- Use the balance of power
- Fights should be unique, different.
- Fights happen for a reason – they develop naturally from the plot.
- Take into account your character’s physicality.
- Include emotions and sensations.
- Use actions and reactions.
Saturday, 28 January 2017
Part 1 looked at the ways writers can come unstuck when writing fight scenes and the common errors they should avoid, particularly with clichés, stilted dialogue (and action), and info dumps.
This week we’ll look at the ways to formulate fight scenes and “choreograph” them properly so that they appear dynamic, interesting and compelling for the reader. More importantly, they should appear realistic as opposed to unrealistic and completely unbelievable.
The important thing to these kinds of scenes – or any with conflict – is the actions and reactions of your main character, based on his/her personality and character, which has already been established within the story. In other words, if your character is a mild mannered type of person who is rather laid-back and has no specialist knowledge of martial arts or combat, then his fighting skills should reflect this.
With practice, fight scenes can be much easier to get to grips with than writers think. Creating realistic fight scenes relies on several factors to make them work well.
Every fight scene is about the balance of power – it’s about how your character will fight his way out of a situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean he has to win the fight – but rather that the reader is aware of the balance of power within that situation. If the reader knows the villain is a much stronger character, their expectation is that he will win this particular fight, therefore it builds the tension towards the next fight/conflict, where the balance of power will have shifted in favour of the hero, because naturally the writer has to escalate these things to create the require tension and drama.
Balance of Power
The story of David and Goliath is interesting to us for a very good reason – it’s about the weaker character defeating a powerful one in the simplest way. This principle makes the fight scene that much interesting for the reader.
In most stories, the main character is the underdog, and therefore weaker, so instead of relying on deus ex machina to let your hero defeat the henchmen with superhuman strength and fighting knowledge hitherto dormant and unknown to the reader, you use the David and Goliath principle and find a way for your main character to defeat the villain in a simple but effect way, something that keeps the reader interested because of the tension and drama.
Often these fight scenes rely on your main character using brain against brawn by outwitting the aggressor. This always makes for an interesting read, because it’s not always what the reader expects, but it’s satisfying for them nonetheless.
Every Fight Should be Unique
Approach each fight differently. Don’t use the same formulaic sequence over and over again. Every fight in real life is different, and therefore fiction should reflect this.
A good writer will vary dramatic tension in fight scenes, or show different perspectives. Try to write your fight scenes differently in order to make them unique. Some writers make their fight scenes almost poetic and visceral, while others might go for brevity with short, sharp descriptions or raw bluntness, so the way the scenes are choreographed with description helps the reader “see” the scene in their minds.
Not only that, but actions have reactions, so any fight scene will have a series of actions and reactions between the characters. If the villain grabs the hero’s weapon, how will the hero react? If the hero is in the position to overcome the villain, how will the villain react? And so on.
It’s how fight scenes are constructed that makes them interesting, tense, dynamic and distinct.
Every Fight Happens for a Reason
There is always a reason behind conflict, so fight scenes should happen because the story demands it, not because the writer wants to amuse and titillate the reader in a bid to keep them interested. Lots of fights and explosions might work in the movies, but in fiction it may not.
Fight scenes are and should be plot driven – a natural element within the story that develops from the conflict and tension between protagonist and antagonist, rather than an orchestrated contrivance deliberately created, which readers will easily see through and won’t thank you for.
Let fights scenes develop naturally. Don’t force them.
It’s surprising how many writers forget the physicality of fight scenes. While size is no guarantee of strength, generally speaking, if a teenager is up against a large, muscular opponent, the chances are he’s not going to win that fight – unless he has the advantage of weapons...or an army hiding behind him.
Always take into account the physicality of your characters when constructing fight scenes. Think about how they move and react. Would a man’s punch to a young boy knock him out? It’s very likely. If he’s slim and agile, would he be able to move around more swiftly than his much bigger, bulkier opponent? It’s possible.
Always have that element of realism in your mind. If it’s too far-fetched, the reader won’t want to invest in the story.
