I recently attended a luncheon featuring Alain Ngalani, a four-time Muay Thai world champion who officially represents Hong Kong, having come here years ago from Camaroon. I practiced kickboxing from around 2002 to 2007, and Ngalani – a.k.a. “The Panther” – had been one of my teachers.
Back then, he was a competitor of obvious talent, but hadn’t yet won notable fights. Today he’s a Mixed Martial Arts star. If you Google his name, up comes “11 second fight”, in which he took down another reigning champion MMA fighter with astonishing speed.
Of his students, I must have been the least talented. Some friends who were trying to get fit had invited me to try a practice session at a new gym, Fightin’ Fit, run by Pierre Ingrassia, a Swiss who dreamed of becoming sort of a Don King of Asia. Pierre was probably the first kickboxing impresario to identify a new demand out of China, but his clients were mostly Western white-collar workers like me.
Pierre went on to mentor and train Alain as a professional, while earning a living trying to whip paying flubsters like me into shape.
Nonetheless for five years – two half-assed, three seriously – I trained for an hour at 7am, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I never loved kickboxing. It’s brutal to train, scary to spar, and I lack the mentality to either accept or delivery a hard blow. But I stuck with it to prove something, if only to myself.
When it came to physical sports or competition, I had always been a nerd, but at that point in life, my mid 30s, I felt a new determination. I gave it an honest effort, got into shape, learned a few moves, and grew an appreciation for martial arts.
Most of all, I stuck with it because I couldn’t believe that I was actually doing it: getting up early to train, spar, do this macho stuff. It felt so unlike me. The idea that I could change, and not have to be the brainy geek – that there was a part of me that could carry himself into a ring – was transformational.
I had seen Pierre be an asshole to others, but he was always nice to me, and I liked the guy. He was mostly an asshole to himself: Pierre was incredibly human, a volatile mix of discipline and wild recklessness. He died ingloriously at the age of 45 in 2008, having led a colorful, louche life. Alain, who despite his fierce commitment and competitive drive, is a very nice, gentle man. He was always a lot more centered than Pierre, with whom I gathered he had parted ways on poor terms. In the brief time I knew him, Alain’s successes were yet to come, but Pierre had made it possible for him to get sponsored into Hong Kong.
I gave kickboxing up after I injured myself on a sandbag, and being 38 or so, decided it might be wise to transition into yoga. I suck at that, too, but the only thing that gets bruised when I fall over or can’t keep up is my ego.
Many writers incorporate fight scenes into their work. This is especially true for thrillers. We go for adrenalin-fueled narratives that are often resolved through violence. Movies are a big influence on novelists, and we try to bring some of their fluidity and motion into our work.
But books are not movies, no matter how cinematic the writing or the ideas. Whereas an action flick will indulge in violence, and fetishize the acrobatics, rendering such blow-by-blows on the page can become very boring.
Books have their own secret power, though. By putting the reader in the mind of the narrator, the writer can deliver a powerful punch. When we watch a movie, we are passive observers, and the acrobatics keep us entertained. But when we read a book, we follow a character, emotionally as well as physically, and the tension and excitement is rendered through immersing ourselves in their heads.
Some writers have taken a minimalist approach to action.
Elmore Leonard built the tension, rendered the actual shooting with a couple of stark bams and that was it.
George Higgins, who wrote entire novels almost completely as dialogue, would have his characters talk about an action scene rather than portray it in third-person narrative.
Stephen King sticks more to suspense, and occasionally, and shamelessly, falls back on gore to deliver the shock.
Ray Chandler used his poetic imagery to turn fistfights into short, poetic ballet.
Some of my favorite Japanese novelists write violence superbly, especially Ryu Murakami, who laces the most extreme gore with humor and disgust, as if his victims really deserve it.
Yet for all of these writers, although there’s plenty of action in their stories – which can translate into movies as full-blown opera – on page they rely on tickling the reader’s imagination more than anything else.
But what if you really, really like to write fight scenes? What if you want more of that cinematic experience in your book? I’ll share my own experiences in Part 2.