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Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

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Epistolary Storytelling

If anyone is wondering, this is coming from winking-widow‘s comment on our last post, so thank you for reminding me that this was a discussion that should happen.

Epistolary storytelling is a concept that should be familiar to most people who play video games, but we should go into a bit more depth because it does have some useful applications.

The basic concept behind epistolary storytelling is that the narrative is comprised of documents from within the setting itself. In an extremely traditional sense, this was letters written by the characters, though journal entries, book excerpts, and news articles are also common sources.

You have probably already encountered epistolary novels in the past, even if you didn’t know the term, however, if you want an example, Dracula by Bram Stoker is an easy recommendation. The bulk of the book consists of journal entries from various characters, though there are news clippings, and a mix of other sources.

If you’re coming to this from pop culture, you’ve probably been exposed to epistolary elements in other media. Video games in particular are extremely enamored of the audio log. In these cases, you’re looking at a hybrid structure where the player is experiencing one narrative (through the game mechanics), while the epistolary content creates a second narrative.

Much like first person limited, epistolary elements allow you delve into a character’s personality. They are the “author” of that document, and it should reflect who they are as a character. Except, (within in the fiction of that world) they wrote that piece. They created the document. Quite possibly with the understanding that others would read it. This allows for an intentionally deceptive narrator, without abusing the audience’s trust. This can even be used to set up a Rashomon style series of internal contradictions between characters, if you’re really wanting to make a puzzle out of things.

That paragraph above comes back to something that we get questions about occasionally. An author wants advice on how to lie to their audience, or hide plot details. It’s something we usually caution against. The author needs to be trusted by the audience to convey information accurately. In some cases, the author’s narrator will be a character who relays information inaccurately. (Again, we’re talking about first person limited.) However, that’s still tricky, because if that character abuses the audience’s trust, it’s something that does reflect on the author.

Characters like Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden only work because the narrator’s perspective is accurately relayed to the readers, even as every other character in the novel has a drastically different perspective on Tyler and the narrator. The narrator (and by extension, Chuck Palahnuik) is not lying to you. However, the narrator is suffering a serious psychological breakdown. His version of reality does not mesh with the objective version of his world.

Epistolary sources let you step around a lot of this. Because you’re writing what a character would communicate externally, instead of what they’re thinking, you have a lot of freedom. If a character would lie about something, they can. The biggest concern becomes ensuring that the audience can determine if a given character should be considered trustworthy. The nature of a document can also reflect how honest a character will be. For example: An email or letter may be downright manipulative, where the same character could be far more honest in a diary entry that they thought no one else would read.

The Epistolary format also gives the possibility to include larger context into something that would otherwise be first person limited. Documents from other characters allow you to inject perspectives that your primary narrator wouldn’t be able to report. Events they weren’t present for, or are beyond the scope of what they could see.

Two examples of this would be Watchmen and the Ciaphas Cain novels by Sandy Mitchel. Watchmen is, partially, drawn from Rorschach’s journal, but this is more of a framing device for that character’s captions. However, each issue ends with an epistolary document that further fleshes out the alternate history and politics of Watchmen. Additionally, the in setting comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter, serves as a thematic parallel to the events in the comic, with its narration bleeding over into the “real” world. (There’s a subtle bit of genius here, where Black Freighter comic panels and caption bubbles use stipple shading, which is absent from the rest of the book, and instantly sets them apart.) As a whole, Watchmen is not an epistolary comic, however it does make extensive use of the technique.

In the case of Sandy Mitchel’s Cain novels, it’s much simpler. The primary text is an autobiography by Ciaphas Cain. That text has been edited by another character, who included annotations for technical terms, added excerpts from other documents for context, and censored some portions of the text for personal reasons.

Finally, and this comes back to what Winking-Widow highlighted in her comment, you can play off factual errors in epistolary sources. You didn’t make a typo, the character made one. You didn’t say a character was a master swordsman at 4 instead of 14, your character misspoke, or misunderstood the person who relayed that information to them in the first place.

One of the really interesting things you can do with epistolary sources is present a level of mystery about the deeper workings of your world. You can obscure the metaphysics. It’s vital for the reader to be able to follow the story you’re telling. However, when you have multiple conflicting sources, you can create elements of ambiguity, particularly in the backstory for your world.

This is something you’ll encounter more often in interactive media, because the conflicting reports can be presented simultaneously and with equal weight. The video game example would be lore books, which directly contradict each other, but don’t give you the tools to assess which one is more likely to be true. Similarly, with open world structures, you’ll often see cases where the sources aren’t arranged to be encountered in a specific order.

In linear media (such as prose or video), you need to present one of those documents first. This will give it more weight than what comes later, so it’s harder to create, “either one could be true,” situations, as your audience will latch onto one of the documents. (Depending on presentation, this could be either one, and you will get a mix of preferences among your readers.)

The danger with this is a reader looking at your work and saying, “it doesn’t make sense.” Worse, they’re correct. This kind of conflicting information doesn’t make sense and asks the reader to make assessments on which account to believe. When presented with this, some readers will check out. Additionally, this kind of ambiguity should be handled carefully, because if you have a, “right,” and, “wrong,” document, you can disconnect from readers who picked the wrong answer.

There are ways to insert false information into your backstory, and epistolary elements (including dialog exposition) is a good option. However, always remember that there is an important distinction: If your characters attempt to mislead each other, or make factual mistakes, that’s fine. If you attempt to mislead your audience, that requires far more care and attention.

-Starke

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Actions Create Plot: Let’s Talk About Shakespeare (Don’t Run)

I know, Shakespeare is a subject that makes many high school students crawl up inside their own heads and shriek in agony. (Unless you’re a theater kid, had an excellent teacher, or were like me, went to college, and had his plays properly explained.)

So, buckle up. We’re gonna talk about Shakespeare’s use of character, structure, and dramatic tension. Specifically, we’ll be discussing how Shakespeare used the same narrative five act structure for both his comedies and his tragedies. He built happy endings and tragic endings from a character oriented perspective, the personalities of each character, their flaws, their foibles, their human failings, from the information they had on hand, and the decisions they made as a result. Most importantly, this will be a discussion about how you can apply these helpful lessons to your writing, because that’s what this blog is about.

If you’ve ever been confused by Shakespeare and the language, understand, it’s not your fault. Language is always changing, reading the language of Shakespeare, Elizabethan English is like reading a completely different language. I missed almost all the jokes and the insults when I studied Shakespeare in high school (both high and low) or I didn’t understand why they were funny, and there were a lot of them.

Below, I’ve included a passage from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing where Claudio breaks his engagement with his fiancee Hero after he and Don Pedro are convinced by Don John that Hero is faithlessly meeting with another man.

There, Leonato, take her back again.

Give not this rotten orange to your friend.

She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor.

Behold how like a maid she blushes here!

Oh, what authority and show of truth.

Can cunning sin cover itself withal! Comes not that blood as modest evidence.

To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,

All you that see her, that she were a maid.

By these exterior shows? But she is none.

She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.

Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

When Claudio calls Hero a “rotten orange” in Much Ado About Nothing, he’s calling her a prostitute. Changes the tenor of the scene, doesn’t it? A man drags his fiancee before her family and his boss to break the engagement, and claims she’s a prostitute. This is a comedy!

And so it is, because Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. However, the play could just as easily been Othello or Romeo and Juliet if the crucial information of Hero’s innocence and Don John’s treachery had not been revealed on time. If Benedick had dueled Claudio as Beatrice requested, in her anger, and they’d slain each other. Everything might have fallen apart, and we’d be left with a tragic outcome.

One of the things to understand about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, even his romances, is they all share the exact same structure in the first four acts. At the ending of the fourth act, when events come to a head, as we head toward resolution, our characters hit their tipping point and the whole play rests on a razor’s edge of whether our story will end tragically or happily. The villain of the play incites the action, sets the fall, but ultimately it’s the choices of the other characters (and the timely arrival of crucial information) which decide the outcome.

We, the audience, are given information throughout. We know all, from Don John’s plot to the fact Hero is not dead but still alive. We feel more dramatic tension from that anxiety, wondering how or if, the characters will ever find out. Will Claudio learn he has accused Hero falsely? Will Benedick be forced to duel his best friend? He will, for the woman he loves and her belief Claudio has slandered her cousin. And what of Hero? Will her name be cleared? Will she get the happy ending she deserves?

There’s that building anxiety, even when we know what the outcome will be, until the tension finally releases at the climax.

In the tragedy, the truth is never revealed, opportunities are missed, offers of reconciliation are rejected, and our heroes set themselves on course for the worst possible outcome. Their decisions based on the knowledge they have and their own personalities, their strengths, their flaws, their foibles shown throughout the earlier acts, ultimately create these tragic endings for their stories.

If Romeo wasn’t such a hasty overly emotional twit… (ah, youth.)

If Othello had only accepted the evil in Iago… If only he’d believed Desdemona…

If only…

If only…

Except, it couldn’t have been otherwise. If it were, they’d be different people and that’s the core of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so great. That’s why we still put them on four hundred years later. Love him or hate him, it’s one hell of an accomplishment.

So, what can you learn from Shakespeare?