How you describe the fight sequences makes a difference to the story. Any fight scene involves a range of emotions - adrenaline, fear, determination, panic and so on. Writers tend to forget to include emotions, but fights are not always emotionless. Emotions and sensations are always present. As a writer, you have to place yourself in that situation and imagine those emotions, for example:
Tony tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Before he had chance to turn, he caught movement over his shoulder and spun round, his heartbeat loud in his ears, like thunder, and he felt Ash’s hot breath against his neck.
The first punch stung his face and rocked him. The second punch slammed into his cheek and this time his legs buckled.
His ears hissed, and for a second he felt helpless against the tinny sensation, but he held his arms up in a defensive block and kicked out at Ash’s legs, then again, the determination rising above his fear.
Ash stumbled and lost his footing.
Tony raised his legs and slammed his boots into Ash’s thighs with the force of pistons and the big man slumped...
This example gives a variety of things for the reader. It gives a sense of balance of power between the characters, there’s no convoluted dialogue to scupper the pace, there’s exposition, emotions and sensations – fear, determination and that funny ringing in the ears after a hit to the head – and it shows actions and reactions and the pace runs along nicely.
Next Week: Creating Realistic Fight Scenes – Part 3
Sunday, 22 January 2017
Not many stories pass without some heavy conflict or a fight scene or two to maintain some pace and action, and bolster the reader’s interest, but writers are not always sure how to write fight scenes, and if they do, the result often doesn’t work so well.
When we think of these conflicts, we think of something that’s fast paced, dynamic, tense and full of action. This also means the characters have to be dynamic, too. But if fight scenes are not well written or don’t engage the reader, they may lose interest or they might skim read to get back to the story.
The thing with fight scenes is that they either work or they don’t, and there are a number of reasons they don’t, such as being so contrived that they’re almost laughable, or sometimes they contain stilted dialogue more akin to something from an old black and white noir movie. Worse still, they’re rammed with clichés. That’s because writers have simply copied what they’ve seen in movies, so it’s best to cut these bad habits before they take hold.
Things to avoid in your fight scenes:
- The hero always wins, despite overwhelming odds against him.
- The hero is never injured despite being punched or kicked or he falls from height. He always gets up without a scratch.
- The bad guy always finds the time to explain himself during a tense fight.
- The hero triumphs over his enemy in the end, with otherwise unseen or unheard combat skills, when in previous fights, this had not been apparent.
- Contrived/stilted dialogue
The worst one from this list is having a the bad guy always explain things during a tense fight. This happens in movies all the time because writers assume their audience is dumb and they need exposition to tell the reader, so what we see is the bad guy telling the hero what he’s going do to him and how he’s going to do it and for some inexplicable reason, he explains why, for example:
“I’ve waited five long years to kill you. And I won’t make it easy. I’m going to make you suffer...” or, “I knew you would turn up. It was me who blew up Jane’s house, so I knew it would bring you running right into my trap...”
If it was real life, the attacker isn’t going to stop and give you a speech about how he’s going to knock your teeth out and put you in hospital or why he blew up your house. He’ll just get on with it and kick the hell out of you.
Dialogue should be fast and dynamic and carry emotion and mood of the scene, so avoid stilted, forced exchanges. And avoid telling the reader the obvious, for example:
Dave ran through the alley and came across a wall. There was nowhere to go.
"Thought you could get away, huh?" John said. "Now you’re trapped and I have you where I want you."
"What are you going to do to me?"
The reader knows that Dave is trapped, so no need for John to say it or enforce it with the statement that he’s got Dave where he wants him. This is cliché. And Dave’s question is also a cliché.
Forced with the reality of someone attacking you, and no doubt fearful, you don’t ask your attacker what he’s going to do. You run like hell and fight like a cat to get away.
So why do writers fall into this cliché-ridden trap? Because they imagine fight scenes are just like they see in the movies. They’re not. Writers haven’t done enough to inform the reader throughout the story, so when the fight happens, the writer feels as though the reader needs all that backstory and the explanation during the fight, and so the scene ends up being an info dump.
