Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Author's Fight Club: Rules For Writing Better Fight Scenes

You know how most people think they'd totally win in a fight if one broke out? About how, despite their lack of any formal training, experience, or research on the subject they're completely convinced that if someone demanded their money or called them out for wearing white after Labor Day that they would be able to give that person what-for?

Writing fight scenes is a lot like that. Everyone thinks they can do it, until it comes time to actually put up or shut up.

When in doubt, rip it out.
Writing a fight scene is about more than just describing action or spicing up your story. These scenes need to show the audience new sides of a character, and to let actions speak in ways that words can't. They need to draw readers in, and they have to get the blood pounding. Lastly, like every other scene you ever write, your fight scenes have to pop!

Here are some do's and do not's to help you accomplish these goals.

Rule One: Observe The Masters

Good readers make good writers; this is something we all know. If you want to learn how to weave political intrigue you read A Song of Ice and Fire, and if you want to write better cosmic horror you pick up At The Mountains of Madness. Tolkien paints the hero's journey step-by-step, and Robert B. Parker provides some of the best private detective stories this side of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. The point is that the best way to learn how to write fight scenes is to find authors widely regarded as crafting good action. You need to see the kinds of terms they use, observe the ways they ratchet up tension, and really understand the elements that make the violence machine rev.

You could also buy The Big Bad II if you want to see some great examples.
What you should absolutely not do is watch a bunch of action movies. Why shouldn't you do that? Primarily because they're two different mediums. What works on the big screen (or even the small screen) often sounds patently ridiculous if you write it down in your novel. By reading action scenes you understand what works and what doesn't, when you should give your reader a blow-by-blow of a fight and when you should just describe the impression of a fight.

Rule Two: Write What You Know (And Learn If You Don't Know)

While most authors don't have the luxury of being ex-military intelligence like James Bond author Ian Fleming that doesn't mean you can't get out of your chair and get some hands-on experience. There is no substitute for doing, which is why you should consider taking a martial arts class, meeting with a boxing trainer, or maybe contacting a local historical re-enactment group who could teach you how to sword fight.

Just think, you could write this off on your taxes!
Even if all you're doing is putting on pads and doing some light sparring the benefits of actually going through the motions are invaluable. You'll be able to describe first hand how it feels to land a blow, what kinds of strikes are being used, and if you're not quick enough what it feels like when you're the one who's on the receiving end of a bell-ringer. Practice long enough and you might gain other helpful insights into your characters and stories.

Rule Three: Make It About More Than The Fight

Everyone loves a nice, refreshing brawl, but as the author you need to ask what this fight scene is adding to your story. What is it showing that the reader needs to know that you can't show any better way? For example has your lead been saying he doesn't get into fights for the past ten chapters, and this is meant to show the audience what happens when he goes off the chain? Does your villain's fighting style reveal anything about him? Is it short and brutal, relying on crippling and killing opponents with his bare hands, or is he the sort of man who pulls a trigger and walks away?

Do the knuckle spikes represent crippling self-doubt and overcompensation?
Fights can be about more than the fighters, too. They can act as a gauge for what's possible, and even accepted in the world your story takes place in. For example is your story set in the seedy underbelly of the city, where back alley bloodletting is a common part of life? Or is your character's violent responses something that marks her as an outsider, a savage to be avoided? Fight scenes are rocks that you can throw in the pond, and depending on what sort of rocks and how you throw them you can make some pretty interesting ripples.

Rule Four: The Human Body is Tougher (And More Frail) Than You Think

I'm going to share a story to illustrate this example. A long time ago I was tasked with editing a client's manuscript. I asked her to send me the first three chapters and we would see if we could work together based on that sample. There are no words to describe how poorly written the thing I was sent was, but of all its many sins its primary one seemed to be a total lack of understanding regarding how human anatomy works.

The opening scene dealt with a teenage boy getting into a row with his father. His dad felt his son's long hair was too feminine, and the son decided to mouth off to his old man. What followed was a page and a half of one of the most brutal beatings I have seen put into print. The son, barely half the size of his domineering father, was repeatedly punched at full strength, had his face slammed into the corner of the kitchen island several times, was bodily dragged upstairs by his hair (proving that in some circumstances it was indeed too long), handcuffed to a radiator and then whipped. The author clarified that he was indeed whipped with a bullwhip, not a quirt or a lash. He was then left there overnight where he wet himself, soaking his wounds with his own urine.

