Writing Realistic Hand-to-Hand Combat Scenes

[A previous version of this post appeared on Rennie St. James’ blog]

Have you ever been in real hand-to-hand combat? Not a playground pushing contest, a real someone’s-not-getting-up-ever-again situation?

Forget about what you’ve seen in movies, TV, and the like. Those are highly staged, choreographed dances, not fights. Everything they do is practiced so nobody gets hurt.

Now for something that will help you write such scenes: Forget combat details, they’re irrelevant. If it’s important a character knows Krav Maga, share that information before the fight scene, not in it. Fight scenes must give the reader a sense of the fight’s quick, violent actions — use short sentences with small words — and readers should feel the violence — use strong, action verbs.

Consider: “I pushed him down.” v “I knocked him down.”

“Knocked” provides visual and kinesthetic information that “pushed” does not.

Was the push hard or soft? Intended or not? We don’t know. The next sentence can be anything from “I grabbed for him, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’” to “I kicked his head in.” But “knocked”? I used lots of force intentionally. I meant “him” to go down. You already know the next sentence will be “I kicked his head in” or something worse.

Let’s explore further:
Let’s dig deeper:

Which of the two above puts you closer to the action? “Explore” tends to be a “distancing” word in English — we “explore” something “over there.” We don’t explore our backyards. “Dig” implies an immediate, physical activity. We dig in our backyards. Strong, action words make a difference.

Let’s dig deeper:

1) Ellie blocked Earl’s left with her right, moved into him, and caught him across the jaw with an uppercut.
2) Ellie blocked Earl’s left. She stepped in. Her right rocketed from her hip. The impact shattered his jaw.

1 and 2 explain much the same thing. They’re nineteen and eighteen words respectively. But pay attention to yourself reading them. Most people read 1 slower than they read 2.

There’s lots of reasons for it and someday, if we meet at a con, ask me, and I’ll explain it if you’d like.

There’s reasons for it. I’ll explain it should we meet at a con.

Short, simple sentences make a difference. They take less mental effort to process. You want your reader to understand as quickly as possible that somebody got hurt, possibly killed. You want them to know it as a fact. You don’t want them decoding a series of parenthetic expressions to figure it out.

2’s sentences are in SVO — subject-verb-object — order, what’s called “active voice.” There are four short sentences instead of one long one. Each sentence uses a strong, action verb: blocked, stepped, rocketed, shattered. Each verb conveys a distinct, easily visualized physical action.

Want to make example 2 better? Remove “from her hip.” Her right is already rocketing. The visual is already from low to high. Let the reader’s imagination fill in where from.

Earlier I mentioned “If it’s important a character knows Krav Maga share that information before the fight scene, not in it.” You don’t have time in the fight scene itself to describe the actual techniques being used because you’re using short, SVO sentences. How far before the fight scene do you need to share something?

Now we’re exploring foreshadowing. I did it earlier in this piece and, if I did it correctly, you didn’t notice it. I foreshadowed to prime you to respond a certain way to something that came later (and thanks to Joe Della Rosa for asking me to explain “priming”).


Greetings! I’m your friendly, neighborhood Threshold Guardian. This is a protected post. Protected posts in the My Work, Marketing, and StoryCrafting categories require a subscription (starting at 1$US/month) to access. Protected posts outside those categories require a General (free) membership.
Members and Subscribers can LogIn. Non members can join. Non-protected posts (there are several) are available to everyone.
Want to learn more about why I use a subscription model? Read More ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Enjoy!

Relatability

To me, the key to keeping readers focused on your story is relatability (yes, I know. If you’re reading my world-building posts, you’re shocked). A story is relatable when the reader can imagine themselves in the story, meaning the reader accepts what happens in the story as something that could happen to them, meaning it’s familiar, and that brings us back to grounding the unfamiliar in the familiar.

At this point, we revert to basic psychology; How do people relate to things? Turns out there are four basic ways:

  1. they’re familiar with a place (Setting)
  2. they’re familiar with what’s happening (Plot)
  3. they’re familiar with the people involved (Character)
  4. they’re familiar with what’s being said (Language)

Greetings! I’m your friendly, neighborhood Threshold Guardian. This is a protected post. Protected posts in the My Work, Marketing, and StoryCrafting categories require a subscription (starting at 1$US/month) to access. Protected posts outside those categories require a General (free) membership.
Members and Subscribers can LogIn. Non members can join. Non-protected posts (there are several) are available to everyone.
Want to learn more about why I use a subscription model? Read More ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes Enjoy!

Why It Works for Me – Natalie Babbit’s “Tuck Everlasting”

This is the last in this current series in which I discuss why a particular piece of writing works for me, aka, this piece of writing taught me something about writing, encouraged me to be a better writer, engaged me, captivated me, educated me, et cetera.

