Friday, March 20, 2009

How To Build a Better Beating

Based on Teel James Glenn's book “Them’s Fightin’ Words!”

(published by

© Teel James Glenn 2009 All rights reserved

Since the first storyteller sat around a campfire spinning tales of gods and heroes it has been a given that a little action makes a mildly interesting story into a real grabber. Put your hero or heroine in physical jeopardy and you can have a winner. Conflict is the key and physical conflict, i.e., a fight, is often the answer.

It is not the only answer, to be sure, and emotional conflict is the essence of real drama, but the line where drama ends and adventure or melodrama begins is an iffy one. If the level of your drama is high, if the characters are convincing and readers care about what happens to them then you can get a frenzy of worry out of readers by having a villain try to club our hero. Or shoot him or…you get the idea.

Since the fight has to serve the purpose of the story you must use the same criteria as any journalistic or dramatic story. Ask yourself, ‘is this fight necessary?’ If it is, then follow these old, tried and true six questions: Why, Who, How, Where, What and When? Why?

Why is this fight the solution to this moment of the story, instead of a dialogue scene? Being clear about the purpose the fight in the story is paramount. After all, Shakespeare put the fight at the end of Hamlet for two very strong reasons. It was the dramatic climax that brought together several plot threads, and it was used as a device to reveal the true personalities of the major participants: Laertes regrets using the poison, Hamlet is proud of his swordsmanship, Claudius reveals his cowardice etc. In fact the action scenes in all of Shakespeare’s plays are calculated (often as ‘wake up and pay attention moments’) and never just attached without a specific purpose. When using action in prose the same care has to be taken.

There are four chief reasons to have a fight in a story, though often a fight (or action scene) can and should serve more than one of these reasons.

1: To amaze or confuse a character

2: To scare a character

3: To conceal/reveal some plot point within the smoke and mirrors of an action scene

4. To reveal or accentuate a character trait

Who is involved in the action; the principal? A secondary character? If so, what is their stake in the confrontation (their personal why)?

How did the fight come about? How does it end? And in what state are the participants when it is all over? Will there be lingering effects? And will the effects be physical or mental or both? There is also the mechanical how of a fight; that is, how to plan it out. You can’t build a house without a plan and just as you would plan out a book or story by making an outline, you must do the same thing with the ‘story’ of a fight.

One thing to do in building the fight is to put in a ‘kick the dog moment’, by which I mean, give your bad guys an action that makes it clear they are not just misunderstood. Let them ‘kick’ the metaphorical dog in the room, hurt an innocent with no remorse. I once saw a western where in the opening scene, Leo Gordon, a true old time bad guy actor was riding into town and a little boy’s dog barked at his horse—so he shot the dog with no compunction! You sure as heck know I waited the whole movie to see him get his (he did), just like every other patron

Where does the action take place? Is it an interesting enough place, i.e. a kitchen, a garage, a spaceship port? What makes that place of particular interest? Does it add color to the story, or is it just a drab background, a diorama in front of which the action takes place?

What is involved, physically in the fight? A sword fight; if so, what style? Or styles. Do they use the objects at hand or did they bring the ‘death dealers’ with them. Jackie Chan movies are especially good at finding clever things to do with found objects in action scenes—you don’t have to be ‘clever’ funny but you should be clever smart.

When is it appropriate to have a fight instead of a non-physical solution? I know I keep stressing this, but that cuts to the heart of the situation of many literature snobs who will not deal with any ‘action’ because they feel it cheapens the purpose of a story


Flavors of violence and the ‘ouch’ factor:
Fights, like dramatic styles, come in a variety of flavors, each suited to the overall tone of the story.

A grim, down and dirty knife fight might be fine for a thriller, but wrong for a romantic comedy.

Once you understand that it hurts, you can think about the ‘ouch factor’: that is, how much damage and how much recovery time.

Seems a no-brainer, but once you’ve determined your moment of humanity for your character you must determine just how real you want the fight to be—remember, The Three Stooges get a saw cut on the head and recover in the next scene, but when Athos is wounded in the shoulder in The Three Musketeers it bothers him for a number of chapters. In between is the level of ‘reality’ for your story.

