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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Preaching Instead of Writing

Sit back as I fumigate my
wisdom upon you!
I'm sure you've read at least one book in the past where the writer clearly had some message, moral, political statement, or religious idea that they were promoting.  One which overwhelmed the story and became the point of the book, their pet idea that was too strongly, too stridently, or too often repeated and pushed until it no longer truly was a story being told, but a tract disguised as fiction.

When I start to read such a book I become annoyed with it and want to stop.  If its a message I disagree with, it just makes me angry and want to stop reading.  If its a message I agree with, it makes me bored and want to stop reading.  Neither one is particularly good for the book or its author.

This is partly why I don't want to be a "Christian writer" even though I am a writer, and I'm Christian.  Too often these books end up being little more than an evangelical tract, a message in story form.  The best I hope to offer is a good book, well written, and it will inevitably end up being influenced by my Christianity, but not as a main, central theme.

As Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM fame) told a screenwriter “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  These days it might be phrased "if you want to send a message, text it."  There is a temptation for some, perhaps many, to use their writing to make a statement, and that is something that has to be fought with both arms and both legs to push it away.

The truth is, we all have something to say, and further that our ideas, worldviews, passions, and interests will influence and be expressed in our writing to one degree or another.  And of course there's nothing wrong with being thought provoking or presenting ideas in fiction.  What some consider preachy others might think of as simply interesting; some consider the Narnia books to be repulsively Christian while others simply find it a wonderful read.

But clearly some get carried away.  I recall a discussion on this topic where one writer proudly announced that their urban fantasy had elementals rising up to punish mankind for global warming.  I haven't read the book but with that little blurb I can imagine the pedantry and heavy handed writing that was involved.

It need not be, of course.  High Noon was allegedly written as a complaint against McCarthyism and the Hollywood "blacklist" but was so well done and subtle that its virtually invisible unless you've been told ahead of time (and still isn't real clear even then).  The original The Day The Earth Stood Still was a cold war and nuclear weapons warning, but was so well handled and interesting that you didn't mind watching.  The remake was about global warming again, but was much less effective.

The trick is that if you have some statement to make, make it as gently, subtly, and entertainingly as possible.  What you want is more Dr Strangelove and less JFK; a book or screenplay that reaches people but is primarily about telling the story rather than one that hammers people over the head with a thin veneer of story to disguise it.

Charles Dickens excelled at this kind of writing.  For example, the message of tempering your business ambition with humanity and love for your neighbor in A Christmas Carol is clear and unmistakable, but told with such skill, drama, and excitement that it is almost universally beloved as a classic.

Dickens succeeded because while he had a strong message, he didn't pontificate, he wove the message into the story, making it an integral part of the tale that had an inevitable, proper, and reasonable conclusion.  The ghosts didn't lecture Ebenezer Scrooge, they showed him parts of his life and asked questions, questions which Scrooge had reasonable but wrong answers to.  In the end, the weight of the truth bore down Scrooge and he was a changed man.

Had each ghost given a 3-chapter Ayn Rand speech on ethics and behavior, then the book would have been miserable to read and failed in its goals entirely.  There are tricks you can use to weave a message into a book, but you're usually better off avoiding trying to write a message book at all, until you get a good handle on writing to begin with.

Even if you are a great writer, usually you're better avoiding a message for several reasons.  First, its difficult to avoid sounding preachy - some even find A Christmas Carol too pedantic.  Second, you're likely to annoy and push away a notable percentage of possible readers by having a message in your book.  Third, if you are intending to write message, its easy to lose track of writing a story; writing a great story should be your first and even second priority when writing.  And finally, a book with a message is like the man who marries the spirit of the age: in a few years it might become old and dated.

A hot topic!  ...In 1975
That book on global cooling you wrote in the 70s was hot then but now it seems bizarre... until the general message shifts again, I suppose.  Writing about political corruption or greed or oppression is pretty much universal, but writing about how horribly the Patriot Act creates tyranny by the federal government is too specific, and these days feels very dated and specific. So your book has a better than even chance of feeling old and left behind if its too dated and targeted in its message.

If you do write a book with a message, better that the message develops on its own through the process of trying to write a story rather than starting out with one to begin with.  For example, the message of my upcoming book Life Unworthy, to the extent there is one, is the nature of evil and where it comes from in us all.  I didn't set out to write this, the concept developed about halfway through the book as it was a theme that kept coming up as I struggled with how the Nazis could have shown up and become so prominent in Germany.

Writing a good story well told with compelling characters and narrative is your goal.  If, through that, you develop a theme or message that is told in the process, well that's fine.  That way the story of the book you are writing is an organic natural part of the tale being told.

If you do start with a message, make sure you tell it by telling your story rather than by telling your reader.  Instead of insisting that big government is corrosive to freedom or that big corporations are evil soul destroying monsters, show it through the way the story develops.  Don't have someone stand up and "testify" before congress or have an extended argument.  Demonstrate the point you are making through the actions of the characters and the inevitable consequences.

If you can't do this, then maybe you should try writing something else.  Or maybe your message is just wrong, that's always a possibility, isn't it?  More than one writer has set out to prove one thing and through their investigation and research has realized another.

In any case, your best story you can tell isn't the one that convinces everyone you're right, but that demonstrates you're a good storyteller.  What they learn from it or take away from it will be heavily influenced far more by the latter than the former.

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.