Saturday, August 13

Real Life Diagnostics: Getting the Action Back Into Fight Scenes

Real Life Diagnostics is a recurring column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Note: This is the last submission in the queue, so it's a good time to send something in.

This week’s question:
I have several fight scenes (swords, fists, staves, full on street battles) and find the going difficult describing the action in the POV that I have chosen. My favorite authors for fight scenes write in First Person. I keep turning to their books when I get stuck. I associate my male MC with some of theirs. But then, I feel a little lost, trying to translate first person to third person. I find I have to do a lot of rewrite because the action gets vague with "He kicked him..." (Which guy is which?) or I use the names over and over again, just to be sure the reader knows whose sword plunged into whose gut.

Do you have any advice?

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:
These two were better than their comrades, he noticed with chagrin. He focused on keeping his arm high and moving, trying to watch both swordsmen’s subtle shifts of eyes, feet and hands. That made it possible to anticipate their moves. Caught up in the deadly dance of strike, blow and parry, he had to keep his worry about Henri in a back corner of his mind.

Slash. Step. Parry.

Lunge. Twist.

Step and lunge again.

Block. Swipe.

Thrust.

The man on the right caught his foot and stumbled for a moment. But it was all Cornelius needed. He lunged forward, his sword thrusting into the man’s chest with no encumbrance. He jerked his sword free and barely met the blade of the last swordsman. It was a quick parry, but he felt a pain in his wrist as he threw off the weight of the other man’s weapon. He winced, and then cursed himself as he watched his opponent grin. The man came in for the kill with a barbarian yell. Cornelius lifted his sword, but there was not enough strength in his arm to throw off the strike. Instead the other sword slid up his blade, toward the hand guard. The blades caught. His opponent bared his teeth as he put all his weight behind the sword. Then the man’s eyes widened and he jerked. His weight shifted as he seemed to slowly kneel upon the ground.

Cornelius stepped to the side, loosening their swords. He caught a glimpse, as the man fell forward, of a throwing knife, buried hilt-deep in the man’s back.

My Thoughts in Purple:
These two were better than their comrades, [he noticed with chagrin.]Since you like the feel of first person, you can cut this since he’s your POV and he says what he notices He focused on keeping his arm high and moving, trying to watch both swordsmen’s subtle shifts of eyes, feet and hands. [That made it possible to anticipate] telling here, but you can get in his head again by using “anticipating” their moves. Caught up in the deadly dance of strike, blow and parry, he [had to keep] telling here. Perhaps try a stronger verb like shoved his worry about Henri in a back corner of his mind. One thing you can also try to get a tighter first person feel is to change the –ing verbs to more acting ones. Right now you’re telling us what he’s focusing on, not what he’s actually doing.
He kept his arm high and moving, watching both swordsmen’s subtle shifts of eyes, feet and hands.
[Slash. Step. Parry.

Lunge. Twist.

Step and lunge again.

Block. Swipe.

Thrust
.] You said you were concerned about this but I really like it. I can see how some folks wouldn’t, so it’s your call here. It’s like onomatopoeia. Some people love it others hate it, so do what you like.

The man on the right caught his foot and stumbled for a moment. [But it was all Cornelius needed.] Telling some here. You could either cut it and say Cornelius lunged, or use a tighter internal thought, like “Aha! An opening!” or “Just what he needed” to shift it more his head. He lunged forward, [his sword thrusting] passive here with the sword doing the action not Cornelius, so try flipping it around. “thrusting his sword” into the man’s chest [with no encumbrance.] could cut He jerked his sword free and barely met the blade of the last swordsman. It was a quick parry, but [he felt a pain] telling a bit. Try showing the pain, “pain flared in his wrist” or the like in his wrist as he threw off the weight of the other man’s weapon. He winced, and then cursed himself [as he watched his opponent grin.] telling a bit here. Think about your stimulus and response. He winces, the man grins, and now Cornelius knows he made a mistake. Let the reader fill in the blanks some [The man came in for the kill with a barbarian yell.] same here. Perhaps have him yell and then charge. Think about what Cornelius sees, not what you know is happening and why Cornelius lifted his sword, [but there was not enough strength in his arm to throw off the strike.] telling here. How would Cornelius feel? He lifts the sword, his arm shakes, it drops, he can’t get it high enough to parry, he starts to get scared, etc. [Instead] this weakens the action the other sword slid up his blade, toward the hand guard. The blades caught. His opponent bared his teeth [as he] tells motive, which Cornelius can’t know. Try “and put his weight” put all his weight behind the sword. Then the man’s eyes widened and he jerked. His weight shifted [as he seemed to slowly kneel] Odds are Cornelius just reacts to what he sees. The man’s weight shifts and he kneels or drops. It’s okay if Cornelius doesn’t know why upon the ground.

