Writing Fights Scenes 2: Dramatic Elements

greek-persian_duel

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.

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.

graphing-fictional-violence

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.

russian-martial-art
The author receiving some experience in Russian martial arts

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

Beautiful Corpses

About a year ago I did some extensive research on mummies and mummification for a story. This kind of research is one of the perks of writing fiction. I watched documentaries, read articles, and went to see one of largest collections of mummies ever assembled from around the world. I was a bit mummy obsessed for a while. I got my story too, and eventually wrote a bit on the subject that was first published on ShadowSpinners:

mummy
Photography (c) 2002 Zubro and released under GFDL

Beautiful Corpses

There’s no doubt death discomforts the living. A long history of adaptation for survival has assured we are repelled by the sight and smell of a rotting corpse, especially the corpse of human being. We are disturbed by possible threats to our well-being and reminded of our ultimate mortality. We are heartbroken at the loss of friends and family, and at the horrible absence a corpse represents.

Through the ages, we have developed countless ways of dealing with the dead. We have burned them on funeral pyres and interred them in lofty tombs. We have buried them in the ground and shelved them in catacombs. We have drowned them in the sea and left them on mountaintops for scavengers to pick clean their bones. Perhaps none is more fascinating than mummification, when the flesh of the living is preserved in death through the ages. The word “mummy” come from the Arabic word for bitumen, thought to be used in some Egyptian mummies, but different types of mummies exist from around the world.

To create a mummy the process of decay must be halted, usually though desiccation, but sometimes through chemicals, cold temperatures, or submersion in an anaerobic fluid. While many cultures deliberately mummify the dead, many mummies are a product of accidental conditions. In either case, once the body has stabilized, if the environment is favorable, a mummy may remain intact for thousands of years.

When decay ceases, and the grief of the living has passed into history, a strange beauty remains in the dead. You can sense this beauty gazing upon an ancient mummy. It’s difficult to put into words. This silent face … this still flesh … stirs thoughts of life as much as death, of hopes and dreams, of love and loss and longing. The beauty of this singular person, who walked the earth so long ago, is still here, like a shadow cast forward through time.

Ancient Egyptian culture flourished for 3000 years. An estimated 70 million people were mummified and entombed in the burning sands. For all that time, tombs have been broken into, desecrated, and robbed for the valuables they contained. In the 18th and 19th century, there thrived an international market for mummies as souvenirs and curiosities, and to be ground up and used in paints and medicine. They were even used as fuel for the fire on cold desert nights when wood was scarce.

Thankfully, these practices have ended, and mummies today, from Egypt and around the world, are being treated with care and respect. They are meticulously preserved and studied for the wealth of scientific and historical information they contain. And they are admired by those with an imagination for history, horror, and yes, beauty.

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

2014-04-09 09.54.39

298.4 words

2014-04-09 09.56.57

509 words

2014-04-09 09.57.45

410 words

2014-04-09 09.57.58

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.

2014-04-09 09.59.25

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

A Strange Habit

writer's desk

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.

A Legacy Dark and Strange

320px-Fire

Fantasy, with all its weirdness and wonders, is the deep root of all fiction. Long before people began to write books, for 50,000 years they huddled around the light of fires, under starry skies, in deep forests, and in the shelter of caves to tell their stories. The impulse of fiction was already there, in the myths and legends that were born among them.

Imagine the kinds of stories they were telling. People knew little or nothing of what lay beyond the horizon. And at night, in the darkness, that circle of knowledge shrank to the dim glow of a campfire, if they were lucky enough to have one. The stars were a mystery, animals were otherworldly, and death was a great enigma. A man or a woman who ventured beyond the horizon, or out in the night, might never return. Those tales must have been dark and strange, filled with adventure, monsters, and magic.

There is an element of fantasy in all fiction, an attempt to imagine and understand something beyond ourselves: another person, another life, another world. Modern stories are born from that same original impulse, to weave tales, to entertain, to educate, to warn, and to find meaning in the world and in the often extraordinary experiences of our lives. I like to think my stories can be traced back to the mythic structures and weird tales that started it all, stories woven from the threads of an ancient dream.

Although our horizon has grown wider in a way, there is always an edge, without and within, beyond which dwell things unknown. The unknown is far greater than the known, and that is where horror lives. It lurks in the darkness beyond our meager campfires.

*First published on ShadowSpinners.

Geography for Worldbuilding and Fantasy Maps

crusoeWhether you’re creating a setting for a novel, story, or game, it’s a good idea to think about some basic geography, so things make sense … for the most part anyway. I consulted a geologist about some basic guidelines for the geography of imaginary worlds. Of course, there are always anomalies, and fantastical explanations for unusual features or even entire worlds, but if you want your world to be vaguely earth-like, these simple guidelines may help in your worldbuilding:

  1. Large mountains almost always occur in ranges.
  2. Rivers flow from mountains and hills down into bigger rivers or open bodies of water.
  3. Forest can occur almost anywhere there is sufficient water for trees.
  4. Grasslands and hills can occur almost anywhere.
  5. Swamps, marshes, and lakes occur in flat areas with a lot of water.
  6. Canyons are carved out by rivers or streams.
  7. Major deserts are a regional function of the trade winds, but small deserts often form inland, on the far side of mountain ranges.
  8. Springs and oases can occur almost anywhere.
  9. Volcanoes occur in chains or regions of vulcanism. This usually happens closer to coastlines or islands.
  10. Glaciers, like water, flow downhill, and glaciated areas tend to have broad U-shaped valleys.
  11. Towns and cities need a source of fresh water. Larger cities often occur on trade routes.
  12. If you’re looking at huge timescales and you want some billion year old ruins, the centers of continents tend to be the oldest geologic areas.

New Year of Writing

2013 is starting to sink in and I am gearing up for an exciting year of writing. First and foremost among my projects is writing Book Three of The Three Earths, a fantasy trilogy I have been working on for a long time. I’m very excited about finishing this epic story and getting it in the hands of more readers. I’m committed to finishing the draft this year, which will make next year very exciting as well.

I’m also hoping to get some more short stories written. Notably some more horror stories set in Auxerre, Wisconsin, and perhaps another sword story set in Nara. I have some ideas for some fantasy stories as well, and who know what else will come up.

I’ll be continuing with my independent publishing projects as well. After some small technical glitches, Elements of Chess will soon be available again. Next up, I’ll be making available some of my previously published short stories as Kindle ebooks. Other formats will likely follow, so if you read something other than a Kindle, let me know what formats you want.

Lastly, I am working on some roleplaying game projects that will soon be in the initial playtesting phase. I’ll make announcements about those soon. For now I can say one is an OSR compatible variation on classic fantasy roleplaying, with a few modern and a few original elements. The other is an original system designed to be highly adaptable to any setting and for easy use with adventure modules from any system.

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Reading eBooks

I was slow adopter when it came to ebooks, but just bought an ebook copy of The Weird and am quickly reaching a point where I prefer an ebook to a paper book (pbook?). I have an older Kindle and an iPad. Simply put, it’s far more convenient to be reading something on my iPad, which I always have with me, than to worry about toting a paperback around.

The arguments against ebooks, mostly rooted in sentimentalism or fear, have already died down. There’s no doubt that ebook reading is on the rise, and I can’t help but think that ebooks will continue to gain popularity, especially as reading technologies rapidly improve.

Personally, I love that I can have a whole library with me without carrying an extra load, and that I can read in the dark with a backlit screen. I like not having to hold a book open, and the ability to instantly look up words is nice as well. However, I still can’t take my iPad in the bathtub, which remains a sticking point.