Actions create plot. The actions of your characters. A single decision, one small action, can change the course of an entire narrative.

Many writers think of plot as external, overarching, moving from Point A to Point B with events happening because they need to. The end result is characters who are recipients and passengers rather than a force driving their narrative forward. This isn’t true with Shakespeare, nothing happens because it needs to. The entire narrative is driven by the decisions of various characters from major to minor.

We never ask, why did that event happen? We don’t need to. We know why, we know who, we understand the exterior circumstances which forced the issue, how the character made their decision, and, for good or ill, why they acted the way they did.

Instead, we ask, why didn’t X, or Y, or B choose differently?

There have been endless debates, discussions, and scholarly papers written about the decisions and choices of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. They’re treated as such a gold standard, a hallmark of excellence in storytelling, that their brilliance is often not explained unless you choose to make a study of them.

If you were to take one lesson from Shakespeare, I would say look at each choice your character makes without thinking of where you want your story to go and look at the array of potential outcomes.

Every moment in life is filled with choices, of maybes, of might have beens. Your characters have a kaleidoscope of options, pick one, and ask yourself what happens as a result? What are the external forces which lead to cascading dominoes? And as the dominoes fall, what results from them? At what point are your characters locked in? When in your narrative have they passed the point of no return? What was the decision which got them there? How do other characters react to those decisions?

Human beings are messy, they’re imperfect, and filled with flaws. Every quality which leads to greatness can just as easily be the hubris which causes the fall.

Write your stories with such tight characterization and plotting that your audience never asks, why did that happen? They won’t need to. They’ll know it could not have been otherwise.

-Michi

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Building Narrative Tension: How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting

Let me start by saying that violence by itself is actually rather dull.

I’m talking, of course, about fictional violence. Fictional violence is meaningless until given meaning by it’s creator.

Have you ever asked yourself, why violence is terrifying? If you haven’t, ask yourself that question. Why is violence so frightening?

Answer that question for yourself, in detail. Now, don’t just settle for one answer or a broad answer. Keep digging until you get specific, until you get personal.

One of the major problems writers face when writing violence is the assumption that the violence or the act of violence is going to do the work for them. The truth is, it won’t. You’re going to need to put in the effort to move your characters from stick figures slapping each other to people with meaningful goals and stakes. Action means nothing without emotions to hook into, without costs and consequences.

So, again, why is violence scary?

Think about your favorite fight scenes either in written fiction, comics, or in film. Consider why it works for you. Why were you invested? Why did you care?

You’ll probably have different answers depending on the scene you chose, but behind each one, you’ll find a host of them. Those which are overarching in terms of plot, those which are personal on the character level. Goals. Desires. Stakes.

Part of the reason why it is so hard to provide good examples of fight scenes, (just like every other fictional scene, really) is that the real impact isn’t actually in act of the violence itself. In fiction, a fight scene is actually a climax, a culmination, and release of the tension built up in prior scenes. You might immediately think of a climactic battle at the end of a narrative like the Battle of Gondor, but it can be as small as two people arguing in a bar until one of them hits the other across the face with a glass mug.

A is standing at the bar, chatting with their friends. They’re a little tipsy, they’ve been drinking, but they’re not so drunk as to have lost all cognitive or motor function.

Enter B, at a nearby table with their companions. B is a mercenary from a unit garrisoned just outside of town. B gets up from the table and goes to the bar. B elbows A’s friend, a member of the local militia aside to order from the bartender.

A’s friend stumbles.

A grabs B by the shoulder and pushes him back.

B glares at A, demanding to know why he’s in the way.

A insists B apologize.

B refuses, insults the state of the local militia.

A’s friend tries to break in, stating they’re fine. They think everyone should calm down.

A takes a breath, relaxes.

B spits in A’s face.

A grabs their glass mug off the bar, clocks B across the face.

B stumbles backwards.

Pause.

Let me break this down:

A hitting B with the glass is actually the moment where the scene ends, the tension releases, even though the action continues into a new scene with B’s reaction. We’ve got our setup, our dilemma, our decision, and then action. On the action, the tension releases, and you start all over again.

An example is the scene from The Princess Bride where Wesley is climbing cliff and Inigo offers to throw him the rope. This sequence is a separate scene from the following duel, but works as establishment for the characters and the kind of men they are. The scene climaxes when Wesley tells Inigo to throw him the rope and enters it’s denouement as he finishes making his way to the top.

This sequence is crucial to the duel. We begin to really care about Inigo, feel a sense of camaraderie. This camaraderie is now in conflict with our desire to see Wesley save Buttercup and, as a result, we worry over Inigo’s future. He’s no longer just a mook, but a compelling character in his own right.

If you wanted the true underlying tension of The Princess Bride’s duel, it’s this conflict and not the duelist’s skill level.

The equal skill provides additional tension against the goal of saving Buttercup, but, due to Princess Bride’s fairy tale structure, we know Wesley is going to win. What keeps the duel itself interesting is, how will Wesley win and will he defeat Inigo before Buttercup is killed by Vizini?

The same question is asked in the following duel with Fezzik with a similar structure. Then, we see the same structure play out again with Vizzini. Wesley matches their skills against his in a fair fight, and, ultimately, defeats them.

There are, however, multiple fight scenes within Wesley and Inigo duel. You can see those breaks when they stop fighting, to give the audience a breather and breaking the fight up to ensure the scene doesn’t become monotonous. With action sequences, monotony is, ironically, a real danger. Putting in breaks allows you to extend the action without losing audience attention, and let’s their brain rest.

These breaks are just as important in writing as they are in film. You want to make sure you keep ratcheting up and releasing that tension, along with audience expectation.

(If you’d like an interesting breakdown of how historical fencing compares to The Princess Bride, Skallagrim’s got a good one. The Princess Bride itself is a love letter to the likes of Zorro and swashbuckling films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, digging into it’s influences can help you if that’s a genre you want to chase.)

You should start thinking of every fight sequence in your novel as not one scene, but many little scenes broken up around character action and dialogue. Build up, up, up, then release, and start over.

Setup: This is the moment before your characters engage, where you establish the stakes and potential consequences. The surrounding pieces at play, A is drinking with their friends, B is a mercenary, A’s friend is in the militia, and there might be some bad blood between them.

You start establishing your tension here, your pieces stressed against each other before we start ratcheting up.

Rising Action: This is where the tension really starts to build. Depending on the type of scene you’re structuring, your character’s violent actions could actually fit in here. Most likely, initially, prolonged violence will be part of the second scene.

Climax: Your tension dissipates on the opening strike. Then, the characters must decide if they’ll escalate. Any violence in the following scene can end here.

The climax of the example is A hitting B.

Denouement: I like to call this “The Decision”, the fallout, the realization, where characters decide if they’re going to back out. This can be the retreat, where they try to get away before being forced back into a fight, the dialogue where characters try to buy themselves time, realizations of injuries, or just their breather between bouts.

The denouement of the scene is B stumbling.

Escalate: The violence in the next section escalates, which means the situation becomes more serious, more intense, more violent. Basically, things get worse.

The escalation of the scene? If A continues to attack B, or if B’s mercenary friends join the fray.

The consequences of violent actions are, usually, events escalate into more violence.

Remember, violence is about problem solving. It’s a tool in the box of conflict resolution, one which often acts as a short term solution but ultimately makes the situation worse in the long run. If your character has chosen to resolve a conflict this way then they have limited their options to resolve the conflict differently. This is true whether you’re looking at widespread warfare or an interpersonal dispute. Violence closes off alternative routes for resolution, and builds expectations for audience over what will happen next.

When you build your world, your characters, and your narrative, you are making promises to your reader. A large part of the tension which comes from violent actions by your characters, or fight scenes, will be consequences resulting from them. If you promise, say, that violent actions by your MC will result in swift, harsh consequences which could cost them their life, then you better deliver. The character doesn’t need to die, but something should happen. Showing up to work the next day like nothing went down, especially if someone else in a position of authority saw it? Now, you’ve not only undercut your narrative tension but devalued your world and broken the reader’s trust. You promised consequences. You didn’t deliver. At that point, there’s no reason to take any other threat presented to your characters seriously.

Suspension of Disbelief is not built on realism, it’s built on your compact with the reader, the rules you’ve set for your narrative and their expectations, the narrative you’ve promised to deliver. You need rules because they create a framework for your story, for your scenes, and, especially, for you fight scenes.

Your fight scenes are only a part of your story, but they’re important. They provide an opportunity to expand your character and also create disruptive inciting incidents around which action occurs.

If people complain your characters aren’t realistic, you shouldn’t immediately jump to make events and characters more like the “real” world. Rather, you should step back, look at your worldbuilding and the expectations you set in the early pages. Did you do the prep work?

You can’t win ’em all, but, often, the criticism you’ll get won’t be helpful until you realize what it means. Everything is permissible, so long as you put in the work to set it up first.

A bar brawl at the beginning of your novel could be the foundation of the entire story with all the spiraling consequences falling like dominoes from that one action. And that, my friend? That is tension.

Tension is uncertainty. It’s in the question, what will happen next? What will happen to these characters I care about? Will they be okay?

Turning heel, Leah raced toward the window at the cavern’s opposing end.

