Q&A: Nerding Out, There’s no Shortcuts for Research and Learning

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any tips on thinking up interesting fight scenes and how to get ideas on movements, weapon use etc? 🙂

In a way, you’re trying to run before you can stand by putting emphasis on interesting. By interesting, I assume you mean spectacle, which isn’t a criticism. All Hollywood fight scenes in cinema (with a few rare exceptions) prioritize spectacle over realism. It’s important to remember that spectacle is visual entertainment i.e. the scenes are geared to specifically capture the imagination via movement that you watch. Spectacle doesn’t translate readily to the page because it’s a different medium. The “set you on your ass” realization which should come with that is every fight scene you watch in live action from the excellent to the terrible is choreographed by martial arts masters with decades of experience and a team of stuntmen whose entire job is creating an entertaining sequence in line with the director’s vision. This is in line with every published author you’ve read having spent decades honing their craft.

That’s why I say “don’t try to run before you can stand” because when you’re at zero the worst person to compare yourself to is master. It’s only after you gain appreciation for the art, learn how tall the mountain is, how much effort went into scaling it, and begin the climb yourself that you write interesting fight scenes.

The art of writing is really, at the end of the day, the art of being a perpetual student. You get ideas by learning what things are, how they work, and why. Martial arts from martial history to the uses of violence in the real world, the effect of violence on the psyche, the changes training makes to both the body and and the mind, to it’s use in modern day entertainment is all on the table to be learned. So, pick up a book, crack open YouTube, it’s time to study.

An interesting fight scene, requires an interesting scene, which requires an interesting story...

Consider you’ve been consuming violence through media for your entire life but when the time came to put your ideas to the page, you didn’t know how to bring them out. That’s because even though you’ve watched carefully sanitized violence occur on your television, you don’t understand the grounding behind it, how it works, and why. Learning and consuming are distinct and separate skills. Beginning to critically examine the media you consume to figure out how these stories have the effect they do and why is an important first step.

A good fight scene is ultimately built on the nuts and bolts provided by a lot of other scenes to build a good story. Violence in entertainment acts as a form of catharsis. Catharsis is the release of narrative tension rather than the building of it. After every fight scene you need to build tension again within the consequences of the action and the decisions made by your characters, unless that release of tension is at the end of your story.

A good fight scene is a payoff for the goals and motivations of your characters, and treated as intrinsic to who they are rather than the way they fight acting as a separate aspect or aesthetic bolted on top of them. On a functional level, violence is an act of problem solving. A fight scene is your characters choosing to solve their problem in this particular way and it is imperative that you, the author, establish the groundwork for their decision before the scene occurs.

Interesting fight scenes are created by interesting characters making interesting decisions and dealing with the resulting fallout from their choices. Consequences are part of what establish “realism” or create the suspension of disbelief.

When you write a story, you create a pact with your reader. A promise that your story will function in accordance with the rules and laws you’ve set forth that govern your setting. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, whether that’s fantasy or contemporary. When you break your rules for whatever reason, even if it’s to save your characters, you break your audience’s suspension of disbelief and your fiction dies. Basically, if you write yourself into a corner with a villain who is too strong and/or imbalanced against your protagonists, be brave enough to let them win and learn to balance your narrative better next time.

The rules you create are intrinsic to your fight scenes and maintaining your audience’s suspension of disbelief, and you will be tempted to break these rules when you run into issues, such as characters being injured, or captured, or dying when you don’t want them to. Or not being willing to to put your main cast in real jeopardy, to risk their lives because you need them for other parts of the story down the line. Your story runs on its own internal logic and there’s a lot of ways you can completely fuck your stakes for a “cool” moment. And, honestly, you will. Failure is a key part of learning. You’ll learn by trying out ideas and coming up empty, but every failure feeds into every success. You won’t know how to balance tension in your story until you learn to balance tension in your story.

Basically, you’ll never learn how to write an interesting fight scene until you master the art of writing an interesting scene. You can’t get anywhere if your audience doesn’t care.

Think critically about the media you consume…

I know I said this above, but this is important. If you want to tell interesting stories, you need to learn how stories work and the best way to learn how they work is by critically analyzing the media you consume. The best ideas you’re going to get for your own scenes is through what you see whether that’s in fiction, live action film/television, comics, cartoons, anime, history, or from the people in your life.

Ask questions. Like, why did I enjoy this? What specifically about this scene did I enjoy? How did the author get me to feel this? What were the previous scenes that built into this moment within the narrative?

Art begins in imitation. There are no original ideas, just interesting interpretations and influences/inspirations the audience may not immediately recognize. The works of those you love will become part of you, they’ll inspire you, and factor into the stories you tell. We color within the lines until we become dissatisfied with self-imposed limitations and want to draw outside them.

By learning how the stories you love work and function, what inspired their creators, what influenced their work, you can choose what aspects you’ll take with you and what you’ll leave behind. Otherwise, in copying, you’ll grab a lot of the nuts and bolts working under the surface that you didn’t intend. It’s cool to love Star Trek and it’s characters, and want to adopt them into your own work, but if you don’t take the time to understand Rodenberry’s goals in his writing, his themes and intentions, then those themes, ideals, and beliefs (which are built into the character’s bones) are coming with you whether you want them or not.

A story is never just a string of actions. By stepping beyond imitation, by going full theft, sacrificing the original into the flames of your imagination, you leapfrog off inspiration to your own creation.

If you’re not sure how to do this, there’s plenty of excellent critical breakdowns of media properties all over YouTube to show you the way.

Love Star Wars and want to write a story like it? Read Dune. Watch Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, watch the Westerns which inspired Kurosawa, and then watch the Westerns that were inspired by him. Study the psychological texts and philosophy of Carl Jung. Then, watch Star Wars again. The interpretations of interpretations through the lens of an interpretation or inspiration can help you gain new understanding for how something you love is put together.

The only trade off is you’ll never see that work the same way again.

Learn all the things…

You want to get ideas for how humans move for your fight scenes, you need to learn how humans move.

Again, you can find inspiration for this anywhere. Go to the park and watch people run around. Take a martial arts class. Sign up for fencing. Watch videos online. Ideas are everywhere. Once you have an idea, once you see something you like, commit to learning about it, learn everything about it that you can. Start with regular Google searches and escalate from there. Become a nerd.

Seriously, become a nerd.

If you love Rurouni Kenshin learn about Kendo, Iaido, Jiu-Jutsu, and the other samurai arts, study the Meiji period of Japanese history and the real individuals a lot of the characters were based on. Read historical accounts of duels between samurai. Read The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Learn how the katana cuts in comparison to other swords of it’s type. Watch videos where sword nerds tear the myth of the katana apart. Hell, play Hakuoki for a completely alternative take on the Shinsengumi.

Be a nerd.

Personally, I watch the fights of the Fate/Stay Night series a lot. I maintain subscriptions to most streaming services. I kept all my college texts. My shelves are full of all kinds of pencil and paper RPGs, books of myth, books on magic including ones that catalogue real historical events people thought were magic, political texts, philosophy texts, books on martial arts from various different masters, comics, instructional manuals on writing, survival manuals, lots of fantasy novels, etc. I keep tons of reference material on hand from a lifetime of collecting, and you should start a collection too. You should also love the internet and your local library because we artists are poor.

Writing is an art, writing well takes work, but it’s a craft that can be learned if you’re willing to put effort into learning it. Learning to make use of a world full of reference material will help you.

-Michi

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