Monday, October 27, 2014

The Big Fight Scene, pt 2 - Stylin'

Wait, there's four of them...
So you want to write a combat scene in your book?  Good for you, violence is as much a part of life as relationships, politics, romance, sex, and anxiety.  Its not necessary to have violence in a book, but there's good reason to include it in many stories.

But what sort of combat do you want?  Will it be stylish and fancy, will it be cinematic and exciting, will it be swashbuckling and wild, with people swinging from chandeliers?  Or will it be gritty and cold and realistic, filled with technical details, sweat, and fear?

The truth is, most of what you see in TV and movies isn't terribly plausible or realistic combat.  Fight choreographers are trying to give a visually exciting and unique scene, not a plausible or realistic one.  That's why people can get punched across a room, crash into a pile of twisted steel, then jump up and fight some more.  Its why the hero can be punched in the face 18 times and not suffer brain damage, let alone any trauma other than a bit of blood.

In writing a story, you have a different set of concerns than a visual medium.  Instead of needing to capture the eye, you must capture the imagination.  But as the previous installment of this series noted, you have to serve the story in either medium.  The point of a combat scene is to tell the story no matter what other concerns you might have.

Here are a few styles and approaches to combat (which can also be applied to other interactions such as arguments, politics, and so on).

If you're writing a children's book, then chances are you don't have to make it extra gritty or even detailed.  Bob the mouse beats Grifter the Rat on the head with a ball point pen and runs away.  All that is needed is a basic, simple description of physical events.  You don't even need to explain consequences to violence such as blood or pain.  At most, a comical knot rises on someone's head or they are knocked out painlessly for a while.

The advantage of this style is that you don't need to know anything about combat in any form you are writing.  How many bullets does that pistol have?  Who cares?  How heavy is that broadsword?  Doesn't matter!  The combat in such a style is not about the actual fighting but what it achieves.  If Tom his Jerry on the head with a frying pan, it isn't about the beating, but the laughs.  If your wizard casts Allazakam on an opponent in a duel, nobody needs to know how it works or what happens, the other wizard is Zakammed and he loses.

This can be easier to write, but it has significant challenges.  For one thing if you don't match this simple abstracted tone with the rest of the book its going to seem jarring and childish.  For another, it can be very unfulfilling to fans of swordplay, six gun duels in the dust, or starship battles.

Roger can escape any time...
In this style you're less interested in what is going on with the battle than how it strikes the reader.  No matter what is going on in the page, the point is to amuse and delight your readers, so the actual action serves this purpose. 

This means the actual outcome of the battle is largely irrelevant, as long as it gets a laugh and moves the story to its conclusion.  If Rick Roarden, intrepid private dick has the magazine fall out of his gun just as he's trying to shoot the tires out of his opponent's car, then it doesn't matter if the bad guy gets away, as long as its funny.

The biggest drawback to this kind of writing is that being funny is very, very hard to do.  A lot of humor's impact comes from surprising readers, which is not an easy task, particularly with people who have been reading a lot through their lives.  It has the same advantages and drawbacks as abstract and simple combat writing as well.

I've been to Omaha and it was nothing like this
This sort of writing is as realistic and dark as the writer is able to manage.  Every punch breaks bones and tears flesh.  The blood sprays, the broken teeth are spit out, the pain is described in detail.  In this kind of writing, there's no flesh wound that the hero shrugs off, because the flesh wound is incredibly painful and debilitating.  When someone is shot in the head, they don't die neatly and suddenly, but blood spouts from the wound and they lie a moment confused, uttering disturbing phrases like seeking their mother, and perish fouling their shorts.

The smells, sights, and sounds of combat are emphasized in this form, to make it as clear and specific as possible.  Gritty combat writing is meant to put the reader into the scene to the point it makes them queasy and uncomfortable.  In the first scene of Saving Private Ryan, it was said to be so realistic that it was causing flashbacks in WW2 vets and forcing them out of the theater because it was too much.  I don't know if that's just publicity or real, but that's the kind of goal this form of combat writing is after, because it serves the point of making combat something genuine and immediate.

The advantage of this style is that it pulls readers into a terrible situation with a significant level of drama and is quite memorable.  If done well, it gets the nod of approval from those who have experienced violence themselves.  However it is very hard to get all the details right even if you've personally been in these kind of situations.  And the visceral details can be very disturbing and even cause people to stop reading your book if you go further than they are comfortable with.  And there's always the danger that you'll get so fixated on the grit of combat it will be the focus rather than the story - or that it will be out of style and flow with the rest of the narrative.

