Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Art of the Fight (Scene)

As hard as it may be to believe, I read violent material.  I know, you're shocked to hear it, but I've also written some pretty bloody stories.  One of the often-overlooked aspects of said novels and stories is the ever-popular fight scene.  Two (or more) toughguys (or ladies) slugging it out to prove dominance/prove a point/defend someone/defend their own lives is just the thing to get a reader's adrenaline flowing, if it's done right.  If it isn't done right, it can put the reader into "skim" mode, or worse, "sleep" mode.  As an avid martial artist for around twenty-five years (black belt in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, third degree black belt in Kajukenbo Karate), I've seen my share of dust-ups, and thought I'd share a few things that can help make your fight scene a good one.

  • Avoid Technical Terms and Jargon - Sure, I know what a nukete strike, a wazari, and a tominage are, but generally speaking, the reader isn't going to know that the above means a knuckle strike, a throw, or a stomach-throw.  If you throw in a great deal of jargon to show off your massive martial-arts vocabulary, you're going to lose your reader.  Remember that, for the most part, your reader wants to be in the action, not taken out of it while they rush to look up words. 
  • Be Realistic (Part 1) - Most fights do not work the way they do in UFC.  They also don't work the way they do in Kung-Fu movies.  The former is a sport with rules, the latter is pure fantasy.  While I love both, they just aren't the reality of the street.  Most fights are over in a span of seconds, and most manage to end up on the ground with both combatants rolling about.  In a real fight, the experienced fighter rarely kicks above the waist (because it puts him off balance and, if the other fighter is skilled, a flying kick will get him snatched out of the air and introduced to the pavement.  Most fights are brutal and enjoy such fun as biting, scratching, improvised weapons, and both combatants trying to make a point and get the hell out.  
  • Fighting Hurts - One of the reasons I love Jackie Chan is that, in his fight scenes, when he hits a person, it hurts his hand.  That's reality.  The whole idea of bare-knuckle punching a guy and walking away with a smile is pure horsefeathers.  There's a reason while fighters wear gloves, and it isn't to protect the other guy...It's to protect the tiny bones in the fighter's hands.  Also, getting smacked in the side of the head is one thing, but I can tell you from experience that a good head shot doesn't just hurt for a lingers.  Same thing for a good old-fashioned head-butt.  The fact that you have a hard head not withstanding, it still has a lasting effect.  
  • Not Everyone is a Kung Fu Master - Having a fight scene between to average Joes that erupts into something akin to a Golden Harvest film is, to say the least, laughable.  
  • Weapons - The trouble with a weapon of any kind is that, sure they're deadly, but they can also be taken away, dropped, and used against your characters.  Keep that in mind.  Also, keep in mind how much skill it takes to use one.  One of my favorite examples of this principle is the feared Nunchaku, made famous by Bruce Lee.  They look awesome and they're fun to swing around, but do you know what happens if you actually contact a solid object (like a wall or a head)?  They ricochet back at you.  And that sucks. 
  • Be Realistic (Part 2) - To go along with my usual unorthodox style of doing most things, I suggest that, if you're writing a fight scene, you walk through it with a partner.  I'm not suggesting you go out to a bar and start a scrap, but you should work out the movements with a partner to see what works, what doesn't, what's physically impossible, and what seems just damned silly.  Choreograph your fight for the real world, then translate it into simple language so your reader can "see" what you're talking about. 
  • Be True to the Characters - For some characters, fighting is the last thing they should do.  Running away seems more in character for them.  For others, a simple fight will not even begin to work for their level of sadism.  Try to put yourself into your character's head to find out what that character would do.  Would he flail in an attempt to get away, screaming like a wounded chicken the whole way?  Would he humiliate his opponent, then go in for the kill?  Would he act out of animal instinct?  Remember that if it's right for the character, it's good.  
These are just basic suggestions, and they're my opinions of how things work.  As always, the golden rule is "If it's right for the story, it's good."  If you have no experience with fighting and are trying to write a fight scene, visit your local Dojo and talk to some of the students.  Explain who you are and what you're trying to accomplish, then ask them to role-play for you and write out what they're doing.  Don't ask them for the technical terms, but write what you see.  Try your best to describe the action so that anyone could understand what's going on, and you'll keep your audience's attention.  

Until next time...

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