One of the most helpful writing panels I’ve ever been to was at VCon in 2008, called Writing About Fighting. I learned so much from the panelists, got inspired to finally start taking martial arts and have had since had the honour of joining this annual panel at VCon. I’ve asked two of the panelists who had the most impact on me to share their wisdom in this Inkpunks blog post. If you’ve ever worried about getting a fight scene right, read on to gain insights into how it should and shouldn’t be done.
Now, just to be sure you know why you should listen to these artists please allow me to introduce you to Devon Boorman and T. G. Shepherd. I have included their full bios at the end of the post.
Devon is the co-founder and director of Academie Duello, a centre for swordplay with over 200 active students, a store, and an arms and armour museum and is currently the largest Western Martial Arts centre in the world. Devon has been practicing martial arts for more than 20 years and has worked on stage and screen as a stunt person and choreographer.
T.G. Shepherd is a martial artist with over twenty years of experience in eight different arts, currently training in Kali, JKD Concepts, boxing, kick boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. She writes sword and sorcery, high fantasy and stuff involving monsters.
Pencils sharpened? En Garde!
1. What are the biggest mistakes you see when reading hand to hand fight scenes?
Devon: I think the biggest general mistake that authors make when writing fight scenes is getting overly specific with their technical details. Unless you’re an expert martial artist in the discipline you’re writing about, I’ll be able to imagine something far cooler and more coherent than you can write. Focus on important details for the story, maybe a notable move here or there but leave the rest up to the imagination of the reader.
T. G. Shepherd: The mistakes in hand to hand fights fall into two categories for me:
— Too much technical detail: this manifests as murky prose. I can remember reading a fight in a hotel room (written by an author lauded for their action skills) that was so jumbled I had to stop and work out the blocking of it before I could continue. Needless to say, this wrecked the narrative flow. So, if you are an experienced fighter, beware of over-explaining your fights.
— Lack of visceral detail: it’s not difficult to tell when someone who has never been hit writes a fight. There is generally a total lack of sensual connection to the violence: the greasy feel of sweat, the slime of blood, the smell of skin, the kinetic impact on flesh and bone.
2. What about common mistakes in fight scenes using weapons?
Devon: Armour weighing 100 lbs, swords weighing 20 lbs, fantasy swords with three blades that would be more dangerous to the wielder than the foe. Spend some time with real weapons (museum pieces or genuinely good replicas) to understand what qualities people truly looked for in a good blade. Full suits of plate were between 30 and 60 lbs, most swords were between 2 and 4 lbs with the heaviest getting up to about 8 lbs.
Living history groups that spend days or weeks in a full recreation environment are also invaluable resources for getting a better understanding of the realities of historical arms and armour. Though I love the SCA, they don’t count in this regard.
T. G. Shepherd: The most common mistake is probably the one that cannot really be corrected. Most fight scenes with weapons go on too long. The saying in the Filipino arts that I do is there are only three good stick fights: thud; click, thud; click, click, thud. Anything else means you don’t really know how to fight. Since most of the time, stories are about extraordinary people with extreme skills, fights that last minutes–even a minute–are unrealistic.
3. How can you use a character’s fighting style and/or choice of weapon to assist in world building and character revelations?
Devon: Certainly different types of weapons carry a certain impression in our common cultural mythology. Knives and daggers tend to seem sneakier and more roguish, larger heavier swords are bolder and warrior like, longer thinner weapons carry the cavalier attitude in their steel. You can certainly use these common ideas to fit your character or tell part of the story around them, their weapon choice showing evidence of their broader life choices. If you want to avoid cliche then its important to make sure that the weapon your character wields makes sense within your world and its common attitudes. A cat burglar with a two handed sword on their back may buck cliche but it also bucks common sense.
T. G. Shepherd: Weapon skills have always had socio-economic sub sets. In the Western tradition noblemen were mounted knights and swordsman (often the only people legally allowed to carry long blades). Peasant levee were pikemen or (one step up) archers. Knives and ‘stealth’ weapons were generally the mark of a thief or assassin. Clubs were used by crude thugs. Many Eastern societies also had extremely codified rules for who could carry/wield what weapons, generally on pain of death. So it pays to think about where your character comes from, what they would have access too, and letting that make some decisions about where their skills lie.