Now it is perfectly possible for someone to survive that kind of treatment. With proper medical attention and therapy it's possible that he'd even return to a relative normal. However a character who received treatment like this on the regular would have some serious scars to show for it (not to mention a hospital record that would set off every alarm bell in existence), but in this particular work he was able to just take a shower and put on some band-aids to pass for normal.

She may have been raised by fast-healing mutants though, I try not to judge.
Before you write a fight scene you need to understand the basics of how the body works. You need to understand what happens when someone gets shot, or stabbed. Most importantly you need to know what sort of damage certain things do so you can ask yourself if that's the sort of trauma you want your lead to inflict or receive. Nothing is worse than action-hero syndrome; a condition whose symptom is when your lead gets injured in a fight, and then in the next chapter has shrugged off wounds that should have put the character in traction.

Rule Five: This Is Not A Comic Book

I read a lot of short stories in a year. Most collections get forgotten, but a very few of them get noted in my memory. Some because they are good, others because they are terrible. The Darker Mask was one of the latter, and I could not bring myself to read more than a few of the stories in it.

The reason? Authors tried to literally describe comic book action.

If that made your head hurt, read the Big Bad II instead. We don't do that here.
I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating; visual media work because they are visual. Action movies are pretty because they're filmed and choreographed to look good. Comic books work because they're illustrated. Do not, I repeat do not try to describe fight scenes in this way. I don't care how many souped-up vampires, cage-fighting werewolves, mutating spec-ops soldiers, or parkour demons you have in your story; don't do this. Find a metaphor that describes the feeling if you have to, but if you attempt to have your lead doing triple-back flips while firing two guns in the air you're not going to impress your readers. You're going to upset them, and they will stop reading.

Rule Six: Change it Up

So let's say you wrote a great fight scene. It's gripping, shows depth of character, illustrates the world, and gets the reader's bloodlust up. Good job! So how are you going to top it? Fight scenes and sex scenes are cousins, and one of the features they share is that if you do the same thing over and over again it's going to get boring. Your lead can only quick draw his long iron and plug three bad guys so many times before it gets old.

Also like sex scenes you can't just change up the moves and hope your reader doesn't notice. You need to use different language, different tension, and each fight scene has to contribute to the story in a new and different way. Otherwise you're likely to wind up with one really good bit of action repeated until the audience closes the covers.

Rule Seven: (Edit) Keep Your Tone Punchy

There have been some complaints that this rules list was vague, and didn't cover examples. So I have decided to add rule number seven (which should really be number one, but I digress). This rule is very simple, and it's one that should be intuitive to writers. Simply stated it says:

"Use words, metaphors, and a pace that matches the action you wish to portray."

This sounds simple, and indeed it is. So is boxing, fencing, or hitting a bulls-eye with a handgun, with enough practice. The point of this rule is that your fight scenes should have a pace and a word choice that reflects the fight. For example, say that you're writing a fist fight between two characters. Punches are flying, elbows are digging, and both parties are going whole hog. You want your audience to really feel the blows as they land, and to get a sense of the pain being inflicted. To do that you need to use the right words, and you need to pull your reader in.

Here's an example.

"Paul led with his left foot and punched Peter. He followed up the first blow with a second, pushing Peter back as he tried to protect himself."

That's a basic, if boring description of what's going on. How can you fix it? Well if you wanted to make it a little more bare-knuckled you might instead say something like:

"Paul sank his fist into Peter's guts, driving the breath out of the smaller man. He snarled, hammering his fists down again and again. Peter stumbled back, blood running from his nose and mouth, unable to do more than get his guard up."

We have more indicative action words, and it's changed the tone of the scene. It's gone from a simple, ho-hum fight to something where people are really out to hurt each other. We refer not just to the ferocity of the strikes, but also to the damage they're doing. If you want to evoke different images though, you might try something like this:

"Paul crossed the room with murder writ large on his face. Peter put his hands up, tried to say something, but Paul was listening to a darker voice. His fist went in clean, but came back bloody. Peter's lips burst against his teeth, but Paul wouldn't stop. Splinters of teeth joined the blood, and eventually the words stopped."

The tone shifts, and the action's punchiness alters. The second seems much more deliberate, and as a result a little more brutal. You'll notice what you don't see in these examples though. You don't see the names of martial art strikes, or labels for the blows. Because your audience might not know what a flying butterfly kick or a spinning back fist looks like. So whenever you can, describe the motion of the body, and the results of the fight. Even if you're not describing the fight itself you need to bring across the tone of what it feels like.

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1 comment:

  1. So true. Research and experience over movie and TV (is this word even used anymore?) portrayals.