How to Approach a Fight Scene

I have trained many years in Martial Arts. My experience has taught me the basic elements of a fight, and more precisely how to be aware of my surroundings and therefore how avoid the confrontation, deflate the situation so there is no confrontation, or not be surprised when attacked or thrown into the middle of a fight.

Being aware of every single moment and movement in a tense situation is key to a fighter. Anything is possible, so they have to be ready for anything. Surprise is your enemy (unless you have the element of surprise on your side). Even if you are surprised, you don’t let the other person know that. You just start moving.

Movement is very important, and it is almost always constant. A lot of fights are two equals coming at each other punch for punch, kick for kick. With movement there is momentum. When someone punches, their body is moving one direction. Now you can either stand there and get punched, or you can twist your torso, watch his fist fly past you, then you grab his arm, twist it behind his back, slam your heel into the back of his knee thus forcing him to the ground. Keep his arm locked behind his back, putting pressure on the elbow, and you’ve got a pretty good handle on him because he won’t be able to move.

However, there are very strong people who can get out of such a grip—or they don’t care about pain and dislocating their shoulder—so with this kind of person you need to wear him down. He’s going to come flying at you with everything he has, but if you keep dodging, he’ll wear himself out, and this creates an opening for you. Since you haven’t used all your energy, now you can strike.

What I just described was a basic fight and the mindset of a mature fighter who has nothing to prove. People who are trained fighters and warriors on the field are least likely to pick a fight—mainly because it is unfair to everyone else. They know what they can do, they are confident in it, they don’t worry about it, but they will fight if they have to defend someone they love or are duty bound to protect, and when that happens, you better know how to defend yourself too or else you’re just going to get pounded.

Sure, TV and movies show guys fighting all the time—whether they are trained or not. It depends entirely on that character’s personality. If he feels he has something to prove or is insecure in any way, he will fight to make himself appear bigger and stronger than everyone else. The problem is when you have a lot of insecure people in the same group because, you’ll have a mess.

So when you sit down to write a fight scene, you must already know your character because that will determine how they fight. No one ever gets up one day and says, “Hey, I’m gonna fight today!” Well, I suppose someone could, but then he’ll have to decide whether or not he’ll get training before he fights, but more importantly he’ll have to decide why he wants to fight.

Once you know the ‘why’ for a fight and ‘how’ both characters fight, you need to determine ‘where’ the fight will take place. Will it be in a bedroom, in a hallway, the kitchen, the parking garage, in the middle of the shopping center, or in a forest?

Use the surroundings to your advantage. Jackie Chan is a master at this in his movies, and he uses anything as a weapon or a shield. Take your cue from him and imagine the setting and the little details. Stools are always great to break over someone’s head—so are wine and beer bottles. Throwing someone into a glass front disorients them, and big shards of glass automatically become a possible weapon. Pillars are great to slam someone against, hold someone against while choking them, or to be standing with your back toward and then ducking at the last possible second as the antagonist moves to punch you only to punch the steel pillar instead.

Another important detail to know is ‘when’ it’ll take place because if the place is a public place like the shopping center, it will help determine the elements of the setting. For instance, more people would be out and about at lunch time leading to a more crowded environment for the fight rather than how empty the place would be at night.

So you need to know the following:

  1. Who is involved in the fight
  1. How your characters fight
  1. Why your characters are fighting
  1. Where the fight takes place
  1. When it takes place

Now you know your characters and those details. Next week’s post we’ll discuss how to write the actual fight scene.

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The Author’s Obligation to the Reader

I texted a friend once asking her if she had ever read a book where there was a good scene but it could have been written so much better. Within a minute she texted back, “Chariot scene in Ben Hur.” I was surprised by her response on two levels: 1) she responded so quickly and didn’t need time to think, and 2) she had a scene in mind and didn’t require any clarification. No hesitation. No uncertainty. She had been looking forward to that scene since she began reading the book, and she had high hopes for its potential, but it disappointed her. 

I realized writers have an unwritten contract with the readers. As soon as the first word is put on the page you are promising two things: to complete the story and to use all the elements you bring into the story to make the tale memorable.

Having the story completed is always a given. If it’s published and in your hands, it has to be finished, but how many unfinished documents do you have in your computer? I know in my computer I have two main files—Finished and Unfinished, and the Unfinished is a lot larger than the Finished file. You may come up with a new story idea and write it until you get stick. As long as no one else sees it, that’s all right. You have no obligation to the reader. Your obligation to the characters and the story itself depends on your belief in them.