The other problem is that writers are rather biased with their own characters during fight scenes. The main character – unless they’re an ex-Navy seal or ex SAS, are not going to be expert fighters, so don’t have your character defeat every single enemy with one punch or an expertly executed karate high kick. This doesn’t happen in real life.
In truth, real life fights are scrappy, messy affairs, most often in an un-coordinated, arbitrary way. It’s not the boxing ring. Real life fights are anything but controlled or co-ordinated, and are often done in silence - there is no talking, no chit-chat, no blow by blow explanation.
It’s also worth noting that in any fight, your main character will be on high alert – adrenaline will be pumping through their body, which in turn will make them panicky or jumpy and may make them lash out defensively or instinctively. Adrenaline makes us do rash things under extreme pressure or fear.
One important thing to remember is that your protagonist is not a superhero. That means he or she will come off worse from a fight from time to time. Your main character cannot win them all. If they do, your reader will get bored because there will be no tension, drama or sense of danger and it just won’t be believable. For example, what if your main character was a seemingly ordinary housewife looking for her missing dog, yet she can miraculously high kick her way through a vicious gang of dognappers as though she’s been trained by the best army in the world.
It’s not real life. The best fight scenes reflect real life, not Hollywood perceptions.
Most main characters are ordinary people put into extraordinary situations. They are Mr or Miss Average, so unless your protagonist is a trained martial arts expert, a skilled marksman trained in special ops, or has expert munitions knowledge, then most characters will be just ordinary people.
So when they’re confronted with conflict, it’s how they behave and react that makes them and the fight scene realistic. But how do you make fight scenes dynamic yet convincing?
In Part 2 we’ll answer that question of how you can make fights scenes realistic and we’ll look at the factors that can make them work so well rather then being a let down for your reader.
Next week: Creating Realistic Fight Scenes - Part 2.
Saturday, 14 January 2017
Last week, we looked at why we there are plot twists and the different styles of plot twist available to writers, so in this second part, we’ll look at how to set them up and how they work.
We’ve already established that plot twists are important to keep the story dynamic and interesting for the reader, and it’s a good way of moving the story forward.
Plot Twists Should Happen for a Reason
There is a very good reason why writers use plot twists, other than to keep the reader turning the page, and that is to advance the main plot. If you use a plot twist, there must be a reason behind it, something that must be related to the main story and/or the characters in some way, otherwise they won’t work.
The wonderful thing about them is that they are like the surface of the ocean – there are all manner of things going on at the surface, but somewhere beneath the waves something is stirring.
Creating effective plot twists takes some practice because the idea is for the reader to be completely unaware of them. They lose their initial effectiveness the moment the reader guesses the plot twist, so it’s important to get them right. Conversely, they should be so revealing that they don’t lose their impact, even on a second or third reading, where the reader knows the story.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn purposely pulls the reader in one direction and then pushes them in another direction through deliberate red herrings and narrator deceit. The Kite Runner has one twist after another, woven through the fabric of the story, leaving subtle hints for the reader for the reveals later in the story.
These plot twists work because the writers don’t give too much away. Some have hinted certain things, but many clues are inlaid between emotion and conflict and of course, these stories demand that the reader invest in the characters, which is achieved thorough characterisation and creating immediacy.
Create the Set up
With an idea of what type of plot twist you want – maybe a revelation or a significant development – you can begin to formulate how it should take shape and where in the story it should happen.
The set up is the way a writer constructs the narrative to reveal the plot twist later in the story, to achieve the best effect.
If, for example, I want to reveal that one of my main characters is, in fact, a double crossing villain who will betray the hero, I would need to establish the character with the reader early in the story so that they find a connection with this character and care what happens to him/her.
I might also want to drop a few clues throughout the narrative, or provide some false clues – all without giving too much away – so that the twist is a surprise but at the same time the reader realises the clues were there all along.
I’ll then have to choose the right moment to reveal the plot twist for maximum effect. It’s really important to get it right – it has to be directly related to the action taking place, there has to be a reason for it and it must advance the story at the same time.
This is how many writers set up the plot twist. Of course, every writer is different and will have a different approach, but knowing when to reveal the plot twist, why and for what purpose it serves, is the difference between it working or failing.
