The exquisite art of fight writing! How do you do it??

Discussion in 'Literature' started by Manisphere, Apr 14, 2009.

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  1. Manisphere Jedi Master

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    Aug 25, 2007
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    I'm always impressed with good fight writing. The ascending detailed action often bewilders me. There are great fight writers and artists in the EU that incorporate great stories with killer fights. Traviss' visceral battlefield skirmishes, Allston and Stackpole's symphony of X-Wings and Uglies, the art of the lightsaber fight as perfected by Jan Duursema and the all out slugfests of Troy Denning.

    How does one become a good fight writer? Or artist? Do writers plot such epic battles on their ping-pong table with starships positioned like tin soldiers? Do Jan and John have slow motion lighsaber fights in-between panels? How does one plot out a long and credible battle or saber fight?
  2. Katana_Geldar Jedi Grand Master

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    Mar 3, 2003
    star 8
    Karen Miller has actually done some broadsword fighting, but I can't speak for anyone else.
  3. LAJ_FETT Tech Admin and Collecting/Lucasfilm Ltd Mod

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    According to the biography on her [link=http://www.karentraviss.com/html/real.htm]website[/link] Karen Traviss has been in the Territorial Army and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service. The TA is the UK equivalent of the US National Guard. She has also been a defence correspondent. So she does have some military experience in her background.
  4. Master_Keralys Sometime Technical Aide and Erstwhile Lit Mod

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    I know Stover has a great deal of experience in martial arts, too, which probably helps his writing there.

    From what I've observed, though, writing a good fight often has as much to do with pacing and the arc of the fight and good descriptions as it does anything else. The latter point is where experience helps; for the other two, it's not really any different than any other part of writing. You have to know your goals in the scene, who needs to feel what and accomplish what, and then you need to figure out the plot of the fight. Once you have those, you have the first two points, and you flesh them out with the third.

    I'm curious what that process looks like. In my own writing of fanfic when I was younger, it was pretty much instinct, and I'm sure it doesn't work that way in the real world - especially, for example, when you're dealing with 22 pages of art.
  5. Gratulor Jedi Youngling

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    May 4, 2008
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    I think it comes down to research and observation, at least to those without a military background. Then a lot of experience just writing anything else, being able to communicate feelings and natural things to the reader is very important obviously for battle scenes.
  6. Zorrixor Force Ghost

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    Sep 8, 2004
    star 6
    Yeah, I tend to assume writing fight scenes is largely like any other scene, with its success primarily in the planning. Usually the success of any piece of prose is in how well you edit it, as a first draft is rarely any good no matter whether you're an amateur or Stephen King. Fight scenes though I tend to feel are harder to edit because there's so much immediacy in their interconnectivity, so it is often not as easy to edit and cut things out as with, say, a character description.

    I think one of the main difficulties (and dangers) in fight writing is that they are very easy to do without a plan, which is why a lot of fanfic fight scenes often come across awkward and rather haphazardly paced.

    The Invincible duels, for instance, I expect Denning meticulously planned out, as they really were quite something. Caedus's last fight, with the wound through the gut, the syringes, the stumbling around on his severed ankle; that was all really impressive with how short it actually was page wise compared to other lightsaber duels that have dragged on for ten pages and not had much happen. Which is not to say detailed scenes don't work, Stover did an excellent job in ROTS with how he pretty much described every single blow; usually, however, I find that level of detail boring, but somehow he pulled it off fantastically.

    I tend to figure it as rather similar to choreographing a fight scene for a film. When two actors get on stage to wave their lightsabers about, they don't do it randomly, they've memorised every move long, long in advance. I assume fight scenes tend to be the same.

    Which is kind of ironic. It's rather easy to freewrite a fight scene, but it is hard to pull off with any real finesse. The same, I assume, would be true of sticking two guys on stage and saying "go crazy" if there were not the safety risks that would entail.
  7. Robimus Jedi Grand Master

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    Jul 6, 2007
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    For me it's about the emotion conveyed more than the fight itself. One can write all the leaps, lightsabers and rolls they want if there isn't an emotional connection to the characters it always leaves me wanting more.