Now the second point was my surprise that my friend had a scene in mind and knew exactly what I was talking about. Imagine you’re baking in the kitchen. You have the following ingredients:

flour (a solid character)

eggs (the plot)

butter (great scenes)

sugar (witty, good-humored dialogue)

cocoa (dark twist)

baking soda (climax builder)

salt (truths come out)

water (everything’s resolved)

and as well as your mixing bowls and spoons. Separately they stand alone and have different purposes, but to make a chocolate cake, you have to measure each one specifically and stir the mixture. You can’t just say, “Let’s do a cup of salt!” and you also can’t just throw all the right measured ingredients into the bowl without stirring it and say it’s a cake.

When you write the first word on the page, you’re promising the reader, “I swear to deliver this story as clearly and accurately as humanly possible. Every element I include will be mastered. The climax will not disappoint. The results will be satisfactory, and the story will be memorable.”

Writing without studying and practicing different kinds of scenes and mastering different elements is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never trained a single day in your life. You might survive, but it won’t be pretty, and you’ll probably never do that again.

So, when you sit down to write a story but especially a novel, be ready to deliver. “What if the scene I’m writing is boring or difficult? Can I skip it?” Some people do, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason why it’s boring or difficult. As the author of the story, it is your duty to look at the chapter and determine why it’s dull and unexciting. If you’re bored by it, your readers will be bored by it as well, and when they’re unamused, they put down the book and never finish it. You don’t want that to happen.

Why is the scene boring? How can you make it more interesting? It might be a scene where two characters are discussing a detrimental consequence of an action, and there’s nothing you can do to make the scene more exciting—except maybe add a flare of personality in the characters, or add a third character who doesn’t get along with one or both of those other two and has a wicked sense of humor or doesn’t understand the seriousness of the talk. Little things like that can make a boring scene pass quicker and be more entertaining.

Now, if a chapter is difficult to write, it could be because it is emotionally trying, or it could be because you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You know what needs to happen, but you’re not sure how it’s supposed to happen, or you might lack confidence in writing that specific type of scene. If it’s emotionally trying, that is good. All that emotion you’re struggling with is rich, so channel it into your writing. Don’t be afraid of feeling, don’t be afraid of your struggle. People relate to emotions, and when they sense the emotions are authentic, it will touch them, and you want that. Take it one step at a time though. Don’t push yourself, but simply allow yourself to feel, and write it.

However, if you’re struggling because you have no idea what you’re doing (with a fight scene, for instance), then you need to pause and reconsider what exactly you are doing and how it’s important to the story. With the first draft, you may wing it for the sake of writing it and moving on with the story, but don’t be satisfied with this when you come back to it during the revision process. Take time to study your problem. Come to understand where exactly the problem lies. If it’s a fight scene, it could be because you don’t know how fights really work. If it’s a battle scene, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the chaos that you don’t know how to cover it. Come to acknowledge the root of the problem. There is no shame in that. Next step, do research, ask fellow writers for help, read books with similar scenes and study how those authors handled the scenes.

Remember, you have an obligation to deliver the story to the fullness of your ability. Don’t think, “Oh, they won’t care,” or “They won’t notice,” because you will be wrong, and your story will be a disappointment. Writing is a craft. You must master it if you truly wish for your story to be memorable or an epic escape.

Be Original

What to write? Sometimes we are so full of ideas that we have absolutely no idea what to write. They’re all stray ideas which don’t fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and this is frustrating! So you finally take one idea and try to wring it for all its worth. Now, you can come up with a good story like this, but here is something to keep in mind when you’re trying to craft a story with stray pieces of an idea:

  1. Is the main idea or the way the story unfolds cliché?
  2. If yes, how can you make it different?

Surprisingly, a lot of stories (films, shows, and books) ignore how unoriginal their story is almost as if hoping no one will notice, or at the very least we’re not tired of the same old storyline. Should we, as writers, settle for this? No—not if we can think for a moment longer on the plot and create a unique twist on an old element.

For instance, there is a new TV show that’s going to start up sometime next month called ‘Galavant’. It looks absolutely cheesy, full of clichés, completely predictable, but hilarious at the same time. It starts off as your typical king-steals-man’s-woman-to-marry-her-and-man-goes-to-rescue-her plot, but in the trailer there is this little twist that made me laugh because it’s about time someone did it!

Galavant: (in front of the king’s court on the day of the king’s wedding)“You can offer her great fame. You can offer her great fortune, but only I can offer her great love, and that is what she chooses.”

Woman: “Actually…I’m going to go with the fame and fortune.”

Galvant’s face drops with disbelief.

Sure, it’s not much, but it’s taking a cliché and bashing it against the rocks. I don’t know how the show will play out, but this is a simple example of taking something old and making it new again. There are a lot of parody and satire skits that do just this, and it’s what makes them funny, but you can make something new again without always being humorous. It can still have the dark, dramatic atmosphere if that is what you want your story to have.

