Writing the Fight: Detail and Sophistication

Eighth in a series on writing fight scenes from the perspective of a fight director.

Most of this series is drawn from my graduate presentation, They Fight: Writing the Fight Scene, from the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program. [1] I mention this because I want to talk about the presentation itself for a moment. My friend Kathryn Lee was just starting the program at the time, so I enlisted her help in providing live fight demos to serve as the basis for writing exercises. The first of these took place without warning shortly after the introduction. I “accidentally” knocked my highlighter off my lectern and asked Kat to pick it up. She bent to retrieve it, and as she stood, I punched her in the stomach. [2] She doubled over and collapsed. I turned the audience and said, “Write what you saw.”

After two minutes to write, we had a Q&A on the exercise. Most struggled with it. They hadn’t been ready, they were sure what they’d seen, some had a partially obstructed view. Some were concerned for Kat (she really sold the punch). Some were pissed. [3]

A couple of audience members read their exercises out loud (sadly, I don’t remember who). They were loose, impressionistic, subjective. They reflected the confusion and uncertainty of what they’d just witnessed.

As writers of fiction, we have perfect knowledge of the events of our stories, but our characters may not. They may miss the beginning of the action, have an imperfect view or simply not have the sophistication to interpret what’s happening, let alone communicate it to someone else.

Have you ever watched Olympic fencing? Because for non-fencers, it’s the most boring sport in the world. Two guys in masks—you can’t even see their faces—wave invisibly thin sticks at each other for a second or two and—buzzer! Point! The action is so fast that unless you’re trained in the sport, you can’t follow it—you don’t know what you’re seeing.

Grandmasters in chess have an incredible memory for chess board positions. They can remember games and specific moves from years earlier. Memory researchers wanted to know how they developed their prodigious memories. They set up boards and had people try to memorize them with just a few seconds to look at them. Ordinary people could get maybe one or two pieces right. Grandmasters, with just a glance, could reproduce the entire board perfectly. But when researchers set up the board randomly, that is, not in a game position, the grandmasters did as poorly as the average person. They don’t have prodigious memories; they just have a lot of experience with chess.

So, as you’re writing your fight, you have to keep in mind the sophistication of your POV character and your audience. How much of the fight does the POV character see? How much of what they see do they understand? What language do they use to describe it? And how much detail is appropriate for your audience? You don’t want to bury their understanding of the story in irrelevant details. What terminology are they familiar with? You don’t want to leave them behind by using terms like croisé, doublé or moulinet without explaining them or making them clear from context.

Here’s an example from one of my favorite fantasy novels, Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road. Heinlein fenced while attending Annapolis Naval College, and he falls back on fencing terminology in the book’s climactic fight between the hero, Oscar Gordon, and the antagonist, the avatar of the Soul Eater, in the form of Cyrano de Bergerac.

“There is a riposte in seconde, desperately dangerous but brilliant—if you bring it off. It had won me several matches in epee with nothing at stake but a score. It starts from sixte; your opponent counters. Instead of parrying to carte, you press and bind, sliding all the way down and around his blade and corkscrewing in till your point finds flesh. Or you can beat, counter, and bind, starting from sixte, thus setting it off yourself.

“It’s shortcoming is that, unless it is done perfectly, it is too late too parry and riposte; you run your own chest against his point.

“I didn’t try to initiate it, not against this swordsman; I just thought about it.

“We continued to fence, perfectly each of us. Then he stepped back slightly while countering and barely skidded in his own blood

“My wrist took charge; I corkscrewed in with a perfect bind to second—and my blade went through his body.”

What Heinlein does here, neatly, is educate the audience on the hero’s killing move, just before he deploys it. I’ve read this book half-a-dozen times and know the terminology but never bothered to work out exactly what’s happening in detail. Even so, the intention is clear:

  • Oscar is desperately outmatched (he’s fighting Cyrano!)
  • He knows a “secret move” that’s extremely risky
  • He catches a lucky break (Cyrano slips)
  • He executes the move

Heinlein’s POV character is a trained fighter, conversant in the vocabulary of swordplay. Since Oscar is narrating his own fight, he uses that vocabulary. But Heinlein’s audience is relatively unsophisticated, so the author brings them up to speed on the essentials without getting bogged down in explaining all the terminology.

Next time: selling the danger of the weapon.

____________________

1. Stonecoast is a fantastic low-residency program that I’d recommend to anyone interested in becoming a professional writer, but particularly to those interested in genre or popular fiction (traditional MFA programs can be very unfriendly to genre writers). Stay tuned for a future series, How to Win at Stonecoast on low-residency programs in general and Stonecoast in particular.

2. I punched Kat with a pre-choreographed, pre-rehearsed contact stomach punch, probably the most realistic-looking (and sounding) hand-to-hand move, but still perfectly safe. No Kats were harmed in the presentation.

3. Those who were angry had a legitimate grievance. I did begin my presentation with a warning: “We’ll be talking about violence in some detail. We’ll be demonstrating it. And we’ll be working to make that violence visceral and unsettling, rather than keeping it at a safe remove.,” but in retrospect, I crossed a line by surprising the audience and causing concern for a fellow classmate’s safety. Rude.

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