Monday, February 6, 2012

You Wanna Piece 'a Me? Part Deux

Writing fight scenes if fun, but very difficult. And if you don't find it tough, you're probably doing it wrong. One of the best things you can do, if you're going to write fight scenes - especially hand-to-hand combat - you need to get in the ring yourself. Sign up for a karate class and spar. You will realize how difficult fights are, and how it feels to get your bell rung.

I first wrote about how to write hand-fighting scenes HERE. So I wanted to continue with more tips to keep in mind when writing a great piece of action, but keeping it realistic and believable.

Flippy Do: Okay, no matter what you see on The Matrix and Sucker Punch, people don't do all kinds of flips and somersaults during a fight. It's more for aesthetics and cinema fun. But in your book, don't have characters doing all kinds of flips and other stupid acrobatics during a fight. If my opponent is doing a flip, guess what - EASY target. A good way to get your ass kicked is to do a flip during battle. (A couple caveats - if you're writing sci-fi and there's zero gravity, doing flips and all kinds of stunts can become part of the battle a la Ender's Game).

It Hurts to Hurt: I wrote about getting punched in the face, and how that can really just knock you out of a fight immediately, unlike in the movies where actors can get a crowbar over the head and they're just fine. But let me tell you, if you hit someone in the face with your fist, it not only hurts the hittee, but it hurts the hitter too! If you punch someone square in the face, their teeth might even scratch your knuckles.

There is a technique to be able to strike someone with your fist and it not hurt too bad:

1)Make a fist and stick it out with your arm just slightly bent. Now look at which knuckles are jutting out - most people will punch someone with that middle knuckle and the ring finger knuckle. That will hurt your hand.
Proper fist alignment

2)Adjust your wrist slightly so that your pointer finger and middle knuckle are the knuckles facing your opponents face - have that little dip between these two knuckles line up with your forearm - I always think of the fangs of a python sticking out. That alignment is what allows real fighter to hit people with little or no pain.

3)With everything lined up, your arm becomes a steel rod. No bend at the wrist. Go ahead and practice hitting someone with this alignment - pick someone you don't like, as you will rock them into next week.

If your character is taking a big ass John Wayne swing (a giant hook), lining up your knuckles, fist, and wrist is impossible. So keep that in mind too.

Sentence Structure. Many experts tell you to write short sentences during actions scenes. And that sounds like pretty good logic. I'm of the opinion that even during fight scenes, you should continue to vary your sentence lengths. Writing short sentences, one after another, might make your fight sound like movie script direction. In fact, go for long sentences in the middle of it - this would be a good time on using a comma and conjunction to join two sentences. Longer sentences during fight scenes is a great way to keep the writer reading one continuous piece of action, making it more exciting.

"Your mother was a hamster..."
Dialog Red Flags. Okay, there's a temptation to do little psyche-out talky-talk before a rumble. It's one of those tropes we're used to. Throughout history, the leaders would congregate in the center of the battlefield before the fight and trade insults. This is called a parley. Often, they'd try to work out their differences during a parley, but usually they just do their versions of "Yo' Momma Jokes." Although these can be fun, just be VERY careful you don't slip into old, tired cliches. Lines of dialog to avoid before a fight:

"This ends now."
"The game is over."
"You will lose."
"Go for it."
"One shall stand, and one shall fall."
"Your powers are weak, old man."

Okay, I was having some fun with the last few there. How can you not include a little Rocky or Star Wars? Dialog before or even during a fight can be a good way to show further characterization, but just make sure it's not hokey. Villains don't really reveal their evil schemes during a battle, and heroes don't really have flashbacks of their training when getting their asses kicked.

Thinking Cap. You want the fight to be personal, and you definitely want to capture the battle so that your reader feels like he/she is actually there. And I've read many fight scenes where I am inside the fighter's mind. However, this is another red flag where things can go wrong very quickly. Have YOU ever been in a fight? Let me tell you, you're not really thinking about anything. If you're wounded, the pain and the flash of wonder if you've broken something or if your flesh is ripped open is on your mind. But you're not thinking about stuff during a fight. In a fight, you just DO. You don't think about it. Unless your character is a thinker and NOT a real warrior, don't overdo the internal thoughts. The internal dialog should be super short. Quick.