This is where the flavors come in— how you balance these elements: how real, how much pain, and to what end the action in the scene in the story determine if the fight is farce or frightening

So how does it break down—what makes a fight funny or scary or realistic? Anything that makes a dialogue scene any of those funny or scary.

1. When painting students are learning their art they are instructed to copy the paintings of a great master, stroke for stroke and it is considered perfectly okay. No legal hassles at all. Okay, now that you’ve read the stories, or story, you have a big task ahead: rewrite it. That’s right, take Conan or Tarzan or whomever and the general situation of the scene and –without peeking –write your version of it. Then put it aside for a day or so before going back to compare them. It doesn’t matter if you unconsciously copied some phrases or exact actions, it is bound to happen, it is the idea that you can achieve some of the energy or flow of the story—and who knows, you might improve on it. Could happen!

2. What is the appropriate level of you character’s skill?

The choices extend beyond purpose and tone for a fight, it must also be appropriate to the time, place and character.

A certain amount of credibility with your reader is purchased from their imaginations with the preconceptions of what they expect verses what is credible or possible.

Let’s define “martial art.” Martial art is the process by which one person seeks to do damage or control another physically. It knows no geographic barrier even though most of the time when someone says martial arts they really mean ‘eastern” or “oriental".

Martial arts also have points of origin: you can’t have a Bowie knife fight before 1827 because the indomitable Jim Bowie hadn’t ‘invented’ it (or perfected his brother’s invention—whichever version you believe). And fighting with a Bowie is significantly different than fighting with other knives, or swords, because while it shares characteristics of both, it is its own ‘beast.’ The original Bowie knife really looks more like a short sword with a clipped point and sports a brass filet on the back of the thick blade for the express purpose of ‘catching’ an opponent’s cutting edge for a split second. It has a ‘clipped point’ so that one can cut upward or downward and the clip can tear outward from any wound it is thrust into. Bowie is supposed to have fought a number of duels against swords with his knife and won every one.

Thus you see how important to the believability of the story it is to get the How or with what you characters fight. Those factors and their attitude to the action are all great means to understand who they are and how they fit into the mosaic of the story’s world.

About our guest, Teel James Glen:

I’m a native of Brooklyn though I’ve traveled the world for thirty years as a Stuntman/ Fight choreographer/ Swordmaster, Jouster, Book Illustrator, Storyteller, Bodyguard and Actor. I’ve been lucky to study under the head of the Seoul Military Academy and Errol Flynn’s last stunt double and feel obligated to ‘pass that on’. I was head instructor at the Hollywood Stunts professional stunt-training center in New York and teach stage sword privately.

My greatest achievement however, is my awesome daughter Aislin Rose who is well spoken indeed.

I’ve had stories and articles printed in scores of magazines from Mad to Black Belt and Fantasy Tales and a number of books published: four in the Altiva fantasy saga: Tales of a Warrior Priest (an anthology), and Death at Dragonthroat, The Daemonhold Curse and Sister Warrior are available from ePress-Onlne as well as the mysteries A Hex of Shadows(09), Knight Errant :Death and Life at the Faire , The fantasy Queen Morgana and the Ren Fairies and the science fiction Vision Quest Factor. I also have the non fiction book on the craft Them’s Fightin’ Words: A Writers Guide to Writing Fight Scenes from the same publisher.

Bayou Sinistre is due out from Oman-Spirit publishing in 09. Whiskey Creek Press is The Exceptionals Science Fiction Adventure series :#1 The Measure of a Man, #2 Across the Wasteland. And #3 On the Good Ship Caligula (09


s.w. vaughn said...

Wow - this is fascinating stuff, Teel! And you've certainly come by your knowledge honestly.

As someone who has written many, many fights (I have a series that revolves around street fighting), this is especially intriguing.

I love the bit about the Bowie knife. Never knew that!

Marta Stephens said...

Fight scenes are one of the hardest yet most satisfying to write when done well. This is a great post, Teel. Thanks so much for joining us here at MB4

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Teel, where were you when I had to write that fight scene in Dead Witness? Wow, you could have saved me a lot of rewrites. But that's okay. I'm printing out your post for next time.


Kim Smith said...

Wow! this was awesome Teel. Thank you for being here. I just storyboarded a new book yesterday and this information will be invaluable for it!