Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writing Fight Scenes (& Other Unladylike Pursuits)

If you follow me on Twitter you'll know I usually hang out with the ladies-who-love-and-write-monsters crowd there (also known as fantasy and urban fantasy writers) and in the last few months I've been seeing this question (and variants thereof) pop up - a lot:

"How do you write fight scenes?"

Worst of all, I keep having answers, or at least a bunch of resources to share, (don't ask) so I thought it might behoove me (yes it's a word) to share them here. That way I can just link people & spend my time discussing wonderfully gory details instead of digging out my past-google-fu (and other nameless resources that I cannot share. I said, don't ask.)

The first thing I have to ask people is - considering you're writing fiction and are very likely to have various supernaturals kicking butt (and getting their butt kicked) with assorted humans and other red shirts - just how realistic do you want this to be?
You may wish to note here that unrealistic fight scenes were one of the big pet peeves discussed in our last two #UFchat discussions (Roasting the Genre - Per Peeves & Wish Lists Rounds 1 & 2).

You may also be checking out the outfits posted here - something also discussed in #UFchat's Roasting the Genre discussion - both the combatants outer wear and urban fantasy underwear... (you tell me - does an underwire push-up bra really sound like a good thing to be fighting in?) But more on that another time...
Invariably the answer is: "as much as possible" so next question:

We talking hand-to-hand? Fist fight? Weapons versus no weapons? Weapons versus weapons? And if weapons, what kind?
Most often I'm seeing questions about hand-to-hand, fist fights and the like, so let's get the other, basic stuff out of the way first:
1) Rule of thumb for all fighting - when the action happens, it happens FAST! Moves, blows, injury, everything. And it feels like you've been at it 20 minutes when it's barely 20 seconds - most real fights are just about done at the 30 second mark (this doesn't include sports - although if you watch fencing masters most of the match is mental sparring and feinting then there's a couple of seconds of blurred swords before it's all over at the end).

2) It HURTS - often in places they don't show you in the movies. Yes, it hurts less so right when adrenalin is surging through your system yes but then adrenalin isn't always your friend. Which brings me to... 3) Adrenalin is not necessarily your friend. In fact, it has a better chance of freezing you up altogether than it does of giving you extra strength and momentary immunity to pain. Seriously. Most people instinctively freeze (yep - guys too). They don't automatically fight back. Generally, it takes acting against instinct-in-the-moment to full-out fight in response to a serious (and potentially fatal) threat.

4) More injuries are sustained when people are emotionally involved (and full of survival-type adrenalin) than when they're not. Pro-fighters (including boxers, mercenaries and thugs) are emotionally disconnected from the violence (at least on a basic personal level, enjoyment is something else) and have trained how to relax and concentrate on the give and take - minimum effort for maximum effect. Lose your head and your likely to, well, lose.
Here are my Twitter exchanges so you can see how else I've ruined my sweet and innocent reputation (Cough! Cough!) with this fighting business:

Fighting – Fist fights & injuries to hands

# GENERAL TWEET BY @sandy_wills (PARAPHRASED) Looking for info on fist fighting – how bad would my hand look later after fist fight?

# @sandy_wills It REALLY hurts. Swelling happens at least a little. And you will cut the skin if you catch teeth. Check all blood is yours tho

# @inkgypsy (PARAPHRASE – NOT EXACT TWEET) Could somebody tell if I’ve been in a fist fight by the way my hand looks?

# @sandy_wills Maybe. :D It feels worse than it looks usually (from what I've seen/know anyway). Fighting isn't straight forward. (link coming

# @sandy_wills Here's a good link about diff between boxing & fist fighting - fist is more dangerous for multi reasons.

# @sandy_wills Oh yeah - other thing is anger tenses you up a lot (incl fists) so more likely 2 get hurt than pro fighter (sport or paid thug

# @sandy_wills Another quick look online found this solid advice: Is in line with what I've seen. #dontask

# Never thought I'd be giving fighting advice today... #neverknowwhatthedaywillbring

Fighting Hand-to-hand – incapacitating opponents & pressure points

# RT VampBookClub Writers: Tips for writing scenes featuring hand-to-hand combat? #UFchat

# @VampBookClub I know Deadline Dames had a post in the recent past - also RomWritersConventionAustralia had a panel too.

# @VampBookClub #RWAus10 was the hashtag. I'll try find the Deadline Dames post.

# @VampBookClub By @JackieKessler Everything I know about fight scenes I learned at tae-kwon do - xlnt. (See rest of post below for link & further description)

# @VampBookClub I also sent someone resources on fighting hand to hand a few weeks ago (fists/punching etc). Would you like that too?

# Not handy but I'll go do some digging. :) Any specific questions? (Don't ask why I know this stuff 'k?)@VampBookClub @dy0ulee

# @dy0ulee You're welcome. Pressure points as in vulnerable blood flow? (eg the same idea of Spock's neck grip making people pass out?)

