Friday, October 31, 2014

The Big Fight Scene, pt 3 - Details

Some genres rely more on combat than others, such as fantasy or frontier historical work ('westerns').  It is unusual to read anything set in these sort of stories without at least one fight.  And I have often read of authors setting to write such a book worried about their fight scenes.

In a way modern cinema has done a bit of a disservice to the fight scene.  They've become so spectacular, ornate, and skilled that it is difficult to envision something that will capture a modern reader's imagination.  Take a look at this montage of fights someone put together:

And that's only sword fights.  Thrilling stuff, eh?  But so thrilling that writing a fight scene in a book can seem impossible, how can you match that?  Well you can, but you have to shift your thinking a bit.  And a good way to do that is to avoid certain mistakes.

Watch it again, but this time watch the swords and how they are used.  Don't just enjoy the dazzle and spectacle.  Silence the music if you have to, and you can even use the options to slow the speed down.  Now think about what you see.

How many times does the opponent stall or set up a block while the attacker does some fancy move such as a spin or using a border shift to move the sword from one hand to another?  How many times does each character do some flourish or maneuver that serves no tactical purpose whatsoever except to look good?

Now, there's nothing wrong with looking good, but when you're fighting for your life, looking good comes so far down the list its not even worth mentioning.  In fact, "looking good while you fight" is the sort of thing a bad guy who knows he's going to slaughter his opponent and is simply toying with them is interested in - a worthy thought for your fight scene (watch the swordfight at the end of Rob Roy for an example of this; Tim Roth's evil character immensely outclasses Rob Roy with the blade).

However, the things that movie fight choreographers do often have nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with being impressive on camera.  SCA members will attest to this: its tiring to fight with a sword, and even adrenaline will only take you so far.  Doing extra fancy stuff just tires you out more.  Unless it serves a direct purpose (such as a feint or surprise) its a waste of energy and time.  While you're spinning your sword and turning around, your opponent is going to be, well, killing you.

This applies in all sorts of combat.  Martial arts, guns, what have you.  The more you learn about combat, the more you learn of what does and doesn't work.  Its the same as any other endeavor, except with combat, you have the added spice of being harmed and possibly dying.

When your life is on the line, rules and style tend to go out the window.  Its an old hidden secret of martial arts that almost no fight involves people standing up and hitting each other except ones with lots of rules in competitions.  If you want to see what a real weaponless fight looks more like (assuming you've never seen one) don't watch a Kung Fu movie or a boxing match.  Watch Mixed Martial Arts bouts. 

Almost every single fight ends up with the two on the floor wrestling.  There's a sort of style to it, but most of those neat spins and kicks and stuff are at the beginning and unless the fight ends abruptly, its to the mat wrestling.  And there's good reason for that: you can't get that boot to the head in if someone has pulled you to the floor and is strangling you.

Of course, a very simplistic or stylish story might require both fighters on their feet, using some agreed upon gentleman's rules of fighting, and not end up wrestling in the dust.  That's perfectly acceptable; in fact it might be preferable for the setting or characters involved.  Its just something to consider when you write your fight scenes.

Which brings up another point.  Unless two fighters are very evenly matched and careful (or totally incompetent), most fights are over with very quickly.  There's a reason gunfights in westerns have a lot of establishing shots, closeups of eyes and sweat and a hand over the butt of the gun.  Once the action starts, its over almost before you can actually see it happen.  The really, really fast gunfighters were impossible to watch.  Check out this video:

The quality is low but you get the idea.  That last shot of two balloons gives a feel for how quickly a gunfight can be over with.

But, according to every expert, combat vet, and martial artist I know of or read, unless its a competition with lots of rules and padding, almost all fights are over with very quickly.  Sword, light saber, axe, laser pistol fists, what have you the results are very similar.  The better or luckier combatant gets a good solid hit in, and its over.  Now, that doesn't mean in your books it needs to be that way, but unless you're deliberately writing a very stylized, cinematic battle scene you might want to consider making at least a few of the less significant fights these sort of fast, overpowering kind.

Now look at that video again: how often does the attacker swing at the opponent's weapon instead of their opponent?  This is a standard in movie fighting, for a couple of reasons.  First, they don't want actors swinging a weapon at another actor.  Second, it looks impressive, like the fight involves lots of parrying and blocking.  Third, it prolongs the battle so that its not over with by a feint and a quick attack.

But in real life, unless you're trying to disarm or using a feint to draw the opponent's attack and open them up for your thrust, you aim for the person, not their weapon when you attack.  The point is to hurt them, not their sword.  Not only is this sort of the point of fighting to begin with, but its damaging to your weapon to keep bashing it against something hard like another sword.

And with any other weapon, its no different.  The big change with a gun is that, unless you are spectacularly excellent and used to combat, you gotta aim for the biggest target.  Cop after soldier after expert say the same thing: shoot center mass.  Don't try to wing them, don't shoot the gun out of their hand, aim for the torso.

Just give up, bad guys.
I know its cinematic and exciting to have Johnny Sixgun blast away with his revolver and disarm the dastardly foe.  In some books or settings that's okay, but if you're trying to write something remotely realistic, that's extremely hard to do and a really bad idea.  The problem is that its a small target that moves around a lot and if you miss, they're going to shoot you back.  And they probably won't be trying to do some trick shot, either.

