Recently, I attended a session called “Writing About Fighting” at VCON, a science fict ion and fantasy conference. The panel consisted of writers and experts who were disciplined in multiple martial arts, including authors Lorna Suzuki and T.G. Shepherd, and Devon Boorman, the swordmaster of Academie Duello in Vancouver.
For me, this talk was so fascinating, it was worth the cost of admission alone. I spent days thinking about the topics discussed and tried to incorporate them into The Watcher Saga. These are just a few of them as I remember it.
Eight Things Writers Forget About Fight Scenes:
1. It’s not about the technical details
First of all, if you’re not technical and don’t know the details of fighting, you shouldn’t try to write about them. Some writers try to to include technical details of fighting, which only calls out their lack of expertise. If you don’t know what you’re doing in a fight scene, give fewer details, not more. Go for being lyrical or poetic instead. The more you try to appeal to a technical audience with inaccurate details, the more likely you’ll turn them off. A good example of this is the use of jargon. It’s best to avoid it altogether.
Moreover, if you don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable about fighting, don’t make your main character an expert on the subject.
According to the panel, some authors who write fight scenes well are:
- Dorothy Dunnet (who writes around the fight scenes, describing key moments only, without technical detail)
- Adrian Tchaikovsky in the Shadows of the Apt series (who, according to T.G. Shepherd, has a lyrical style)
2. Lack of knowledge about the body and injuries
A classic example of this is having a character who’s knocked out by one punch. A single punch from a rookie fighter is seldom enough to knock someone unconscious for long. Or if you have a character who’s in one fight one day and is knocked out, and a second fight the next day and is knocked out, unless that character has the regenerative ability of Wolverine, that character should see a doctor for potential cerebral hemorrhaging. In other words, this is a place to consult an expert.
3. Lack of visceral detail
One thing writers seldom remember is that battle scenes are truly disgusting. There’s the foul smell of sweat and blood, the stench of urine and feces when people die, blood and entrails on the ground (not to mention the psychological impact of that). Armour chafes under the arms. Any of these details brings a sense of realism to the scene.
4. Engaging characters in full out dialog in battle
In a battle scene, there will be little time for conversation. Sometimes, a fight can take a sentence or two, but that’s it.
While it’s a famous scene, the sword fight on the cliffs of insanity, in the Princess Bride, was still done well, because they were having a relaxed fight. Apparently, the moves they talked about were real, but they weren’t being performed in the moment, nor did they claim to be.
However, it’s still a great scene with pauses in the action for fun dialog. So, sometimes, you have to make a call. Good entertainment doesn’t always have to be 100% accurate.
5. Forgetting that people aren’t naturally good fighters
Someone doesn’t become a good fighter overnight (unless there’s a viable reason for it in the story. As a writer that’s your job to figure out). It takes years to train to become a really good fighter. You’ve got to account for that when you develop your character or story.
6. Not taking the psychological impact of fighting into account
This is a huge one. If you have a character is in his or her first fight, he or she will crumple and take a beating before realizing he or she must fight. There’s a psychological shift or realization that happens there. It’s a great chance to build tension and character into the scene.
It’s also important to note that most people don’t like to hit people or hurt them. In wars, soldiers shot over the heads of their targets to not be responsible for killing anyone. Some were told to aim for their knees so they might hit the chest and think they just hit the knee.
When someone is first learning to fight, often that person doesn’t want to hit anyone. In fact, when fighters first start to train, they might aim to miss. Some of the women on the panel shared their own process of actually connecting their punches to hit someone for the first time. (Not that I’m trying to make this about sex. Most people aren’t violent).
Even the most experienced fighters don’t like hurting people if they don’t have to.
If pushed far enough, anyone could kill another person. The question is: could they live with it afterwards? If you have a character who has no qualms about killing people, you are dealing with a sociopath or possibly a psychopath. While the military has also successfully trained people to kill, it’s not something the average person does easily. Take this into consideration when you’re writing. How would your character react?
7. Adrenaline works against you when you fight, not in your favor
If you’re like me, you might have held the fantasy that in an emergency situation, your adrenaline would kick in and save your butt. In fact, the opposite is true. Adrenaline is what tires a person out in battle. Battle fatigue comes from the adrenaline of fighting, it burns fast and you get tired. Experienced fighters can go for a long time because they’ve trained to it.
Adrenaline affects a fighter’s efficacy. It makes one’s actions shaky and inaccurate and a person will drop 60% of his or her skill level. So a person will never match his or her aspirations, but will drop to his or her level of training. So if you trained to 100%, you might actually only fight at 40%.
Experienced fighters work to reduce their ‘flinch response‘. A good fighter will have a lowered flinch response and will be able to recover more quickly and have a better reaction time to recover from attack.
8. Lack of weapons knowledge
If you’re going to invent weapons for your story, be sure to do your research on similar weapons and how they work. The laws of physics still apply. Keep in mind that most swords are 2-4 lbs, which isn’t too heavy for an experienced fighter. Some may be as heavy as 7 lbs. When someone is fighting with a sword, there are resting moments where the sword is down to lessen the load of holding it, so an experienced fighter won’t get tired because of his or her weapon.
Have you seen instances of fight scenes where these mistakes are made? Have you seen other mistakes that the author missed. Please share!
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