Bruce Lee had a word for this: mushin. It's Chinese for "without mind." Real fighters train so that the movements became as involuntary as breathing. Thinking too much will get you killed.

"I'm blind! But I will still beat you up!"
You Have Health Insurance? In a scrap, all parties either end up hurt or dead. If your main character keeps getting into fights and walks away with hardly a scratch, your reader just won't believe your story. No one is invincible. Injuries are a part of fighting. Injuries can also play a neat part of your plot. Make it work, but leave no one unscathed. (There are exceptions to this in the fantasy and sci-fi worlds, I understand. But even these two genres seem very stupid with one-sided fights at times. Not fun to read).

As I wrote last March, when you get hit in the head, you do see stars. It's probably the brain the optical nerves misfiring. And you do see double and triple vision. It's freaky, and it doesn't just go away with a shake of the head. It lingers for a long time depending on the power of the blow.

In fights, people get hurt. Wounds are a great way to provide yet another challenge and move the plot along. Injuries build character!


David P. King said...

These are really informative. And I don't find action scenes easy to write at all. Thankfully I've learned how shorter sentences help increase the action and adrenaline. And to think my first attempt at writing action scenes involved intergalactic starships and combat fighters. *shudder* Rewriting that will be quite a chore. :)

Jay Noel said...

I think writing starship combat scenes would be even MORE difficult. I'd probably like to watch some old WWII dogfight footage. Read up on what it's like. But I did like how on Firefly, you couldn't hear anything in space (i.e. explosions) since sound waves couldn't travel in the vacuum of space.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's an excellent list, Jay! You're right about getting hit - it hurts. Never been in a fight, but one good tackle in a game of touch football kept me down for a while.

Mohamed Mughal said...

Out of all the things that I hope to learn by reading writing blogs, I didn't think I'd learn how to properly punch someone in the face. I like it! :)

Jay Noel said...

Alex: Yeah, getting the wind knocked out of you is a messed up feeling, like your lungs can't inflate - it's enough to make you panic.

Mohamed: Ha! The blogosphere is a great way to learn stuff.

Matthew MacNish said...

One of the worst tropes in fiction, be it film, novels, comic-books, whatever, is how easy it is to knock someone unconscious. Hitting someone in the head hard enough to knock them unconscious rarely does not kill or seriously injure someone in real life.

Still, Vulcan neck grip can be fun.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

These are great pointers if what you're going for is realism. I think you should have stressed that a little more. "This is how you want to write if realistic fight scenes are what you are trying to accomplish."

But as you pointed out with the Enders Game nod, there are plenty of situations where flips and twirls could definitely work into the writing. Zero gravity, perhaps underwater...

Also the people fighting could be able to take a lot of damage because they are magical beings.

M Pax said...

It's not easy to write a good fight scene. I agree sentence length needs to continue to very. You want a fast flow. A bunch of short sentences can read choppy.

Julius Cicero said...

I completely agree with you, but I also think that writing is also like fighting: it just flows, and you just do it. It does help to have some real world experience behind the fist; knocking out and getting knocked out really add that sense of realism unless you're writing sci-fi, fantasy, etc...

Miranda Hardy said...

I'm all about writing action and fighting scenes. Luckily, I've taken several martial arts classes. It's amazing how experience can help with your writing.

Jay Noel said...

Matthew: As kids, we used to try the Vulcan Nerve Pinch on each other. All we'd end up with were sore hands and red marks on our necks.

Michael: Exactly right - if your setting allows it, there's always that "twist" on reality. That's why nearly every rule in writing can be broken at any given time.

Mary: It's not easy. I can see stuff in my head, but putting in down on paper is a whole separate challenge.

Julius: What if your characters could fly? Two flying people in combat in midair would throw out a bunch of reality rules - which is why writing is so fun.

Miranda: It does add another dimension. For example, there's lots of joint locks and such to subdue another person that doesn't require a bash to the head. And those clean blocks you see in the movies is NEVER that pretty in real life.

Dafeenah said...

Great tips. I did karate for 7 years and fought in tournaments and did weapons. I love your description about the internal dialogue it's very true. You really aren't thinking much unless you're on the bottom and then it's not much more than "oh god please get him off of me" lol

The Golden Eagle said...