Soldiers struggled to stand, clamoring off the benches. Some of the beta-kings drew their lasabres and laspikes, while the pteroriders yanked out pistols and force-blades.

Leah dodged past a soldier reaching for her, jumped onto the table, and flung herself forward with a telekinetic thrust. She landed hard, half-way free, lasabre springing to life in her hand. An orange flash sliced through a long wooden table hurled at her head. The pieces fractured cleanly and broke apart into two flat planes. Thrusting them behind her, she didn’t wait for the crash but heard the screams.

Overhead, footmen moved to the edges of the balconies, rifles ringing the room. They took aim as a unit, and fired into the crowd.

Dancing between the bolts, Leah dove through fleeing petitioners. Three strong presences flashed through her.

A knight in silver lunged into view, a turquoise blade ignited in his hand. His armor shone, his identity hidden by his mask.

Another, familiar, presence closed in from behind.

Nathan, Leah thought. Cor!

They were going to cut her off, pile on like raptors in the diplohouse. 

Leah’s jaw tightened. She needed to get out. That meant reaching the cavern’s overlook. Her eyes moved to the left-side balcony. There!

Orlya thrummed with approval.

Leah spun, diving into the crowd.

Two knights gave chase.

A third followed, but at an easy pace. Petitioners screaming as his telekinesis seized and hurled them from his path.

Switching off her sword, Leah catapulted high into the air, over the soldiers at the balcony railing, and landed hard. Shoulder and back aching, she rolled to her feet.

Several men stared at her.

Leah smiled.

A soldier lifted his rifle.

With raised hands, she stepped backwards.

Roaring, Hector Darenian dropped in from above — a raging ball of sapphire blue. He crashed into the gathered soldiers, plowing through them, blade shearing through their bodies. Hot blood cascading across the stone, Hector slammed headlong through the opposing wall.

Leaping over the fallen, Leah landed neatly on the balcony’s railing and stepped off. She hit the cavern floor. Another quick dash carried her to the overlook.

“Stop!”

We can sit here and talk about tension, but tension is all about the pieces you pressure against each other. External factors pressure internal goals and desires, external consequences cut off alternate paths. You can switch up with more techniques, add new odds like more enemies or more dangerous enemies, change the rules like switching from the left hand to the right, pull out new pieces of information, but there also needs to be the promise the event is going to lead somewhere, that it will affect something, that this furthers our story.

Some writers, especially new writers, have a habit of writing their story like it’s modular. The scenes are individual rather than interlinked. The hot boy gets into a bar fight to show how cool and dangerous he is, but that’s the only narrative purpose the scene has. However, you can add tension to this scene and the MC’s relationship with said boy if the police show up at their house a day later to ask questions about the brawl. Now, interacting with him could have real consequences for their own goals, their future, how good an idea is this? And, suddenly, we’ve got stakes.

If your violence serves no purpose, it has no purpose. In the world of fiction, your fight scene is what you make it. You can’t expect real world expectations or fears or the concept of violence itself to do the work for you. You’ve got to latch the actions into both your characters and your world.

How does a bar brawl between two factions affect the relationship of the town militia and the mercenaries camped outside? How does a bar brawl affect A and B’s relationship with the other locals in the bar? With the bartender? With their friends? How do the injuries sustained change the severity of what happens? What if someone dies?

Your inciting incidents are what you make of them. Your fight scene can be a workhorse building up your narrative, or it can be meaningless fluff with stick figures clashing together on the page.

-Michi

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Q&A: A Hunted Teen on the Run

I’m not sure if this fits your blog, but I’m also not sure where else to ask it, so feel free to disregard if you don’t have an answer. I’m planning out a mystery story, and in it, one of my main characters is a teenager on the run from some evil organization who wants him for information he doesn’t have. He’s survived on his own for 3-4 years while trying to piece together why the bad guys are after him. I don’t want to make him seem too competent, especially compared to characters who actually have training, but at the same time he obviously needs some skills in order to a) evade a somewhat powerful criminal organization and b) at the same time investigate them without them noticing. Do you have any recommendations for things that would help him without making him seem too competent? (sorry if my original message came through and this is redundant, tumblr is being weird.)

There’s a few problems here. First: you can’t be on the run and investigating the people doing the hunting at the same time. Second, you’re being vague about the organization, but depending on who they are, it might not be feasible for your character to do either. Third, three to four years on the run is a long time. Granted, this somewhat works to your benefit.

So, if you’re hiding from a covert organization, that kinda precludes taking the time to wander around publicly, asking people about it. Yes, investigations are more sophisticated than that, but the simple process of identifying the organization and getting access to people who know about it runs an extreme risk of being in the room with a member of that organization. If they don’t know who you are, that’s not a problem, but if they’re actively looking for you? You’re one phone call away from being cornered and captured.

There’s a related problem that a teenager will have a much harder time investigating a sophisticated criminal conspiracy, simply because it will be difficult to find people who will take them seriously. This applies to both gathering information, and being able to use the information they’ve collected. In extreme cases, it may even work against their ability to escape capture. If the character is a teenager and has spent three to four years on the run, that means that at best they were sixteen when they first went on the run. However, that could easily meant they had to flee when they were much younger. For example, if the character is seventeen now, and has been on the run for four years, they would have had to go underground at thirteen. Expecting a thirteen-year-old to be able to escape a conspiracy hunting them is much higher bar. This is also before you consider that an unattended, young teenager is potential prey for all kinds of opportunistic criminal groups, unrelated to the conspiracy they’re fleeing.

To be fair, for someone who’s in their mid-20s, and has the advantage of being legally recognized as an adult will have a far easier time escaping from a criminal conspiracy. They’ll have an easier time getting assistance. When the time comes, they’ll have an easier time investigating. This isn’t a competency issue, it’s simply the social and legal recognition of them as an adult.

The second problem I outlined is that you need to establish the scope of your organization. I realize you’ve probably already done this, but it does inform how well they’d be able to track someone. Especially if that person was trying to escape.

If you’re dealing with a “normal” crime syndicate, it’s possible that simply leaving the city (or their sphere of influence) would give your character a lot of cover. Obviously, making the news, or investigating the organization would get their attention. In turn that would probably draw people out to hunt them down.

At an abstract level, simply getting out of their sphere of influence and keeping their head down may be enough to protect your character, at least long enough for the syndicate to get bored and wander off. This means it’s possible the, “three to four years,” bit was mostly spent simply pretending to be a new person that the syndicate isn’t interested in. Again, this is easier for an adult, who can easily operate autonomously in modern society, but I’m not going to labor on that point.

If the criminal group is a vast conspiracy, hiding may not be an option, and those are going to be very long years, as your character struggles to stay one step ahead of the people tracking them. Surviving this gauntlet will require a lot of paranoia. Whether justified by their experiences or not. “Just because you’re crazy, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Even for an adult, this is a character that people on the outside would have a hard time taking seriously.

If the conspiracy has contacts in law enforcement, your character is probably a fugitive. The conspiracy may have killed their family members and framed your character murder. They may have implicated them in some other crime (real or not.) This is without getting into really crazy territory, with things like them being spliced into traffic cameras, or operating their own version of Echelon; monitoring electronic communications waiting for your character expose themselves.

This stuff can get bonkers, and anyone without a background in tradecraft would be hard pressed to stay ahead of them. If this is your plan, you may need a new one. An untrained teen will not have the necessary skill set to avoid this.

There is a bit of salvage in here: If you have a character who’s being pursued by a shadowy conspiracy because they know too much, it’s entirely possible other protagonists would find out about this and the try to find them and learn what they know. Of course, having a character who can’t provide anything if they do track them down can provide more tension. So, there’s room for a character investigating the conspiracy, and another character on the run, without needing the latter to pull double duty for both.

One possible outcome for another protagonist hunting your character, upon learning that they know nothing, is to use them as bait. Just because they’re, “the good guys,” doesn’t mean they’re all on the same team, and a ruthless or desperate protagonist might put your teen in harm’s way to force the antagonists to reveal themselves.

I’ve sort of covered the third issue already, but three years is a long time to be on the run. While this will have a psychological impact, particularly if your character is in persistent danger, there’s actually a bigger problem here: Being on the run is expensive. You need food daily, and you need a place to stay. Both of these things require a constant cash stream.

Most legitimate forms of income will either require you to make yourself visible to some degree, or will require you having a line of contact that can be exploited.

For example, if your character is independently wealthy, that means they have an account somewhere. A criminal organization only needs to find out what bank, and get enough access to it to find out where your character’s been spending or withdrawing money. Worst case, they’d even have a current mailing address on file, meaning your character would have some unwelcome guests waiting at home. A full on conspiracy would be able to freeze those funds, and use any bank data to run down your character at any time. Of course, if your character was wealthy, that means there would be even more people looking for them. The one catch here is, it’s possible they could leave the country, and disappear overseas somewhere. That might even cause hickups for a conspiracy which lacks international operations.

Beyond that, your character can’t consistently make money legally without putting their face out there and hoping no one notices. They may be able to panhandle, but, that requires them to, literally, be out in high traffic areas trying to be seen. They may be able to get under the table jobs, but, again, they’d have to find those jobs, and then actually do them. Which leaves them immobile (or at least, predictable) for long stretches of time. Also, this works against the teenager bit. A young teen panhandling would draw the attention of law enforcement. A young teen looking for jobs would have a harder time finding someone willing to pay them. Depending on their age, it also may run afoul of child labor laws, meaning legitimate work may be impossible for them.

