In the midst of the madness that is Story-a-Day May, I’m excited to be hosting a guest post today from author and editor, Richard Flores IV. I know Richard mostly through his speculative fiction magazine, Plasma Frequeny, for which I am a first (submissions) reader. Before we launch into Richard’s helpful information about writing combat, here’s a bit of information about my guest.
Richard Flores IV is the author of the science fiction novels, Dissolution of Peace, Volition Agent, and Broken Trust. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Plasma Frequency, a bimonthly, semi-pro magazine of speculative fiction. He lives in Auburn, Washington with his wife and three children. When not writing, he works a day job where he daydreams about writing. His hobbies include reading, television, video games, blogging, and watching San Jose Sharks hockey. You can find out more about Richard, his writing, and his blog by visiting http://www.floresfactor.com.
So you’re writing a book, and you are excited about this little action sequence. You sit down to write the scene and suddenly you realize that you’re not quite sure how to write it out. Is this scene too short? Too long? How do I describe that move? What about the weapons?
It is my firm belief that combat is one of the hardest scenes to write. These scenes only get more complicated and can often involve a lot going on at once. But don’t feel overwhelmed, it just takes a little practice to write combat scenes like a pro.
Know the Setting
Where is this fight taking place? Are you fighting in the jungles of South America, the voids of space, or the inside of a building? Your setting is going to provide a lot more aspects to your combat sequence than you may think. A fight in the desert, especially hand to hand, is going to cause a much faster fatigue rate.
There are also items in your setting that may be helpful to keep in mind. Obstacles for your character to use as cover, or as a weapon, are all around your setting. But before they can help your character, you need to know they are there.
Know the Weapons
I once read a book where the character used a Glock pistol. The entire book the character would “flip off the safety.” This drove me nuts, because I am a Glock owner and I know there is no external safety to “flip off”. On the other hand, in a fight with swords, I would never know something wasn’t described correctly. I know little about blade weapons. The point is this, your reader may be very familiar with the use of knives in fighting, so if you plan to have a knife fight in your novel, you need to learn about knives.
Go out to the range and rent the guns you want use. Swing a sword. Talk to an expert in martial arts weapons. Talk to a trained fighter to learn the limitations of the human hand as a weapon. You need to know the weapons uses, so your character can know how to use them.
In science fiction, we get to make up weapons. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t have limits. You need to know all about the weapon you made up too. In Dissolution of Peace, they used L-pistols. A weapon I made up. L stood for laser, but I knew the weapons had to fire plasma bolts, not laser beams. I also knew that they carried a battery back with a limited shot capacity. All this was relevant to the action sequences of the novel, adding to realism of the fake weapon. But fake weapons also have a basis in real life. My L-pistols were based off of hand guns. I had to know today’s hand guns to make an effective future version.
Realism is the key. We’ve all seen the action movie where the hero seems to never run out of ammo and never has to reload. And let me tell you, after awhile that become distracting to the movie. The same is true of books. Don’t turn off readers who might know the weapons being used.
Know the Tactics
If you’ve never tried to take a combative subject to the ground, you should know it doesn’t go anything like you see in the movies. There are a lot of control holds, constant training, and practice involved in being able to physically control someone who wants to fight you.
Do you know how to count your shots in a shoot out? Do you know what a Tap, Rack, Bang is? Do you know what the term “Failure Drill” means?
Do you know about sword fighting techniques, especially with the type of sword your character is using? Do you know how to defend against a spear?
The only way you will learn is to do it yourself. Talk to experts, and have them teach you. I write a lot about cops and the military, but I’ve never been in either job. So I am constantly in touch with military and police experts with questions. You’d be surprised how eager experts are to share their favorite topic with others. Just think how eager you are to tell someone about writing? These experts are no different.
I take defensive tactics classes a lot. I also take a lot of classes on combat tactics. I read books about military tactics and how certain battles were won or lost. I do this to stay fresh on the topics I know I will write about. You should do the same.
Know the Players
Who is involved in the conflict? Three people walk into a room, all three are involved in the conflict in some way. They are fighting, fleeing, or watching. But nothing annoys me more that reading a fight scene where the main character fights another person, and suddenly the third person seemingly vanishes.