There are cultural artifacts that will automatically signal character traits for many readers: a character employing a garrote or a stiletto or throwing knife will be seen as (best case) subtle, tricksy or (worst case) underhanded, treacherous. I personally find it interesting to note that archers are often portrayed as jovial smart alecks (Robin Hood, several characters in the Song of Ice and Fire, Hawkeye from Marvel comics and there are more) and stick/staff fighters as big dumb brutes.
Becoming just a competent weapon fighter (the sword being default for most fantasy stories) takes a very long time. I have been training as a stick and stick/knife fighter for over a decade myself and barely consider my skills “journeyman” level. Some of the time factor can be over come with natural talent, of course, but otherwise the need for the access and time to train must be dealt with as part of your character development.
4. The purpose of a fight scene should be more than just to have a “cool fight scene.” How can a writer make sure it has a purpose in the story?
Devon: Don’t write a fight scene unless it has a purpose in the story. Sure I love fighting but if I want just a fight scene I’ll read a book on fighting or go and do some sparring or watch UFC. In a novel I have to care about the characters and I have to feel the tension in the scene and care about both the potential benefit and the possible loss for those involved. Make sure you know why its compelling for your character to be in a fight, what they sacrifice for being there, and make sure it’s suspenseful.
T. G. Shepherd: I am actually not opposed to the inclusion of the occasional ‘pure cool’ fight, but yes, the best fight scenes will always have a deeper narrative purpose. To take two examples from cinema (oddly, both involving Daniel Craig) I would argue that the ‘freerunner chase fight’ from the beginning of Casino Royale was not only very very cool but essentially a declaration of war: Craig running through the dry wall is a shout of ‘I will not be stopped by little things’– so when something does manage to stop him, you automatically register it as a ‘big deal. The opening fight of Cowboys versus Aliens is fast and fun but served a multitude of purposes: it addressed the then nameless hero’s character (he didn’t like the mistreatment of the dog), it established his physical skills (bad-ass) and showed a wide streak of ruthless. It takes more time and effort to do that in print but it can be done.
The manner in which someone starts and ends a fight is a huge indicator of character. Did they provoke the fight or attack someone else for no reason? Do they fight in defense of others or only themselves? Do they embody and rules about ‘honorable’ combat or do they seek to win by any means necessary? How do they react to killing people? To maiming or wounding? The emotional reaction to even a ‘friendly’ fight can be crippling to an inexperienced person: to have deliberately and purposefully caused pain and fear to another human can wreck people emotionally — or reveal aspects of themselves they would rather not have known. Imagine going through your life thinking yourself a rational and peaceful person and then finding out you rather enjoy hurting others.
A fight scene can serve a purpose as simple as being an obstacle in the protagonist’s path (the random monster encounter) or it can be a defining character moment. But try to make it cool too.
5. How do you balance out being realistic in your fight scenes, with still being entertaining? (one punch and it’s over isn’t really fun to read)
Devon: Armour, terrain, parrying. All those things can certainly make a scene more protracted without your character having to be Rocky. Historically we have accounts of many people making their way through duels with several serious wounds before succumbing to injuries and certainly many superficial wounds can add drama without putting your character down.
T. G. Shepherd: A fight involving three strikes thrown on each side can take pages to describe and still be exciting. At least I hope so, I just wrote one like that.
All kidding aside, I believe in poetic license. The most realistic fight in any given situation might end in seconds but perhaps there is a very plausible fight that lasts much longer you can write. Frankly, a very realistic fight will be boring or confusing.
When we write dialogue, we have to smooth it out from the purely realistic. Humans don’t speak as coherently or directly as is often necessary to have them speak in fiction. By that same token, smoothing out a fight scene from from holycrapwhat’shappeningcrappunchcrapthathurtwhatthehellishappening into clean strikes, counters and moves is merely a necessary technical task.
6. What advice do you have for a writer who doesn’t have fighting experience but wants to write about it?
Devon: Get some fighting experience, go take a martial arts intro, consult with an instructor. I recommend also physically blocking out fight scenes before writing them to make sure all the action makes sense in time and space. I have worked with several authours in this area, consulting with someone like me or a stage combat expert can really help with both the accuracy and the action.
