Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When Characters Come To Blows

Last week I attempted to write a fight scene. Since it was my first one, I wasn’t sure if the little scenario I’d cooked up worked or not so I decided to do a little checking. Turns out, it doesn’t work. For many, many reasons. I don’t even know if it qualifies as a fight scene. It’s more of a manic, killing attack type thing. An arm was ripped off; there was high velocity blood spatter, but not much else. No dialogue, no emotion, very little description, and no use of the five senses.

Soooo, research time.

Here’s what I’ve learned. You have your family feuds, lover’s quarrels, cat fights, and misunderstandings between friends of longstanding, just to name a few, but I’m talking about physical fights with two enemies going at it to the death. In this case there’s really only two types. There are either weapons involved or there are not. Maybe they’re pulling each other’s hair out. Could be they’re hacking each other to bits with swords. Whether your characters choose to take up arms or not, the possibilities are endless. My scene involved weapons. One is armed with a whip, the other, bows and arrows. I know, right! Pure genius.

Oh yeah. Keep it realistic. If you’re using weapons, do some research and come up with the right weapon for the right character. Somehow, I managed to come up with a whip. Snort. For a vampire. Wait, it gets better.

And along with those literal punches there should be some emotional punches. Perhaps a little internal conflict, a small tip off as to what’s going through the heroine’s head. There should be, but there wasn’t. Any emotion. Just blood spatter. And screaming. That’s a bad thing.

Fight scenes must serve a purpose. Well, mine did. Kind of. The insignificant, no-name guy was in her way. What’s a female vampire warrior to do? Exactly! She took him out. But no! Apparently, random violence is bad. Like sex for the sake of sex scenes are bad. Fight scenes should propel the story along, add value and meaning to the story, maybe even contain some dialogue. Who knew!

It appears there’s delicate balance between description and pacing when you’re writing that knock down, drag out fight scene. After all, you don’t want the reader to get bored. Touch on the setting or location, don’t forget to utilize the five senses.

Use short sentences.

Short paragraphs.

Okay, maybe not that short, but clarity and speed are important components to a riveting fight scene. Keep in mind things like honorable verses dishonorable behavior. You don’t want the super sexy hero you’ve spent endless hours creating and perfecting doing something to turn the reader off. Dido, the heroine. Also many articles cautioned against choreographing your fight scenes, as opposed to writing them using the hints above. A chronological listing of the first punch to the last makes for boring reading.

For more information on perfecting fight scenes check out this link at Superhero Nation.

Also check out this link at Fight Scenes 101. This is based on fan fiction but works for any kind of fiction.

How do you handle fight scenes? Got any tips? If you’ve got an awesome website or database dealing with weapons, please feel free to share. Share the names of any authors you feel write fight scenes with panache.

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


Anita Mae Draper said...

Oooooh, excellent post, Karyn.

I've only attemtped 2 fight scenes and both are in the ms I'm currently revising for a contest. In the first scene Hannah, the heroine, witnesses a drunken brawl in her cafe and calls the cops. What I found hard to write about this scene was that Hannah didn't know who was fighting and it was in her POV. So I had to be careful to word it so the reader knew who was punching and who was pulling. I couldn't say 'he did this' and 'he did that' because there were 2 'he's'.

The other scene was easier because the hero, Bobby, is standing there when someone throws a punch at him. He deflects it and slaps cuffs on the assailant. This scene is in the cafe and a crowd has gathered. Without going into the story, let me say it's an angry crowd due to a miscommunication. Between Hannah and Bobby, they calm the crowd then walk over to join their friends in a booth.

Did you notice anything?

One day I was driving to the city and out of the blue, it dawned on me...I think I left the assailant standing at the door with cuffs on.

No way! I checked as soon as I got home and yup, there he was, standing at the door with the cuffs on, waiting...

Karyn Good said...

Thanks, Anita. I can see why the first scene would be challenging to write. Having Hannah be the observer and POV character would add an interesting dynamtic to the scene. However, having her not know exactly who was involved would complicate things. You don't like to make things to easy, do you?

LOL about the cuffs. I've done that too. Been doing something else and thought - oh, darn! Must fix that!

Did you plot out all the fight moves and then write the scene? Or did you pants your way through it?

Hayley E. Lavik said...

I haven't had any fight scenes up to crit yet, but I like to think I do them well. My earlier roleplay days had a lot of combat writing at one point, and I really hated the grocery list of blows and moves with fancy names, so I naturally pulled away from that.

The first fight in my wip needs rewriting for getting a bit confusing, but I really like the others I've written so far, one with my protag as the observer and brief participant, the other involving three characters (oh, and an animal).

The points you've mentioned are really great, and I think realism above all. The KISS principle works best here (keep it simple,...) and bizarre, complicated moves make things hard to follow. That's where visuals can sometimes get away from writers in a film culture, I think... we can picture each move, so we can create complicated actions for ourselves that simply don't translate to narrative.

The other things I try to do are balance external rapid pace (fights, especially real ones, shouldn't go on for several minutes) with internal in the way we capture so many small, sometimes irrelevant details while we're on an adrenaline high. Movies do their slow-motion camera tricks, I like to take a moment to pause on a crucial detail before a big hit, or place a narrative aside (the story's coming from after the fight, technically) to give a little narrative spacing.

The other big thing I've found is to just stick to what matters. While the description "a flurry of blows" may be old hat, we still don't need to see a ton of moves. Just a sense of what's happening, and then a pause to describe the hits that matter... the punch that hits the windpipe, the slash that draws first blood, and of course, the killing blow.

