book, and the proposed car chase, came up, and it turned out that both these guys were London Traffic. At their suggestion, we went to a side room, a map was produced and the ‘best route for a chase’ (i.e. the route that would cause maximum thrills and spills) was revealed to me.

I’ve always been indebted to these two officers, though they both made it quite clear that they would not appreciate it if I ever named them. But it was a fantastic bonus for me. A week later, I was in London and I drove the route, just to be sure that it was as I imagined it. And it really couldn’t have worked out better. Everything was where I needed it to be.

(I was lucky on this occasion, of course, but this hopefully shows the level of research you need to do to create effective high-speed action in real-life locations).

A few days later, I’d completed the scene, which was complex for all the reasons I’ve given so far, and which then had to be judiciously cut (I say it again, pace is everything!). After two weeks’ work, I had the finished article, but I was rather surprised to see that it was only two pages in length. But listen … we mentioned The French Connection when we started this thing today, and I’m going to mention it again now. Because in TFC it took William Friedkin six weeks to film that epic chase sequence, and it occupied only six minutes of film. In that regard, two weeks for two pages felt as if it was somehow preordained.

Ultimately, as with all these things, your car chase sequence, if you opt to include one, is going to take whatever form you wish it to. Nothing here is set in stone. This is purely my advisory guide, something I apply to my own writing, which wouldn’t necessarily work in yours.

But a good friend asked. So, this is my honest response.

If you go along with it, all well and good. If not, no problem.

Either way, happy (fictional) fast driving.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Boston Teran (1999)

Death Valley. The Salton Sea. El Centro.Evocative names from the sun-scorched badlands of California’s deepest south, a picture postcard landscape of barren cliffs, dry scrubthorn, parched desert and windblown clapboard towns, and, in this novel, weird drifters, gun-toting drug dealers and roving Satanist death-cults who scatter corpses behind them the way the rest of us leave litter.

However, before God is a Bullet really kicks off, we roll back the years to 1970, and the brutal murder of an elderly woman in an isolated caravan on the appropriately named Furnace Creek. Investigating cops have nothing much to go on except that signs of cult activity are found in the area, while Cyrus, a strange and troubled homeless boy whom the victim adopted when he was young, and who is now 17 years old, has mysteriously vanished.

Did the disturbed kid do it? If so, why? And will he commit similar crimes elsewhere? Only time will tell.

And it does.

Moving forward now to the Christmas of 1996, we’re in the small California town of Clay, where clean-living desk cop, Bob Hightower, makes a festive call at the semi-rural home of his ex-wife and beloved daughter, and is appalled to find their pleasant house ransacked, his ex and her new husband slaughtered alongside their dogs and horses, and his daughter, Gabi, missing.

Bob hasn’t seen much action in recent years and so can’t get officially involved, but his captain, John Lee Bacon, a seedy and strangely obstructive figure where the resulting investigation is concerned, doesn’t encourage him that they’ll make an arrest any time soon.

Of course, the shellshocked Bob isn’t prepared to give up, and when he gets a lead from a recovering heroin addict, the strung-out but spirited Case ‘Headcase’ Hardin, he opts to take a leave of absence in order to investigate the case himself.

Hardin names the culprits as a band of thrill-killing Devil-worshippers called the Left-Hand Path, who are led by a charismatic, Mansonesque guru known simply as Cyrus, and who finance their operations through control of the desert drug-trade. Hardin, a former member of the cult, who was used by Cyrus for years as his personal sex-slave, explains that the cult are clever, ruthless and elusive, and protected by layers of acolytes, associates and secret Satanist collaborators, and warns Bob that to catch up with them will be the most difficult and dangerous thing he has ever done.

However, when she adds the harrowing addendum that Gabi will by now be part of Cyrus’s harem, and is already likely to have been raped, beaten and forcibly addicted to smack, he determines to pursue them whatever it takes. Hardin, who also yearns to get even with Cyrus but is also very scared of him, reluctantly agrees to guide Bob into that sleazy wilderness of addicts, bikers, trailer park hellholes and ramshackle whorehouses, though the twosome remain antagonistic to each other for all kinds of reasons.

Hardin is totally of that world, a self-proclaimed former lowlife who believed in and worshipped Satan, caring nothing for anyone else, including herself, while Bob is a genuine church-going Christian, though he soon realises that if he’s any hope of infiltrating this marauding pack, he must change every aspect of his life; not just harden his appearance by sporting cheap and nasty tattoos and raggedy facial hair, but also his attitude to his fellow men. He’s a cop, but he’s got too used to the quiet life of the report-writing room.

As Case Hardin says, how long he will last out here if he isn’t prepared to meet his enemies with extreme and repeated violence is entirely open to question … 

On first picking up God is a Bullet, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hearing that it was a literary thriller, I wondered if I was about to be exposed to a shedload of philosophising rather than a hi-octane desert actioner in which the good guys and bad guys are poles apart and the bullets fly as thick as dust.

I needn’t have.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some philosophising in here. A few reviewers have complained that there is still too much for them, though from my POV, it was quite tolerable. This is because most of it is to be found in the interplay between Bob Hightower and Case Hardin, which is mostly very compelling, and the dynamic between them hugely enjoyable, the former an honest cop who believes in the rule of law, but a practising Christian too, who finds the mere idea that he’s come to rely on the help of an ex-Satanist junkie freak – in fact, that he’s actually taking orders from her! – utterly abhorrent, Hardin herself going through similar anxieties, at one time hugely enthralled to the mesmeric personality of Cyrus and now appalled by his utter lack of humanity and stunned that she could ever have been fooled by him.

