Learning how to write a chase scene in a screenplay is imperative to keep the action moving, and the reader invested. So what are some tips?
Tell me if this has happened to you; you're writing a scene, and the dialogue is popping. Everything feels like it's clicking until the characters have to move. Sometimes I get frustrated by chase scenes. I know one character is after the other, almost gets them, but someone gets away.
Or maybe even snags them.
Every chase sequence might be different, but there's a common thread to each: the reader.
When a reader looks at your car chase or foot chase, they need to be able to clearly understand what's going on on the page.
Today we're going to go over how to write a chase scene in a screenplay and some helpful tips and examples for each category.
So let's run!
How to Write a Chase Scene in a Screenplay
We've talked a lot about the action genre works in screenplay form. You need to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and the pages turning. You also need to describe the world, so their imaginations take over. And later, when you have a shooting script, you need the stunt coordinator and VFX people to step in and get your vision to the screen.
So how can you accomplish all of these with your chase scenes?
Let's look at a few examples and scenarios.
How to write a car chase
When you think about chase scenes, car chases are usually the first to come to mind. The best car chases, like the ones in Bullit, Ronin, The Matrix Reloaded, The Dark Knight and even Death Proof are defined by how fast the vehicles go and what's at stake in between.
Everyone loves a good car chase. Movies like Drive and Mad Max: Fury Road are built entirely around people chasing each other in cars.
And I love them.
But they are not easy to write.
Tips on Writing a Car Chase
The first thing to know is that you want to define the vehicles in the chase clearly and where they start out. Not only is defining the kind of car important, but it also helps establish the tone and stakes. Still, remember that The Bourne Identity car chase with the Mini Cooper is different than The Italian Job chase with the Mini Cooper. So the car doesn't define the tone as much as how it gets used.
I think the car chase in Murder Mystery is fun because it involves a couple getting into a Lambo where the steering wheel is on the opposite side than they are used to. This is clearly different than the Lambo chase in Cannonball Run.
After you pick the kind of car or truck, you want to give us a clear path of where it's going. Is this a chase through the streets? Alleyways?
Or through some cornfields like in The Old Man and the Gun?
Once you define the space, you want to make sure we see the obstacles coming at us.
Other cars? People? Fruit carts? Baby carriages?
Once you have it handled, make sure your action lines are clear, concise, and paint the perfect image.
Let's see what the pros have to say about it.
Car chase examples
One of the best recent car chase movies has been Baby Driver. Edgar Wright has written and directed this movie to perfection. Let's take a gander at the opening scene to understand how he writes car chases. It's all about emotion.
We don't get the beat by beat here. We see we're going through traffic, we know the cops are close, we read a few turns, but Wright is focused on the feeling of the scene. This is important. A seasoned director and writer knows that the stunt people will sort a lot of the finite details out later. What's included here are the important factors.
We know the gang switches place, we know there are disguises, and we know this is the best driver in the game.
What about a car chase that spawned one of the biggest franchises of all time?
The opening of Fast and Furious.
The point of this scene is to set up the world and tone of this movie. It's about cars and racing. It also has to steep us in the mystery. Who is hijacking these trucks? What's their motive?
This scene is written with staccato lines. We know the area of cars, the highway, and the stakes.
This is clearly described as moving forward. We know what's happening in the truck and the pursuit cars. We know the characters and their intentions.
Another thing this does so well is the layers of the chase. It goes from good to bad, to worse. First, we have the cars; then they're attacking the struck, then the driver. Then the cops show up, and it goes all out, and it leaves us with the biggest question of all...what happened to the goods?
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AY6ZHalvho
How to write a foot chase
Not all life is lived a quarter-mile at a time. Sometimes you need to lace up your shoes and run. Another common chase scene in screenplays is one done on foot. These kinds of chases cover all genres. You have the rom-com run through the airport, the detective noir chasing the bad guys, and even dramas like Rocky have training montages with people running.
So how do you write a foot chase?
Tips on Writing a Foot Chase
Much like other chases, the first thing to do is establish the geography of the scene. We need to know where we are, in a park? On the street? A country road?
Next, you need to have an end goal. Maybe it's just for the character to get sway, which is fine, but if so you need to know how you can clearly show that. Do they cross train tracks and can't be followed? Is there a departing ferry like the one in Lord of the Rings?
Or maybe there's nowhere left to run, like in The Terminator?
Again, the chase should match the tone of your movie or tv show.
In The Sandlot, Benny the Jet has to get special shoes for his epic chase. One to make sure he can get away from the beast.
Let's look at a few examples to see how it looks on the page.
Foot chase examples
At the beginning of The Bourne Identity, we get a pretty compact foot chase. This is early on, as Bourne begins to accept who he is and the past he's actually chasing as well. What I love about this page-ling scene is that we focus on the emotion as well.
We know he's learning that he's being followed and chased, and how his brain works.
Lots of people will tell you not to put emotions on the page, but I think it's crucial here. We need to understand his thought process to understand how this chase begins. He's running away from them but also getting answers about who he is in the immediate moment. He's a wanted man.
From the paranoia of Bourne to the motivated running of a new James Bond.
The opening scene of Casino Royale pits James in a Parkour battle and a chase to the embassy. We know James needs to get his man, so there is a destination in mind. Now we are a part of the chase and know what the motives are for everyone involved.
This writing is denser than we've seen. It gives us a lengthier description of where James is going and how he plans on catching our man.
Each paragraph is a cat-and-mouse game.
The best parts of the writing in the chase of Bomber is how the writers handle emotion as we go as well as stakes. We're getting writing that not only tells us what is happening but how we feel as it happens. Bond is "relentless as ever." It's a nice touch to let us know he's still chasing his man but also sets up the character too.
Using phrases like "If that wasn't enough" also helps us understand that this is an amazing set piece that has scope and scale.
Three Rules for Every Chase Sequence
After all this, I think we can agree there are three main rules for every chase in every movie or TV show.
- Know where it happens
- Know why it happens
- Match the tone to the story
So when you write your chase sequences, make sure you follow the tone, build the character, and keep the story moving forward.
I can't wait to read what you write next.
What's next? How to write a set piece!
Set pieces are one of the most fun things about film and television. They're high octane thrill rides that put butts in seats and make studios excited to produce your work. But what's the key to writing them in your script?
Click to learn more!