In this kind of combat writing, the author is considering greater issues and meaning than simply the blow by blow account of activity in combat.  Why the musketeer thrusts with his rapier matters more than how, and what the consequences of that grenade thrown into the bunker are is more significant than the radius of the blast.  For this sort of combat, the writer is not particularly interested in the fighting but in what it represents, what it means, and what it says about the characters and perhaps ourselves.

The advantage of this kind of battle scene is that it greatly advances character development and the story, if done right.  It forces readers to consider more than excitement and events and pushes them deeper into the meaning and truth of what is happening.  Making people question and examine themselves and what they believe - and why - is a good thing.

However, it is difficult to do well, because it is very easy to be bogged down in self pity, dull treatises on philosophy and the human condition, or to start preaching at the reader.  Instead of using the moment to touch on thoughts about human spirit, meaning, and truth, you can end up simply lecturing or focusing too much on thoughts and emotions which slows the pacing and can make it dull.

Some combat scenes are told as an extended metaphor, where the events and people stand for something other than themselves.  The machine gunner stands for the slave owner, the knight holding the bridge is a metaphor for the need to fight against sin in our souls, and so on.  Sometimes this is used as analogy, where the entire affair stands for something else: the fight between the two gunmen is really about life its self, and the struggle to survive; the samurai fighting in a burning village are really about modern culture's fascination with gadgets (somehow?) and so on.

An advantage of this is that the combat doesn't really take center stage at all, it can be very stylized or simplistic, because the point is not about the fighting at all.  Each action described is not about the combat, it is about furthering the metaphor.  And writing this way can powerfully advance a theme that might otherwise be difficult to explain or put into words.

That said, it is extremely hard to pull this off properly and subtly while making the point clear enough.  Written clumsily this can either be too obscure to make a point, or too blatant and on the nose to be effective.  Yes, we get it.  The guy with the hammer is the oppressor beating on the minority other.  The vast smog elemental is climate change demolishing the planet.  But I can't work out what on earth that starship using a radiation weapon to mutate the asteroid represents.  And there's always the danger that needing to conform to a metaphor or analogy can make your combat seem stilted, forced, or irrational.

The average pistol of a hero in a Western
In this form of combat writing, the focus is on the details and devices.  Instead of a gunfight, it is a duel between experts in two specific styles of fighting using a matched set of Y-47 Canis Ordnance Laser Pistols with the Plexsteel grip and extended power pak.  The training and methods of combat matter more than why the people are fighting or even who they are.  How they move, what technique they are executing, and what sort of weapons and armor they wear are the focus.

This sort of writing can be very exciting to adherents to a martial art or fans of a genre.  Getting the details of that gunfighter's filed off front sight or the samurai's Hanzo katana just right can be fun to experts and hobbyists.  For the historian, having the correct breastplate on a Napoleonic Cuirassier is pleasing to read.  And it also can help inform and teach people about different aspects of historical events.  If you get the Macuahuitl correct in a story about Aztecs, then your readers learn something about Aztec war and equipment.

The major drawback is that you really need to know what you're talking about down to the last bootstrap or fans will savage you.  Sit with some WW2 historians during a war movie and you'll learn a lot about what was done wrong.  For instance, even in the Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach scene, they got some stuff wrong: the captain showing his rank insignia on his helmet and uniform, for instance.  German soldiers targeted officers, they'd cover that stuff up with mud or something else.  And the focus on details can lose the rest of the story, burying it in specifics and information rather than telling the tale.

If you're like me, you probably have written scenes using several of these approaches at once, blending them together.  Ultimately, the combat you write, just as every other part of the book, has to serve the story by developing characters, advancing the plot, describing the setting, and telling the tale.

And that also means how you write combat should be how you write the rest of the book.  If you are writing a wild fun sort of implausible story, then implausible fun combat should be part of it.  If you want to write a dark, moody book, then a suddenly comedic combat scene would probably be jarring and out of place - unless it serves to be twisted and disturbing by contrast.

In the end, what you write in your combat scenes should flow well and be a natural part of the rest of your story, and indeed should come from the rest of your story as naturally as the dialog, romance, descriptions, or any other part.

Next time, I'll look at things to avoid, and ways it can go wrong.