This leaves criminal enterprise, with things like theft. Again, your character’s age will work against them, and this will directly expose them to law enforcement. If the police are accomplices, that’s very bad, however, even if they’re not, getting arrested and thrown in juvie would immediately put them back on the organization’s radar. The problem is, eventually, your character will make a mistake, and doing this for years means there’s a real chance something will go wrong eventually.

How much money you’ll need varies. You can live on a couple dollars worth of food a day. This isn’t ideal, but it will keep you alive. Even a cheap burger could keep you going. Food, particularly for a teenager, is non-optional. As an adult you can decide, “yeah, I’m just not going to eat today.” It sucks, but the long term consequences are negligible. For a child or young teen, malnutrition means their growth will be impaired. This has permanent consequences. If they start missing developmental milestones because they’re simply not getting enough food, they can’t, “catch up,” later.

Finding a place to hold up is a little complicated. Hotels and motels are expensive, and require forms of identification that a young teen simply won’t have. Renting a cheap motel room, in a city, for four years could easily run upwards of $90k.

Squatting in an abandoned building may seem like a good alternative. After all, it’s free. Except, very few buildings are really abandoned. Even if it’s not in use, whoever owns it will probably have a security service do a sweep of the place from time to time. If your character knew the schedule they’d know when to fully pack up. Fail to fully pack up, and the security team will know that someone’s squatting, possibly involving the police. The problem is, the only way to learn the schedule is to be there. The only only way to evade an unexpected sweep is to know the route they’ll take, which isn’t possible. Just because they’ve followed one path for the last couple weeks, doesn’t mean they won’t mix it up without warning to offset boredom.

If the building isn’t patrolled, it’s because it’s too dangerous to enter. Problem here is, it’s too dangerous to enter. Spending years in there, your character will almost certainly run afoul of the decaying structure somehow, and because no one’s supposed to be there, there’s no way to get help.

Incidentally, this is also the problem with wandering out of the city into the wilderness and “living off the land.” Even if you have specialized survival training so you can actually obtain and prepare food, three years is a long time, and the risk of dying to an accident will always be there. Something as simple as a minor cut could lead to a death from infection. To say nothing of a broken limb, or illness. Rabies, in particular, comes to mind.

The safest route, feels like a bit of a cop out, but it’s one of the few legitimate options. If your character has family, or close family friends, somewhere else in the world, who’d be willing to take them in, that’s what they’d need to do. It requires they trust your character, and have the ability to protect and provide for them, but the only jeopardy would be on the trip. Once they’re there, they’d be, “safe.”

Now, I said, three to four years is an asset. On the other side, after years have gone by, that’s plenty of time for the syndicate to lose interest and move on. This means a character who went on the run years ago, is less likely to be recognized when they stumble in the front door. There’s still a significant threat to being identified, but it means the era of actively hunting for them has probably passed. Now, if a member of the syndicate realizes who your character is, that attention will come back.

Further, if your character went into hiding as an older teen, and is now in their early 20s, they’ll have grown out of most social stigmas associated with them being underage. This will open up a lot of options for any potential investigation.

If they were able to construct a false identity, it will have years of history, making it look more legitimate at a glance. (This won’t work with police scrutiny, or a background check, but it will help avoiding that scrutiny in the first place.)

Of course, if they’ve managed to disappear this completely, they’d need a real incentive to come back. Options that comes to mind are if the people they were hiding with were wiped out by the syndicate, or if a friend left behind in the city came under threat.

The odds for a teenager on the run, alone, without support, are bleak. It’s not impossible to survive, but everything needs to go flawlessly, because every minor failure or injury stacks up, and can quickly end them.

If you think your character would need more specialized training to prevail, you’re probably right. No one else understands your worlds as well as you do. You would best know what your character is up against. Your character may need a less aggressive approach to escape

One critical thing to remember in a story with multiple protagonists is that no individual needs to have the entire skill set necessary to defeat the antagonists. A normal-ish teen on the run from a criminal conspiracy isn’t likely to have the necessary tools to turn the tables and take them down. However, other characters in your story may be able to band together and accomplish something they could never have done on their own.

-Starke

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Q&A: No One Decides How Many Chances You Get (Except You)

flowerapplejacks said to howtofightwrite: I have always felt that the phrase “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is not only patently false but harmful and ignorant. It seems to romanticize the concept of pain and suffering always leaving potential for individuals to grow. Often times the reality is completely opposite. Pain cripples and stunts, it doesn’t help you grow. What are your thoughts?

So, what is the alternative? Lie in a corner and hide from the world, and hope it all goes away? It won’t. You can roll over and wallow in the pain if you want. Sometimes, you need to. Sometimes, you’ve got to nurse your wounds. The problem is you can’t lie on the floor forever. In the end, you’re gonna have to get up and figure out what you’re doing next.

You can’t stay on the floor.

You shouldn’t stay on the floor.

Don’t give up.

I say this as someone who’s lived with clinical depression since I was thirteen, I’ve lost most of my family members, lost my dog, broke my leg when I was twelve. I’ve learned from my pain. My mistakes have taught me a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today (or who I am today) without them.

I’ve been in the pit. I climbed out. It took twenty years, but I made it. I wouldn’t have, if I was avoiding pain.

One of the truths about life is that it’s painful, often in a variety of different ways. You can learn a lot from pain. You learn about yourself, about your body, about your personal weaknesses. You’re often stripped of the illusions you had about yourself, about your bravery, about how far you’d go to protect your ideals, about the kind of person you are, which can be damaging all by itself.

What I don’t like about the statement “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is that it’s passive. It assumes a positive outcome rather than acknowledging the courage, hard work, and emotional toil which often comes with overcoming traumatic incidents, overcoming injuries, or even just getting up to try again after you’ve made a mistake. I think what you’ve missed is the core message of the statement, which is that if it didn’t kill you then you still have the opportunity to make things better, to rectify your mistakes, to be better than you were before. If you’re dead, there are no second chances. That’s it. That’s the end. There’s no more you.

Pain is your body’s response to getting hurt, and also for saying, “don’t do that.” Like all natural instincts, it’s not always right. Not all pain is bad for you, and some of it, like the kind you experience from change, is unavoidable. Learning to distinguish between the two is a natural part of living. Learning to distinguish between the pain from a stubbed toe and a major injury is important. Learning to push past the limits your mind has set for you, that’s important. It’s just like learning to ignore or push past your fear when it’s standing in the way of what you want. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you should be. You need to learn which fears are valid, and which are standing in your way.

My feelings on pain are very simple. Pain is one of life’s constants. You will experience a lot of different kinds of pain throughout your life. Emotional pain, pain from fear, from disappointment, from rejection, from loss, from embarrassment, from change, from growing up, from your memories of past, painful experiences. You’ll experience physical pain from injuries major to minor, you could break your leg, you could bump your head, or just walk into a door. You experience low-grade pain from working out. Your stomach hurts when you’re hungry. You’re gonna feel pain from stubbing your toe. Getting hurt is an eventuality.

My approach to pain is the Rafiki quote, “you can either run from it, or learn from it. So, what are you going to do?”

If I took your advice, that pain should be avoided at all costs because pain is bad, I wouldn’t have two functioning legs. I wouldn’t have eventually reached acceptance with my father’s death, which has taken most of my adult life. I wouldn’t have three black belts. I wouldn’t have gone to college. I wouldn’t run a successful blog while also managing clinical depression. Hell, I wouldn’t be managing my depression. My depression would be managing me.

When I was twelve, I fractured my tibia (the big bone in your leg) doing martial arts and I needed to get surgery. The break itself was incredibly painful, yes, but so was the recovery. Learning to use crutches was painful, I made mistakes and those mistakes hurt. Every day, I had to work on stretching my leg and performing exercises to keep the musculature up in my leg. I had to learn, among other things, to navigate a world not designed for people with physical disabilities. I had to learn to deal with my situation when my circumstances were no longer novel to my friends, when they didn’t help anymore. I had to learn to deal with the stares and curiosity, and even bullying.

However, I learned from it. I learned how to open doors while in a wheelchair when there was no one around to do it for me. I learned how to navigate and get to my classes on time. I learned how to get around on one leg with just my own internal balance. I learned how to handle classmates who hid my crutches. I learned how to get into a house that had only stairway access. I learned how to take showers without getting an infection. I learned how to not just live with my broken leg, but thrive with it while I worked toward recovery. I had school counselors who’d tell me the story, years later, about how they were so impressed with how I figured out how to open my junior high’s heavy, double doors in my wheelchair. And do you know why I figured it out? I couldn’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it for me.

Yes, pain hurts. Pain can be uncomfortable. Pain can be horrible. Crippling? Only you really get to decide that. Stunted? Again, being emotionally stunted is something you can address.

