I love writing fight scenes. I sometimes feel like so much of my books are just excuses to write action sequences.
It’s a little sick, to want to use violence as a form of entertainment, but this has been the case in storytelling at least since The Illiad (and Homer wrote some absolutely cracking fight scenes). Good creators – novelists, movie directors, poets – use fighting for a greater purpose, tying it to story, character, morals. But that doesn’t mean the fight scenes aren’t still awesome.
My kickboxing experience turned out to be great for writing. I came to know about specific moves and combinations, about how to strike and how to protect, about the difference between calm and panic. It’s given me the confidence to incorporate martial arts into all of my books.
I’m going to take you through an evolution of how I write about fights. Here’s a passage from Gaijin Cowgirl. My early writing is exuberant, but a little too married to cinematic physical description:
“Show me that map,” he shouted to Yasuo.
Yasuo ignored him.
Maxwell undid the buckle around his chest with one hand and pulled out the Colt with the other. “I said let’s see them papers.”
Yasuo moved with a speed Maxwell didn’t think possible. In a blur, the man released his buckle, leaped and twisted. His foot slapped the barrel of the gun. The weapon flew into the half-lit cargo hold, the sound of its crashing lost in the engines’ throb.
They were both free of their seats. Flying at Maxwell, Yasuo’s scream was loud enough to puncture the fog of noise. His speed and the hard edges of his hands took Maxwell by surprise, and the American folded under the blows. But Maxwell was no pushover, and he threw himself against Yasuo with a tackle straight from his high school football days.
They rolled across the steel floor, Yasuo struggling to break away, Maxwell clinging. They grunted and howled in that silence of white noise, taking turns pummeling with half-measured punches and claws. They grappled into a semi-stand. Maxwell slammed Yasuo into the cargo hold’s wall and let go to deliver a hook punch against the man’s ear. But at the same time a hard wedge hammered his gut and blew the wind out of him. He reeled back, losing his advantage of mass and raw strength. Yasuo unleashed another acrobatic kick that connected with Maxwell’s jaw and sent him sprawling across the floor, against the cabin door.
Yasuo paused and looked down. The thin Japanese smiled in glee, knelt, and picked up Maxwell’s discarded pistol.
(From Gaijin Cowgirl, Crime Wave Press, 2013)
I like it, but today I would have probably tightened up that last big paragraph. The power comes from two men grappling in the back of a military cargo plane, rather than the blow-by-blow. The final short paragraph would work better as a single sentence. But it’s still a fun scene.
In Bloody Paradise, I dedicated almost an entire chapter to a Muay Thai mano-a-mano between my hero, Trav, and Narong, a killer. I first watched the final fight scene between Neo and Mr. Smith in “The Matrix”, taking notes and breaking down the architecture, to understand the mechanics and dramatic flow of a great hand-to-hand contest. Here’s how they first clash:
The crushed cast left a millimeter of space but that was enough for him to shrug off the rope. Trav wasn’t thinking. He was just in motion. Narong had the gun in his hand. He was raising the gun at the man hurtling toward him. Point blank. Bang. Trav didn’t feel it. He knew the look in the man’s eyes, though. Panic. Trav delivered a roundhouse kick that connected with Narong’s outstretched hand and sent the gun flying. It was only as Trav returned to a boxer’s stance that he realized he was bleeding again and there was a horrible, shrieking wind in his left ear.
Narong slipped out of his flip-flops, preferring to fight barefoot. He grinned, gestured. Let’s dance.
Trav was already in motion. He didn’t trust his hands, didn’t know what the right one could do. Kicks instead. One, two, three roundhouses, each pushing Narong back, who defended with his arms, each a block of wood. Like the wooden practice dummy in Heinz’s dojo. Only this dummy knew how to deflect Trav’s ankle, spin him around, kick back. Narong pirouetted, golden teeth rotating in and out of the sun.
(From Bloody Paradise, Water Street Press, 2016)
My style has evolved to staccato bites. The scene is more in Trav’s head and experience (the wooden practice dummy). There’s more use of imagery to establish setting (Narong’s golden teeth catching the sun). And there’s a better connection between the two antagonists (let’s dance). I used these tools to enable me to luxuriate in a drawn-out fight without, I hope, boring the reader. But maybe it could be a little less spat words and more descriptive?
Finally, I’m going to share a scene from an as-yet unpublished manuscript. This story is a long series of violent chase scenes. I had a helluva good time writing it, and it came out in a fairly short explosion, like a release. I think my style has now reached a better balance between description, detail, and emotion and the big picture.
The man walked her past the office and pointed at a pair of heavy steel doors. They were unmarked so if they were indeed toilets they were unisex, or no women worked here.
She pushed one door open and turned to the man. “Thank you.”
He was too far out of reach. He was starting to realize she didn’t belong there. The man held up a laminated ID card dangling from a lanyard around his neck. He wanted to see hers.
“Oh, my pass,” she said, pretending to check her pockets, resisting the urge to aim the M&P22 or the Beretta at him. Instead she shrugged and smiled stupidly. The man released a low stream of unfriendly Arabic. His eyes noticed her dirt and blood.
She grimaced and touched dried blood on her bad arm. She went weak-kneed. The man moved forward to try to catch her.
Ushiro, the term used in aikido for an attack from behind. She clasped the man’s wrist and turned him into the door. With the man in front, she used her own weight and flow to guide him into the bathroom: toilet, urinal, steel sink beneath a mirror. Aringinate, “lift and project”. She spun him around the room, leaning forward, not letting him go. Kubishime, “choke”. Penny slipped her good hand around his neck and clasped it to her injured arm’s bicep. Then she curled the free hand behind the man’s head, dropped her elbows together and took a deep breath. The expansion of her chest against the man’s head caused his throat to tighten.
It all happened in less than two seconds. He squirmed, causing her wound to bleed, but he had no leverage. His hands flailed at her grip but to no effect. He slumped over and she eased him onto the toilet.
(Copyright Jame DiBiasio)
What I’ve tried to do with this scene is marry technique (in both the sense of style and technical detail) with story, character and impact. Whether it’s any good is up to the reader, but I love writing this shit. As a kickboxer, I was awful, but I’ve used the nerdiness that made me pathetic on the canvas to harness the experience to storytelling.
This is how I spend my weekends – still training, in my own way.