Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Description

 

We’re going to talk about description in this chapter.  I promise.

But first, we have to talk about the ending of Star Wars…and by Star Wars I mean episode IV, A New Hope.  Don’t get me started on those prequels…

So, imagine you are in the theater, watching the big space battle at the end of the movie, but we’re going to change how you watch it.  First, you have a shot of Luke and what he’s doing, then split the screen and put up an image of Biggs.  Try to keep track of both of them.  Then split it again and add in Red Leader and Gold Leader.  Keep splitting that screen.  In no time at all, you’ve got way too much going on and you can’t really tell what’s important.

And to really drive this home, let’s make our Star Wars scene a little more urgent.  Put yourself in the movie.  Imagine you are an X-Wing pilot who is trying to get through a swarm of TIE fighters to destroy the Death Star.  What are you going to concentrate on?  Will it be the fire from the laser cannons on the space station?  How about your friends who are flying close alongside you?  Maybe you should focus on the incoming fighters and the dog fights that are starting to take shape all around you.

The thing is, your attention can’t stay on one thing.  If you focus only on getting into and down the trench to the exhaust port (Yeah, I’m showing my geek stripes here, aren’t I?), then you won’t see the fighters coming up behind you.  And if you pay attention to everything going on, then you’ll never get to take your shot.

What you focus on has to change as things play out.  There are times when you have to pull away from the fight to see the big picture.  And then there are times when you have that target in sight and that is the only thing in the galaxy that matters.  You pick what’s important at that moment.

That’s what you have to do when you fly an X-Wing and that’s what you have to do when you write descriptions in your stories.  You pick what’s important in the scene and describe that to your readers.

With the mandatory Star Wars reference done (for now at least), let’s get our writing hands dirty.  We don’t have to talk about what description is.  It’s not a hard thing to define.  But what we describe and how we do it as authors are the real questions.

So, what things are we describing?  The first and most obvious description is the setting of our story.  We let our readers know if it’s familiar or something that they have never seen or imagined before.  We describe our characters.  We describe what they do.

In general, we describe anything that the reader can see or hear in our story.  But, when we get into the other senses and emotions and feelings, things get a little trickier.

When describing the interior life and experiences of our characters we run into the question of point of view.  Are we writing in 1st or 3rd person (sorry to neglect the rare 2nd person)?  If you use the I pronoun, then descriptions of the character’s thoughts and emotions are generally a snap.  The reader is experiencing things directly through the character, so adding in the details of what they taste, feel and think is very natural.

But when you make the jump to 3rd person and the she/he pronouns, it gets much more complicated.  Are you omniscient or limited to just one POV?  Maybe someplace in between?  3rd person limited, especially to one character, gives you about the same access to what your character experiences as 1st person does, but when the audience has access to multiple 3rd person POVs…well…you could soon drown your readers in too many descriptive details.

Remember the cake example from chapter 2?  Imagine reading what the cake was like from every character at a party.  Suddenly, you’ve binged and aren’t hungry for cake anymore.

This is the big question. How much do we describe?  How much do our readers need to know about what our characters look like?  What is actually necessary (and this can lead us into discussion about the big C meaning of the word Character) and what elements are better left to the reader’s imagination?

This question applies to every element that we can describe and the quick answer is that it is up to you as the writer.  But don’t make the decision too quickly or without weighing your options.

We’ve all read stories at either end of the description spectrum.  There are some that are so sparse that we are left adrift; wondering what is really going on.  Others delve into scene setting so complete that we can forget what is going on in the story.  Ever read Tolkien and his page-long descriptions of the color of the grass?

Let’s get some perspective on how important the issue of good description is.  In the broadest terms, you have two elements when writing a story: dialogue and description.  And depending on your writing style, description will usually make up more than half of your writing.  With Tolkein it’s more like 90%.  There was apparently a lot of grass in Middle Earth.

If we go too far in either direction: too much or too little description, we really risk not giving our readers the best story we can.  And here is why…

Remember those two rules of writing from Chapter 2?  They are pretty simple and they apply completely here.  If you don’t describe the elements that are absolutely necessary to a scene…how the action is moving, a really important object, how a character physically reacts to something…then things aren’t clear to the reader.  And if you load them down with every detail, then boredom kicks in.  How important is that grass anyway?  Yes, some of the trees are main characters, but not the grass. (And please don’t set the orcs on me for ranking on Tolkien.  I love those books and have read them multiple times.  It’s just..come on, enough already!)

So, it’s your job as a writer to constantly make the decision about what details really need to be included in every scene.  If you are creating a world that no one has ever imagined before, then more description is probably necessary.  In other situations you might need to only mention one detail.

Think about the Harry Potter books.  How much time does J. K. Rowling spend describing Hogwarts?  Do we get the details on how everything is laid out and which rooms are next to each other or how exactly to get from the great hall to Charms class?  No.  We hear about moving staircases and then details in the individual classrooms when we first see them.  Yet, do you feel like you are missing out?  My guess would be no, because instead of telling us every tiny detail, Rowling shows us the important things and lets us paint our own picture of Hogwarts.

And on the character side, how much do we really read about what Harry looks like, or Ron, or Hermione?  When you check, it’s not much at all.  And yet, these characters are incredibly vivid.  And that’s because of what they do, not because of the physical traits that Rowling tells us.

Depending on which approach you choose, there are many different techniques that you can use to tackle descriptions.  If you need to give more information, you might want to start with a broad overview, like a movie opening a scene with a wide establishing shot.  On the other end, you might want to pick vital element and focus on it, maybe giving some unusual and little known bit of detail about it to get your readers to looking at things closely.

And, in this giant sea of description, there is one Bermuda Triangle that sinks more stories than anything else…description about dialogue.  Remember back in chapter 2 where we talked about adverbs and how they are shortcuts that can deprive the reader of an opportunity to see something important about the character?  Well, when you are describing dialogue there are other shortcuts that take even more away from the reader.  When we follow our dialogue with phrases like he shouted, she snarled, she growled or any of the countless other verbs that might apply, we move very firmly into Telling territory.  And if you add in the adverb after the verb: shouted angrily, snarled furiously or growled menacingly…well, you are giving your readers some details, but there might just be a better way.

