Left, Downward Hammer Fist – Right Side Shoulder Pin,What?!
Writing kata is hard. Even when it’s for a manual and you know the readers will be able to follow technical terms like Lunging Reverse Punch, Parry Block, or Lunging Flying Push Kick writing out an entire kata generally results in a confused jumble of nonsense. Even simple techniques become confusing when written down like, Right Sword Arm Block, Step Left into Reverse Front Stance, Left Palm Heel Strike. Now imagine how difficult it is to write a realistic fight scene for all of the people who are looking at the above terms and scratching their heads.
‘Good’ fight scenes are fairly rare in the first place, and they are generally either 1) very vague…”Harold swung his sword wide, cutting into the other man.” Or 2) ridiculous…”Kellen swung around his horse’s neck, kicking a charging Orc with both feet, and riding it to the ground. As the Orc hit Kellen leaped clear and flipped in the air, bringing his sword down on a second Orc’s helm.” Yeah, I’m guessing you see my point…where did that sword come from again? I’ve read a lot of fight scenes and most are confusing, or impossible. A few are plausible, and some are even impressive. However, what I’m most impressed by is reading a fight scene that is not only cool, impressive, and understandable, but realistic. This doesn’t happen very often, although one I can think of off the top of my head is near the end of Steven Erikson’s The Bonehunters. Erikson has a fairly good feel for fight scenes and, while some are questionable, he has some that are excellent. Another author that has some good fight scenes is Michael A. Stackpole.
Now I’m not going to claim to be an expert at writing fight scenes. Generally I struggle with them quite a bit. However, I have learned a few things from all my struggles. One, I hate vague fight scenes. I’m a martial artist. I want to be able to envision what is going on, and sentences like, “He bounced back and forth between them, swatting with a cane” really mean nothing. Two, sometimes vague is necessary. In fact vague is usually necessary to some degree because, unless your fight scene is very short, writing the whole thing out gets increasingly technical and confusing. While I hate vague, for a good fight scene you have to intersperse vague with detailed to give your audience a feeling of immediacy. If your fight scene drags on for pages then it feels like the fight is moving very slowly. I’ve turned a 45 second exchange into something that felt (reading it) like it took closer to an hour. That’s something you want to avoid.
Three, don’t get technical. While I truly wish that everyone in the world could understand the sentence, “Then Hiram executed a reverse back fist, stepping forward into a back stance, and followed through with a powerful hook kick to the ribs,” most people people are going to scratch their heads and say, ‘well that sounds cool?’ A better way to phrase it might be, “Hiram threw a powerful punch and then stepped in. Allowing his weight to settle on his rear leg he lifted the other to the side and whipped it at the knee, driving his foot into his opponent’s ribs.” While far from perfect this is, at least, somewhat more descriptive, and maybe a little bit easier to understand if you don’t know what a reverse punch, back stance, or hook kick are.
Four, don’t get ridiculous. Kellen swinging around his horse’s neck to kick an Orc is ridiculous. Simply from a tactical point of view being mounted is an advantage. Even if it wasn’t, swinging around a horse’s neck to kick a charging (presumably armed) Orc is a good way to get your feet chopped off or your ribs broken. If you manage this feat without killing yourself, riding the Orc to the ground is pretty reasonable, but then flipping off of it is not. If you were going to do anything you would stand, if you couldn’t stand you would roll, but executing a flip from a kneeling position on a falling Orc…well…yeah. Even assuming that Kellen was standing, not the first thing I assume when I read ‘rode it to the ground’…still…yeah. You get my point. Think about what you’re writing, not just about what’s technically feasible but about what is practical, and likely. Sure some martial arts use a lot of acrobatics (Capoiera for example), others don’t. Don’t write something just because you feel like it’s impressive or someone like me will point out that it was a really stupid thing for the character to do. If you want to write something impressive then make sure it fits. For instance, a lot of jumping around, flipping, and general non-sense from a Capoiera fighter would make perfect sense.
