Writing Fights Scenes 2: Dramatic Elements

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My last post dealt with the importance of understanding the tone of a fight scene, but there is something even more important. Real fighting, be it on a small or large scale is not inherently entertaining. Nevertheless, we are drawn to the story of a good fight because of the dramatic engagement of the characters. Without drama, the action can be a tedious, boring, or otherwise off putting.

Whether you’re writing something like the battle for Helm’s Deep or the duel between Hamlet and Leartes, the buildup to the fight is arguably more important than the fight itself. It is during the buildup that we come to understand why the fight matters. Ask yourself what’s at stake for your characters and in the larger context of your story. “The readiness is all,” Hamlet says at last, and because the entire story has built up to this moment, we are prepared for a fight of truly dramatic proportions.

Think of your fight scene as a kind of story within the story. It should be a necessary part of the overall narrative. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have a setting, a plot, and characters. It goes without saying it should have external conflict, but it should also have internal conflict. These elements should be established in the buildup, so when the action starts they all come crashing together. The fight should be a climactic focal point for dramatic elements in the narrative.

In terms of plotting the action, things should never go as planned. There should always be surprises, turns in the action driven by the elements in play. Perhaps reinforcements arrive, treachery unfolds, or fear strikes. A good fight will have at least one or two good turns, when the advantage shifts from one side to the other before the final victory or defeat.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, December 2013.

Writing Fight Scenes: Graphing Fictional Violence

Physical violence and fighting can be a wonderful source of conflict in fiction … when it’s done well. A fight should tell a story that’s integral to the overall narrative, and the tone of the action should not feel out of place.

Most violence and martial arts portrayed in fiction is filled with various levels of fantasy, even in otherwise realistic stories. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but frequently I think writers are attempting one thing and doing another.

When writing a fight scene it’s important to understand the kind of fight you want to write. You can imagine your fight existing somewhere on a graph with realism vs. fantasy on the x-axis and serving the story vs. the inconvenient truth on the y-axis. Great scenes can be written anywhere on the graph, but it helps to know where you are and what you’re up against.

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In this context, realism is an adherence to the laws of physics and the demonstrated behavior and abilities of real people. Fantasy may break these rules, but should have a set of internal rules the characters and actions adhere to.

Serving the story is the necessity of certain actions or outcomes for the sake of the overall narrative. The inconvenient truth is everywhere the rules of realism or the internal rules of fantasy are in conflict with those actions and outcomes. Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but go too far and readers will be put off.

Martial arts and fighting are rich fields touching upon physics, culture, technology, anatomy, phychology, history, and human ability. It pays to do some research! As with most things, the more knowledge and experience you have, and the clearer your objectives, the more confident and convincing your fiction will be.

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The author receiving some experience in Russian martial arts

*First published on ShadowSpinners, October 2013.

“Spiral” in Lovecraft eZine Issue #34

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In a cave up past Kegan’s Bluff, Malcom Roberts and his friend Steve find a strange staircase that spirals deep into the earth … and into the dark recesses of the human mind.

My story “Spiral” is now appearing in The Lovecraft eZine, Issue #34. Jump right to the story and start reading here. I was very excited to see the illustration by John Donald Carlucci, a stark black and white image depicting a pivotal scene from the story. Perfect!

Thanks to Mike Davis, the editor of The Lovecraft eZine, and to John Donald Carlucci for his excellent illustration.

“Spiral” to appear in The Lovecraft eZine

I’m happy to announce my story “Spiral” has been accepted to appear in a future issue of The Lovecraft eZine. This is a great source for weird tales and Lovecraft related podcasts, comics, gaming, and interviews. The magazine is available in web, Kindle, epub, audio, and print editions. Editor Mike Davis has done an awesome job of building a multi-platform magazine well worth reading, visiting, downloading, and purchasing.

I’ll post more when the story is scheduled for publication, but in the meantime, head over The Lovecraft eZine and check it out. Here’s a picture of their April issue to wet your appetite. Many other issues are available on the website.

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On Finishing …

the end

For twelve years I have been working on a trilogy of fantasy books. In that time I have lived in two different countries, three states, and six different homes. I’ve had eight jobs, gotten a Master’s degree, and gone through one marriage, one divorce, and two deaths in my family. Through it all I have been writing, among other things, this single epic tale. During the process, moments of boundless enthusiasm and despair mixed with long periods of just moving forward, doing the work, writing the next scene, the next chapter, the next book.

Last week I wrote THE END. I finished the last chapter of the last book and sat back, stunned by the moment and the magnitude of what I’d done. I had before me a single complete story spanning 300,000 words, roughly 1200 pages, and the occasion has gotten me thinking about finishing things, and endings in general.

I’ve talked with a lot of new and young writers who say they enjoy writing, but have trouble finishing anything. The reasons vary. Sometimes writers get stuck on a problem they never solve, or lose interest in what seems like an idea that didn’t pan out. Sometimes their story isn’t really a story, but rather a series of events with no central conflict demanding an ending. Sometimes writers just lose faith, or have a moment of doubt that brings their work to a halt and they never go back to it.

If the problem is technical, there is probably a solution if you work to find it, but sometimes the problem is psychological, a reluctance, for whatever reason, to finish. Either way, if you’re passionate about writing, you must persevere to an ending. At the very least so you get practice writing them. We all know a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why writing short stories is such good practice for the craft as a whole. They provide an opportunity to practice endings nearly as much as beginnings and middles.

