Thursday, May 10, 2012

Storytellers Unplugged Revisited.

A while back I used to do articles for a site called Storytellers Unplugged. I recommend the site for a good source of information regarding the writing process. From time to time I'm likely going to repost the articles I did over there.

This would be one of those times.

On writing about combat.


Once upon a time I was reading a manuscript for a fellow writer who will remain unnamed. I was having a fine time, until I got to the first combat scene. During the middle of a knock down, drag out magical battle where flesh is burning and brick walls are being turned into so much stone powder, the main antagonist of the scene stops what he’s doing and says “Ah, trying to use the (insert lame spell name here) on me, I see.”

Yeah. I circled the paragraph and when I saw my fellow writer a few days later, I asked him if he’d ever in his life been in any sort of serious fight. He responded, as I suspected he would, with a negative on that particular aspect of his life. Excellent as far as I’m concerned. He’s a nice guy and I personally believe that violence belongs in movies and books and not in our personal lives, excluding only certain types of sports.  But it also explained something. As I have been in a few fights in my time, including multiple sparring sessions, I can pretty much state as a fact that neither I nor any of the folks I was sparring with or having a serious fight with, ever stopped to comment on what an opponent was trying to use as a combat maneuver. The closest I’ve ever come was “good one” mumbled by one of my opponents past his mouth guard after I finally managed to get one decent jab past his defenses. The first of the fight as I recall.

Hand to hand combat requires a great deal of energy and concentration. So does armed combat for that matter. Normally you’re going to be far too busy avoiding getting parts of  your anatomy turned into hamburger to even consider carefully phrasing a compliment, especially if the fight you’re engaged in is life or death.  It might work occasionally for Hollywood, but the odds are good that, as with my friend above, the comment will show an appalling lack of experience.

Fiction writers work in the realm of the fantastic, even if they are writing a romantic comedy. We are in the business of selling lies. Those lies might be close to reality or they might be radically removed from anything close to what the author has ever experienced, but either way they are lies. That means we are liars. And that means if we want to sell our lies, we have to learn to lie convincingly.

In other words we have to know when to engage the realism.  I tend to write a lot of violent sequences in my works. It’s part of what I enjoy about writing as well as as tool I use to move my stories forward. I don’t care how excessive the combat is, and it is often far larger than would ever be possible in reality, I want to make the trappings of the scene at least a little believable.

I can only go from my own experiences, but as a rule, going back to the first comments made in the article, I’m pretty darned sure I’ve never commented on what someone was trying to do to me in combat while they were trying to do it. I saved it for later, after it was done and I’d had time to consider the situation.

Most of the fights and sparring sessions I’ve had were over too fast for me to have time to chat up my opponent, or I was far too busy concentrating on not getting my face knocked off my skull.

On DEEPER, my publisher complimented me for understanding that firing a handgun takes effort. He was especially pleased with the fact that I understood how firing several hundred rounds from multiple weapons would be like absolute torture to the person doing it. Not only are handguns and automatic assault rifles deceptively heavy, they also have recoil. In order to keep the barrel aimed in the right direction, you have to constantly aim and adjust for that recoil. Get into a situation where you are firing at a small army of monsters, and by the time it’s done your arms are going to feel like you’ve been working out extra hard on the weights to impress that cute girl (Or guy) over in the corner who’s been flirting with you for the last half hour.

Even in light contact sparring sessions, you’re likely to get a few bruises before the fighting is done, because from time to time you’re going to block or be blocked by a part of the body that isn’t covered by pads and doesn’t have much meat to protect the bones. Let me tell you, your shin crashing into somebody else’s shin might stop you from getting kicked in the stomach, but it’s not going to make your leg feel any better about what you just put it through. Or, as one person in the know put it to me: The boxing gloves are designed to protect your hands more than they are designed to protect your opponent’s face. Getting hit by those pads hurts like a mother.

Fighting of any kind is a matter of survival, and if you want your readers to believe that someone is in a fight for their lives, the characters should act in believable ways. It’s likely going to be easier for someone who’s been in several fights to swallow a bad guy who can throw cars than a bad guy who makes casual conversation with the hero who’s trying to separate his head from his shoulders.

I mean, really, there’s insane and then there’s just plain crazy.

James A. Moore

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