Saturday, February 21, 2009
Them's Figthin' Words
Bruise and Consequence:
How to build a better beating
A excerpt from my book “Them’s Fightin’ Words!” (published by epress-Online.com)
Since the first storyteller sat around a campfire spinning tales of gods and heroes it has been a given that a little action makes a mildly interesting story into a real grabber. Put your hero or heroine in physical jeopardy and you can have a winner. Conflict is the key and physical conflict, i.e., a fight, is often the answer.
It is not the only answer, to be sure, and emotional conflict is the essence of real drama, but the line where drama ends and adventure or melodrama begins is an iffy one. If the level of your drama is high, if the characters are convincing and we as a reader care about what happens to them then you can get a frenzy of worry out of us by having a villain try to club our hero. Or shoot him or…you get the idea.
Since the fight has to serve the purpose of the story you have to use the same criteria as any journalistic or dramatic story. Ask yourself, ‘is this fight necessary?’ If it is then you can use the old six questions: Why, Who, How, Where, What and When?
Why is this fight the solution to this moment of the story, instead of a dialogue scene? Being clear about the purpose the fight in the story is paramount. After all, Shakespeare put the fight at the end of Hamlet for two very strong reasons. It was the dramatic climax that brought together several plot threads, and it was used as a device to reveal the true personalities of the major participants: Laertes regrets using the poison, Hamlet is proud of his swordsmanship, Claudius reveals his cowardice etc. In fact the action scenes in all of Shakespeare’s plays are calculated (often as ‘wake up and pay attention moments’) and never just attached for no reason. When using action in prose work the same care has to be taken.
There are four chief reasons to have a fight in a story, though often a fight (or action scene) can and should serve more than one of these reasons.
1: To amaze or confuse a character
2: To scare a character
3: To conceal/reveal some plot point within the smoke and mirrors of an action scene
4. To reveal or accentuate a character trait
Who is involved in the action; the principal? A secondary character? If so, what is their stake in the confrontation (their personal why)?
How did the fight come about? How does it end? And in what state are the participants when it is all over? Will there be lingering effects? And will the effects be physical or mental or both? There is also the mechanical how of a fight; that is, how to plan it out. You can’t build a house without a plan and just as you would plan out a book or story by making an outline you must do the same thing with the ‘story’ of a fight.
One thing to do in building the fight is to put in a ‘kick the dog moment’, by which I mean, give your bad guys an action that makes it clear they are not just misunderstood and mean well. Let them ‘kick’ the metaphorical dog in the room, hurt an innocent with no remorse. I once saw a western where in the opening scene, Leo Gordon, a true old time bad guy actor was riding into town and a little boy’s dog barked at his horse—so he shot the dog with no compunction! You sure as heck know I waited the whole movie to see him get his (he did), just like every other patron
Where does the action take place? Is it an interesting enough place, i.e. a kitchen, a garage, a spaceship port? What makes that place of particular interest? Does it add color to the story, or is it just a drab background, a diorama in front of which the action takes place?
What is involved, physically in the fight? A sword fight; if so, what style? Or styles. Do they use the objects at hand or did they bring the ‘death dealers’ with them. (Jackie Chan movies are especially good at finding clever things to do with found objects in action scenes—you don’t have to be ‘clever’ funny but you should clever smart.).
When is it appropriate to have a fight instead of a non-physical solution? I know I keep stressing this, but that cuts to the heart of the situation of many literature snobs who will not deal with any ‘action’ because they feel it cheapens the purpose of a story
Flavors of violence and the ‘ouch’ factor:
Fights, like dramatic styles, come in a variety of flavors, each suited to the overall tone of the story.
A grim, down and dirty knife fight might be fine for a thriller, but wrong for a romantic comedy.
Once you understand that it hurts you can think about the ‘ouch factor’: that is, how much damage and how much recovery time.
Seems a no-brainer, but now that you’ve determined your moment of humanity for your character you determine just how real you want the fight to be—remember, The Three Stooges get a saw cut on the head and recover in the next scene, but when Athos is wounded in the shoulder in The Three Musketeers it bothers him for a number of chapters. In between is the level of ‘reality’ for your story.