T. G. Shepherd: I would recommend trying to take a least a class or two in some martial art, obviously.
If you lack any experience in fighting and cannot acquire any, you need to do the following:
— Don’t try to sound like an expert unless you’re willing to do a lot of reading in research. I mean technical manuals from the “Sports” section of the library, not The Art of War or The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. I have read exceptional fencing scenes that were the product of that type of research alone; that author however is Tim Powers, the modern master of dark fantasy. Unless you’re that skilled, you might not pull it off.
— Be vague. Don’t spout of names of techniques without knowing what they actually are from the inside. This also has the advantage of acknowledging that 90% and more of your readers don’t know how to fight either. Saying ‘She punched him with a straight jab’ is going to be more forgiving than ‘She put him in a standing oma plata’.
— Try to see the fight in your head, and then block it out slowly yourself, even just to settle proportions and distances and turns.
— Watch some boxing or UFC matches. Not WWE or martial arts movies. You can learn a surprising amount from studying mixed martial arts. In the recent UFC 154, note how fighters who’ve been punched near the eye get tagged so easily on that side afterwards or how they start to flinch and retreat because their peripheral vision is damaged.
— For the love of the gods, stop saying ‘he moved like a cat.’ Just…just don’t.
7. What are some examples of novels or stories where they get it right?
Devon: Dorothy Dunnet in A Game of Kings does a beautiful job of poetically describing a duel with the main character. The technical details are largely exempted but the prose gives the reader a lot of room to fill in the details and truly conveys the attitudes and feelings of the characters.
Robert Jordan in the Wheel of Time series does a good job of using fanciful guard and action names indicative of Eastern Martial Arts to give the reader a sense of action without having to describe any specific sword moves.
T. G. Shepherd: I cannot recommend the following authors highly enough:
Adrian Tchaikovsky, “The Shadows of the Apt” series (Eight books and counting) — a perfect blend of ‘cinematic’ and realistic fighting. Possibly the best modern fantasy for fight scenes. I am deeply jealous.
Bernard Cornwell, The “Sharpe” series. This is historical military fiction but the namesake character, Richard Sharpe, is magnificently drawn as a fighter both for the way he thinks and the way he fights.
Terry Pratchett, any of the Discworld novels involving Sam Vimes. Despite the jokey tone, Vimes thinks and acts like both a true copper and a true street fighter.
Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan Saga, the “Chalion” books and the “Wide Green World” series. Less for the fight scenes than the mentally of the soldier.
Elizabeth Moon for the same reason as Bujold, particularly the “Deed of Paksenarrion” stories.
Devon Boorman has practicing martial arts for more than 20 years. Starting first with Asian martial arts, including Kung Fu and Arnis, Devon discovered western swordplay through the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) which connected him with a burgeoning community of martial artists and scholars studying Historical European Marital Arts throughout the world.
Devon has travelled extensively, first as a student, then as a competitor, teacher, and researcher. He has won more than 40 European martial arts competitions, and worked on both stage and screen as a stunt person and choreographer. Devon is actively involved in the translation, interpretation, and revival of Western Martial Arts from surviving historical manuals, some of which are on display at his school.
Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques. He has taught workshops and seminars throughout the world on both the study and practice of historical techniques and on practical combat implementation.
Devon is the co-founder and director of Academie Duello, which has been active in the Vancouver area since 2004. Under his leadership the school has become a centre for swordplay with over 200 active students, a store, and an arms and armour museum. The Academie is; a model that Devon hopes to help others achieve as the Western arts grow in popularity. currently the largest WMA centre in the world.
T. G. Shepherd is a member of the small but growing geek/jock community. A martial artist with over twenty years of experience in eight different arts (currently training in Kali, JKD Concepts, boxing, kick boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), she writes sword and sorcery, high fantasy and stuff involving monsters. After having taken about a decade off from writing to pursue a career in film and then policing, Shepherd is back in the writing ring and intends to come out swinging with a high fantasy horror serial killer mystery novel, because if one genre is good, more is better. Her published works (short stories, a play and some non-fiction) are so far out of print they should spontaneously reappear any day now.