If you do want to write something impressive then make sure it fits with the martial style your character is using…to do that you have to know what martial style your character is using. For instance, in Star Wars lightsaber fighting seems awesome…until you realize that all these people are swinging around three foot long laser beams with no hilt guards and not losing their hands. I was able to fool myself into assuming that it was some kind of courtesy that they didn’t just whack off hands left and right until that stupid scene in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, it’s just as important to avoid not writing things that are possible because you can’t believe them. For instance, men can splinter, chip, and even break rocks with their bare hands. A few days ago I watched a Korean fighter break a dozen pieces of marble with one strike on this program. People can do some pretty incredible, unbelievable things. The key is to make it believable that the character would do it, not so much that they could do it.
So, to put my money where my big, fat mouth is, here is a short scene from a story I wrote the other day. I think it’s a decent fight scene. Maybe not great, but good…but then, I’ll let you decide.
“When the announcer finally cried for the fight to begin Gao Ju Bei began to circle cautiously. It was obvious that he did not know what to make of Bi’s relaxed pose. Bi did not move to counter him. Finally, opting for the honorable course, Bei circled back around to face his opponent and then charged in with a low kick to the knee, a swift fist close on its heels. With a speed that belied his apparent relaxation Mao Yu Bi stomped forward with one foot, launching himself into a high barrel roll. As his body extended horizontally over Bei’s arm the Demon lashed out with a strike to the man’s forehead that sent him reeling for a moment, and under his breath Bi muttered “Demon Strikes the Sun.” A blissful smile spread across his face. The Demon landed in a crouch and spun, sweeping his leg across where Bei’s knees had been a moment before, but the other fighter leaped over the sweep and Mao Yu Bi barely rolled back in time to avoid the descending knee that splintered the jade where it struck.
The crowd watched in silent amazement as the two men fought. Though the Demon obviously had the upper hand, landing one or two strikes for every dozen he threw, while Bei’s attacks were always narrowly avoided. The powerful attacks of the Gao Ju Bei’s Dragon Style splintered the jade platform again and again, but what truly kept the fans silent were the spinning, arcing, graceful movements of the Demon, his weariness having dissipated as the fight drew on. It was unlike anything they had seen before. At times the man seemed to defy gravity, hanging in the air with his legs pointed towards the sky as he leapt over another of Bei’s attacks. Other times he seemed to almost disappear into the jade platform as he rolled, tumbled, and flattened himself against its surface.
That day Mao Yu Bi earned his title before an audience of thousands. Finally, Bei began to slow. A mask of determination drew down over the champion’s heavy features and he settled into a low stance, knees and feet wide apart as if he was riding a horse. He drew in a deep breath and roared. The sound sent a shockwave of energy across the platform and the fans in the front row across from Bei were pushed backwards, many of them falling off the bench completely. Recognizing the Dragon’s Roar the Demon dove forwards. He could feel the shockwaves course over him as he rolled, but then he was past it, beside Bei. The Demon came up on one knee next to Bei and spun. Then, hooking an elbow around Bei’s knee the Demon launched himself forward into a roll, pushing Bei’s leg before him causing the man to fall. The Demon rolled over Bei’s leg and back and landed an elbow against the back of the man’s neck as he hit the ground. The elbow connected with crunch and Bei did not move.”
You can see that Mao Yu Bi is using a distinct style of combat; one that incorporates a lot of movement, both aerial acrobatics and tumbling. You can also see that Gao Ju Bei also has a distinct style; one that is much more straight forward. I believe that I can get away with some things, like Mao Yu Bi’s barrel roll attack, because of the way that his style is described, and shown, throughout the scene. You will also notice that I move back and forth between vague description and specific detail. I think…well, I hope that this gives the fight both a sense of realism and a sense of speed.
I’ve tried not to get too technical in this scene, but that is one of the things I’m still a little worried about (…that’s why I put a picture of a barrel roll in the post…shh…). I’ve thought both fighting styles through so I know what they look like. I know the attacks that the fighters are likely to use, the way they defend themselves. I even threw in a little bit of magic. I hope this helps you as you’re writing your own fight scenes. And I will get back to the Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts series eventually…I promise.
Posted on June 25, 2011, in Plot, Style and Structure, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged Aikido, Capoiera, Karate, Martial Arts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steven Erikson, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.