by Matthew Swihart, Esq.
In my last post (http://chiseledinrock.blogspot.com/2012/08/and-now-its-time-for-beatdown.html) a critic took issue with this comment: “Trained fighters … won’t speak at all.” The critic opined that storytelling and real-life are very different, and suggested that verisimilitude is not important when it comes to action sequences. The critic then likened fighting to sports, and suggested that action sequences are incapable of moving a story forward without dialogue. Finally, this critic took the position that words can be weapons which are just as effective as physical blows.
After consideration, I believe many of these opinions are probably shared by other writers. Accordingly, I would like to address them here—not to take up a forum against a critic, but rather to address issues raised which I feel are valid issues which should be addressed and not ignored. So I pulled out some of my favorite books and movies, and evaluated these opinions in light of these resources.
First, as a fighter who has fought literally hundreds of people in my life and never lost a fight, and as an attorney who uses words as weapons as the primary portion of my job, I can honestly say no one has ever bled from something I’ve said, nor have they ever raised their hands and cried, “No more! You win! I’ll never match wits with you again!” So, with all due respect, people who think words are even remotely as effective as fists in fights have no idea what they’re talking about.
Second, sports are readily distinguishable from combat. In sports, no one is trying to kill you. Rather, the opposition is merely trying to distract the player from performing a task, the performance of which does not require the presence of the opposition. For example, a basketball player is trying to make a basket, but his “opponent” gets in his face trying everything he can to distract the player enough so he misses the shot. That is very different from someone attempting to rip your head off and set it on a spike outside their house, with a note stapled to your dead forehead saying, “You don’t mess around with Jim.”
Third, verisimilitude is a vital element of writing. According to Plato, Aristotle, and all my writing teachers, in order for a work of art to have any significance or believability for its audience, it must be grounded in reality. Countless great writers and teachers agree. This series of posts about fighting are intended to present the reality of fighting, so writers without scars can enrich their fight scenes, and in doing so, enrich their stories.
Fourth, there are literally thousands of examples of fight scenes crafted by people who know combat (Hemingway, Forester, Mann, Orwell, and on and on). These fight scenes don’t include plot-advancing dialogue. It’s not the right time for it. It’s the time for a good action scene. And great books like “The Old Man and the Sea” are clear evidence that dialogue isn’t necessary to advance a story, if that story is well told. One of my favorite characters in fiction is Garet Jax, from “Wishsong of Shannara”, by Terry Brooks. One of my favorite scenes contains no dialogue at all:
Garet Jax led the charge, darting through the Gnomes that rushed to bar his passage, swift, and fluid as he killed them. He was like a black-clad dancer, all grace, power, and seemingly effortless motion. Gnome hunters, gnarled and worn from countless battles, threw themselves in front of him with frenzied determination, their weapons hacking and cutting with lethal force. They might as well have been trying to contain quicksilver. None could touch the Weapons Master, and those who came close enough to try found in him the black shadow of death come to claim their lives.
“Wishsong of Shannara”, at pp. 436-437.
As I said in my last post, you can easily spot untrained, unskilled, insecure, and frightened fighters by the amount of trash-talk they spew prior to fighting. It is a subconscious way of saying delaying the pain that comes with a fight. Therefore, the more your character talks before a fight, the more likely they will lose that fight (unless the their opponent is just as chatty, then it’s anyone’s game). Also, if two guys are talking while fighting, they are either playing or dancing, but they are most definitely not fighting.
But, I reiterate, trained (not all) fighters will not speak during a fight. In the fighting world, we have an acronym: OODA. This stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It is the way our brains operate. OODA means, whenever faced with a situation, circumstance, or question, the brain must first Observe the totality of the circumstances available to it, then Orient itself to those which are important, then Decide what to do about it, then Act on the decision.
Human psychology tells us we are not capable of multitasking under high stress conditions. This is because OODA fully occupies your mind. When you have a loaded gun pointed at your head, you are no longer capable of blind texting your friend that you’ll be late to dinner and they have to pay with one hand, while pulling your wallet out with the other, all while begging for your life and trying not to pee your pants.
That said, I must concede that language does have a place in conflict—it’s just not during the actual fight. Let’s consider that armed mugging, above. You are cutting through a dark alley, Batman’s-dumb-parents-style, to meet your friend for dinner. Out of the shadows steps a large man in a nondescript outfit. He points a large revolver at your face. Tunnel vision quickly sets in, and all you can see is the gaping barrel and what seems to be an overly large front sight. You know you have to act to save your life, but what do you do?
Well, you could just give the man everything he wants, and hope he’s satisfied with just mugging or raping you. Or, you could elect to fight. Since this post is about fighting, the choice is obvious. But the gun is right there in your face, a threat and demand has been issued in a forceful tone, and you notice he has already taken out the slack in the trigger. Any wrong movement will likely result in the gun going off, and you are in the wrong place. So, what do you do?
You need to distract him long enough to make your move without losing half your head. But how? OODA. You ask him a question. Now, rather than going into a long dissertation on psychological tactics, just trust me when I tell you the more reasonable and normal your request (in other circumstances), the more effect OODA has on him. A stupid, challenging, or outlandish statement may just get you shot. And getting shot is generally deemed to be a bad thing.
So, you ask something like, “Sure, I’ll give you my wallet, but can I bum a cigarette off you?” This throws him for a slight loop, as OODA requires he orient himself to your question, decide how to respond, then act on his decision. This buys you approximately ¼ second where he’s not thinking of pulling the trigger. If you don’t act in that ¼ of a second, you will probably die.
Unless he starts talking. As I mentioned, talking is a bad idea. Our brains like to finish one task before performing another, so if he says something, he will (most likely) not pull the trigger while he’s talking. I say most likely, because he may pause in talking long enough to pull the trigger. This is consistent with my position because it requires he stop talking while he pulls the trigger—the point is that he may not necessarily complete a full sentence—our brains prefer to complete one task at a time, but they don’t always do so.
Speaking of talking, it’s easy to see my point in movies. My all-time favorite movie, Le Pacte Des Loups (“Brotherhood of the Wolf”), has many fantastic fight scenes (the first fight scene is one of my favorites), and no one talks during the fight scenes. Watch Bruce Lee’s movies—there is occasionally talking between fights (if your opponent runs into a room of mirrors and trash talks you before “continuing” the fight, I consider that two fights in a row, not a single fight), but when Bruce Lee is fighting, he’s not talking. Another great example is from Lethal Weapon 4, wherein Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li) fights silently the entire movie.
The point is, plot progression dialogue is misplaced in a fight scene. Progress the plot before and after the fight scene, but give readers a genuine, realistic brawl, and they will become more involved in and dedicated to what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous fictional dream” of your character and your story.
Matthew Swihart has more than twenty (20) years’ experience in Martial Arts, with over ten (10) years’ experience as an Instructor (Sensei). He has a First Degree Black Belt (Shodan) in Shotokan Karate, a Fifth Degree Black Belt (Yondan) in Chito-Ryu Karate, and holds rank in Ryu Kyu Kobudo Hozon Shin Ko Kai (Okinawan Weapons). He has also earned the titles of Technical Expert (Renshi) and Disciple (Deshi) for his extensive training and service to Chito-Ryu Karate. Mr. Swihart has never lost a fight, and has survived through three riots in psychiatric/correctional facilities, and one gang fight which broke out around him. He is currently in the process of securing a location to bring Chito-Ryu Karate to Colorado.