This is where the flavors come in— how you balance these elements: how real, how much pain, and to what end the action in the scene in the story determine if the fight is farce or frightening
So how does it break down—what makes a fight funny or scary or realistic? Anything that makes a dialogue scene any of those funny or scary.
Exercises to liven your fight scenes
1. Not everyone is a fight choreographer (or else I couldn’t sell a book on this), but every one can choreograph a fight. Really.
The first thing you do is to decide the type of fight. For argument’s sake we will assume you want to design a sword fight. Short swords.
I know, you don’t have any short swords sitting around the house. No problem. Get some rolled up newspaper and a congenial friend/mate/sibling. Now slowly, as in really slow like an old Six Million Dollar Man episode, walk through five or six moves.
Attack head, parry head, attack shoulder, parry shoulder and step to the side etc.
Just like a slow motion dance. You can even use moves you crib from that video exercise back in chapter three. But now you are not describing it, you are recreating it, with variations that your body and the space dictate. Then write it down; but in the writing the newspapers become real swords and you are moving at breathtaking speed.
Now this may not be possible; you might not be able to physically execute the moves, or have a long suffering conspirator to collaborate with.
No problem. Just let the inner child out and get a couple of movable action figures. I like the old Captain Action dolls, but any jointed figures will do—even the art store pose-able figures with no features. Tape some short swords made out of pop sticks into their hands and let them do your fighting for you.
Then write it all down.
It’s amazing what cool spinning heel kicks old Cap can do that I can only dream of doing….
2. When painting students are learning their art they are instructed to copy the paintings of great master, stroke for stroke and it is considered perfectly okay. No legal hassels at all. Okay, now that you’ve read the stories, or story, you have a big task ahead: rewrite it. That’s right, take Conan or Tarzan or whomever and the general situation of the scene and –without peeking –write your version of it. May be your only chance to write your hero without a copyright lawyer running after you. It’s best to do it for a scene you read ‘last book’, or earlier in the book, and once you decide on the scene don’t go back and peek. Cheaters never prosper!
Then put it aside for a day or so before going back to compare them. It doesn’t matter if you unconsciously copied some phrases or exact actions, it is bound to happen, it is the idea that you can achieve some of the energy or flow of the story—and who knows, you might improve on it. Could happen!
What is the appropriate level of you character’s skill?
The choices extend beyond purpose and tone for a fight, it must also be appropriate to the time, place and character.
I mean, really, Babe Ruth should not be swinging an aluminum baseball bat unless it’s a time travel story and if your 1860s cowboy hero starts throwing jumping martial kicks he better be named James West!
A certain amount of credibility with your reader is purchased from their imaginations with the preconceptions of what they expect verses what is credible or possible.
Let’s define “martial art.” Martial art is the process by which one person seeks to do damage or control another physically. It knows no geographic barrier even though most of the time when someone says martial arts they really mean ‘eastern” or “oriental .” When I was studying a number of arts we used to have a saying “If you want to feel pain, take a Japanese art, if you want to inflict pain, take a Korean art and if you wanted to discuss the philosophy of pain, take a Chinese art.” It’s a gross exaggeration, of course, but it illustrates that different cultures do indeed put a different spin on how they approach the very practical, mundane business of hurting each other.
Martial arts also have points of origin: you can’t have a Bowie knife fight before 1827 because the indomitable Jim Bowie hadn’t ‘invented’ it (or perfected his brother’s invention—whichever version you believe). And fighting with a Bowie is significantly different than than fighting with other knives, or swords, because while it shares characteristics of both it is its own ’beast.’ The original Bowie knife really looks more like a short sword with a clipped point and sports a brass filet on the back of the thick blade for the express purpose of ‘catching’ an opponent’s cutting edge for a split second. It has a ‘clipped point’ so that one can cut upward or downward and the clip can tear outward from any wound it is thrust into. Bowie is supposed to have fought a number of duels against swords with his knife and won every one.
Thus you see how very important to the believability of the story it is to get the How or with what you characters fight with. Those factors and their attitude to the action are all great means to understand who they are and how they fit into the mosaic of the story’s world.
This is just a small piece from the book “Them’s Fightin words: a writer’s guide to writing Fight Scenes.” Which is available in trade paperback on Amazon.com or electronically from Fictionwise.com.