As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s one thing to know something is good, it’s a better thing (in my opinion) to know why it’s good and then be able to copy what’s good about it, to learn from it so you can be as good and (hopefully) better.

This time out, Natalie Babbit’s “Tuck Everlasting”.

 

 

Terry Melia’s “Tales from the Greenhills”

Let me get the obvious out of the way; Bravo, Mr. Melia. Bravo!

Let me get the obvious out of the way; Bravo, Mr. Melia. Bravo!

Now repeat that half a dozen times to get it out of my system.

I completed my third read of Tales from the Greenhills less than fifteen minutes ago. It’s going on my reread shelf.
One of my unwritten rules for realizing a book is stunning is getting to the end and wanting the story to continue, to find out what happens next to the characters (Melia says sequels are in the works. I’m holding him to that).

Another unwritten rule is having the characters sneak up on you such that you don’t realize you’re vested in their lives more than your own, that you care about them as people, not as characters in a story.

Bravo, Mr. Melia! Bravo!

 
American readers may have trouble with the language. Remember the first time you saw The Full Monty or Waking Ned Devine? You wanted subtitles for the first ten minutes until you got use to the accents? I had a similar experience reading the dialogue for the first time. I reread sentences to make sure I got the meanings correctly. Once I accepted the vernacular, I realized it was perfect.

Let me focus on that “perfect” part. Future anthropologists will pick up Tales from the Greenhills and realize they have a textbook for late 1970’s Liverpool, England, and the world. This book is so rich with cultural iconography is could be used as a time traveler’s guide to time and place.

Tales from the Greenhills is also a coming-of-age story meets Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, although I didn’t recognize this until half way through my second read and realized fully during my third read. Regarding the Hero’s Journey aspect, Melia couldn’t have done a better job of placing Le Queste de Saint Graal in modern England if he tried (don’t tell him I said that. He’ll prove me wrong and do it). It’s all there and I laughed when I finally recognized the separate characters for their Journey counterparts.

Again and again and again, Bravo, Mr. Melia! Bravo!

Do you need to read it three times to appreciate it? No, not at all. However, if you’re an author or writer-wannabe you must read this novel multiple times. Melia does an amazing job with scenes, characterization, mood, place, setting, voice, POV…I need to know this was by accident. If Melia set out to produce this rich a story, I’m going to hang up my writing shifts now, I can’t compete.

I did have the privilege of exchanging comments with Melia during my reading. His attention to detail — this is a movie or should be – think Trainspotting meets Oliver’s Travels — caused me to ask how much was imagined and how much remembered. I won’t give away his answer except that it increased my respect for both him and his work.

The book is also rich in quotable lines; “the only thing money can’t buy is poverty.” If Melia lifted that — good authors borrow, great authors steal — please tell me where so I can play in the treasure.

And last note; the opening scene. The book opens literally with the aftermath of the story. Not the conclusion, the aftermath of the climax. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! As I learned to say in Glasgow, “Pure Dead Brilliant, Jonnie!” Get past the first chapter and the rest of the book builds moment by moment, scene by scene, to the climax. You know it’s coming — you’ve already read the aftermath — and Melia keeps notching up the tension for what you already know is going to happen.

Again, Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant.

Okay, the for real last note; the last three paragraphs. I read them and laughed. Oh, Mr. Melia, BRAVO!

Minor technical matters for American audiences
Editing styles in the UK differ slightly from their US counterparts. Some constructions don’t roll smoothly off the American tongue. They’re awkward, not confusing, much like I wrote above regarding dialogue.

I took them as an opportunity to increase my understanding of contemporary British literature and hope I’m a better all-around reader for it.

Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Nov 2019’s Great Opening Lines)

A powerful opening line that leads to an amazingly weak novel

I wrote in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 3 – Some Great Opening Lines) that I’d share more great opening lines as I found them.

“She sleeps beside me, her narrow chest rising and falling, and already I miss her.” – Kristen Harmel’s The Room on Rue AmÈlie
I challenge anyone to read that line and hear anything but a whisper. If not a full whisper, a quiet voice, a voice not wanting to disturb. I further challenge anyone to read that line and not feel an ache. You know something’s going to happen and it’s going to change the narrator’s world completely. Can you read that line and not have a sense of illness? The narrow chest rising and falling followed by already I miss her?

Amazing emotional power in fifteen words, to me. I need to know Harmel worked hard at that opening line. If it just came to her, I should quit the writing business.

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel doesn’t live up to that opening line. By chapter 3 the strong narrative voice is lost, the storycrafting weakens, and the reader is left wondering what happened to the author of the first two chapters. Certainly they left and let someone else take over the writing of the book. There are sparks of the original brilliance here and there, but nothing like the evocative power of that great opening line and the first two chapters.
Continue reading “Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Nov 2019’s Great Opening Lines)”