You’re going to get hurt no matter what you do, even if you spend your life trying to avoid it. The act of learning… anything, really, is painful. You’re going to make mistakes, and making mistakes can be painful. It’s also unavoidable. Life is short. You’re going to get thrown by the horse while learning to ride, and I say that having been thrown by many horses. You’re going to lose people you care about. You’re going to face rejection. You’re going to be disappointed. You’re going to fail. You’re going to fall down. You’re going to get injured. You’ll face setbacks.

However, that pain can help you develop resilience. You can develop emotional strength, and the courage to face what you’re afraid of. When you encounter setbacks, you learn how to push past disappointment. You realize the pain isn’t as big a hurdle as you thought, that you are tougher than you previously believed.

When you get knocked down, you have two choices. You either get back up or you stay down. And, you know? Some people do choose to stay down. Some people choose to wallow. Some people never try again. Some people need time before they’re ready. Getting back up isn’t always easy, but the more you do it the easier it becomes.

No one ever gets to tell you how many chances you get.

The question of what you do after the pain occurs is what matters. Just because you got hurt doesn’t mean you should give up. Maybe you should take a step back and reassess before trying again, but you should, probably, try again.

I broke my leg trying to do a tornado kick. Now? I can do a tornado kick. I could have given up, but I didn’t. I could have avoided dealing with my father’s death, I could have run from it and there were certainly points where it felt like I’d never feel anything again, but now I get to celebrate his memory.

Pain is a learning experience, but what you learn from it is up to you. You’ll experience so many different kinds of pain. You’ll learn to distinguish the good from the bad and the mild or middling from the terrible. Hurting yourself more to get better might feel like an oxymoron, but, sometimes, you need to.

Celebration of survival isn’t irresponsible. Sometimes, the simple act of existing requires courage. Courage deserves recognition. If you’re bothered by someone saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” then you might not have come out the other side yet. You might not be ready to celebrate how your experiences and what you’ve gone through have made you the person you are. In the end, it’s not really any different than saying, “you know, we went through some rough and tumble times but we made it!”

Do you stop playing on the jungle gym because you bashed your funny bone? Probably not, but you might be a little more circumspect about where you put your elbows.

-Michi

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Q&A: What’s The Cost Of Doing Business?

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: This might be a hard topic, but do human traffickers typically have fighting experience? If my mc was to notice a Latina pre-teen possibly being trafficked by an older man and attempted to talk to the girl in Spanish (the trafficker uses the language barrier to isolate her and explain away why she doesn’t talk to people herself), would the trafficker reasonably try to fight mc or run away or use threats? They are in an airport, about to board, so neither would probably have guns.

If a human trafficker is taking your character through the airport, and he’s already got her past security in a US airport which was her best chance/last chance to make a scene and get away from him then its over. If there was any risk to him or if he didn’t believe he had her under full control, he would never take her through the airport to begin with.

According to Unitas, the most common way she’d be trafficked through the US and in a public airport is if she was groomed. Grooming means the trafficker has developed a relationship with the victim, and the victim is traveling with him voluntarily. In this case, your protagonist would be a willing target either in the honeymoon phase, hopeful for a better life, for example: under the impression she’d been given a modeling gig.

In 2016, the American Government and the FAA instituted rules requiring mandatory onsite training for airline staff in the identification of human trafficking victims. The IATA (International Air Transport Association) launched it’s own program in support of identifying and halting human trafficking in June 2018.

What this means for your story: airline employees are a lot more aware of the warning signs for human trafficking today than they were in the past, ensuring the employee is likely to intervene if they feel there’s something wrong. They’re required to report it with their job potentially on the line if they don’t.

Airline employees have fewer reasons to look the other way.

The problem with airports:

Human traffickers don’t take kidnapped victims through public transportation of any kind, if they’ve violently kidnapped them at all. Giving anyone who’s been taken against their will the option of escape is a bad idea. So, they go where security is weakest. They ship them by boat, they take them across the border by car, and (rarely) it’ll be by private plane. There’s too many ways for it to go wrong at a public airport, from security to the flight attendants to the check in counter. All you need is for the victim to signal a flight attendant, make a scene at McDonald’s, or slip away from you in the crowd, and you’re hosed.

The last thing you want, especially in today’s day and age where Spanish is the second most common language in the US, is for someone to get suspicious and go, “well, Jose over there speaks Spanish. Let’s go talk to him.” That’s if the specific individual doesn’t already speak enough Spanish to get by. If they’re trafficking them through a Latin-American country, they still speak Spanish and its more likely they bribed security. If they’re being trafficked through the EU, the chance of a language barrier is higher but, again, while Spanish in Spain is very different from Mexican Spanish or various other Latin-American dialects, you still have people who speak the language or would understand just enough of it. The last thing you need is the AirFrance flight attendant speaking Catalan.

There are many eyes at a public airport, all you need is one person to get suspicious and notify someone. Airports are where human traffickers more likely to pick up a victim, usually foreign nationals traveling alone.

The “traveling with a male relative” set up only works if the victim is compliant and they’re not under scrutiny. Usually, they traffic them this way after they’ve been in for a few years and you’re certain they’ll support the cover story if issues arise.

This is the often overlooked problem when you haven’t done enough research: understanding the victim’s role in schemes like this.

You take a preteen girl through the airport, she starts looking nervous, and the flight attendant, TSA, or whoever intervenes then the male relative might be the one who gets push back. If the victim supports his story, then the airline employee can’t do anything. If the victims says something, and then the flight attendant has every right to call TSA. (Remember, since 2016, FAA regulations and IATA require on sight training to target and identify human trafficking.)

If your entire scheme relies on the kid (one you just kidnapped) not throwing a fit in public, what are the odds you’d take them through the airport? Not great.

This is why they use boats. Lots of unsecured coastline lets you skip the major ports, use a private venue away from the major cities, and just make off. Once this kid is out on the open ocean, what’s she going to do? If she can’t drive a boat or operate the radio, she’s got nothing.

Human traffickers are criminals, most work for various criminal organizations. Many of whom are ex-military, ex-police (or, currently police), ex-special forces, ex-whatever. Human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is big money with big business. If she’s being trafficked by one of the South American cartels, they wouldn’t use the airport for all the reasons listed above.

While they would know how to fight, it does not take much to man-handle a preteen. It also doesn’t take much to put the preteen down.

They also don’t, normally, work alone.

Let’s talk money: when it’s fictional everything is free.

One thing that’s easy to forget when you’re writing is the cost of doing business. You don’t have to pay out of pocket, so you might not have considered the cost and what this human trafficker hopes to gain.

To move this girl in this way, the cost to the organization would run between $15,000 to $20,000. That’s a low-ball figure.

He’s got to get her fake papers, fake ID, along with whatever forging needs to be done to prove that he is authorized to take her (a minor) on the plane. He doesn’t need to prove he’s her legal guardian, but he does need to prove that he is authorized by her legal guardian. If he’s taking her outside the country, the cost goes up. If it’s done in house by the criminal organization, it’d run them/him between $2,000 to $5,000. Done on the outside? You’d be looking at between $10,000 to $20,000 for a new identity.

There’s his fake papers, unless he wants to fly using his own identity (which, only if he’s dumb).

There’s the plane tickets for the both of them, which is going to run him about $1500 per ticket depending on where he’s flying within the US. That’s coach, not first class. Outside the US? You’d be looking at about $5,000, at least. If they were bought on short notice, the cost goes up.

That’s high class escort service kind of money.

This is a significant monetary investment for moving a significant individual in a highly unsecured way, where you stand to lose the entire investment if you get caught.

Why would he or the organization he works for pay that kind money for one preteen when they can put half a dozen in a cargo container and ship them by boat for a third of the price? There’s less risk, and the container is an investment. Short of being seized, it’s reusable.

If sex traffickers were risking $20,000 to $50,000 on moving a single kidnapped teenager across state lines or internationally, sex trafficking would not be nearly as lucrative as it is.

Most trafficking victims are actually forced to pay their own way, which is sometimes how they end up indebted to the traffickers to begin with.

Let’s break this down:

Fighting Let me ask you a question, how bad do you think it’d be for you to assault someone in public with plenty of people around to step in and security just a phone call away? Probably not.

If he’s the sort of person who traffics human beings as his profession, he’s not going to fight her.

Run Away – Once you’re inside the security cordon, that’s it. There are only a few entrances in and out, and they’re all guarded. They can lock the whole place down very quickly. If they’re searching for a kidnapper, TSA has no problem shutting the whole airport down for hours. Get on a plane? If they’re suspicious laws are being broken, they can order the plane turn around and it will.

An airport isn’t like wandering through downtown where lots of people means lots of opportunity to slip away. If something goes wrong inside, he’s getting caught. He’d know that going in.

The chance of escaping with the girl? Pretty much impossible. He’d be forced to abandon her.

Threats – Threats are an important consideration. However, the problem with threats is that the victim’s fear has to override all other instincts. They have to be more afraid of what the person threatening them is going to do than they are of what’s going to happen if they stay silent. Everyone’s response to fear is different, which means reactions to threats vary. Anyone good at making threats knows this, they understand how to tailor their threats to an individual, and they can gauge the response.

Human traffickers use manipulation and coercion along with threats, making escape far more difficult. The threat is unlikely to be directed at her, her person, or her personal safety, but to her family members or someone else she cares about.