We’ve already talked about one of my favorite authors (and I’m starting this section out by telling you how much I love her books so you don’t send the Deatheaters after me), but she is fairly notorious for this.  In just one part of one chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling writes that one character or another muttered furiously, shouted, roared, sputtered, said eagerly, said gratefully, said excitedly, said keenly, reminded bossily, whispered, said mournfully, said nervously, said knowledgably, said cautiously, gasped, said sadly, said proudly, said bitterly, said darkly, said hurriedly, shouted, said hopefully, said urgently, or began awkwardly.

That is a lot of different verbs for how people might say something and a whole ton of adverbs.  Now, Ms. Rowling gets some slack because, well, she’s awesome.  But what if she had skipped just a few of those shortcuts and given us just one short sentence about what the characters were doing when they said or asked?  What if she had shown us how Hermione had crossed her arms and tilted her head back to frown at Harry and Ron instead of just saying she was bossy?

The big problem with these dialogue descriptors and the adverbs that often follow them is that they are too easy to breeze past as we read.  In fact, they are really meant to be that way.  Their primary function is to show us who said what.  That’s all they are supposed to do.  And if a writer starts trying to use them to tell us how things are said, the useful information gets discarded by our brains as well.  But if the author keeps the who-said-what part simple and shows us how the characters do things, our brains take a moment to create the scene and it all gets more engrossing.

So, if the dialogue descriptors are things that readers generally gloss over, what do we do?  Basically, stick with words that are already disposable…and there are two of them.

Said and asked.

With just those two words, you can let the reader know who is saying what (unless you are Cormac McCarthy and are too cool for letting your readers know who is talking) and then you can add in the necessary description to show your readers exactly how the characters act when they speak.

Now, there is one more major element of description that we haven’t talked about: exposition.  We discussed it in relation to dialogue in the last chapter (and there is a definition of it in chapter 1) but it is just as important to consider in your descriptions too.  You may have to plant vital clues, there may be backstory or important information about the characters that you need to get across to the reader.  But, the way you give this information to the reader in key.

If you start your story with a concentrated info-dump that has backstory of every sort imaginable, your readers will zone out fast.  Even if the story behind your story (that’s kind of what exposition is really about, after all) is fascinating, if you tell it instead of showing it, you are going to lose the good will of your readers.

Instead, think of different approaches to showing your readers this necessary information.  Can you turn it into a scene?  Can it be incorporated as details that the characters experience?  If you can come up with ways to sneak in your exposition, your readers are going to love you.

Like everything else in writing, dealing with description well comes down to practice.  Don’t get trapped into thinking that your descriptions will be perfect when you are beginning.  Somehow, Luke Skywalker survives a giant space dogfight and blows up the Death Star…the very first time he jumps into an X-Wing.  But I guess he has the Force (And yes!  Like the Death Star 2, the Star Wars reference comes back!).  For the rest of us, we have to practice and practice to hone our craft.

What else can you do?  Read the best books and stories that you can find and see what you like about the descriptions there.  See how Cormac McCarthy writes a whole book without telling you who says what in The Road.  Test your descriptions out on readers and get input.  Then keep going on your rewrites.  These are your stories.  They are worth the effort.

Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Dialogue

 

How is Quentin Tarantino just like Curious George the monkey?

Okay, that may sound like the beginning of a joke, but it’s not.  Let’s show you the similarities…

For those of you who haven’t seen a Tarantino movie…well…they usually have tons of violence, they jump around from flashbacks to flashforwards like a drunken Dr. Who and they have tons and tons of dialogue.

When Resevoir Dogs and Pulp fiction came out, everyone out there wanted to write like Tarantino…and for good reason.  His films were popular, they were interesting and complex, and his dialogue…no one had heard anything like it before.  It was fast, it was natural, it was clever.  But in the end, there was something off about it…

Now, you probably remember reading a few Curious George books when you were much younger.  The series of stories, written by Margaret Rey and illustrated by her husband Hans Agusto Rey, are wonderful children’s books.  In them, Curious George goes from one situation to another, generally causing a lot of mayhem.  For a young child they are wonderfully entertaining.

But as an adult, you may find that you don’t enjoy the Curious George books quite so much.  After the nostalgia wears off, you find yourself frowning at the book and growing dissatisfied at how random and unconnected the events are in the stories.

Most writing books tell you to go out and listen to how people talk.  What?  Do they assume we’re all shut-ins that never interact with other people?  No!  We know how people talk.  We know how some people talk differently from others, and how everyone can change how they talk if they are in a different situation.  Telling us to go listen to people isn’t real advice because it misses the point.

The point is, as writers we often dig into our scenes with a goal in mind.  We start to work on a new chapter and we know what has to happen in it.  Maybe we have to let the reader know about a big threat that is coming, or two characters have to solve their differences.  No matter what is happening in our story, dialogue is one of our best tools for telling the reader what is coming.

And that’s part of the problem.  (Did you catch how I used the phrase “telling the reader”?  Remember that chapter?)  You see, dialogue is dangerous stuff.  Used carefully, it brings your characters to life in unique and interesting ways.  Used poorly, it will bludgeon your readers into boredom, make them skip pages and ultimately send them looking for something else to read.

Now, this problem, of going into a scene, trying to tell something specific through dialogue, actually relates to real life.  Think about it…have you ever had a conversation with someone who had something he really wanted to talk about?

You stand there, and at first it feels fine, but then you realize that you aren’t even in a conversation.  You’re just listening to a lecture, a monologue…one that goes on and on.  The fact is, there are very few situations where this feels natural.

Frankly, about the only time we put up with it in real life is when we are actually at a lecture.  Professors and experts get a bit of conversational leeway, but it wears thin quickly.  We can put up with the occasional lecture in class, but meet one of them at a party and all you want to do is run away.

When we go into a conversation, or a scene, with an agenda and are forced to listen to a monolgue, it gets awkward.  And avoiding this is where Tarantino really scores.  His dialogue scenes will spend huge amounts of time talking and talking with no agenda at all.  In his Grindhouse movie Death Proof, there is a thirty minute sit-down, talking scene where all we find out is that one character is a really good stuntwoman and she can fall off of nearly anything and land on her feet.  You can tell that he isn’t trying to shove a bunch of exposition down our throats, which is nice.