Cornelius stepped to the side, loosening their swords. [He caught a glimpse,] if the man falls on his face in front of him, I assume he sees more than a glimpse? as the man fell forward, of a throwing knife, buried hilt-deep in the man’s back.] This sentence feels a bit awkward. Fast paced is good for fight scenes. Try “the man fell forward, a throwing knife hilt-deep in his back”

The question:
I have several fight scenes (swords, fists, staves, full on street battles) and find the going difficult describing the action in the POV that I have chosen. My favorite authors for fight scenes write in First Person. I keep turning to their books when I get stuck. I associate my male MC with some of theirs. But then, I feel a little lost, trying to translate first person to third person.
I suspect you’re having a hard time because you’re describing it as someone watching the action from the sidelines, which goes against the first person closeness that you enjoy in other books. Try going deeper in to Cornelius’s POV. Think about what he does, sees, and feels. I liked what you did with the slash parry stuff, as that gave a sense of him doing that, focusing on those steps.

Let the reader guess at things a little as well. If you tell them why the characters are acting and what the results are, you lessen the suspense.
The man on the right caught his foot and stumbled for a moment. But it was all Cornelius needed. He lunged forward, his sword thrusting into the man’s chest with no encumbrance.
The bold sections are all things that weaken the scene because they’re giving away too much information or not adding anything to what’s there. The man stumbles, but just for a moment. It’s over before Cornelius really has time to do anything. But it was all he needed suggests that he can act, but there’s no excitement there. With no encumbrance feels odd tacked on the end, and not like something Cornelius would think. But it’s a great spot for internalization or something that sets up the next stage of the fight.
The man on the right caught his foot and stumbled. Cornelius lunged forward, thrusting his sword into the man’s chest. It sank deep and he smiled. Thought you could take me, did you?

A grunt behind him. He jerked his sword free and barely met the blade of the last swordsman.
Same actions, but it feels closer to Cornelius’s head and puts the reader in the action.

I find I have to do a lot of rewrite because the action gets vague with "He kicked him..." (Which guy is which?) or I use the names over and over again, just to be sure the reader knows whose sword plunged into whose gut.

Internalization is your friend here, because he can think things that put the reader in his head and give a more personal sense of the fight. That keeps it from being pure “he did this he did that” description.

A good example spot is when he winces and shows weakness. He might think something here that shows how afraid or worried he is and help up the stakes. Also, when he knows he can’t hold off the blade and suddenly the man drops. What’s going through his mind then? Relief? Shame? A mix? You mention he’s worried about Henri, so maybe this is something that pops up in the fight as well.

Fight scenes are always tough. I’ve done a lot of them, and what makes them work for me is to really think about what the POV is going through. See the fight through their eyes, think about all the senses and how they apply to a fight. Sounds, smells, touch, all three can indicate trouble or change the balance of the battle. Use them as your POV would and really get in there personally.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they – and others – find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) so feel free to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I love all your comments here! I agree with you, personally, about the author needing to keep the onomatopoeic elements. I've always enjoyed that kind of suspence, myself.

    I also agree with your assessment of the weakening statements. (Oftentimes the editing process isn't about rewriting your prose: it's about taking some of it out. :) )

    Great evaluation; I hope the author understands your points and can use them to their advantage!

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  3. As someone who writes in close third POV, I really appreciate your analysis. A great clinic on showing vs. telling, and how to deepen POV.

    The piece was, in my opinion, quite well-written (so take heart, brave volunteer!). With Janice's tweaks, it will really sing.

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  4. This is such a great post. I have the hardest time writing action scenes, and this is very helpful. Thank you!

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  5. This left me confused. The description originally sounded like rapier fighting, what with the lunges and dance-like fighting, but the barbarian screams coming in for the kill sounds like a heavier sword. Generally, I'd think parrying would hurt if he caught it on the wrong part of the sword, not if he were slow, but most of my experience is with rapiers, so I could be wrong if heavier swords are intended. (With rapiers, you catch the tip of their weapon mid-way down your blade, so you have more leverage and a simple wrist movement is enough to easily turn the other person's blade)

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  6. Fight scenes. Ugh, there's a tough one, so I'm really glad the author submitted this particular question.

    I like the internalization example Janice wrote, and the point about telling from the sidelines (because that's a problem I've found myself fighting a lot, and it's nice to have words for what I'm doing wrong.)

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  7. I agree with Janice, it would be hard to top her suggestion, so I’ll just second them.

    She has taught me a lot about POV, if you can learn to write inside the head of your MC, then we as the reader will be as well.

    During fight scenes I like short, quick, focused sentences. They must elicit imagery and movements at the same time… achieve that, and your one step closer to the end goal.

    I do like your fight scene, tighten it up and follow her advice and it should even be better!

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  8. Sounds like you know something about fencing, MK :)

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