Long ago, film directors directed the technique to create a convincing game scene. Lying crashing on the floor. Chairs are hung … viewers are treated to close-ups of dreadful or furious faces … and the blows thrown are enough to make us twist and close our eyes. (No more of the pricey battles that fooled anyone in the early movies – sneak camera angles to hide the fact that fist does not really connect; heights to propose a knockout stroke when someone could see it would not knock a bite out of its airway.)
Movie dealers are treated with multiple camera angles and sophisticated sound effects. We feel like we're right in the middle of that battle.
Authors have a lot tougher. How can you throw the reader in the middle of the scene and feel every kind? How can you show the action without falling into the trap of sounding like a schoolchild who enthusiastically describes a battle, battle at battle kick by kick?
There are only two things to keep in mind.
- Remember that you are an author, not a choreographer.
- Pack your matches with EMOTIONAL battles.
That's it. So simple – yet so effective.
What does a choreographer do? Schedule a series of moves, step by step. He / she teaches the people who perform the movements, how to perform each and how to put them together in a smooth routine.
Too many fighting situations in books look like a koreographer's notebook. You can see something like this:
Briggs planted a right hook on Smith's garden. The other man reeled backwards, his poor wind turbine. Briggs followed his favor and breathed hard. In quick succession, he landed several blows on Smith's body.
Smith fell to the ground and rolled away. "Bastard!" he grunted and rolled again to avoid a well-targeted kick from Briggs. Cat-like, he ran up to his feet and circled Briggs and did not take his eyes off his nemesis.
"Come on!" Briggs told, darting in to land another punch then ducking back out of reach. "Is that the best you can do?" He feinted and laughed.
Infuriated, Smith attacked. Briggs danced back and around Smith, and in two nice moves he had him on the ground, an arm up behind his back.
"Had enough?" he panted.
There are so many things wrong with the above scene, it's hard to know where to start. Briefly:
- We have no idea who the prospect is. We seem to look at from a distance. This means that there is very little emotional involvement from the reader. In order to truly involve your reader, you must do everything to make sure that he or she becomes the point of view. If he gets injured, the reader will also. If he loses … it does the reader.
- The author tells rather than showing. A did, then B did it, so A did it in response, and B followed up with this … boring! (Can you see the choreographer at work?)
- The author uses the names of the characters a lot: "Smith" and "Briggs". This tends to add distance as well. The problem is that both characters are men, so constant use of "he" while it is not so distant can be confusing. It is easier to avoid these problems if you are deeply confronted with one of the characters' viewpoints.
- The excerpt is filled with tired old expressions like "in quick succession he landed two more battles"; "a well-targeted kick"; "cat-like, he jumped to his feet"; "in two cool moves". Expressions like this save the writer from doing a lot of work – they roll the tongue so easily because they have existed for so long.
How do you avoid these pitfalls and write a combat situation that works?
You forgive (mostly) the physical strokes and add emotional blows. Come deep into the point of view of one of the characters – preferably the main character; the one that the reader really identifies. That way, the readers look through the eyes of that character. They desperately want him to win; they feel every kind. Therefore, there is much more emotional investment in the outcome of the match.
Most authors seem to feel that battle scenes are to be filled with fast motion, grunts and moans and shouting the epithet to telegraph the action. They feel that if you stop telling the reader what happens in the main character's head, it lowers things too much.
It can certainly be the case … but in the hands of a skilled author, excitement actually builds when the action is slowed. You must remember that the time on the page is not the same as in real time. Since you can not actually show the reader what happens in real time, as you can in a movie, you have to compensate by spending some time in the main character. Show us the thoughts of the character. Show us the feelings of the character. Help us "feel" our way into battle.
The easiest way to show how this works is to use an example from a published book. Here is a battle scene from ECHO BURNING by Lee Child (Bantam Press, 2001). Heteren Jack Reacher tries to avoid the fight … and the excitement builds beautifully until he is forced into a confrontation.
The lighthouse had a white t-shirt and he ate chicken wings. The wings were greasy and the guy was a slob. He dumps chicken fat out of the garden and fingers on his shirt. There was a dark tear shape right between his pecs. It grew and spread to an impressive spot. But the best bar romance does not make you look like such a sight, and the guy got Reacher to star.
"Who are you looking at?" he said.
It was said low and aggressive, but Reacher ignored it.
"Who are you looking at?" the guy said again.
Reacher's experience was, they say it once, maybe nothing will happen. But they say it twice, so there are issues going on. The basic problem is that they lack response as evidence that you are worried. That they win. But then they will not let you answer, anyway.
"Do you look at me?" said the guy.
"No," Reacher replied.
"Do not you look at me, boy," said the guy.
He said that boy did Reacher, he might think was a foreman in a timber mill or a cotton surgery. No matter what muscle work was done around Lubbock. Part of a traditional trade went down through the generations. Surely the word policeman came to him. But then he was relatively new to Texas.
"Do not you look at me," said the guy.
Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really counteracting the guy. Just to enlarge him. Life is endlessly capable of surprises, so he knew one day that he would come face to face with his physical straight. With someone who can worry about him. But he saw and so it was not the day. So he just smiled and looked away again.
Then he fired him with his finger.
"I did not tell you to look at me," he said and jabbed.
It was a meat finger and it was covered with fat. There was a certain brand on Reacher's shirt.
"Do not," said Reacher.
The guy jabbed again.
"Or what?" he said. "Do you want to make some of it?"
Reacher looked down. Now there were two brands. The purchase jabbed again. Three jabs, three brands. Reacher hugged her teeth. What were three fat marks on a shirt? He started a slow counter to ten. Then jabbed the guy again before he reached eight.
"You deaf?" Reacher said. "I told you not to do it."
"Do you want to do something about it?"
"No," said Reacher. "I really do not. I just want you to stop doing it is all."
The guy smiled. "Then you're a cute wavy piece of shit."
"Anyway," said Reacher. "Just hold your hands off me."
"Or what? What should you do?"
Reacher restarted his counter. Eight, nine.
"Do you want to take this outside?" asked the guy.
"Touch me again and you'll figure it out," said Reacher. "I warned you four times."
The guy stopped for a second. Then, of course, he left again. Reacher caught his finger in and snapped it at the first crack. Just folded it upwards as if he was turning a door handle. When he was annoyed, he leaned forward and pushed the guy all the way. It was a smooth movement, velvet, but it was supported for perhaps half of what it could have been. No need to put the guy in coma, over four greetings on a shirt. He moved a pace to give the man the room to fall and supported himself in the woman on the right.
"Sorry, madam," he said.
The woman nodded, disoriented by noise and concentrated on her drink, unaware of what happened. The big guy sank quietly on the floorboards, and Reacher used the sole on his shoes to roll him half on his front. Then he nudged him under the garden with his toe to pull his head back and straighten his airway. The recovery position, paramedics call it. Stopping you choking while out.
Then he paid for his drinks and went back to his motel …
Of course, this scene only shows a silent escalating battle and it shows a hero who has the ability to fight for a quick conclusion. You will have to use a slightly different approach if you have more involved people and if you have a quick and furious battle with two more uniform aggressors. But the principle is the same.
Do not let the reader see the match from a distance. Get them into the main character's skin, devoted to his thoughts and feelings. Let the readers feel the effects of the fists and feet; let them experience adrenaline (or irritation depending on the level of provocation). Then your fighting scenes will pack the kind of kind you want.
(c) copyright Marg McAlister