In the end, there is some really natural sounding dialogue in that scene, but it’s also torture.  Because Tarantino’s dialogue is like a Curious George book.  Each little episode of dialogue in his films may be entertaining, just like George’s latest predicament is, but none of it adds up.  None of it contributes to or builds a real story.

So, on one extreme hand, you have exposition filled monologues that give all the necessary information but are terribly boring and awkward, and on the other you have dialogue that is clever and witty, but doesn’t say anything at all.  These can both be good tools, but they can both be dangerous in the wrong hands.  How do you find the balance?  How do you write yourself out of this problem?  And what can you do besides listening to other people talk?  The answer is actually pretty simple…

Subtext…just having your characters say one thing while meaning one or more different things will make all the difference in the world.

Here’s another scenario to think of…you have a friend that has unwittingly done something really dumb, but she doesn’t know it yet.  Now, dear writers and readers, I’m going to make an assumption.  I’m going to assume that you have some tact in your face to face conversations and that you don’t take some special glee in humiliating your friends.  Instead, you go into the conversation like a decent human being and you try to hint at what happened without really saying it.  You want to give your friend clues and let her figure things out herself.  That’s using subtext and it can really save your dialogue…as well as your friendships.

We’ve all read stories without any subtext before.  In them, each character says exactly what she feels and means, all the time.  But who talks like that?  Seriously!  We lie, we evade, we skirt around issues all the time when we talk…and so should our characters.  It sounds much better.  And…there is one more big benefit to using subtext.

Remember when I asked if you remembered the chapter on showing vs. telling?  Subtext is your best pal when it comes to this.  When you use it, when you have your characters NOT say what is on their minds, or what is important, then it’s nearly impossible to fall into telling.  You are forced to use other methods and then show what is going on behind the dialogue.

How do you do this?  Let’s say you are writing a retelling of a fairy tale, but you’ve got a big twist at the end.  Don’t just come out and say it!  If your big reveal is that Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother is a werewolf, don’t use dialogue.  Don’t have her say, “I’m a werewolf!”  Please don’t.  Instead, have her skirt around the issue, hint at it maybe.  She could say to Red, “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up.”  Then, show the old lady growing some fangs have her take a chunk out of the brat!  That is using subtext to create some layers of meaning and showing the action in order to satisfy your readers.

The one caution about this approach to dialogue is to make sure that it doesn’t lead to those Tarantino tangents.  Remember, even with subtext, our character’s dialogue has to stay in orbit around the important issues in the story.  Have your characters talk around the topic instead of branching off into something unrelated.  Grandma talks about how tasty Red looks, not about Madonna’s song lyrics (and yes, that’s a Tarantino joke).

The bad news, like all bad news in this book, is that this is hard work.  Putting in hidden meanings and finding a balance between monologue and dialogue takes a lot of practice.  But the key to it is simple…push yourself.  When you get done with a scene that has a lot of dialogue in it, read it aloud.  If something sounds awkward or forced, fix it.  Never settle for dialogue that doesn’t feel right.  If there is something that has to be revealed, try to find a way to show it through action instead of blurting it out.  Try not to let characters lecture too much. And, please, make sure the dialogue doesn’t spend its time off on wild, unrelated tangents.

We should expect that level of disconnection from Curious George.  He’s a monkey.  As for Quentin Tarantino, maybe he’s actually a monkey in a really weird looking human costume, and we should expect disconnected dialogue from him too.   But from the rest of us, we have to expect more.  Connect it, but keep it subtle.  Your readers will love you because of the extra work you put in making your dialogue perfect.

Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 2

(FYI, this is basically a repost of the Two Rules of Writing post I did earlier, but I wanted to include it here for continuity of the how-to book)

Chapter 2: The Two Rules of Writing

As writers we often look for advice from authors that we admire, and luckily there is no shortage of input from many of the greats.  John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonegut, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and so many others have given a collection of rules and advice on how to write.

Oftentimes, their advice is not really related to the art of writing.  Of Hugh Howey’s three rules, two of them are about self publishing.  Margaret Atwood wisely advises you to do back exercises.  Hemmingway agrees with Atwood on using pencils, but also says (not surprisingly) to keep things brief.  King says to never write with the television on.

But when they do talk about writing, their advice varies.  Jack Keroac’s list of 30 techniques and beliefs is more like a numbered poem.  Leonard says to never start a book with the weather.  Gaiman says to laugh at your own jokes.  If you put it all together, you’d have a very intimidating list of rules by which to write.  Heck, Stephen King actually has two rules about avoiding adverbs.

But I’m going to tell you a secret.

Here’s the real truth…when it comes down to the actual art and craft of writing, there are only TWO rules.

Be Clear.

Don’t Be Boring.

That’s it folks.  Two rules.

Now, here’s the thing…are there other rules that we need to pay attention to?  Perhaps things like grammar and rules of style?  Yup, there sure are.  But, and this is the key, every one of those other rules is actually a sub-rule under one of the Big Two.

Remember all those pesky rules on commas?  How about the i before e in spelling?  And don’t forget run on sentences and fragments.  All of these rules of grammar are focused on one thing…making sure that your writing is clear, that the reader can actually understand what you mean.

Following rule #1, Be Clear, is the first hurdle you have to overcome as a writer.  You have to remember that all those vital backstory clues actually have to be on the page instead of just in your brain.  If you are writing any kind of action, you have to make sure the reader knows where the characters are and can understand what is happening in the scene.

This is a big part of why we do re-writes, so we can look back and find those spots that aren’t really clear.  And your readers will really thank you for this.  Every error or muddled sentence is a stumbling block that takes your reader out of the story.  Don’t let that happen.  Rewrite and fix things.

But, here’s the bad news.  Rule #1 is the easy one, by far.

The real effort is in #2, Don’t Be Boring.  The problem with this one is that it covers so much ground.  If you thought all those grammar rules were too numerous to count, just think of all the ways writers have come up with to, sadly, be boring.

Think about it…does nothing happen in the book?  Boring.  Do things happen but they are disconnected and don’t add up to anything?  Boring.  Do the characters talk too much?  Do they talk about random subjects just like in a Tarantino movie?  Do they say exactly what they mean every time they speak?  Boring, boring and boring.