But this doesn’t just include the fighters. Who else is around? Are they fighting in crowded restaurant? Are they fighting at a train platform? Are they in a mall? The market? Or any other place that may have other people involved. One of my favorite fight scenes in a book was when the main character finally caught the antagonist. They were fighting in a park. Suddenly another person who was at the park knocks the main character over the head with a brick. This author clearly thought out the players, and thought how they might react. Not everyone will scatter and run. Some people will jump in, and they won’t really know who the good guys are.
But, you also need to know who these people are. Is your character a boxer? A cop? A plain Joe? How would they know these fighting moves? If they wouldn’t know them, then they shouldn’t be able to be a sudden master of the skills.
In my novel Volition Agent, Lexia is an untrained regular gal. She is only able to fight with skill when she has her handler “jumped in” and he is controlling her. So naturally, her first few fight scenes without him were very clumsy. One of my favorite scenes is when she goes to throw a lamp at another character, and it falls to the floor when it runs out of cord.
But slowly she discovers there is some “bleed over” from her old handler. She seeks out training and gradually gets better as the book progresses. But she is still new to this and makes mistakes throughout the novel.
It is important to know the limits of your character, the abilities of your character, and the limits of the human body.
How to write it.
You have gathered your knowledge. You know what you want to happen. And best of all you have done your best to maintain realism. So you are done, right? Well, no. You have to write it. And writing combat is harder than it sounds.
There is a tendency to write long, methodical, complex, and very detailed sentences when we write combat. We want to piece all the action together. It is happening quickly in our mind, it would be happening quickly to the characters, and so we run it all out rather quickly.
The problem is long sentences, over integrated details, and other things take away from the readers feeling of being involved in the combat. They don’t feel like it is happening quickly, but rather drawn out. The tension is all wrong. You have to create the tension.
My tips are simple. Keep sentences short. Focus on the action at hand. Stay with the combat until it finishes. All this will keep you going strong and keep your readers into the story. The details about the weapons, they shouldn’t be thrown in the combat scene. A drawn out paragraph about how green the grass is, and how the clouds are contrasting beautifully with the blue sky, will only distract from your conflict at hand.
Take a look at your training and practice in learning these tactics. Did you notice how green the grass was while training? And if you have ever been in a real situation like the one you are writing, you will know that there was little else you were focused on besides your own safety. Your characters should be too.
Does that mean that your character might not take note of certain things during a fight? No. They may take note that as the scrambled for the nearest weapon, the sword they took was unbalanced. They may realize they can’t handle the “kick” of the gun they just shot. But it will be a quick note as they struggle to maintain their attack (or defense).
Now here is the biggest challenge. Writing out what is happening. How to write about that control hold you just leaned? There are about twenty things going on at one time, how do you describe that? How do you describe the feeling of taking someone else’s life? And you have to describe it is a way all your readers will understand.
It is my opinion that this is where you let the reader’s imagination take over and fill in some of the gaps. You describe the basic moves and leave the rest to the reader to fill in. I could write two or three paragraphs (at the very least one long one) on a how to perform a wrist lock correctly. Google “wrist locks” and see the countless articles on it. But in a novel I would simply wire that the character took hold of the wrist and twisted it. I might go as far as to make the chicken wing comparison. But I am leaving the exact specifications to the reader’s imagination.
You combat scenes should be comparative in length to the situation at hand. Five paragraphs for a basic shooting is a bit too much. But a whole chapter may be needed for a massive war scene. You have to know when it is time to wrap up the combat and move on with the story. Remember, your combat scene is part of your story, not a break from it.
With a little practice, and feedback from other writers and readers, you really can be a pro at writing combat.
About Broken Trust: Released May 29, 2014
Earth is no longer teeming with human life. After a major mass extinction event, the world is no longer able to function as it once had. Governments have collapsed and those that survived are left to figure out what is next for the human race.
Liam Fisher never wanted to be a leader. But after finding survivors, protecting them, and founding the city-state of Lagoon Hills; the people demanded he be their leader. Instead, Liam agreed to sit on a Council with four other leaders.
Together with Talya Brooks, the person who saved his life after the collapse, Liam runs the militia of Lagoon Hills. And though it was tough early on, the people of the city now live in relative comfort and safety.
But Liam is fighting his own personal demons: The loss of his wife and unborn son. Rachel, a past lover he never really got over, has suddenly arrived at the city gates. And the mounting stress of a neighboring city-state threatening war.
The people of Lagoon Hills are counting on Liam for their safety. Can he keep himself together and be the leader everyone wants him to be? Or will the people closest to him be the greatest threat of all?