POW! BAM! SOCKO! And that’s just me at the laptop keys.
“Writer-fu” is a tag I use occasionally on this blog, and this post might be about the most literal application it ever gets.
Pugnacious writing is where it’s all been lately. Most of my writing has been in a genre that my publishers happily describe as “two-fisted”, even if my actual stories tend to be light on action by the standards of my Black Library stablemates. Nevertheless, getting a physical confrontation into prose, and doing it both dramatically and convincingly, is something I need to do regularly. Which is why it’s been a good month for me.
First up came the regular monthly meeting of the CSFG, this one led by the admirable and talented Ian McHugh. Ian has been doing a great job of coming up with interesting and offbeat exercises for the group to do, and I gather this one was inspired by the scene from Guy Ritchie’s recent Sherlock Holmes film. A couple of times the film needs to show Holmes efficiently and violently demolishing someone, and does it by stepping through each move as Holmes plans it in his head. The actual fight follows, exactly as planned, almost too fast to follow – but because of what we’ve just been shown, we know how exact and scientific each move is in what looks like a quick chaotic scuffle.
Thus with the exercise we did that night. Each of us showed up, as asked, with a fight scene of eight moves or so. Simple, brawly sorts of sequences, with nothing that would need high-end athletics, wirework or superpowers. The reason for that being that after we’d each produced our scene, we went out into the Gorman House courtyard in little groups and took turns actually playing out the scenes, move by move, as fast as we reasonably could, to see how well they actually worked. (I gather we caused some bafflement among the patrons of the restaurant on the other side of the courtyard, who could look over from the outdoor tables and see what appeared to be several simultaneous, chatty, slow-motion muggings.)
I used a scene from a backburner manuscript, an ambush that’s far too one-sided to really be called a fight. It was pleasing to see that most of the moves seem to work the way I meant them to, although some of them rely on speed of movement and height differences we couldn’t quite replicate on the night. I’ll also have to redo one part of the combination based on the fact that a stomp to the knee wouldn’t turn the target in the way that I’d been relying on it to do. What went right, though, is that both of my co-enactors were slightly dismayed by the clinical brutality of the attack, which is the exact effect that scene is meant to have on the reader. All I need to do now is dramatise it. In the post-exercise discussion it seemed like everyone had some insights like that to ponder, which was a good sign about how useful this had been.
As well as the Holmes scenes, an inspiration for the exercise was apparently a scene Ian was writing where one character runs past another who’s standing in a doorway. It was a while after writing that scene before he realised that any standard doorway will be pretty much blocked by an adult of even moderate size – he’d gone through the scene without visualising it. (At least he caught that one. I recall a published book where one protagonist stabs an oncoming attacker in the eye with his sword, said attacker falls forward onto their face, and the hero put his foot on their chest and yanks the sword free. Visualising that you can see that at the very least there are a couple of missed moves there.) None of us were exactly trained stunt performers or hand-to-hand combat professionals (that I know of, anyway) but even our slightly clunky and self-conscious scenarios did a really good job of grounding us in the reality of those scenes and making us think about how they would unfold.
Fortunately, there’s advice from an actual hand-to-hand combat professional available too.
Alan Baxter was briefly a companion on the FWOR retreat this January past. He’s the author of a dark fantasy duology and a number of short stories. He’s also studied martial arts for decades, has been the Wutan British national champion and is an instructor of Choy Lee Fut kung fu in the Illawarra district of New South Wales.
One of Alan’s standard presentations at SF conventions is his “Write the Fight” workshop, where he takes writers through the actual physical moves of fighting and shows them firsthand what’s going on in the fight scenes they want to put into their stories. That workshop is now so popular that he’s released it as a short monograph (twelve thousand words, so about the length of a longish short story) entitled Write the Fight Right.
The first section is on “Footwork and movement”, followed by “Reach and technique” and “Guards and Blocks”. Alan is starting off by showing us the simple physical facts of how a fight develops and how capable fighters will conduct it, complete with examples that show different but parallel ways to write the same set of moves with a different focus each time. The section called “Size Does Matter” talks about the role of physical size and strength, particularly in male and female fighters.
From there it moves into how a fight feels. This is something that’s harder to get a handle on without actually, you know, going and picking a fight to find out about first-hand. Writers have an advantage over film-makers in the way we can get into the heads of our fighters: instead of just the sight and sound, prose can more directly evoke the feeling of impact, the smell of blood or sweat, rage or pain or disorientation. The tradeoff of getting to do that, of course, is that having to do it. A fight scene that simply narrates a series of moves is wasting its potential and will have a harder time engaging the reader. So the next sections are “Reactions”, “The Five Senses” and “Adrenaline and Emotion”. Alan explains what it’s like to be struck, and what the pain and disorientation can do to your system. The stuff on adrenaline is particularly interesting, talking about how a pre-fight adrenaline dump feels in the system, both good and bad, how seasoned fighters will deal with it, and what its ongoing effects are.
This is the section I suspect I’ll find the most valuable. It’s easy to forget about the jarring, painful physical reality of fighting, especially if you’re choreographing it in your head like an action flick where hits make mighty crunching sounds but seem to have all the effect of a nerf hammer, and where getting bloody just means it’s time for a badass closeup shot before you bounce up and start swinging again. Again, prose writing (good writing, anyway) won’t do that.
The final sections of the book pick up a couple of loose ends, with sections on “The Inevitable Broken Hand” (making sure you account for the effect of the fight on the winner as well as the loser), and “Intent, Body Language and Psychology”, which has some interesting observations on how experience of fighting affects how someone thinks and moves, and what another fighter will take from that. The book finishes with a brief discussion of weapons, and a “Cheat Sheet Checklist” and a sample fight scene from one of Alan’s own novellas that shows off the writing techniques he’s been discussing.
The style is chatty and discursive. I can believe that this was based on a workshop because it reads as if he’s in front of you and talking to you as you go through it. The book follows a structure and progression but Alan’s prepared to spend a paragraph following a thought off to the side, but disciplined enough to only do that when he can tie it to the main point and keep the digression short. The book effectively balances its treatment of the technical aspects of fighting with the ultimate objective, which is to show how this technical knowledge can inform good fiction writing. I’ve made this observation already, but the advantage of having this written by a martial artist is the expert perspective on portraying how a fight works; the advantage of having this written by a fiction writer is the expert perspective on portraying how a fight feels, so that your reader can feel it too.
Write the Fight Right isn’t an exhaustive catalogue of everything a combat writer could ever need, but I don’t think that’s even possible, especially not considering all the exotic extras that fantasy or SF can introduce. It does provide a solid and accessible tool kit for thinking about your fictional fights, making them both plausible to an expert and immersive to a reader. Based on my first read-through I can recommend it as a good read, worth the money and time; I’m looking forward to writing my next melee scene with this book’s instructions in mind (and might even blog about it if people are interested to know how the advice translates).
You can buy the book from Smashwords for US$1.99.
Continuing the theme of barbaric brawlery, yep, Roller Derby is on again. The second bout of the local season should be just hours away by the time I post this – stay tuned for commentary as soon as I can write it up.