That’s just the start of a very long list.

Now, we can’t tackle every one of the ways writers end up boring their readers, but we can hit some of the big ones.  Let’s tackle a few of the ones that get talked about a lot.

The first, and most primal of the Don’t Be Boring sub-rules is to show instead of tell.  This sub-rule is so big it has an army of sub-sub-rules below it.

Here are the basics of showing vs. telling (and let’s get a little meta):

When we write, we are aiming to create an image, a world in the mind of our readers.  We want them to see, hear, smell, feel and taste what is going on.  We want to engage our readers by immersing them in the scene.

Or…let me put that another way…

If a character in my story is eating a piece of cake, I could just tell the reader that the icing falls off the fork, and that she likes how it tastes.  Or, I could describe how she leans over the small plate.  How the hair on the back of her neck stands up at the screeching noise her fork makes when she scrapes it a little too hard against the crackled white glaze in order to get every last molecule of frosting into the next bite.  And as she closes her lips over the fork, the darkness of the chocolate in the dissolving crumbs almost seems to burn her tongue, only to be soothed by the sweetness of the sugar.

Okay, enough food examples.  But did you see the difference in those two descriptions?  In the first, I told you what was going on.  In the second, I showed you.  Which was easier to gloss over?  Which put you in the scene with the character and made you hungry for cake?

The thing is, any time we simply state what is going on, we give our readers a chance to tune out.  Whether we are talking about the characters emotions, what they are doing, or the setting, simply telling the reader what happened just doesn’t create anything compelling.

What if I have a character who is tired and wants to sit down to rest?  Do I simply write that he sits in a chair and feels better?  Who would want to read that?

But if I describe what the exhaustion really feels like, how the chair feels, how the muscles unwind one by one, how he drifts off to sleep…these details give the reader something to latch onto.  With descriptions that are vivid and well placed, you can pull your reader further into your story and your characters’ lives.  This is a great way to avoid being boring.

Let’s go into one more example of not being boring by showing instead of telling.  Adverbs.

A number of great writers specifically mention avoiding adverbs in their how to write lists, and with good reason.  Adverbs, while very handy and quick, are the biggest shortcut to telling and being boring…especially when used to describe dialogue.

Think of all the stories you’ve read where the writer says the characters said something loudly, quietly, angrily or any other way that people say things.  You think to yourself that this is a super, quick way to describe how something was happening, but really, every adverb is a missed opportunity to show something important about your characters.

You can say that your character said something sadly, but what are you really giving your readers?  Just one generic, over-used word that doesn’t say anything specific.  Instead, what if you took the opportunity to show your readers what was so sad about the speaker?  What if you said she was was slumped over, with her head in her hands?  With something as simple as that, you’ve gone from a quick, throw-away word to creating an image in your reader’s mind.

That’s how avoiding adverbs can keep you from being boring.

There are tons of other ways to avoid being boring.  You can make sure your plot is connected and makes sense.  You can make sure your protagonist has a recognizable goal.  You can create an antagonist who wants the same thing as the hero and is very hard to beat.  The list can go on and on.  It’s hard work.

But there is good news.  If you work on these two rules a little bit every time you write, your writing will get better.  It will be clearer and more engaging and your readers will become devoted fans.

Writing Great Fiction – Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Elements of Stories

To start off our class in writing great fiction, let’s first look at the many elements of writing a story.  We will cover these topics in more detail later, but understanding the basics of these will help give you a big-picture view of the process, craft and art of writing.

Here is a big baker’s dozen of the most central aspects of writing fiction:

Setting:  Not just the physical backdrop of your story, the setting can influence the plot and choices that characters make.  It can also be a way to help express any theme or hidden meanings in your story.

Character:  Sure, this can mean the characters in your story (like the protagonist and antagonist), but it can also refer to that more subtle, interior meaning of the word character…what choices do the people in your story make?  How do they change and grow because of these choices?  How do their actions show us who they are inside?

Characterization:  This is the outside of your characters.  Do they have any habits or quirks or external attributes that help us see them a bit more distinctly?  And…do these outer elements match with their inner character, or is there a juxtaposition between the two elements?

Plot:  What physically happens to the characters (preferably things happen because of decisions they make!).  This is the stuff that you can list off…first A happens, then that leads to B and so on.

Story:  This is the real guts of what you are writing.  Story isn’t so much about the plot, but about the big WHY behind it all.  A, B and C might all happen in your plot, but why they happen and what this all means to your main character, that’s the story.

Structure:  Structure, when done right, can tie plot and story together.  This is the backbone of everything that is going on and a well planned structure can help pull readers in, while a meandering, unfocused or repetitive structure will send them packing.

Conflict:  One of the most vital parts of compelling fiction, conflict (generally between the protagonist and antagonist) is generated by two characters pursuing the same goal.  They may be racing each other to find a treasure, or maybe a killer and a cop are both trying to determine someone’s fate.  No matter what, it’s about two or more characters struggling to attain the same goal first.

Stakes:  Often lost in the mix or underplayed, a clear idea of what is at stake (someone’s life, the future, a chance for love, etc.) helps show your reader how important your story is to your characters, which can make it important to the reader too.

Tense:  Past, present, future…these are all acceptable choices, with the old standby of past tense being the most common and generally the easiest to read.  Whatever you do, be consistent…almost nothing makes a reader stumble more than abrupt changes in tense.

Point of View:  1st, 2nd or 3rd?  Singular, Plural?  Limited or Omniscient?  Do we experience the story only through one character’s eyes or through several?  Remember that in 1st person, we read about the character only from their point of view, using the pronoun I.  In 3rd, pronouns she and he tell us what is going on for one or several characters.  We might get to hear the thoughts of just one, or all of the characters.  The rarely used 2nd person puts the reader in the character’s place by using the pronoun you.

Tone:  Is the story told in a conversational way, or something more formal?  How can this be effected by the choice of POV?

Voice:  People often talk about an author’s voice, and how it might be very distinctive, but this element is about more than writing style.  It’s also about the subtle expression of your POV characters.  Their individual traits can influence the voice and make it sound even more unique.