Physical threats are only good if they can be carried out freely. If the girl realizes that the man trafficking her faces a greater external threat which exceeds the threat he represents to her, she’ll act. It is far better to threaten her family with financial ruin, deportation, legal trouble, or something else than it is to threaten her with violence.

The End versus The Middle or Beginning:

This scenario, the airport, is a narrative end point. You already have to do a lot of work justifying this option to your audience.

If this sequence is not the penultimate climax of the novel, where she finally gets the courage to act then you should consider what you hope to achieve with it.

What you can do:

If you’re serious about this story, you’re going to need to do your homework. There are a lot of online (National Human Trafficking Resource Center: Polaris Project) resources (TraffickingMatters.com) you (HumanTraffickingSearch.org) can (DHS) turn (Anti-Slavery.org) to (ICE) in order (FBI) to (End Slavery Now) help you understand (Unitas) the risks faced (International Labor Organization) both by the victims and the traffickers.

Understanding traffickers and their operations, specifically your trafficker and his operation, is going to be key in writing a successful narrative. Even if we never see inside their heads, you need to understand the individual perspective of every character in your story (no matter how vile) so you can let their background, their motivations, their opportunity for reward and the dangers they face inform their choices. Otherwise, your character’s choices will make no sense.

Stop and consider your local airport, if you’ve ever been inside an airport, from the perspective of a criminal. Think about the check in counter, the security checkpoints, the store employees, the airline employees. Think about you and the girl standing in line, all pressed together with the other travelers. Think about all the cameras, the careful oversight, the bomb dogs, the security cordon, the responsive security, the fast response from both local police and federal law enforcement. ICE? They’re already onsite if the airport has an international terminal, and, quite possibly, even if it doesn’t. Remember, any significant airport within one hundred miles of the border or the coastline has an ICE presence.

Human trafficking is incredibly lucrative as a business, but, like all crime, has a high cost if you’re caught.

All it takes is one person to get suspicious, and act on it.

If the underlying logic of your characters doesn’t support the narrative or makes no sense in context, then your audience’s suspense of disbelief breaks and your narrative is dead in the water.

The goal of any criminal is to have the victim do the work for you. So, what is the trafficker doing to ensure that?

The old adage “write what you know” is really “write what you understand” and that means doing the necessary research. While traffickers do, occasionally, take girls on the plane, it isn’t the most common option. You’ve got to figure out what kind trafficker you’ve got, and structure their motivation accordingly. They need to make sense.

How do they make the traffickers make their money? Remember, making money requires you get more out of it than you put in.

If they can rent a cheap car for $200 a day and drive them from California to Colorado with a friend to dump them in their new life, why would they take them on a plane? If they already own the car? Even better, then all the second option costs is gas and time.

-Michi

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Q&A: What You Bring To A Fight Scene Creates excitement

geek-bait said to howtofightwrite: I’m having trouble writing a fight scene. I feel like I’m either going too fast and it’s all a blur or that the flow is choppy and awkward and I can’t quite figure out how to make it work better. Is there any advice as to how to get the right pacing and still make the scene…exciting?

Writing violence is a lot like writing romance, what you bring to it is more exciting than the violence itself. The fight scene, like a sex scene, acts as both culmination and catharsis for all the work you did setting the up the battle. You need your audience emotionally invested in the fates of these characters. If your fight scene is not acting as a culmination, as set up for bigger problems down the line, as a jumping off point which leads us somewhere new, then the scene itself can fall flat.

On a mechanical level, you need two things to really make fight scenes work, clear visual description and strong stakes.

If you’re fight scene is going in a blur, it might be because you either don’t have the intricacies of what’s physically happening in the fight or you’re trouble is you can’t clearly convey the events happening on the page. Your brain is trying to cheat around that lack of knowledge. This is a description issue more than a pacing issue. This is solved by learning more about the subject you’re trying to write. You can’t structure a fight that makes sense without understanding the mechanics of violence, and you can’t describe those mechanics if you don’t know what they look like, feel like, or sound like.

The pacing problem is different and ultimately up to the discretion of the author. The way I structure pacing in violent sequences depends on the one who is winning, the one who controls the flow controls the fight. The one who is winning controls the pace of the fight, because violence is about taking control, and forcing your opponent to go at your pace. This way, you expend less energy, allowing yourself to fight longer. You can maneuver them into a bad position which is beneficial for yourself.

A strong character who is a good combatant will take control of the narrative pace. While this is often the villain, if your other characters don’t fight for control of the pace then the scene’s action will run according to the victor’s wishes. The pace can speed up or slow down based on emotional responses of the other characters to what’s happening around them, but the scene’s actual underscoring tension and the pace of the action end up hinging on the decisions of the character currently in control.

You can set this up by using standard narrative beats, and its a good idea to familiarize yourself with different genres so you can switch up your pacing style as needed.

Katie stalked onto the ballroom floor. Pushing through the crowd, she strode past the bodies of the fallen pieces and stepped onto the chessboard.

“Hey!” the blonde vampire controlling the white side yelled.

Katie’s eyes rose, locking onto the balcony on room’s far side. There. Five vampires significantly older than all the others. She’d been under observation in the capstone, and from the moment she’d stepped out of Giancarlo’s car. They were still watching her. When under observation by a skilled strategist, every action she took betrayed some facet of herself.

You cannot decide the mistakes of others. Bait them with your actions.

Her lips curled.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

Katie’s eyes flicked up and to the left, watching a knight in poorly fitted armor brought his sword down toward her head — a boy moving in slow motion. She stepped to the side, staying within her square, and let him stumble past.

He landed with a loud clang, rattling metal. His sword’s point struck the floor.

Katie rested her hand on the back of his helmet.

The boy turned, staring up at her with wide brown eyes.

“No one ever taught you to use that weapon,” Katie said.

His jaw clenched.

“Get off the board!” the blonde vampire in white yelled.

The vampire dressed in black and red on the board’s other side stroked his jaw, watching his opponent. His right hand drummed on the arm of his chair.

Every species had their tells, Katie remembered. With humans, it was often physical. Where they looked, where they didn’t, the tenseness in their fingers, their shoulders, the skin around their eyes. The difference between a vampire and the average human was experience.

The boy lifted his sword. He spun, right foot outside his square as he lunged at her.

Katie caught his blade, forcing the scales under her skin to recede, allowing the point to pierce a human palm. Her nerves screamed as she forced the sword up and splattered her blood across the checkered floor.

“Katie!” Nadia yelled.

The vampires in the room lifted their heads. Their eyes changing as they scented her blood. Both the vampire in white and the vampire in red stood. The audience lingering by the tables shifted closer. The elders on the balcony moved to the balustrade.

Katie seized the blade’s hilt, knocking the boy to the ground. “Stay down.”

The vampire in white leapt first.

She raised the sword, electricity racing up the steel in jagged lines. Blue light combined at the blade’s tip. Thunder rolled in the skies above the mansion’s domed ceiling. Lightning cracked the black clouds, spearing downwards. It pierced the roof’s shingles and blasted through in a blaze of blue-white light. The marble ceiling exploded. Crystal chandeliers crashed to the floor.

The vampires in the crowd stumbled and screamed, the humans they’d used as pieces on their chessboard scattering.

Katie closed her eyes and the world snapped into focus. Not one, but many. Everywhere. There were thirty vampires and she was with them all. Everywhere at once. Katie cut down the vampire in white. She cut down the vampire in black. The vampires in the crowd fell simultaneously, as did the vampires by the stage. The vampires in ballgowns, those in fancy dress, and the four elders on the balcony. Standing with the fallen vampires above the ballroom, she lay her blade against the throat of the fifth.

“H-h-how?” The elder said, clutching the golden cross hanging around his neck.

“You annoyed me,” Katie said.

Wake the Dead – by C.E. Schmitt and Michael J. Schwarz

Your pacing is ultimately dependent on your characters, their behavior, and their choices, which should already be built up by their surrounding narrative. When faced with a violent scenario, they’re going to be who they are and utilize the tools they have access to. The excitement of the scene comes from what these characters choose to do, the circumstances surrounding them, their desires, and the fallout from or consequences of their actions. If this scene doesn’t lead somewhere, affect something, or cause change in the narrative then it will end up being superfluous.

What you’re missing in the scene above is an entire novel’s worth of setup. You see a character using their superpowers to win a fight. You don’t see a character who is carefully balancing their personal goals (catching up with their sibling before their sibling gets eaten) and the expediency of ending the current threat against immediate responsibilities they’ll have to take up once they fully realize who they are (and why they have those powers.) Who Katie is drives her to make choices which put her off her goal. She uses her powers to save time and make up the difference, but every fight, every resulting conversation, every interaction with the world brings Katie a step closer to failure.

Your scene doesn’t need to be big, things don’t need to explode, people don’t need to die in order for the sequence to be exciting. However, each individual fight scene does need to have meaning and move your story forward toward your narrative goal.

This is where your narrative’s stakes really do matter, both the overarching stakes and your character’s personal goals. What are they losing when they’re winning? What will they do in order to win? What will they sacrifice? What are the choices they make? What options are closed off as a result?

