Wednesday, August 29, 2012

And Now It’s Time for a Beatdown

By Matthew Swihart

Matthew 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.

Every story has conflict. This conflict can be existential, philosophical, emotional, psychological, and just about any other “—al” you can come up with. Regardless of your primary conflict, there are few stories which don’t contain at least one physical altercation, and most contain several. This means we as writers must be well-versed in various forms of physical combat.

The first question, naturally, is, what type of fighter is each character who will be throwing flesh, steel, or lead? Is he a pimply fat kid who’s only balled his hand into a fist when he couldn’t mash the buttons on his controller fast enough to defeat the Arishok, or a seasoned fighter who knows enough to not respect UFC fighters? Is she a fragile waif incapable of killing a spider, or a streetwise tough girl who carries Vaseline in her purse and never wears earrings she can’t quickly remove with one hand?

Next, you must ensure the skill-level of all fighting characters either remains the same or improves over time. It’s always a sign of bad writing when the antagonist (or antagonists’ chief goon) is shown quickly dispatching trained soldiers, then inexplicably has trouble defeating the fifteen year-old protagonist.

Fighters with little or no training are wildcards. They will miss more often than they connect, and are as likely to hurt themselves as their opponents. Afraid of getting hurt, they will back up and dance around a lot. They will attempt to mask their fear with trash talk, threats, and challenges.

Trained fighters, on the other hand, won’t speak at all. They are too busy advancing on their opponents, searching their enemy for weaknesses and tells, and watching for environmental hazards and other opponents. Moving forcefully and with purpose, trained fighters will end a fight quickly.

Once you know your combatants, you must then ask whether they are properly paired. For example, absent bad writing, no child will ever win a physical fight with a trained warrior (part of the fallacy of books and movies with child protagonists who can defeat grown-ups without assistance from other adults). Of course, good stories demand the protagonist defeat someone better trained than s/he. The trick is to maintain verisimilitude.

Over the next few posts, I’ll talk about empty hand, knife, and gun fights, as well as the importance of understanding the philosophy and history of whatever styles your characters


J.A. Kazimer said...

Whoo Hooo! Nice post. I can't wait to meet you in a dark alley and show you my new kick ass moves!

Shannon Baker said...

What a great series. I've never been in a fight and if my cowardly instincts remain true, never will. But I always seem to be writing my characters into fights. I need this!

Marilynn Byerly said...

I have to disagree about fighting silently.

Words are just another weapon in the arsenal against an opponent.

Consider how professional athletes like basketball players talk trash to throw their opponents off their game.

And we are talking about fiction. Dialog helps liven up a scene.

Matthew Swihart said...

If you open your mouth, you will lose teeth. And, with all due respect, if you must have dialogue in your fight scene, the action is what is lacking.

Matthew Swihart said...

I pity the fool who picks a fight with you. :)

Matthew Swihart said...

I'll do my best to not let you down.

Marilynn Byerly said...

If you're hit hard enough to have your teeth knocked in, I doubt an open or closed mouth would make much difference.

I agree that knowing what you're doing is handy when writing a fight scene, but fighting on the page and in real life are vastly different.

On page, the author tries for accuracy in technique, etc., but he is first telling a story. Dialog helps tell a story.

Plus, there's all kinds of fight scenes, and not all fighting takes place within hand-touching range of the opponent, and even close-in fighting isn't the only part of the fight.

Try reading some of the fight scenes in Louis L'Amour's Westerns which are some of the finest bare knuckle fights in popular fiction.

Or the early dueling scene in Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac" where Cyrano uses his wit as much as his rapier to defeat his opponent. Both writers get it right on the page while being true to the fight itself.

If you reread some of your favorite fight scenes in fiction, I imagine you'll see what I'm talking about.