# @inkgypsy (dy0ulee - PARAPHRASE) Yes! (re Vulcan grip)

# @dy0ulee Don't have anything handy but will dig. :) Therapeutic masseuses, sports injury people & reflexologists are good sources too.

@inkgypsy (VampBookClub - PARAPHRASE) Incapacitating someone? Making unconscious?

# @VampBookClub A key question is: is the one trying to make unconscious aware of intent (are you in a fight)? That's makes it almost..

# @VampBookClub ..impossible for anyone but a highly trained Master. Incapacitate is best bet then something awful like smother.

# @VampBookClub Other key question: is the opponent armed? If so without weapon yourself you're as good as dead - truly. Who/what vs who/what?

# @VampBookClub answered unaware opponent –not armed – incapacitate then kill (if I remember her @ correctly! - inkgypsy)

# @VampBookClub The neck is your best bet then. Can stun an opponent if you hit the jugular correctly but you usually only get one chance.

# @VampBookClub other option is to go for something like the eyes first then hit the neck - main thing is to be quick and cool. Adrenalin..

# @VampBookClub causes problems on both sides (can incapacitate you and can block pain in opponent). Does that help some

# @VampBookClub Glad to help - I have my research out in front of me but toddler calling - tweeting easier than blogging!

[And it turns out blogging is easier (and neater) than trying to remember it all, links included, for future questions...]

And here are some links you'll find useful (don't ask, don't tell 'k?).Writing Fighting - Specifically for Writers of Fantasy & UF:
Here are some good resources from the web for research and stuff. They don't have all the answers of course and fiction is fiction so you have some latitude to stretch the facts but it'll give you a good idea of what will finally read as believable and what won't:
On fist fighting & hand-to-hand:
  • How To: Defend Yourself an article - a few pages and worth reading every one. This should make it clearer to you what the risks are in fighting a) unarmed belligerents b) armed opponents and the best way to keep your skin on and to live to tell the tale.
  • Differences Between Fist-Fighting & Boxing by The Dragon Institute Blog- this makes the differences really clear (and if you didn't guess, boxing is safer - and not just because of the big puffy gloves). Other tips in there too - this is serious stuff.
  • An excellent reply (chosen as Best Answer by Eden's Rain) on Help With Fighting, Tips etc? here - specifically how not to hurt your hands so much when you punch someone, 'cause yeah - it HURTS!
On pressure points:
(you know, like when Spock takes out the baddies with his Vulcan grip) - this applies to trying to hit pressure points while in combat/fighting and when you sneak up on someone and try to take them out quietly.
  • This reply by MasterLambert on how martial arts Masters come to use pressure points in fighting is short but excellent - read it
  • Pressure Point Fighting - kind of a 101 but seems to indicate it's 'learnable'. I'd say not without a master teacher and a lot of long term hard training. Still good for teaching you what pressure point are and what you're trying to do when you aim to hit one.
  • Pressure Points - In A Real Fight - nicely laid out and easy to understand while not pulling any punches (heh), this article deals with the complications of adrenalin for both you and your opponent too.
As a bonus I thought I'd throw in some information on how to combat different vampires around the world - not a fighting manual as such but more a 'what to stash in your weapons bag' and 'effective approaches and tactics against different undead'. Please note - not all undead are vulnerable in the same ways. You gotta do your monster-hunting homework!Good luck, good training and good hunting - I mean writing - good writing!
PS All this information is awesome, of course, but you'll do better by combining it with some real life research - no, I'm NOT advocating walking down an inner city alley in the early hours of the morning and 'accidentally' bumping into someone. Repeat - do NOT do that! Research should not equal bodily harm. Instead I'm suggesting you go watch a martial arts class or combat training session (by a high level) and maybe participate in a basic one. "Live" is the key word here - YouTube, however awesome it may be, does not cut it. Go see, hear, smell, feel & wince in person. And if you're unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of a real fight? GET OUT OF THERE! You only want your action on paper. Seriously. Trust me on this.


Suzanne said...

Great stuff--I'm definitely bookmarking this one. A lot of times, though, my fighters are non-human, so there are some additional strength and stylistic skills to think about. How does a vamp fight another vamp of fairly equal skill, for example. Or my latest one, a mer vs a gator. Heh. Isn't writing fun?

Meagan said...

I'd check on the "fist fights are more dangerous than boxing" thing... I think they talked about that in Superfreakinomics and found that boxing without gloves was more likely to result in hand injuries... But much MORE likely to result in head injuries. The idea being that with straight out fist fighting you instinctively pull your punches some to protect your hands from the blunt object it's about to meet, or you focus more of your energy on the torso, which is softer. Good points throughout though. I'm a fencer and it's always difficult to try to explain the action to an outside observer. I have to admit though, that in spite of realism, "a bunch of stuff I couldn't see happened and then the taller guy was on the ground" seems like a cop-out. :)

Carrie said...

Thanks for this. It made me reconsider how I write scenes. I'll be looking for a book. If there isn't one, well there should be! Writers need reference!