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Writing fight scenes

I recently had dinner with a family whose children I teach. Several of them have read Telsharu and were eagerly asking for an update on Buk Tu. In discussing the pieces that still remain to be written, many of them being fight scenes, I mentioned that I have some difficulty writing fight scenes.

One of the children seemed surprised at this, me being a martial artist. You’d think I’d have no trouble coming up with that kind of thing, since I live it every day.

Ah, but that’s the trouble, as I explained that evening. When writing fight scenes, I tend to go into too much detail. I think like a martial artist. I’m technical. I’m realistic. And generally, that just doesn’t play well in written form to a general audience. Most readers would have no earthly idea what I was talking about if I actually described the moves!

For example:

Here’s a moment from an early draft of Telsharu. I literally had to dig up one of the printed drafts in order to find this. I remember it as a particularly embarrassing piece to look back on. I wouldn’t normally share this, but it demonstrates my point rather vividly. Here’s a moment from Aisina’s POV:

Someone bear-grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms. Aisina dropped her weight and threw up her arms, loosening the grip. Her attacker grunted as she struck him in the groin. She slid one foot behind his and popped her shoulder up, sending him tumbling to the ground. Aisina whirled and hit him in the face with her palm.

This scene didn’t even make it into the final version of the book, but if it had, I certainly would have cut this portion. What is described here is an actual move that I teach my taekwondo students. It really works, in person. It really doesn’t work, on paper.

Sam and I have learned that less is more in fight scenes. Most readers have great imaginations. They can fill in the gaps. We’ve learned to give the scope of a scene, to give the flavor of what is happening, and then let the reader imagine the details. By enhancing the texture of the scene, we’ve found that readers enjoy it more, instead of getting lost in the technical details of the action.

That said, it’s still important to have climactic events within the fight scenes. The significant moments that readers will remember–the cool move, the great one-liner, the fatal wound, the final thrust. Whatever it is, so long as it gives the reader a firm grip on the scene and makes it memorable. All fight scenes have the potential to be engaging to the reader, without being overwhelming.

Here’s a moment from the climax of The Tale of Telsharu. (*Small spoiler alert*)

A hurricane seemed to swirl near the center of the bridge, with storm clouds of black-clad Sunga Tobai warriors accompanied by the occasional flash of white-robed monks or black-and-crimson assassins. At the eye of the storm three men stood back-to-back, fighting like an army of themselves. The first was the great Hanu Zan, wearing simple traveler’s clothes of modest brown. The second was Shoi in his assassin’s robes and armor, wielding twin short-swords that carried an Aura of darkness about them. The third was the monk Dao Zhang in robes of blood-splattered white, wielding a staff that could barely be seen for its speed. “The GaoSiang,” Xansul murmured. Watching them fight, one could almost see how it had been in the old days, when these three men, with their now long-absent companions, had conquered the better part of the Seventh Empire, bringing those lands once claimed by the First Empress back under the rulership of her descendant and heir, the emperor Kamgue. Watching them, Xansul could see how these men had stood against an army of ten thousand and won. Watching them, Xansul understood for the first time what true shutao could be.

This moment doesn’t have any technical details, but it gives scope to the fighting, to the epic nature of the moment. A lot of the time, we mix up detailed, specific moments with grand, sweeping observations such as this. The mixture of the two–the close-up and the far-away–help to balance the fight scenes, keep them engaging, epic, and easy to follow.

And just so you know–Buk Tu is going to have some epic fight scenes. Just so you know. =)

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