When you’re thinking of what to write, don’t rely on the charm and wit of your characters or the vast vividness of your settings or the complex systems and worlds and creatures you’ve created to enchant your readers. If the basic plot is ‘good guy fights bad guy and good guy wins and gets the girl’, or ‘hero discovers they’re the savior of the city/kingdom/world/galaxy/universe and must fight all evil but first must train and eventually defeats the villain’, this is predictable. You might write it well and completely draw in many readers, but aren’t you the least bit curious how much better it could have been if you had just taken a moment to make it different? Take the seed of your idea and contemplate it deeply. What will make it stand out in a crowd? What will make it so unique?

I once co-wrote a story, and the basic principle was this: peasant girl discovers she has inherited an entire kingdom after her father died, and now she must learn the cultures of royalty at the hand of a prince from a neighboring land. Initially, it appears to be the same old story where a commoner suddenly rises to power, and you may predict, “Well, she’s obviously going to fall in love with the prince, and they’ll live happily ever after.” But that is far from what happens. She falls in love with someone else only to be rejected by him, and at that time the kingdom has been attacked. She has no time to entertain love but rather focuses on the defense of her kingdom, and as such she morphs into a true queen, and things get much more complicated from there. The story doesn’t have a happy ending either, and it goes on to have a much darker sequel. This is just an example.

So, when you’re contemplating your next story, think it through, imagine how it will unfold, and if you run across the usual cliché, then do the opposite of what’s expected (or at least something different). Don’t settle for the routine but venture to be distinct. If you want to stand out in the crowd, don’t run with the crowd.

Naming Characters

Naming characters—always fun and absolutely fundamental to your story. You may craft a character in your mind, but you don’t know who he or she is until they’re named. Sometimes characters are okay with having their names changed a few times before you settle on a name, but other characters are incredibly stubborn, and they will not let you rename them no matter the consequence. Regardless, it is important to give much thought to what you will name your characters. For some people this comes easily, but others may struggle.

If you’re writing a story, and the characters are named with usual everyday names (e.g. Brandon Riley), you have a few options:

  1. The phonebook. Yes, who uses a phonebook anymore? Writers, of course. It’s almost like a dictionary of names. Find a last name you like, and mix-match it with a first name.
  2. Name sites such as http://www.aussiethings.com.au/babynames/ (fantastic source with lots of names and alternative versions of names), http://www.behindthename.com/ (another great source, and it gives a bit of info on the history of the name), and http://surnames.behindthename.com/ (surnames can be complicated, but this site has a database full of them plus their history).
  3. Facebook (or any social media outlet). If you’re in groups on Facebook or just have a lot of friends or followers, sometimes you’ll notice their names, and you can mix-match names you find there as well, not basing the character off those people but merely borrowing the name. (Don’t take someone’s complete name without first asking though. That’s the proper thing to do.)

Now, if you’re writing a story that requires more complicated names such as fantasy or science fiction, you can make up your own names, rearrange the letters, and experiment with different sounds, or you could use name generators. Here are two helpful ones although there are many more you can find on the Internet:

http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-name.php (this site has generators not only for character names but also for taverns, ships, creatures, realms etc.)

http://www.rinkworks.com/namegen/

Now, say you got a name that you like, but it’s not exactly what you want. It’s close enough, but you think it can be better. That’s when you start getting creative. Say you have this name: Eldther. It doesn’t sound exactly how you expected, so you start playing around:

Eldther—say you want to emphasis the ‘th’

Elther—still doesn’t have a strong ‘th’ sound

El’Ther—ah, much better.

Sometimes you have to change letters around to find the name you want. Say you have the name ‘Kelfurn’—you don’t like it too much, but you see potential. You know ‘ph’ makes the ‘f’ sound, so you try this:

Kelphurn

This makes you wince, so you take off the ‘L’:

Kephurn

You don’t like the ‘phurn’ at the end because it reminds you of the word ‘churn’, so you change and omit some letters:

Kephor

How would that be with an ‘L’ again?

Kelphor

It’s beginning to look okay, but is that the best you can do?

Kolphor

Still not strong enough

Kolphoroth

Good but too long

Kolroth

Hmm, interesting, but not there yet:

Kol’Roth

Much better, but now you’re torn between Kol’Roth and Kolphor. All this from Kelfurn. You see how names can evolve?

Now, yes, authors can and do come up with names of their own because the character tells them immediately. I had one character for that. her name was Glastila. She told me what it was, and I had to figure out how to spell it. Sometimes we writers have a hard time pronouncing the names we come up with, but we figure it out before too long.

A similar approach could be taken when creating names for locations or vehicles. The Internet is a valuable resource, so take advantage of it. Remember, when you find something you like, try to make it unique to you and your story.