Theme:  Related closely to the idea of the inner story, theme is about the big picture in what you are writing.  It can be a statement like, “Love takes hard work.”  Or, it can be an open-ended question, such as, “Can two very different people learn to get along?”   This is the hidden idea you want your readers to think about after they are done with your story.  One hint…keep this well hidden, make your readers work a bit to figure out the theme.

Symbolism:  This is when something in your story has more than its obvious meaning and it takes hard work.  In order to make good use of symbols in your story, you have to find the balance between making sure readers can pick up on the significance and extra meaning tied to your symbol and making sure that you aren’t beating your reader over the head with it.  Make it all more complicated by considering the fact that objects, characters, settings, actions and situations can be symbolic.

Dialogue:  As opposed to monologue (which means one person talking), dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters.  Sounds simple…but this element is all about practice.  Getting dialogue to convey important points about the story, the plot and show character choices is tough…especially when you have to make it sound natural at the same time.  This takes a lot of work and a lot of polishing, but it’s worth every rewrite, because readers can spot bad dialogue a mile away.

Subtext:  For now, let’s just talk about subtext in dialogue.  When so many writers do dialogue, they just have each character be honest and say what is on their mind.  But think about it…when was the last time you heard a real human being do that?  Who actually says what is really on their mind all of the time?  Instead, how many of us say or ask one thing when we really mean the exact opposite?  Showing what the character really means when they say something different…that’s good use of subtext.

Exposition:  This is definitely the double-edged sword of writing fiction.  Exposition is the necessary background information that the reader needs to know to understand what is going on.  It might be about the setting, the history or about the characters.  But…if you get too heavy with it, all the action grinds to a halt and the reader loses interest.  Try to space it out and make the reader wait until just the right moment before you reveal those background details.

Description:  Is something happening in your story?  Is there some action you want your readers to see as they read?  Good description walks a fine line between too much and too little detail.  Give too many details, go on for too long with your descriptions and your reader will feel bogged down, like things aren’t moving fast enough.  Give too few and the reader won’t know what is going on.  Once again, this comes down to practice.  Read the best books and stories that you can find and see what you like about the descriptions there.  Test your descriptions out on readers and get input.  Then keep going on your rewrites.

Remember, this is just a very brief overview of the aspects of writing that can influence how you tell your story and how your readers interact with what you write.  Always keep searching and learning!

The two rules of writing

I talk often with other writers.  I enjoy getting to share ideas with students, Wattpad stars, published writers…it’s just nice to spend time conversing with others about the craft that we love so much.

Lately, I’ve been talking with my good friend Emily Godhand.  She’s got an awesome paranormal thriller, Fear of the Dark and we talk writing…a lot.  Recently, she’s been bugging me to share my theory on how the many rules of how to write can be stated more simply.  So, blame her for this long, long post!

As writers we often look for advice from authors that we admire, and luckily there is no shortage of input from many of the greats.  John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard, Kurt Vonegut, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and so many others have given a collection of rules and advice on how to write.

Oftentimes, their advice is not really related to the art of writing.  Of Hugh Howey’s three rules, two of them are about self publishing.  Margaret Atwood wisely advises you to do back exercises.  Hemmingway agrees with Atwood on using pencils, but also says (not surprisingly) to keep things brief.  King says to never write with the television on.

But when they do talk about writing, their advice varies.  Jack Keroac’s list of 30 techniques and beliefs is more like a numbered poem.  Leonard says to never start a book with the weather.  Gaiman says to laugh at your own jokes.  If you put it all together, you’d have a very intimidating list of rules by which to write.  Heck, Stephen King actually has two rules about avoiding adverbs.

But I’m going to tell you a secret.

Here’s the real truth…when it comes down to the actual art and craft of writing, there are only TWO rules.

  1. Be Clear.
  2. Don’t Be Boring.

That’s it folks.  Two rules.

Now, here’s the thing…are there other rules that we need to pay attention to?  Perhaps things like grammar and rules of style?  Yup, there sure are.  But, and this is the key, every one of those other rules is actually a sub-rule under one of the Big Two.

Remember all those pesky rules on commas?  How about the i before e in spelling?  And don’t forget run on sentences and fragments.  All of these rules of grammar are focused on one thing…making sure that your writing is clear, that the reader can actually understand what you mean.

Following rule #1, Be Clear, is the first hurdle you have to overcome as a writer.  You have to remember that all those vital backstory clues actually have to be on the page instead of just in your brain.  If you are writing any kind of action, you have to make sure the reader knows where the characters are and can understand what is happening in the scene.

This is a big part of why we do re-writes, so we can look back and find those spots that aren’t really clear.  And your readers will really thank you for this.  Every error or muddled sentence is a stumbling block that takes your reader out of the story.  Don’t let that happen.  Rewrite and fix things.

But, here’s the bad news.  Rule #1 is the easy one, by far.

The real effort is in #2, Don’t Be Boring.  The problem with this one is that it covers so much ground.  If you thought all those grammar rules were too numerous to count, just think of all the ways writers have come up with to, sadly, be boring.

Think about it…does nothing happen in the book?  Boring.  Do things happen but they are disconnected and don’t add up to anything?  Boring.  Do the characters talk too much?  Do they talk about random subjects just like in a Tarantino movie?  Do they say exactly what they mean every time they speak?  Boring, boring and boring.

That’s just the start of a very long list.

Now, we can’t tackle every one of the ways writers end up boring their readers, but we can hit some of the big ones.  Let’s tackle a few of the ones that get talked about a lot.

The first, and most primal of the Don’t Be Boring sub-rules is to show instead of tell.  This sub-rule is so big it has an army of sub-sub-rules below it.

Here are the basics of showing vs. telling (and let’s get a little meta):

When we write, we are aiming to create an image, a world in the mind of our readers.  We want them to see, hear, smell, feel and taste what is going on.  We want to engage our readers by immersing them in the scene.

Or…let me put that another way…

If a character in my story is eating a piece of cake, I could just tell the reader that the icing falls off the fork, that the crumbs break apart as she chews and that bitter chocolate is blended with sugar to make it taste better.  Or, I could describe how she leans over the small plate.  How the hair on the back of her neck stands up at the screeching noise her fork makes when she scrapes it a little too hard against the crackled white glaze in order to get every last molecule of frosting into the next bite.  And as she closes her lips over the fork, the darkness of the chocolate in the dissolving crumbs almost seems to burn her tongue, only to be soothed by the sweetness of the chocolate.