Elizabeth Engstrom says to “find your ending in your beginning.” I always think about this when I’m coming to the end of a story. It’s important to end the story you started writing, and not some other story you picked up along the way. A strong central conflict really helps make this clear. The end must match the beginning in a way, and I found this to be just as true in a 300,000 word story as in a 1500 word story. The end must deal with the same protagonist, issues, and conflicts introduced in the beginning. So if you’re searching for an ending, that’s a good place to start.

When you get there at last, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a work of fiction. There’s a bit of magic in fiction, a sense of creating something tangible from the nebulous dreamscape of your mind. And when the last sentence is written, especially if it’s a good one, there’s a sense of triumph and relief like no other. If your project happened to take twelve years like mine did, there’s also a bittersweet sense of loss. All the unwritten scenes and plot puzzles and character arcs I carried around with me day after day … they’re all resolved now. The story is finished.

The work is far from over, of course. I already have a number of other projects I’m working on, and in a week or two I’ll dive back in for more editing and rewrites. Eventually, I’ll start thinking about the next big project, and what I want to accomplish in the next twelve years!

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*Simultaneously published on ShadowSpinners.

A Picture is Worth (x) Words

Everyone’s heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but does it hold up when you’re actually counting the words?

Among writers, the subject of outlining seems to be a fundamental ongoing process question: to outline or not to outline, and also when, and in how much detail, in what form, and how closely to follow it. For the record, I’m a firm believer in outlining, and tend to make progressively more detailed outlines as a project unfolds. I also tend to sketch various ideas for the scenes I’m working on, and collect photographic references.

Visual references may not be talked about as much as outlining, but I think it’s a great tool, and at the recent Wordcrafters writers conference in Eugene, I noted both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George talking about the use of visual references in their work. Mine tend to take the form of little maps or sketches of characters, visual details, or dramatic moments. I also look for ideas and take photographs at various locations, and use image searches on the internet.

Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few sketches from recent chapter outlines and do the math to figure out how many words a picture is really worth. In most cases there were multiple little sketches per chapter, so I took the number of words in the completed chapter and divided by the number of sketches. Here are a few pictures with their associated word counts.

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481.8 words

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298.4 words

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509 words

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410 words

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679 words

When I averaged everything up it turned out a picture is actually worth about 445.33 words. It was a lot less than a thousand, suggesting that pictures, while incredibly useful, may be slightly overrated. However, this was a very limited study of only a few sketches made by a single writer for a small sample of chapters. More research is needed.

Surely this doodle is worth a thousands words, but I haven’t written the chapter yet.

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*First published on ShadowSpinners, April 2014.

“Buyer Beware” to be translated into Italian

fantasy-jewelry-3My body swapping, sci-fi farce “Buyer Beware” will be translated for the Italian language magazine DUDE. The story was previously published in Every Day Fiction, and the English language version can be read there.

I’m excited to have another story translated, and to reach a new audience. The online magazine is beautifully designed, and appears filled with fiction and various culture pieces. No word yet on when my story will appear, but I will post when I know more.

Read “Buyer Beware” on Every Day Fiction

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“Buyer Beware” is now up at Every Day Fiction. This very short story follows the professional woes of Trader Klorg and some personal complications that arise during the trans-galactic trading convention. What can I say, unregulated interstellar trade has its drawbacks.

Hope you enjoy the story! Please share, rate, and review if you have a chance.

“Buyer Beware” to appear in Every Day Fiction

My body swapping sci-fi farce “Buyer Beware” will appear in Every Day Fiction sometime in the next two months. This is one of the most comedic stories I’ve written, so it has a special place in my mind.

Readers of my horror stories may be surprised by the ending, but I think there is still a touch of the weird and strange in this tale of a body swapping alien and the woes of unregulated interstellar trade.

Will post again once the story is up. In the meantime, check out Every Day Fiction. They post a short story every day, always under a 1000 words.

A Strange Habit

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There’s a story that Robert E. Howard used to envision the ghost of King Conan behind him, ready to lop off his head with an axe if he didn’t keep writing. Never mind that this is probably an apocryphal story. It’s still a great image, and whatever Howard was doing to get his stories written, it worked!

Work habits are a subject of endless conversation when it comes to the creative process of writers. Numerous books and excellent teachers suggest various methods of accomplishing the noble goal of putting words on a page, and offer plenty of encouragement along the way. The most consistent truth, however, is simply that writing is hard work and the methods for getting that work done vary from writer to writer.

I have a lot of tricks to keep me writing: new locations, graph paper, computer setup, a cup of tea, timed sessions, word counts, and so on. We develop habits, of course, particular to our individual sensibilities. Sometimes these habits become rituals, even obsessions. There’s plenty of room for eccentricities.

Hemingway wrote standing up. Nabokov wrote everything on notecards. Ibsen wrote in the presence of a giant oil painting of his greatest rival. Hugo wrote naked, and had his valet hide his clothes to ensure he wouldn’t go out. The ancient Greek writer Demosthenes accomplished the same thing by shaving one side of his head before beginning to write. The list goes on, from Balzac’s coffee and lucky monk’s robe, to Dickens’ ritualized desk arrangements, from Dumas’ fresh apples to Schiller’s rotten apples.

As it turns out, there’s even some neuroscience to explain why these weird rituals work. Like a Pavlov’s bell, rituals associated with writing may cue creativity and productivity. (See “Why Weird Writing Rituals Work” by Rosanne Bane)

Most of the habits of writers we will never know, because they are done in solitude. But the purpose of some seemingly strange behaviors is almost always the same, and that is to help one engage in the most important habit of all: actually writing.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, June 2013.