Create an Impact
Any plot twist you use should create an impact – some are surprising, some are shocking, some are sad etc. Each one creates an emotional response, and that’s why they are effective, especially if you’ve done your work at the beginning of the story to create the kind of characters the reader wants to know all about.
- They have to happen for a reason
- Don’t give too much away
- Feed the reader false information, hint at things that will fool them
- Make sure the reader is invested in the characters and the story = maximum impact
- Choose the right moment for the plot twist
Constructing plot twists can be complex sometimes, and at other times, they’re relatively easy. It really depends on the story you’re writing. Some will take a while to materialise – even at the editing stage – whereas other times they really do come to us in a lightbulb moment.
Whatever your approach, however you construct them, ensure that the plot twist happens for a reason, is part of the story and is effective.
Next week: Creating realistic fight scenes.
Sunday, 8 January 2017
A story plot isn’t static – every plot has to have a few dramatic twists and turns in order to keep the story dynamic and interesting for the reader. Plot twists are a useful way of keeping the reader guessing; it keeps them invested in the story – they have to keep reading in order to find out what happens next.
The plot twist is just that – it twists in another direction unexpectedly. They should be constructed in such a way that the reader won’t expect it, or predict it. It’s that element of surprise is what makes a plot twist effective. Not only that, they have to be plausible, which means they should be directly related to the plot, otherwise they just won’t work.
So how do you even start to put a plot twist in place?
That relies entirely on the kind of story you’re telling and the characters that inhabit the story. The most successful plot twists pull the rug from beneath the reader’s feet and catch them off guard, but in order to achieve that, you first have set up the twist. That’s because plot twists don’t just materialise from nowhere – there needs to be a valid reason behind them.
Sometimes they manifest themselves early on within the story, as part of a reveal that might happen later in the story. Sometimes they happen during development and planning stage, or often they emerge during the editing stage, when the writer sees a way of livening up the story.
The complex part of any plot twist is how they are actually formed, and that’s because many of them generally develop at an earlier point in the story. Often they are foreshadowed from this earlier point – this can be by way of a subtle hint, an observation or even symbolism – then they can be used at the right moment, the ‘set up’. It should just be enough to tease the reader, but not enough that they will figure it out the twist before the ‘twist’ actually happens.
There are many different kinds of plot twist constructions, but it’s worth remembering why writers use them. They tend to be for the following reasons:
- Story turning point – the story moves in a new, dynamic direction to keep things interesting.
- Significant development – perhaps an important character dies, giving the narrative shock value.
- A revelation – a truth is uncovered, or a perhaps a betrayal occurs. Or even a huge lie is uncovered.
- Red herring – a deliberate turn to dupe the reader.
The twist ending hasn’t been included here because although it involves a twist construction, this kind comes at the end of the story, as part of the conclusion, rather than part way through, as those listed above.
Story Turning Point
This plot twist is where the story turns on its heel because of a character’s actions or something significant has to happen within the story. This usually develops within the story as it unfolds and is sometimes foreshadowed.
A significant development in the story can be almost anything, but writers like to keep their readers on their toes, and one way of doing this is to kill one of the main characters – especially one that has featured prominently and the reader has identified with. The assumption is that our favourite characters can’t possibly die, but when it does happen, it pushes the story into a whole new direction.
This kind of twist involves a very important revelation, which again, the reader should not see coming. It could be the uncovering of a major lie. It could be that the main character discovers the truth (about an event, someone or something else, or indeed he discovers the truth about himself).
Revelations as plot twists may not have the same impact as the significant turning point, but it’s a great way of keeping the reader’s interest and at the same time, it gives the story rich layers for the reader.
This is a plot twist that is very deliberate rather than organically developed from the main story. Writers use these kinds of plot twists to wrong-foot the reader, to make them think they may have guessed what is happening, but in reality it’s merely a playful set up for the real plot twist a little further on. The red herring is merely a clever way of duping the reader.
In Part 2 we’ll look at the reasons for the plot twist and some examples how they work.
Next week: How to Construct Plot Twists – Part 2