I never saw the point in dialogue like that before a fight. Particularly coming from the protagonist, which it sometimes does--it just makes them seem rather arrogant and foolish.

Jay Noel said...

Dafeenah: Or you're thinking, "Is that my arm that just snapped???"

Goldie: It's more cinematic drama. Unfortunately, too many writers emulate that style, and it just doesn't work for the written word.

Rusty Webb said...

Good advice all around. Especially if you are doing your best to make the fight scenes feel as real as possible. However, I like to think of a fight in fiction much the same way I think of dialog... I'm giving an illusion of reality, not real reality. I mean, if my plot requires granny to fight off two trained killers with her bare hands, there just isn't a very realistic way to have her do that. I'll have to take some liberties somewhere.

And unless I'm writing in first person present tense, I'm not sure I'd be bothered with internal thoughts. Much, like you said, just be careful. I would imagine that folks doing a lot of that internal monologue think that they are controlling the pacing of the scene that way. I mean, if someone has been building to this one moment for an entire book, they don't want it to end in a single punch. Like you said, it's tough.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

A great post filled with wisdom. On the streets of Detroit, I learned that fighting, winning or losing, hurts!!

My young hero, Victor Standish, has a motto : I stand and fight, I stand and die! Parkour, free-running, is his way to stay alive on very rough streets. Also ball bearing linked to a knowledge of acupuncture points and nerve clusters.

J.C. Martin said...

Great advice, I love reading about how people write action scenes! Our Wing Chun punch is a little different from the punch you described. With the fist held such that the knuckles are lined up vertically, we aim to hit with the bottom three knuckles. With the fist only lightly clenched, you throw your punch out without any contraction of your muscles. Think about your fist being the iron ball at the end of a relaxed chain. Because you're not tense, impact will hurt less (much like people asleep during a car accident suffer less serious injuries).

Jay Noel said...

Rusty: Very tough balance, as readers want some insight, but you're trying to keep it real. Like I said, all the rules may need to be broken depending on your story - I'd love to read about a grandma kickin' some ass!

Roland: It's amazing what can happen if you strike someone in just the right place (i.e. radial nerve). It won't kill 'em, but it'll give you the opportunity to move in for the deathblow!

J.C. I love just watching Wing Chun! The open hand forms are amazing - probably why you all have such strong wrists and forearms.

The Desert Rocks said...

I just re-wrote my slightly violent scenes and I think I want to go back again and use some of the shorter sentences. Good idea!
P.S. I have a link to your blog this week.

Alice said...

Good advice for fight scenes. I have a few in one of my books but have never been exactly sure how to do them right. Your tips are helpful. My son was telling me the other day that in most fights, if you get hit a few times in the face you'll get knocked out. Don't know if it's true. He gave an example of a kid at school how got hit a couple times and passed out.

MaryAnn Pope said...

Excellent advice. My husband is into martial arts, so he helps me choreograph the fight scenes. It's actually quite fun.

I've always thought the seeing the seeing stars thing was an exaggeration. Good to know it's not.

Thanks for sharing.

sonia said...

I had to write fighting scenes once. It was awfully difficult. Thanks for the post!

Jay Noel said...

Eve: There's a balancing act - creating shorter sentences without making it read choppy, but I know you CAN DO IT! Thanks!

Alice: It really depends on how hard the blow is, and how rattle the brain gets. It's like hitting your head on the ground - people do pass out. But, the nose bleeds very easily, and it doesn't take much to gush blood from the nose.

MaryAnn: You're lucky to get some help from your hubby. Just make sure to take it easy on him. And yes, you do see stars...but it can also look more like static clouding your vision. Then you usually pass out.

Sonia: It really is difficult, probably just as difficult as writing a love scene. And you are welcome!

Tiyana, aka 'Yoyo' said...

Oh goodness, the flipping...

Luckily I have not (yet) read any novels that had their characters do that, lol. Though, I was thinking about the Tomb Raider games and how you could have Lara doing back handsprings while running from tigers and guys with guns.

As someone who did gymnastics for a while, that just doesn't make sense to me!

Jay Noel said...

Tiyana: I actually read TWO books with characters doing all kinds of flips and stuff. I'm no gymnast, but it didn't make sense to me either.

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