    Thats why Luke's duels vs Vader stand out as the best Star Wars have to offer. Not because of the spectacle, Maul vs Obi was a visual joy, but becasue of the emotion conveyed by the characters.
  8. Master_Keralys Sometime Technical Aide and Erstwhile Lit Mod

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    I think Rob hits a big part of it. I think that's why the most effective part of the duel in Episode I is at the end after Qui-Gon gets stabbed. The pure emotion in the fight between Obi-Wan and Maul after that skyrockets so much that it's immensely more compelling than the rest of the sequence (as beautiful as the rest of it is).
  9. patchworkz7 Jedi Grand Master

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    Mar 26, 2004
    star 4
    Sean Stewart was well trained in fencing, fwiw. Karen Traviss was trained on extraction and worked around choppers as well as getting her qualification on the L85A1/2, and she's always run stuff by real life soldiers and snipers. I believe Karen Miller may have some sword training too. I wouldn't be surprised to find that some of the other authors had either unarmed or armed martial arts training.
  10. Xicer Jedi Padawan

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    Aug 21, 2008
    star 4
    So basically, just about every Star Wars author can kick our asses? I'll remember that next time I go to a con...
  11. Excellence Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Jul 28, 2002
    star 7

    There are many ways to write a fight scene. You can do it the 4 principle ways, or you can it do however you want. But your personal experience has little input.
  12. Manisphere Jedi Master

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    Aug 25, 2007
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    What are the 4 principal ways?
  13. Jedi Vince Jedi Youngling

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    Aug 2, 1999
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    I think the situation of the story really dictates how an author executes a fight scene.

    For instance, Matt Stover gave Ganner's last stand a much more romantic touch. He described the movements from a distance, and we really got a sense that the Force was moving through him during that ballet of bloodshed.

    Sometimes the situation dictates a closer approach, like Saba's confrontation with Welk in The Joiner King. Of course, Troy Denning understood that the fight took place in a cave and that Saba was on the hunt already, so he applied the grit in a brutal duel that jumped from the pages.

    Training duels are good times to show technical aspects of fighting, but I don't care for a lot of that elsewhere -- unless it reveals something about the character. Count Dooku is usually handled this way: No author misses a chance to explain his elegant, one-handed style, which reflects his elitist, aristocratic sensibilities.

    In comics, Jan Duursema does a great job of capturing motion and emotion. Together with John Ostrander's craftsmanship, their their duels are all unique, and VERY cinematic.
  14. patchworkz7 Jedi Grand Master

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    Mar 26, 2004
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    Really?

    You don't think that authors who know what it is to have been under fire or even handle a sword in fencing or qualify on an automatic weapon or been trained to exfil off a boat at sea might not have better insight into some aspects of those things than those who haven't? Even someone who has simply talked over weapons with a qualified expert or discusses the realistic effects of cobalt salted nukes...they wouldn't have something to add that someone who didn't have the info didn't?

    I'm not a fan of the school of the 19-page lightsaber fight (I still remember Sean Stewart's comment that 99% of sword fights are idiotic since if you look to fencing the difference in skill level means someone who's a bit better will break a guard in seconds, thus you don't get pages of ripostes and clashes of steal), and perhaps you're just speaking directly to the description of the action and not other factors involved, but while I don't think a writer has to have been a pilot to write an X-Wing novel...I wouldn't think it a bad idea to chat up a fighter jock to get the mentality and feeling of aerial combat down.
  15. Tailone Jedi Youngling

    Member Since:
    Aug 10, 2001
    star 1
    Hi,

    I've been watching this thread with great interest, because . . . well, there's nothing I like better than a great fight scene. So, if I may be so bold, I'd first like to thank everyone who said nice things about mine. Truly, there is no praise that touches my heart more. Then, I'm going to recommend that you take a look at the guru of gurus when it comes to fight scenes: William Goldman. Pick up "The Princess Bride" and "The Marathon Man." If you truly love fight scenes, those are the classics. I'd say that I like them even better than Matt Stover's, and Matt's are pretty darn good. Everytime I need to write a great fight scene, I go back to Goldman just to remind myself what perfection looks like.

    Now, I have no idea how Goldman crafts his fight scenes. Whether he's ex-military, a black belt, a street fighter, I haven't a clue. But he is an awesome writer, and I think that's where it begins. He understands ebb and flow, how to get the most out of a sentence, how to show character through action, the power of a narrative voice. He puts it all together to create what I think are the greatest fight scenes I have ever read.

