By Mark Alpert
The template for many works of suspense fiction is The Chase. In detective novels and police procedurals, the lawmen (and law-women!) are usually chasing the criminals. In scads of thrillers, the Forces of Evil are chasing the ordinary Joe (and Jill!) across the country, forcing the heroes and heroines to discover their extraordinary hidden talents. (Think of North by Northwest. Or Something Wild. Or anything by Dan Brown.)
The Chase is a useful plot device because it can imbue a manuscript with that magic ingredient that publishers like to call “narrative drive.” If the characters are constantly moving and dodging and pouncing and fleeing, then perhaps the reader will get caught up in the frantic journey, lured by the tease of “What will happen next?” The device works best when the characters are also learning and exploring as they dash from place to place, unearthing clues to the book’s central mystery and maybe discovering a few things about themselves in the process.
The Chase can also give your readers a chance to visit — at least vicariously, through the book’s characters — some exotic, fascinating places. In my first novel, Final Theory, the cross-country chase takes my characters to Einstein’s house in Princeton, N.J., then the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon, then the hills and hollers of West Virginia, then the infantry training grounds at Fort Benning, and finally the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago. In my next two novels, The Chase went overseas: to Israel, Iran and Turkmenistan in The Omega Theory, and to Panama, Afghanistan and China in Extinction.
I’ve used this device in my Young Adult novels as well. In my latest book, The Silence (pictured above), I’ve imagined the most far-out chase yet. It goes from the deserts of New Mexico to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and then it gets really crazy. I can’t even describe it. You just have to read the book.
And right now I’m in the midst of writing yet another chase sequence, but this one is closer to home. My next thriller for St. Martin’s (working title: Superhuman) begins in Brooklyn, specifically Coney Island. My grandparents lived there when I was a kid, and I used to love visiting the boardwalk and the beach and the amusement park. But Coney Island is also one of the parts of NYC that’s most vulnerable to global warming; the neighborhood was inundated during Super-storm Sandy five years ago. Given our inexcusable lack of progress in controlling carbon emissions, it’s just a matter of time before the next super-storm obliterates the place. That’s what I’m imagining now. My childhood dreams are turning to nightmares.
And where will The Chase go from there? Well, there are a lot of fascinating places in Brooklyn. Green-Wood Cemetery. The Gowanus Canal. Junior’s Cheesecake. I’ll let you know when I get there!