And while I've never been in a gunfight, every single reliable piece of information and anecdote available says that your adrenaline is so high you're jittery to begin with and you'll not likely aim well even if you're a crack shot at the range or in all those video games.  Some are; its not impossible to be that good, but someone who is, is a freak of nature.

It hurts to be hurt.  I know that sounds obvious, but it really does hurt to be cut, or shot, or clubbed.  Most of us have had some of these happen in our lives, and we know.  But for some reason when it comes to combat, we tend to forget it or push that aside.  If you get stabbed, it hurts a lot.  If someone hits your hand with a mace, it hurts, a lot.

Now it is true that in combat you can ignore a lot of this temporarily out of shock and adrenaline.  From most accounts being shot by a bullet feels more like a punch and the real pain starts later, but you can only take that so far.

Most fights end because the person who gets hit gives up because it hurts so bad.  Think about the last time you slammed your finger in the door or stubbed a toe.  Just how much fighting were you up to when that happened?  Chances are you dropped what you were holding.  And that was just a fraction of what its like to take a real hit.

Now, in fiction we have to give some way for literary license, and you can't have your hero drop the first time he gets poked, crying like a little girl.  At least, not unless you're writing comedy or making some point about anti heroes and so on.  So your hero can be experienced enough with pain, so focused they ignore it momentarily, or so well armored it doesn't hurt as much as it might.

But to utterly ignore the pain of combat, how tired you get, and the aftereffects is to dehumanize your characters and make them seem detatched, cartoonish, and unreal.  If that's what your story calls for, then good, but if you want a believable and human hero, he's got to notice those wounds.

Something that doesn't come up very often in gunfights in books or in film is how very loud they are.  Ear splittingly loud.  Painfully so.  The first thing you hear after a gun goes off is your ears going EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!  That's why people wear earplugs and earmuffs, because they are very, very loud.

Now, many times I've seen people in movies or read them in books having a casual conversation during a gunfight:
"Hey Bob, who was that lady I saw you with last night?"  (bam bam bam) 
"That was no lady, that was your wife!"  (bam bam bam)
...and so on.
Again, if your book is about humor or poking fun at this sort of thing, go ahead, but in a real gunfight nobody is having a conversation.  Not only can you not hear well enough, you have more important things on your mind, like "I hope I don't get shot and die."

Even a swordfight is pretty loud, and can be heard quite a ways off.  The clash of steel is not a quiet thing.  People being stabbed don't keep it to themselves very often.  In other words, combat is loud.  An ambush can be quiet, but someone fighting back makes a lot of noise.

Something a recent study of combat showed is that people engaging in a fight get tunnel vision.  Here's a sample:

The focus you get into in threatening situations can help you by blocking out distractions and allowing keener attention to important details.  But it can mean you don't notice something dangerous, as shown above.  This means that our hero might get himself into trouble because of this focus.  So your hero trains himself to watch everything and be aware all the time, you say?

Well, there's a problem with that approach too.  Even a very well-trained observer can only keep up wide attention on everything for so long.  Its exhausting and becomes overwhelming.  You can test this out by yourself.  Next time you go out for a walk or a drive, pretend you're in a combat zone and worried about snipers, mines, IEDs, hostile drivers trying to force you off the road, and look for details around you to remember all of them.

You know, watch windows for a gun barrel, check the rooftops, look at the trash on the road, the faces of drivers to read their attitude, the people between parked cars, down alleyways, in doorways, in shop windows.  Look for license numbers, the clothing on people, their hair color, distinguishing features.  Is that piece of cardboard hiding a mine?  Is that bicyclist holding a gun?  Is that window open on the third floor?  And across the street from it, what's that on the rooftop?

 See how many blocks you can get before you give up because its just too much.  This is why squads work together on this on patrol, so no one of them has to look at everything.  And even they train in noticing things out of the ordinary or unusual that stand out and signal danger.  This is why so many writers use the "sixth sense" bit where the hero senses something is wrong but can't say why.  Years of experience, they say.  

But relying on that reduces you to a paranoid wreck because years of experience teach you that everything can be bad.  Every alley can hide an ambush, every window a sniper, every bush a mine.  Eventually that sixth sense warns you that the little girl on the bicycle is holding a grenade in her lap and that balloon she let go and is crying about is a signal to the strike team around the corner.

You can read the full FBI report on violent encounters and how cops get shot in pdf form online for more hard details.  Especially useful is the chapter on perceptions in stress and how witnesses get things so wrong when something happens.

All this can be helpful for writing a memorable, effective combat scene because it helps get into the mind of a warrior - something almost none of us are.  Instead of using this information as specific examples of behavior or warnings, they can be used to help shape a mindset and a personality that someone who fights for a living must develop and thus be reflected in their character in a story.

Well this has gotten long enough, and I've got more stuff to write about, specifically for guns and armor, but for now its something to consider.

You don't need to strive for perfect technical accuracy in every book; sometimes its great to be vague and silly, sometimes the story is about the people and combat is minimal in its description.  That's perfectly fine for the right kind of tale.

If you're writing a story about Fluffy Cottontail and his valiant Mice Warriors for kids, they don't need to know how heavy a broadsword is or how much it hurts to be hit by a mace.  But knowing the details and information of combat can all help develop personality, character, and worldview of your protagonist.

Knowing details like these can help get into the mind of your character and affect how they act, what they say, and why they do what they do when the time comes.  And someone steeped in combat will behave differently because of what they know and have been through even when they aren't fighting.

And all that can add up to a better story with better characterization.