It’s easy to confuse your fight scene as being a separate component from your story, to get so wrapped up in the techniques and cool moves to forget about the people behind them. It takes a lot of practice before you get good at writing the spectacle similar to what’s seen in movies, but it’s not as difficult to bring your characters into the scene. Even if your audience believes victory is certain, even if they are up against an enemy they outclass, how the character goes about winning can be exciting all by itself.

Your fight scenes should be cumulative expressions of your character’s identity as they utilize the skills and tools at their disposal. Examples of their morals, their values, their intelligence, their cleverness, and their problem solving abilities. Violence creates more issues than it solves. Skill at combat will change the way your characters are viewed by those around them, for the better or for worse. How will other characters respond when faced with a new threat to their power and control? Is the violence brought by your characters in this scene enough to cause another character to worry and plot their demise? What results from it? Maybe they’re banned from the tavern for life. What do they give away about themselves that an enemy down the line can use against them?

Going back to the example, Katie is a character who lives in a world where information is a commodity. What you choose to do and the way you choose to do it can give away a lot about who you are, how you operate, who trained you, what your abilities are, and what your limits are. Even when you win, you can lose out by giving future opponents insight. The danger can go from non-existent and ratchet up to immediate death very quickly if you misjudge what you’re dealing with. On top of everything else in the scene, you have a character making a calculated choice to put expediency ahead of their own safety for a definitive win.

There are plenty of people who’ll tell you a one-sided fight can’t be interesting, but it can be in the context of its narrative. Your protagonist losing a fight can be more fascinating than two characters evenly matched duking it out. I always approach fight sequences from the perspectives of the characters, what they’re trying to accomplish, and the solution they’ve chosen as their means of victory. You should always treat your scenes as mattering to the character’s future, even if that future won’t go on much longer or the novel will soon be over.

So what are the circumstances surrounding your fight scene? Are you clearly describing the actions these characters take? Is their reasoning clear? Or, at least, interesting? Do you care about what happens to them? Have you left open an option for them to lose, or have you already decided on a winner? Are the characters making use of the skills and talents you’ve shown earlier in the work? Do their decisions match up with what we know about them? Do they expand or provide insight to their values, their skills, and their flaws?

At some point, it’ll happen the way it happens. If no amount of small tweaks make it better and you’re still unhappy, then look at the bigger structural issues and the characters themselves. Address if they’re acting in a way that’s natural for them or if they’re out of character.

Lastly, be honest with yourself about the kind of dangers your characters are facing in their fight scene. Their behavior is dependent on their knowledge of the present danger. A character who takes on eldritch abominations in single combat isn’t going to be fussed by fighting a few vampires, and that will lead to them making very different choices from someone who could be ripped apart in a few seconds.

For clarification, the writing example used in this post was written by me and Starke.

-Michi

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Q&A: Description is Context

tinker-tanner said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on how to write description? Whenever I think of something to write it’s purely dialogue, not even minimal stage directions like a Shakespeare play. Just voices in a white void.

Then, that’s what you start with.

Write the scene purely as dialogue so you get it out of your head. If you can tell who is talking, you’re golden. So, it will look something like this:

“How’s it going?” Jayse asked.

“Seeing the other Blooded’s problem,” Chastity said.

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.

“Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914,” Isolde said.

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” Isolde hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

“You would know all local bus routes, Chaz,” Jayse said.

Think about description as context, filling in the blanks and that white noise. Once you’ve got the dialogue out on the page, you have the luxury of asking yourself what the hell is happening in this scene. Your best friends are: What? Where? Why? When? How?

Once you’ve got your dialogue out, ask yourself some questions:

What are the characters doing?

In this case, they’re hunting some sort of monster and we know from “time dilation” it (probably) has supernatural powers.

Where are they?

Well, they’re clearly somewhere modern because they’re referencing the bus routes.

What is the monster doing? Why are they trying to catch it?

This we don’t know, because we have no description. It can look like anything. So try and figure out what you want it to look like, think about it.

Okay, so think about that. Let it take shape in your mind, imagine how the world sounds, tastes, feels. What do your characters hear? What are they looking for? What do they want? How do they plan to get it? What do they think inside their heads that they wouldn’t say out loud?

Got it? Let’s try again.

Chastity Dumont lunged across the open space between buildings. Foot slamming down on the ground and thrusting her body back up in a great leap, she flew over the busy street below. Her mind barely had time to register the cars whizzing past as she tucked, landed on her shoulder, rolled to her feet and raced after her prey.

He wasn’t too far ahead of her, long arms flailing as he tried to run. A short creature with a bulbous head and slick gray skin in a violently bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey. Thick webbed feet slapped the concrete roof. His pace a leisurely jog level rather than someone running for their lives.

He is running, she thought. He just doesn’t think I can catch him. Time wrapped around him, sped him up. In his wake, she slowed immeasurably.

“How’s it going?” crackled a voice in her ear, snapping electricity down her jaw.

Chastity slid over an air conditioner unit. “Seeing the other Blooded’s problem.”

“Time dilation?”

“Yeah.”

Okay, we have the first half of the dialogue. Now we can see how Chastity came to her conclusion of time dilation while hunting her prey. This means that this is a problem she can deal with, unlike the other Blooded she referenced. We know what the monster looks like, we know we’re in a city, and we’ve got some action going on.

Pay special attention when you’re reading over the dialogue you’ve written for breaks that feel unnatural, where it feels like something else should be there. The comment, “Whiz shit” is an unnatural jump.

Ahead of her, the bulbous head alien dropped off the roof edge and disappeared into the darkness between brightly colored apartment buildings.

Chastity came to a stop, watching fluorescent orange and gleaming white bounce between steel fire escapes down into a thin alley. As he hit the ground, his form shifted, lengthened, and grew more human. She suspected he’d put on pants and maybe shoes too, just to fill out the shit sundae. Her head tilted backwards, filled with the familiar whine of a large, heavy vehicle sliding to a stop. She inhaled deeply, air full of greasy ass diesel. “Whiz shit.”

“What’s happening?”

“He’s getting on the 914.”

“The what?”

“The bus, Jayse!” she hissed. “He’s getting on the goddamn bus!”

That got a laugh. “You would know all local bus routes, Chaz.”

Figuring out your own creative process can be difficult, so if you don’t have the right images or words don’t be afraid to turn to outside sources. Google Image Search is your friend. That can help you get the necessary context to filling out your narrative if the images don’t come on their own.

Think about the dialogue you write, and how your characters might react to the comments. How do they feel? Do they scrunch up their eyebrows or nose, curl their lips, sneer or smile? Do they laugh? What do they look like when they’re talking? Are they animated, sedate, or somewhere in between? What does they look like, just in general?

The alien stepped forward, purple-blue light shimmered between two round paws. Same color as the crystal burning beneath the jersey, rays spilling out through the holes. Illuminating the bus’ roof in a dazzling array of tiny pentagons, shifting, shimmering, and spinning round across the cracked white surface like a 70s disco ball.

I suppose this would be the wrong time to joke about stayin’ alive, Chastity thought. Jumbled bits of numbers, words, lines of code flashed around his fingertips. Rattling off a few thousand sigils in rapid succession. Spell type. Detonation rank. Expected area of damage. Electromagnetic region detonation. Grade B spell. Class Type D. In an attempt to stop her, he’d vaporize half the city block and everyone in the radius. Well, everyone except his intended target. Her hands clenched around the rebars. Metal spur piercing out of her heel, slicing through cotton, leather, and rubber of her boot to grip the metal. She jerked upright as her wings thrust her to her feet.

The alien blinked.

Throwing herself forward, Chastity drove the rebar in her left hand through the glowing purple ball. Sudden impact of iron disrupted the electricity, sending arcs across the bus widows and splashing out over the asphalt. As his eyes widened, she drove the right rebar into his stomach. She felt the first blow crush sensitive internal organs, burst the stomach sack, and sent him flying.

It’s seems silly to ask, but what are they wearing? Really, what are they wearing? Are their bangs short or long? Do they tug at their hair when they’re nervous? Does their hair fall across their eyes when they tilt their head?

Getting what you already have in your head out on the page means you don’t have to worry about losing what you’ve come up with and can focus on the parts of your story which are eluding you. The more practice you get, the better you get. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to art, photographs, and other images if they help you. Pulling up some images of a lake at sunset when you want to write about your characters confessing their love by the lake at sunset, can really help with the visualization for the scenery. Is the grass short or tall? How large are the strands? How big is the lake? Do people commonly visit this lake or is it out in the middle of nowhere? Are there ducks, geese, swans, other birds that make noise? How does the light reflect off the water? Is the sun low enough for a true red or are we fading into purple twilight?

Your style is going to determine the amount of description you need, and how much is too much. You want to experiment and practice. Writers can be successful with incredibly sparse and prose so flowery it turns purple, all that really matters is whether or not the reader is given the context they need to understand the character’s behavior, reactions, and surroundings.

The more you add in, the more questions you can ask and continue refining down your image. Sometimes, you have to start out general to end up specific. This can be simple as “What does Character B look like?”

Your answers might start out general like: female, medium height, blonde, blue eyes, nose, mouth, long fingers, etc.

Take the vague image you have, and sharpen up the detail.