    As for myself, I try to draw from a variety of resources. First, I've earned black belts in two different martial arts, Judo and Kyuki-Do. (Kyuki-Do is a form of Tae-Kwon Do that incorporates Hapki-Do, Judo, and Boxing.) I played Division III football in college, and when I was younger --- much younger --- I worked as a bouncer in a biker bar, was involved in a reasonably small number of street fights (no, I'll never tell you those stories), and was raised by the undersheriff of a pretty small county. Plus, I had a younger brother who didn't have the good sense to back down when that might have been the better part of valor, but who was also two-inches taller than me. But, just for the record, all that "research" didn't help that much. Real fights happen a lot faster than they do in fiction; most often, they're over in seconds, and nobody ever remembers exactly what happened in one. But in fiction, you have to be a clearer about events, and you have the fight mean something, because what you're presenting isn't "reality," it's a condensation of reality.

    But that's only part of the picture. I think it was Robimus who said that emotion is a key element for him in any fight scene. It took me about 20 books to learn that, but I couldn't agree more. When I read a good fight scene, what really grabs my attention is how the characters feel about what's happening. That can turn a scene comic, tragic, brutal, anything you want.

    Yes, I do choreograph my fight scenes, either on paper or with paper-clip figures. (When we used to do martial arts demonstrations, we choregraphed those, too --- usually because we wanted to make sure nobody got hurt.) But mostly, I'm just trying to figure out how to explain things clearly, without going into more detail than is exciting.

    Usually, I'll take a few runs at writing a fight scene. The first draft is just what I imagine it would be like. The second draft is trying to bring out the emotions and cool elements. The third draft is usually trying to get the most out of the language. But that varies, and some fight scenes require more work. Anakin's death in SbS, for example, took seven drafts (if I recall correctly.) Saba vs. Welk just sort of came to me -- that was only two drafts.


    Just some food for thought . . . hope you enjoy.

    -- Troy




  16. Excellence Jedi Knight

    Member Since:
    Jul 28, 2002
    star 7

    Well, Mani, you can do the Drizzt, Distant, Detached or Emotional way.

    First up, the Drizzt way. Also known as the Salvatorean. Every little muscle and movement described in rolling paragraphs. You've seen this in Stackpole's manoevure-detail attack prose. It's a dizzying array of description that, lets be honest, readers don't really care for. You can describe all the movement you want -- but to what end? Not everyone is going to mentally picture it all. And do you want them to? It can inadvertantly slow the pace. This is not a bad thing. The Mara vs Carr brawl in Vector Prime was classic Salvatorean. But a physically focused prose style can often leave out the emotional angle.

    Then you got the Distant style. The worst of all, in general. Luceno has a habit of doing this. Showing something from someone, but you're not really in it. You're getting the thoughts, not experiencing them. Even worser is the Telling -- something that's supposed to be forbidden in manuscripting. The entire Borosk battle end of the Remnant book was just told to you. I was horrified, because those authors are top calibre. I expected better.

    The Detached is kin to the Distant, but not quite. One moment you're fighting a saber battle, the next you're being told over a wider scale of theatre. It happens quite a lot; it breaks the flow. It's like a camera zooming in and focusing out elsewhere, then back to the saber moment. I don't like it. Detach writing is a bit like a Overview writing. You don't really get the first hand pov through my eyes look. Kinda like the Yavin battle in Darksaber, forgive me for bringing it up. Masses of warships shooting at masses of warships, nothing really pov. The Ebaq battle in Destiny's Way was a disaster of writing there. Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet books are rife with it.

    Last a fat Gamorrean in a marathon we've got the Emotional style -- the best of all. Blending emotional thoughts and feelings with physical attacking. But you gotta be careful you don't get too heavy in the emotions, or you'll detach from the flow, break their focus of attack. It has to be realism. You're not going to be thinking all manner of thoughts whilst fighting for your life. Not in real life; in a book. Carol Berg is one of the few female authors I know that can do both emotion and sword action well.

    I still have to say the Joiner King fights are the best written in star wars books. Not once was anything forewarned or outcome hinted at. I cite the Leia vs Rar sneak fight.