Okay, enough food examples.  But did you see the difference in those two descriptions?  In the first, I told you what was going on.  In the second, I showed you.  Which was easier to gloss over?  Which put you in the scene with the character and made you hungry for cake?

The thing is, any time we simply state what is going on, we give our readers a chance to tune out.  Whether we are talking about the characters emotions, what they are doing, or the setting, simply telling the reader what happened just doesn’t create anything compelling.

What if I have a character who is tired and wants to sit down to rest?  Do I simply write that he sits in a chair and feels better?  Who would want to read that?

But if I describe what the exhaustion really feels like, how the chair feels, how the muscles unwind one by one, how he drifts off to sleep…these details give the reader something to latch onto.  With descriptions that are vivid and well placed, you can pull your reader further into your story and your characters’ lives.  This is a great way to avoid being boring.

Let’s go into one more example of not being boring by showing instead of telling.  Adverbs.

A number of great writers specifically mention avoiding adverbs in their how to write lists, and with good reason.  Adverbs, while very handy and quick, are the biggest shortcut to telling and being boring…especially when used to describe dialogue.

Think of all the stories you’ve read where the writer says the characters said something loudly, quietly, angrily or any other way that people say things.  You think to yourself that this is a super, quick way to describe how something was happening, but really, every adverb is a missed opportunity to show something important about your characters.

You can say that your character said something sadly, but what are you really giving your readers?  Just one generic, over-used word that doesn’t say anything specific.  Instead, what if you took the opportunity to show your readers what was so sad about the speaker?  What if you said she was was slumped over, with her head in her hands?  With something as simple as that, you’ve gone from a quick, throw-away word to creating an image in your reader’s mind.

That’s how avoiding adverbs can keep you from being boring.

There are tons of other ways to avoid being boring.  You can make sure your plot is connected and makes sense.  You can make sure your protagonist has a recognizable goal.  You can create an antagonist who wants the same thing as the hero and is very hard to beat.  The list can go on and on.  It’s hard work.

But there is good news.  If you work on these two rules a little bit every time you write, your writing will get better.  It will be clearer and more engaging and your readers will become devoted fans.

The Middle of it All

In preparation for Schism becoming a featured story on Wattpad on July 18, I’ve been releasing a chapter every day and hit a milestone today…Chapter 25…the middle of the book.

And posting that chapter got me to thinking about the most elusive and misunderstood element in the world of structure, the midpoint.

While we’ve been working with three act structure for books, movies and plays for as long as we can remember (yes, some might bring up alternative forms, but we’re still talking beginning, middle and end that make up three acts), the poor midpoint is often completely overlooked.

And, when we are focused on this three act structure that has a clear end of the beginning (plot point 1) and a clear beginning of the end (plot point 2) in our stories, it’s understandable why the middle gets little attention.  But…this is something that’s also really dangerous.

Because, that neglected middle of the story isn’t just the half-way point in the behemoth of act 2, it’s also a stumbling point that nails almost every writer.  It’s the brick wall that most people think of as Writer’s Block.

Go find out.  Ask any writer who is stuck or has stopped working on a book or story and they’ll say they “got about half-way done” before they got blocked or ran out of ideas, or just got stumped.  It’s that big of a deal…and yet no one talks about it!

Part of the problem is that the father of modern story structure, the late Syd Field, didn’t talk about it much, and not in the clear terms that he laid out the two main plot points.  Instead, he said the midpoint should be a reversal of fortune for the protagonist.

Look elsewhere and it gets even foggier…other story structure theories talk about the midpoint as a First Culmination or something that is either similar to OR the opposite of the ending of the story.

Wow.  That’s helpful, isn’t it?

But there is a fundamental truth here, beneath all the disagreeing theories.  The truth about the midpoint is that it doesn’t have to be just ONE thing, but it had better be SOMETHING.

What I mean by this is that you don’t have to follow any particular dogma about the midpoint.  There doesn’t have to be a reversal of fortune, it doesn’t have to foreshadow the ending or provide contrast to it.  But you had better make sure that something is happening at the midpoint.  Why?  Because you need to make sure that something is happening at EVERY point in your story.  If not, then you are on the fast track toward boring, and no one wants that.

So, if the midpoint isn’t any one thing in particular, how can we keep it from becoming the Writer’s Block quagmire that it is?

The answer is one simple, pain in the butt word…planning.

You see, most writers don’t realize that when they sit down with their latest idea, they don’t really have the full story yet.  They have a great beginning and probably a mind-blowing ending, but these two things don’t have enough oomph to carry a story all the way through the wilderness of act 2, which generally takes up 50% of a novel or script.  Instead, they have enough action and problems that are sparked by the story’s opening to get about half way through.  Then, they run out of steam, get stumped and the second half of act 2 falls stays stuck in limbo.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  All the writer has to do is jot down the rough points of the story before beginning to see the giant hole that appears after the midpoint.  Armed with that knowledge, any writer with enough patience can dig into the story and figure out what interesting actions have to take place to get from the midpoint to the end of act 2.

Best of luck to you all in your writing, and don’t let the midpoint get you down!

 

 

Writing Fighting

By popular demand, I’m putting up an article I wrote several years ago about writing fight scenes.

I hope this helps!

 

Writing Fighting

Some basics about death, violence and hand-to-hand combat for writers.

 

We all have something sacred to us that we hate to see butchered in books and movies.  For my wife it’s horseback riding.  She can’t stand a poor rider and loves Viggo Mortensen because of his horsemanship (okay, there are probably other reasons she loves him, but I won’t admit them).  For me, it’s fight scenes.

I’ve been a martial arts student and teacher for twenty-nine years and have studied everything from the traditional combative arts (Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Hapkido, Silat) to ring sports (boxing, Muay Thai, Savate) to the peaceful arts that focus on self cultivation (Aikido, Tai Chi) to grappling and groundwork (Brazilian Jujitsu, Combat Submission Wrestling) to Filipino weaponry (Kali, Eskrima) to Bruce Lee’s blend of combat and philosophy (Jeet Kune Do).  I love training, teaching learning, and creating with the martial arts and I love everything from cheesy Kung Fu movies to bar room brawls in westerns.  There’s just something about a good fight scene that really seals the deal for me in a film or book.