Then, Chastity turned her head. The gold-yellow irises surrounded by a black cornea turned a warm crystal blue, the rest of the eye fading into the usual human color. The silver and ruby wings retracted, slipping back through the ripped gaps in her leather jacket and white cotton shirt. Silver gashes in her skin cutting out of her jaw disappeared and smoothed back to the usual soft pink. Clawed gauntlets slipped back beneath the human skin coating finely boned, delicate hands.

One could easily see a slightly battered seventeen year old in a grungy shirt, torn apart jacket, and ripped jeans, but Jayse knew better than anyone — Chastity Dumont had never been a human girl.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The best way to learn how to do something is to just do it. Start with what your brain has already given you and start filling in the blanks. Probing questions are important. Use your What, Where, When, Why, How. Think about your five senses. Get curious about your dialogue. If your story excites you, you should want to know more. Why did your character say what they did? What was their motivation? What did they look like when they said it? How do they feel?

If you get: anger, ask yourself what anger looks like. What is the bodily response? How do they deal with confrontation? Do they stare the other person down, lock gazes, drop their eyes, look up, look away, or physically turn away?

Ahead of Chastity, the alien had fallen in another attempt to crawl away and trapped himself between the cars. His frantic head turned back in her direction, massive eyes blinking. Sparks crackled across his hands, the remnants of his disrupted spell. Small body slumped, squirmed, wriggling as he inched his way down the road.

Coming to a stop over him, Chastity lifted the last rebar. Her wings flared wide, casting long shadows across the road, blacking out the twilight sky.

Someone in the crowd screamed.

The alien rolled, weakly lifting his hands.

Chastity rammed the rebar down, through the lower torso, and into the asphalt.

Gray-green blood splattered a black surface.

This time, the alien shrieked.

“Turnabout,” Chastity said.

Her Comm implant snapped her jaw, flickers of electricity singing up her ear. Jayse’s voice came in loud. “Got him?”

One hand dropped to her jeans pocket, and Chastity fished out a small silver coin. Held it up between her thumb and forefinger. Gave it a squeeze. She tossed the coin onto the alien’s torso. Eight silver spider legs extended off the disc, latching into his chest. A tiny blue light beeped. She brushed her jaw with a finger. “Beam us up, Scotty.”

Jayse groaned.

Chastity grinned as she and the alien disappeared in a brilliant flash of bright white-blue light.

-Michi

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Q&A: Welcome to Writing

my imagination (when it works) tends to conjure up scenes fully formed and devoid of context, and trying to put them to words – let alone make a story out of them – is really tough. it’s like i’m trying to write a movie that’s already been filmed and i’ve only seen bits and pieces of it.               

Welcome to writing.

I’m not going to say this is what writing is like for everyone, but it is for most people. At the very least, your experience is true for me. I see my stories in scenes filmed in my head and patchwork them together into a narrative after lengthy consideration. Plots come together in fits and starts, and often change. What I envision in my head rarely ends up on the page, often I get something different than what I intended. Learning not to be disappointed by that was a process, and something I still struggle with. Learning how to bring what I imagined to life for others to enjoy was also a process, one I’ve worked at for a very long time.

What most people won’t tell you about writing is that it’s a skill. Anyone can write, anyone can learn how to write, but the good storytellers are those who’ve worked very hard. Developing any skill takes time, it takes practice. You’ll fall down a lot. You’ll face disappointment. You’ll fail. This is true of every novelist and every book you pick up. They’ve all failed at certain points in their lives. They all felt they were terrible. They all wanted to tear their hair out over their characters, their plots, their descriptions, their backstory, their setting not working quite the way it was supposed to. The only difference between a success and a failure is the willingness to pick yourself up and try again.

There’s a great quote from the manga Black Clover, which is a sentiment that’s been paraphrased many different ways but one I think is important to remember when you’re getting down on yourself.

“Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is,” Fuegoleon Vermillion tells Noelle.

What Fuegoleon means is choosing self-pity over self-improvement is weakness, but there is nothing weak about a person who is trying to improve. They may be struggling, they may not be where they want to be yet, the skills they want to acquire may not come easily, but they aren’t weak.

You may have difficulty crafting characters, context, and plot for the sequences you imagine right now but it’ll get easier and easier if you keep working at it. The only way to improve is through practice. Devote yourself to writing for a certain period every day, or every few days. I personally really like Terry Pratchett’s 400 words a day rule. (You can set any metric you like.) The 400 is the right amount for me that is easy to reach, and if I surpass it? Great. If I don’t, well? I got some writing done. Sometimes, I have to take breaks to work on other projects when I’ve exhausted myself but, in between the point I stop working on one book and start on another, I’m still writing. I’m keeping my skills sharp, and through working with a different narrative may come around the piece I need to move forward with the other one. Following this rule, I’ve written over 60,000 words so far this year. I wrote over 200,000 last year in for various fictional projects, not counting the work I did for this blog. I write a lot, and I follow the basic tenants set down by Ernie Reyes’ Black Belt Code. The Code felt silly when I recited it at thirteen, but means a lot now as a reference point. There are ten steps, but the first five are the only ones I remember.

  1. Set a goal.
  2. Take action.
  3. Pay attention to detail.
  4. Practice, Practice, Practice.
  5. Change if it’s not working.

Rinse, lather, repeat. These steps will eventually lead to mastery.

There are going to be plenty of times where the idea you have isn’t going to work or will require change. You’ll go back to the drawing board multiple times. You’ll realize you don’t have the skills needed either in description, or dialogue, or character building to craft what you want; which means you need to go out and acquire those skills. Then, come back and try again.

Identify your weaknesses. Study works by those whose writing is strong where yours is weak, figure out the techniques they used and try applying them to your own work. You can turn anywhere for this, so don’t let people fool you into thinking it can only be fictional novels. You can learn a lot about world building from strategy games, from pencil and paper RPGs, from video games, history, sociology, political science, and plenty other sources. You can study television and film for to learn about different sorts of dialogue beats, episodic structure, learning how to describe human interaction and facial expressions. You can people watch, then experiment with conversations you heard later. In order to improve my skills writing dialogue, I used to listen to video game dialogue snippets on YouTube over and over and over. I could’ve read a transcript of the dialogue, but I wanted to familiarize myself with the tone, cadence, and vocal patterns of the actors in order to translate that into my writing. So the character sounded like the character, even when their dialogue was read. I do this even now where I’ll pick a film or television show with a character I like to put on as background noise so I can get into the right frame of mind for what I’m writing. There are plenty of writers who do this with music, I have whole libraries and playlists for different characters.

If you don’t know how to do something then work on learning. A large part of writing is taking what you see and what you know and applying it into a specific format. Nothing is off limits, everything is a reference for you. You want to work on character development? You can read lots of books with characters you like, paying attention to how they changed. You can also then go read breakdowns and character analyses to see what others took from the same material. There’s so much information freely available today, many barriers to what was once secret knowledge have been removed. You just have to start taking advantage of your local library and your internet connection.

To be a writer is to be a lifelong student, a jack of all trades, knowledgeable about many things but a master of none. If you want to write myths, epics, and mythic characters then you should be reading myths but I also recommend reading Joseph Campbell. I don’t just mean A Hero With A Thousand Faces and patterning your narrative on “The Hero’s Journey”, but understanding how myths worked, what they meant to the cultures of the people who created them, and the resonant narrative themes which are found in many cultures worldwide.

There’s copying and there’s understanding, copying can bridge into understanding but only if you take the time to really evaluate why a specific narrative technique works the way it does. Learning how something works gives you the freedom to apply it how you want to your own narrative instead of trying to force fit someone else’s vision into your own. This is how you can build your work, your own vision while looking to others for guidance and advice.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Give yourself permission to suck.

Remember, everything you read is the work of months, often years. You don’t see all the author’s failures, their previous bad writing, when they sucked, their points of depression, and (in some cases) their drug fueled benders. You don’t see the endless edits, the previous drafts, the subplots begun and abandoned. You don’t see where the characters began in the finished product, just where they ended up. You don’t see their previous attempts. You might be reading their latest work written in their late fifties rather than the one they wrote in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You’re probably not reading the works they produced at ten years old.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to write and write and write until you start writing well. Physical exercise is like that too. You keep at it until something clicks, you get over the hump, you adjust and it gets easier. Do the best you can right now. Work on surpassing those limits. Once you get over the hump, once it gets easier and you’ve gotten comfortable, set your next goal and work passing those limits. It may feel impossible at times, the mountain insurmountable. When you’re getting down on yourself, you can always go back and read what you wrote in the past. You’ll see where you improved, and realize you weren’t nearly as terrible as you thought.

As Fuegoleon Vermillion said, “Being weak is nothing to be ashamed of. Staying weak is.”

Overcoming adversity is about building character and, when it comes to life getting you down, not taking “no” for an answer. It takes courage to face yourself, and acknowledge you’ve got flaws. Review your failure. Acknowledge your strengths, identify your weaknesses, and work on turning those weaknesses into your strength. The non-dominant hand/side is the most technically proficient in martial arts because you struggle when learning to control it. While the power hand, the dominant hand, is important, the non-dominant hand does the technical things.

You haven’t failed until you’ve truly given up. There’s no better time than now to start building your foundation.

-Michi

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