    But none of that matters if you don't do it right. It's challenging, but you have to make sure your style of fighting pov matches the type of character you're scening at the moment. Attack style should if possible match emotional temperament.
  17. Master_Keralys Sometime Technical Aide and Erstwhile Lit Mod

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    Interesting. I definitely understand the seven drafts thing. The one death scene I've ever written for my own personal prose was on par with that, I think. I suspect that's why Anakin's death scene works so well, in any case. [face_thinking]

    I do find it fairly striking that most of the Star Wars authors who write the best combat scenes do have a good bit of experience fighting, though Troy's comments on the difference between a fight in a book and a fight in real life are pretty striking as well. Though I've not been in a fight, I can attest that in the swordfighting I've done, having a back-and-forth that lasts more than a minute without someone getting a blow in is downright unusual, and oftentimes the first blow gets through in the first ten seconds.

    The emotional punch is definitely what's always moved me. The best fights have always been like that. Whether it's humor (The Princess Bride, which I definitely think Troy is right to recommend), or deep pain and compassion (think Jedi), or love (I'm thinking Shatterpoint and Ganner in Traitor here)... it's the soul of the character that makes it work. Which is part of the reason that the duels in the prequels by and large fell so short, though they were much more visually impressive, than the standard set by the OT.
  18. Jedi Vince Jedi Youngling

    Member Since:
    Aug 2, 1999
    star 3
    You're welcome, man -- you've earned it. And thanks for taking the time to post. I'm finishing my first book, so it's great to read insight from an author I respect.

    It's cool to know you played DIII football. Having played on that level, I also find myself drawing on that experience in my work.

    Keep up the good work, Troy.
  19. masterskywalker Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Nov 2, 2001
    star 5
    When reading or watching a fight scene, I typically judge it on a few things, ferocity, skill, cleverness

    Ferocity: How much do these people want (or not want?) to hurt or kill each other? Can you see it in their fighting?

    Example: Luke going berserk on Vader, Rob Roy's cold rage, Solid Snake and Liquid Ocelot's utter brutality with the killing moves they use.

    Skill: Are these combatants amateurs? Professions? What's a good way for an amateur to beat a professional? Vice versa? Or are they equally matched?

    Example: Luke fighting Vader on Bespin, John McClane vs Mai, Micky One Punch vs his final opponent (best rope a dope I've ever seen in a film).

    Cleverness: What trick is used to win? How does the hero, or villain, outsmart their foe?

    Example: Obi Wan using the high ground and dropping Anakin into volcanic ash, The Man with No Name's stove plate body armor, Yojimbo using his throwing knife against his gun using opponent.
  20. patchworkz7 Jedi Grand Master

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    Mar 26, 2004
    star 4
    I snipped...but that was pretty well dead on, Ex.

    I have to say that's an excellent summation of various styles of fight writing and where the "fight writing" ends and the rest begins, and I agree with you as to what the best form is, and that it's probably the hardest form to write.
  21. Manisphere Jedi Master

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    Aug 25, 2007
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    Vivid explanation! I'm now going to read it again a couple more times to make sure I got it.;):p

    Great thread! Thanks for chiming in Mr. Denning!
  22. Excellence Jedi Knight

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    Jul 28, 2002
    star 7

    Another thing I omitted, not just matching fighting prose to character temperament, but the TONE of the book.

    Lets take Shatterpoint. It's a cocky, no-nonsense brawl to the end page, pov'ed by a cocky rumble ready man. You would naturally present Windu playing the part, verbose or action wise. Whereas Streen is pretty much an old geezer. You wouldn't write his action scenes prosed the way you would Shatterpoint-style.

    If anyone's read Paul Kemp's Forgotten Realms books you'll know exactly what I mean. Cale and Rivan a assassins, cold killers who take the role as heroes in his shadow books. They are not nice people, but you know, the world depends on them winning the day. They're fighting and PROSE of emotional thought is every bit as precision and precise. Fantastically perfectly matched to their personalities.

    Cale's got no problem storming up to a 2000yo archmage, grabbing the man by the scruff of his collar, and demanding where he's keeping his friend captive, violent sparks flying from their shadows. Broad grinning, that's what it was. You wouldn't show that with Kam Solusar, because he spent decades with a grim demeanour under adverse conditions. By nature, he's a quiet, somewhat haunted man, not a brazen Windu or Cale.

    None of this is hard to put on paperback, actually.
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