So, you can imagine just how much I cringe when I run into a disappointing fight in a film or a book.  Whether it’s a fight with no real motivation or one that has unbelievable techniques, or doesn’t make use of its setting, or is just plain boring, I regard bad fight scenes as one of the most heinous crimes in all of storytelling.  And if I can help just one writer write one story that has better fight scenes, then I’ll sleep well tonight.

Let’s jump in and look at the uses of a good fight scene before we get into the particular techniques.

Motivation and Character Building

One of the saddest fight scenes is one that isn’t earned in the story or one that doesn’t make sense.  This isn’t too common in books, but some of the martial arts genre films from both Hollywood and Asia fall into this trap.  They give us one dimensional villains and heroes and then expect us to care who wins.  I, for one, generally root for the villain in these cases.

But, if you can plant the seeds of discord early enough and deep enough in your story, the fight scene offers unparalleled visual and emotional opportunities to pay off dramatic tension in one of the most exciting, satisfying and primal ways known to readers and movie viewers anywhere.

To achieve this primal release, you must not only give your characters reasons to fight, but incorporate the fight itself into their character arcs.  This is why revenge plots and stories about heroes who refuse to fight until they are forced at the very end are so popular.  Without incorporating the fight into the character’s development, the violent act stands as an almost sociopathic occurrence in the story.  Deep down, we need to feel consequences of such an act, even if the consequences are positive.  To go without this change leaves our fight scene and our audience empty.

Believability – Planting the Skills

Not only do we need to give reasons for our characters to fight and need to show how it changes them, but we also need the way that they fight to make sense.  One of the most disturbing occurrences in a bad fight scene is a character who inexplicably has an uncanny ability to fight and do supposedly cool looking martial artsy moves.  On the other side of the coin, it’s just as annoying to see a formerly unbeatable villain suddenly do something really stupid or clumsy to give the obviously lesser hero a chance to win the day.

If they are going to fight like Bruce Lee, let us know how they got that way.  Gang members, cops, even special forces soldiers know little about martial arts style fighting.  Most people are better suited to picking up a garbage can and using it as a weapon than kicking someone in the head.

Which brings us to…

Using your environment – Going Hong Kong

Look at this from a film perspective.  American movies are famous for the scene where the good guy gets trapped by a horde of baddies and…like a freakin’ idiot, the good guy just stays there and fights them all.

Don’t write that scene.  It’s tired, it’s overdone, it needs a really long rest.

Instead, just watch one Jackie Chan movie…any Jackie Chan movie.  Watch how he gets trapped by the horde of bad guys and tries to get the hell out of there.  The fight moves from one location to another, with more and more mayhem at every turn.  The location becomes a character that your heroes and villains can interact with.  Remember that every prop in your story is something that can be used as a weapon or shield.  One game an old teacher of mine would play was to spot how many objects at Chinese restaurants could easily be used as weapons.

Try it, you’ll be surprised, and it will probably give you some fresh story ideas.

Defense

I’m gonna make a request here, actually two requests and they both have to do with knife fighting.  Never have a character do an X block against a stab and never ever have a character kick a knife out the attacker’s hand.

Here’s why.

The X block (wrists crossed to stop an attack between them) is something from traditional martial arts like Tae Kwon Do and Karate.  It’s an incredibly slow move that depends on a rather fixed posture being able to stop a knife attack.  The problem is that knife fights are about speed and fluidity.  If the attacker has ever picked up a knife before, they know that quick movements with the knife produce more damage than big, obvious stabs and that when their attack is stopped by an X block, they can easily flow through the block and slash away at the defenders arms and body.

As for kicking a knife out of someone’s grip…I talk about this with my Kali students occasionally and every time I do, I repeat the same line.  I tell them that if I see them kick a knife out of someone’s hand, I will pick up the knife and stab them myself.

It’s that bad of an idea.

There’s a maxim in the martial arts that your hands are five times faster than your legs and that your legs are five times as strong.  If you’ve ever been kicked, you’ll see there’s some wisdom to it, and this saying reveals the problem with kicking a knife out of someone’s hands.  The legs are just too slow.  Imagine that you are the bad guy and the hero is doing that same old crescent kick (the one that comes up in an arc and hits with the outside of the foot) to smack the knife out of your hand.  Will you just leave your hand there to be kicked?  No!  Just move your wrist a few inches and turn their foot into steak tartar with your blade as they try to kick you.  They deserve it!

If you want your characters to do the wrong thing in a fight, have them do those moves, and have them pay for it.  Have the other character be smart enough to whip around these slow counters and cut them up.

In other areas of defense, it’s important to think of two main concepts: meeting the force and passing the force.

Meeting the force is any block or counter that tries to stop the attack head to head or covers up the target to take the hit with another body part like the arm or leg.  This is what many martial artists call a hard style block and it’s useful for a character who is focused and motivated to get from point A to point B in a fight as quickly and directly as possible.  Muay Thai and Kyokushin Karate are some of the most aggressive hard styles.

Passing the force is thought of as a soft style response to an attack and it generally redirects the opponents force.  Aikido and Tai Chi are great examples of soft styles.  This type of response is much more fluid and fits a character who is less interested in harming the villain.

One last thing to remember about defense is that it’s very natural, much more natural than attacking.  People will tend to go on defense in a fight and the most common defensive reaction is to turn your back on the attacker and cover or turtle up.  Just imagine the consequences of this defense against a motivated villain.  The defender is completely vulnerable in this position.  That’s why martial arts spend a lot of time drilling in better responses to attacks.

The basic fist fight

Block, punch, bad guy goes down and the fight’s over.  How many westerns and classic black and white movie fight scenes worked this way?  More than I can count.

How many real fights work this way?  Not nearly so many.

The thing to remember about fist fights is that the bones of the hand are pretty small, and while a huge bad guy can throw his fist pretty damned hard, those bones tend to break when slamming full force into someone’s skull.

Don’t get me wrong, it hurts plenty to get punched.  And a heavy shot can really make the world go dark, fill your ears with the roar of the ocean and make the room spin too fast to stand up straight.  But, remember motivation.  If your character wants something bad enough, he will take an amazing amount of punishment to get it.