My two favourite 'writers' for fight scenes, and references for my own, are vastly different. One... Anglo-Saxon poetry, typically I crack open my student copy of Beowulf. Firstly, the Anglo-Saxons knew how to stick to the good parts, and provide numerous examples of how to describe the flash of a blade, the crunch of bone, without getting overly poetic, and the parts of combat to focus on. Secondly, Anglo-Saxon poetry doesn't rhyme, it has alliteration, and personally, I think nothing captures that primal drive of combat better than alliteration. It's like the drum beat pulsing in the background of the fight scene, or rapid series of 's' sounds that speed up the pace and make several sentences slide into one another (okay.. maybe that example is a bit excessive, hah). I find it a lovely tool to use.

My other favourite reference for combat, Robert E. Howard, the creator of the original Conan stories. Howard writes some of the most amazing combat I've ever read. It's brutal, it's gritty, it's glorious, it positively crackles on the page, and it usually only takes a couple paragraphs. If you want examples of excellent combat scenes, read one of Howard's original Conan stories.

You have me quite intrigued now, I hope you'll share some of your combat experience with us on the beta blog? I'm curious, did you find info on fighting with a whip?

Anita Mae Draper said...

I pantsed my way through it. I wasn't a plotter at that time. (Still not fully converted, either.)

It took many revisions, reading out loud, setting aside, redoing, etc before I figured I had a clear pic of who did what to whom. And it was only a few sentences.

And then my CP's got a hold of it and one of them said I should further describe the men involved.

So, I'm still working on it.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Ah yes, one other thought I forgot to mention... depending on how complicated your scene is, it can also be a good idea to block it out as you might in theatre. Get a friend to help act out the parts (potential acrobatics aside) and really see what you're expecting your characters to do. Otherwise you could potentially have your villain chase your heroine down, fight her, hold her down, grab her arms, and tie her hands with a rope while she's struggling. Sounds fine, but how many hands would it take to accomplish this feat on an uncooperative subject?

Karyn Good said...

Hey, Hayley. Can I hire you to be my ghostwriter?

You listed lot of lovely ideas. Alliteration for example. I love that drum beat in the background idea. How's this? Several savage slashes of his sword later... I must confess to never having read Beowulf, I stuck to watching the movie. Likewise Robert E. Howard and Conan but I just might have to try my hand at reading something by the sword and sorcery master. I'm curious...

Definitely the KISS principle applies. Overwriting will kill a fight scene dead. I think perhaps this is one instance when watching movies to gain insight for writing purposes might be detrimental. You'll likely end up with that grocery list of moves that would bore to tears.

And yes. Do a mock up of your fight. I've acted things out in the privacy of my office (thank goodness for curtains) and have also enlisted the help of my husband to see if the things I'm dreaming up are realistic and believable, special powers aside.

As for seeing it over on Beta Bloggers? For sure. I need your input. It's very small scene but I'm moving on to a much larger scale fight scene and I definitely need the BB's. I'm stretching quite a ways out of my comfort zone with these fight scenes.

The whip? Not yet! But she has used it. I'm waffling on the whip idea.

Karyn Good said...

Anita, I think reading them aloud is an excellent idea and a great way to tell if they're working. And I know what you mean about them being short passages and requiring lots of attention.

Good Luck!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, if you're at the library some time, I'd highly recommend taking a look for Robert E. Howard's work. The catch is to get the originals and not the Conan stories other people wrote emulating him. His works are very good writing, whereas some of the others are more stereotypical 'monsters and naked women' pulp.

I have a The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian and it's a really excellent collection of the early short stories in the order they were written.

Looking forward to reading your battle scene!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I've never written a physical fight scene. But I want to keep your post in mind. There are a couple of romantic suspense stories rattling around in my brain that I would love to write. Maybe one of them will need a good, old-fashioned, knock down, drag out fight.


Karyn Good said...

Hey, Jana. They may be frustrating to get just right but so much fun to write. Looking forward to hearing more about your romantic suspense ideas.

connie said...

Hi Karyn,
My fights are all sword fights so far. I was lucky enough to see two masters fighting with mediaeval weapons in Louisville ky.
I have read two really good whip fights - but where? I will hunt some later tonight. As I recall, they fought barefoot. Catching the opponent around the ankles and tripping him was one move they both kept trying, hence many leaps into the air, twisting and coming down crouched. If the whip wrapped around the neck and killed the opponent, (it killed a good fight scene prematurely) but that was the object.
I am mostly concerned with mediaeval stuff. The best writer ever on battle scenes though is Bernard Cornwell who wrote the archer series (about Crecie, Agincourt etc) and the Sharpe series starring the Peninsula/Napoleon wars of 1809-1814 plus 1815. He is amazing
Appreciate the tips on fight scenes thanks

Karyn Good said...

Hi Connie. Thanks so much for the insights in fighting with a whip. Now I like the whip idea again. And thanks for the mention of your favorite battle scene author, Bernard Cornwell. I will check him out. If you find the source of the whip fights, let me know. I'd be interested in checking them out, too.

Silver James said...

Karyn - I'm a day late (and likely a dollar short) but great post! Fight scenes are delicate to write and can fall flat so easily if a writer is unsure of how to do so. You gave some terrific advice! (And I can't wait to read the revised fight scene when you get around to it!)