God is a Bullet doesn’t speak too highly of modern Man. For all that we now have education, industry and medicine (all, to one extent or another broken, misused and flipped on their heads in this book), it still boils down to a life-and-death struggle between good and evil fought out amid the sun-bleached bones of a failed society.

In truth, given that this book was sold as an ‘occult thriller’, there are very few ruminations on the nature of either God or the Devil, both these characters taking backseats while their representatives on Earth engage each other, though even then we don’t talk much about the potency of either Satanism or Christianity. These are lifestyles the respective parties have consciously opted for, though there are hints throughout that prayer and meditation is in short supply on either side, Cyrus and his ragtag band paying lip service to ritual and sacrifice though more interested in the success, or otherwise, of their drug distribution network, Hightower driven primarily by a desire to rescue and avenge his daughter rather than some innate wish to take down devilry.

In that regard, God is a Bullet, while literary, is not what you’d call a horror novel, even though it contains some truly graphic violence (in some parts against children, which admittedly is a bit stomach-turning, even though it’s the villains doing it.) But it is unashamedly a thriller, drenching us with menace throughout, and hitting us with some bone-jarring action sequences, all of them vividly depicted on the written page by an author who, given that this was his debut novel, seems to have really hit the ground running.

I don’t know much about Boston Teran, except that this is a pseudonym and that he’s now written thirteen novels centred around moral lassitude and social tumult in American society both past and present, and that they’ve nearly all won acclaim.

In this, his first outing, the standard of his prose is already of the highest order, by turns poetic and hard-bitten, very reminiscent of powerful American stylists like McMurty, Ellroy and Burke, though not 100% in that topmost league at this stage. I certainly can’t pretend that it’s all perfect; this was Teran’s first book, so at times the descriptive work gets a little too fulsome for its own good, though for the most part it’s a darkly picturesque read.

For example, a weird loner known simply as ‘the Ferryman’, lives out of town in a dark tangle of slatboard and tin and cinder blocks stolen from a thousand piles of refuse along the road.

A roadside motel is described as having been a whorehouse that catered to Anglos who preferred their stuff with a little color in it. Now it’s a roach hole for factory workers stacked sixteen to a room.

It’s tight, effective, muscular stuff, a tone ideally suited to the hardscrabble storyline.

In terms of the characters, I’m less blown away.

Hightower makes an interesting lead, a real desk-jockey of a cop who having previously led a peaceful life, is now forced to journey across the plains of Hell and back in order to find justice. This is an odyssey of sorrow and suffering, which at times bleeds off the page. By the end of the book, the Bob Hightower we met at the beginning is no more than a myth. It’s astonishingly well done.

The problem only really arises with Case Hardin, who, while she is easily identifiable in the early stages as a traumatised survivor of repeated sexual assaults, plus a former addict and cult-member desperately struggling to readjust back to normal life, later makes a somewhat unconvincing shift into La Femme Nikita territory, suddenly proving quick with her guns and wits and more than capable of leading ‘ordinary Joe’ (and long-serving cop!) Bob through the twists and turns of a no-holds-barred war against a gang of sadistic killers.

This brings me onto Cyrus and his team. The back-up units – the eerily-named Granny Boy, drug-addled Lena and the cruel psychopath, Wood (among many others) – are all nicely and scarily realised. Be warned, this part of the book is reminiscent of Manson in name only; these antagonists are not some bunch of coked-out hippies, more like the verminous rabble from Mad Max or The Hills Have Eyes. Okay, they aren’t mutant cannibals, but that’s about the only difference. They certainly make for serious opposition when it comes to the book’s gripping shoot-out scenes, and thanks to their proudly tattooing their bodies with the death-dates of their many victims (including women and children, who have usually also been raped) elicit no sympathy at all when they die.

Cyrus himself doesn’t appear ‘on camera’ as much as you might expect. I presume this is deliberate, a purposeful attempt to intensify those few big moments when he actually shows. Does this device work? Not as much as I’d perhaps like, but Cyrus’s twisted shadow lies across the entire narrative, turning him into such an edifice of controlling, narcissistic evil that not many fictional villains would be able to live up to the hype when we finally meet them. All that said, he’s an instantly recognisable figure; we’ve had so many mass-murdering cult leaders in real life, from Manson to Koresh to Jim Jones, that much of the work was already done for Boston Teran before he even started to write God is a Bullet.

This is a tense, highly visual thriller, for the most part exquisitely written, but filled with grot and human debris, and pulling no punches when it comes to the, at times, very nasty violence. Perhaps for all these reasons, it’s flown under a few genre fans’ radars in the past. If so, and you’re up for something dark, I advise you to check this one out. But be warned. This fight is to the death, and Boston Teran doesn’t hold back.

I’m not sure whether this one will ever get made into either a film or TV series, but it certainly should in my view. I’d be first in the queue to watch it, so long as I don’t start manifesting squeamishness before then. Just in case it does, as usual when it comes to one of these reviews, I’ll get my own cast-list suggestions in first. Just a bit of fun, of course. Who would listen to me anyway (and who would be able to afford an ensemble like this? LOL!)? 

Bob Hightower – Adam Driver
Case Hardin – Brie Larson
Cyrus – Ed Skrein
John Lee Bacon – Willem Dafoe