A few times now I’ve run a workshop at conventions which is all about writing realistic fight scenes. Writers are constantly told to “write what you know” and good writers will research things they don’t know very well. More accurately, writers should “write what you know, or have gone and found out about”. I’m a writer and a martial artist. I’ve trained and taught martial arts for close to thirty years and had a variety of fighting experiences in a variety of tournament conditions, as well as a few encounters on the mean streets of life that are best not discussed on the public record. So I can be considered something of an expert on the subject.
I developed a workshop called Write The Fight Right, and it has been very well received each time I’ve run it. Here’s the blurb:
This is a workshop designed to look at the things that make a fight scene in a story read as realistically as possible, while maintaining excitement and pace. By looking at the various factors that go into a real fight, paying attention to the things that we train for when we learn to fight, we can write fight scenes that stay exciting without breaking the rules of realism that shatter believability.
I’ve been asked by a few people to convert the content of the workshop into an ebook and sell it. I’m working on that, so bear with me.
In the meantime, I have the pleasure of sharing some thoughts on the subject with author and martial artist Lorna Suzuki. Lorna is the author of The Imago Chronicles and has been studying and teaching martial arts for more than twenty-five years. As part of her blog tour promoting the 9th and last novel in the Imago series, as well as the release of her new YA book, The Magic Crystal (Book One of the Dream Merchant Saga), I asked her to chat with me about various aspects of writing fight scenes.
Lorna, welcome to The Word.
Thank you for hosting, Alan! I’m so happy to be here.
One of the first things I like to get out of the way when talking about fighting is the “Hollywood distraction”. On film, fights need to be clear and visually spectacular. This often leads to each fighter taking a turn and a very unrealistic fight resulting. In writing, we can avoid the need for a visual spectacle and describe other aspects of a real fight. Lorna, what are your thoughts on this?
Unfortunately, I’ve been in real-life fight situations (with men, never against women) and for anyone who trains like we do, what you see on the screen is obviously choreographed and nothing like a real fight that can be over in a matter of seconds. From those who have struggled with writing these types of scenes and have read my fantasy series, one of the things they have consistently pointed out is that what makes mine so effective is that I tend to write about the emotional side of being caught up in a fight.
Also, because the vast majority of my readers do not train in martial arts, where practitioners can usually follow and understand what techniques are being applied, to write these scenes from a strictly technical perspective would only bore non-martial arts types out of their minds!
In my workshop, I always get people to pair up and we go through a few really basic drills to demonstrate range, footwork and movement from a real fighting perspective. How do you approach this aspect of fighting in your writing?
Definitely, having an understanding of how the body moves, the importance of balance, of not over-extending punches and kicks, etc. is intrinsic to writing scenes that have a realistic slant to them. After training/instructing for so many years, these scenes tend to play out in my head. I think having a background in martial arts makes it possible to allow the characters to do what they must to survive the situations I place them in. Of course, as I already know what each character’s weaknesses and strengths are, it’s easy to have these fight scenes unfold in my mind’s eye. For me, it is almost like transcribing what I see and trying to capture the emotional toll such a confrontation can have on the character.
I also like to point out that when a fight is written with a lot of clinical terminology, it takes the reader out of the visceral experience of fighting. If you need to describe techniques in detail it slows the pace of a part of the book that should be fast and hectic. How do you avoid making the fight the slowest part of the story?
It would be the equivalent of using words that the majority of intelligent readers are not familiar with. Each time they have to stop and check the dictionary for the meaning of the word, it disrupts the flow of the story, making it come to a screeching halt each time.
Because my style incorporates ninjutsu, my characters’ actions are very subtle and very quick. A film producer interested in acquiring rights has already told me that the fight scenes would have to be adapted to make them visually ‘spectacular’. I tend to write what I know, so it works its way into the scenes. Whether it’s dropping the opponent by striking a pressure point or using a bone-breaking technique, they are easy to do, easy to describe, but they’re not flashy on the screen. These are the things that work for me (and my characters).
From a writing perspective, it’s important to try and keep the adjectives to a minimum and to keep the sentences short and tight. One thing that I’ve noticed is some authors will have two opponents in a death battle and as they’re beating the crap out of each other, they are also maintaining full dialogue! No stilted sentences, no words cut short. The two are engaged in as much conversation as they are in a physical confrontation.
And I can tell you from experience, that never happens! Another good aspect to writing over film, as you mentioned earlier, is that we can describe the emotional impact of what’s happening – the adrenal reactions in the body and so on. How do you approach that aspect in a fight scene?
When I do write the fight scenes, the action level is intense, but it’s usually over pretty quickly. However, for me, I tend to emphasize the trauma of being drawn into a fight and the roller-coaster ride of emotions as things escalate. The adrenaline, the panic, the fight-or-flight instinct kicking in is something that even if a person has never been in a physical altercation, the emotional side of it is something they can relate to. If they can relate to the feeling of fear, that rush of adrenalin, the shock of pain that becomes apparent only after the fighting is done, etc. the more impact this passage will have on them.
I think one of my best fight scenes is when the female protagonist goes to war for the first time and is momentarily frozen in panic. When it’s over, she’s on her knees puking her guts out and the shock sinks in that she is truly capable of taking a life. I’ve been told it was the emotional trauma she endured that really stuck in the reader’s mind.
Absolutely – that sounds to me like a very realistic scene. Obviously, there’s an awful lot more to all this than we’ve covered here, but it gives you a taste. I don’t want to give everything away, or there’ll be no demand for the ebook I’m working on!
Lorna, anything else you’d like to say on the subject in closing?
I’d like to recommend authors struggling with this bit of writing to try out a style of fighting their characters are familiar with. Many martial arts school give free introductory classes and a chance to sample a lesson can sometimes be enough to inspire the author to continue on training to learn more. Once they discover how easy it is to really do serious damage when they know what they are doing, it can be a real eye-opener. It can also open the door to writing fight scenes with a sense of realism. In my opinion, the best fight scenes are a perfect blend of action and emotional tension.
I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to thank Lorna for taking time to chat to me today about this stuff. Best of luck with the book tour and your future writing!
Thank you so much for being such a great blog host, Alan! I’ll catch you on Twitter and maybe when I return to Australia one year we can do a seminar on this subject. Now that would be fun!
You can read excerpts, reviews and find out where to buy the books by checking out Lorna Suzuki’s website at http://web.me.com/imagobooks
Follow Lorna on Twitter: @LornaSuzuki
Join Lorna for Day 5 of the blog tour when she discusses “The Challenges of Writing for a YA Audience” with Katrina Archer at her website: www.katrinaarcher.com/journal/