All that aside, here are a few techniques to add some authority to your fist fights and boxing scenes.

The jab is the lead hand straight punch.  It can be light and fast…a jab that probes, or a heavier jab that is meant to do some damage.  But the jab will never equal the power of the rear hand punch.

The cross is the rear hand straight punch, and because of the way that the torso turns and the body unloads, the cross has an extra eight to ten inches of reach.  Seriously.  If we’re fighting and I can barely reach your nose with my jab, then my cross will reach the back of your skull, even though it’s my rear hand.  This difference in reach translates directly into more power.  So, not only can I hit you from farther away with my rear hand, but I can hit a lot harder.

The next most common punch is the hook, which aims for the side (or ear) instead of the front of the target like the jab and cross.  A well thrown hook that uses the power of the body and leg is one of the heaviest punches you can throw.  The hook is usually thrown in tight with the elbow bent ninety degrees, but if the character throws from farther out with a straighter arm, it’s a haymaker.

A cousin of the cross is the overhand, which tends to be a bit slower, but comes down onto the face at a vicious angle.  This punch is also good for sneaking over a defender’s hands.

The key to any good punch is transfer of power, and this comes from the feet and the knees.  A character can’t throw a good punch with feet planted (sorry traditional martial artists!).  But when the character rotates from the ground up, turning on the ball of the foot, twisting the knee in and down, then power launches out from the whole body instead of just the arm.

Don’t forget that most people generally go to a boxing style lead in a fight with the strong hand back.  This tends to provide more power for the rear hand.  And, if any amateur Jeet Kune Do student tells you that Bruce Lee fought with his strong side forward, tell them that Bruce changed to weak side forward after studying Muhammad Ali.

Kickboxing

Remember we talked about kicking someone in the head earlier?  Don’t.  It’s a great way to lose your balance, and it takes power away from the kick.  The most powerful kicks are aimed at the waist or lower.

Kicking is the area where Tae Kwon Do students love to take all the credit, but don’t forget that they are the ones who are all for kicking knives out of people’s hands.  For a little variety, do some research on Muay Thai or Savate.  Heck, if you want some really weird kicking, check out Silat.  This Indonesian art incorporates a great amount of trips and sweeps into its kicking.

When it comes to kicking, try to stay away from it unless your characters are full blown martial arts weirdos.  Most people are better suited to stomping and to throwing the occasional knee to the groin than to whipping their foot out at light speed.

And, when it comes to kicking with the feet, those toes break really easily, trust me!  Plus, a hard round kick with the top of the foot is a near guarantee for a sprained ankle.  Muay Thai uses the shin as the primary weapon for its round kick, and it makes for a formidable kick.  But even the shin can break, and any of those injuries can hobble your character for weeks or months.

Kicks generally come in two directions, straight in and around.

The round kicks can hit with toes, the ball of the foot, the sole of the shoe, or the shin, and can snap out quickly or swing from the hip like a baseball bat, but they all follow the same circular arc to their target.  Savate round kicks are like jabs that can reach around an opponent’s defense and ping in at the back of their head and Muay Thai round kicks are like sledgehammer hits that deaden nerves and can make someone throw up just from the rush of pain.

Straight kicks can be thrown with the toes pointed up or to the side.  When the toes are up, we call it a push kick, or if it snaps, a front snap kick.  When the toes are to the side, it’s called a side kick.  These kicks can be focused on snapping, piercing, stomping or just for pushing and gaining distance.  The biggest target for any of these kicks is the groin or midsection.

Are there other types of kicks?  You bet!  Martial artists have come up with as many strange ways of kicking as there are shapes of snowflakes.  There are crescent kicks, axe kicks, spinning kicks, tornado kicks, jumping kicks…the list goes on and on.  But how many do you really need to write a vivid, engaging fight scene?  Probably none of them.

Going to the Ground

Remember that exciting fight scene at the end of Lethal Weapon?  Yeah, I don’t either.  Why not?  Probably because they spent a lot of time rolling around on the ground and the fight ended with a triangle choke (which uses the legs to choke an opponent).

Most readers and viewers still regard groundwork as slow and uninteresting, which is unfortunate, but is also pretty true.  Grappling and groundwork is a nuanced area of fighting that doesn’t translate as well to the page or screen as a stand-up fight.  But there are a few things you need to know.

Takedowns are the start of any fight on the ground and they are something that our wrestling and UFC raised audiences can appreciate.  The most dynamic and visual take down is probably the high double leg.  This takedown is like a bear hug where the arms grab around the top of the defender’s thighs and the attacker uses the power in his legs to lift the opponent up into the air and then promptly slam them down into the floor, coffee table or through a conveniently located piece of sheet glass.

Another fairly popular throw in movies is a small joint (it attacks small joints instead of large ones like the legs) throw, the wrist lock throw.  In this one, the attacker grabs the meat of the opponent’s thumb with a mismatched hand (right to left) and then applies pressure in an upward and circular motion to the back of the opponent’s hand to throw them.  Done with speed and force (and with a really good stunt man) the opponent’s legs will sail through the air as they cartwheel through the fall.  This looks cool on the big screen, but it is very hard to translate to a scene in a book.

After the takedown, the fight can go into the aforementioned stomping, or into other quick ways of doing something nasty to the opponent.  We’ll get to choking in a moment, but first, we need to mention Sambo.

Sambo is a Russian battlefield art that focuses on breaking limbs.  The theory behind it is that if you break one man’s leg, two of his compatriots will be forced to carry him away and three soldiers will be taken off the field of battle.  Good theory in a very nasty sort of way, and the art is particularly effective.  The most famous Sambo move is a knee break where the attacker tightly hugs the opponent’s ankle up by their own ear, with their leg’s wrapped around the thigh of the opponent, securing it.  This puts the opponent’s kneecap right up against the attacker’s belly button.  With a forceful thrust of the hips and arching of the back the knee hyper-extends.  Snap.  Ow!

But, the grappling range attack that we are most familiar with is the choke.  Right off the bat, forget the old school Frankenstein choke that uses the hands with both arms extended.  It’s just too easy to get out of.

Instead, if someone has to get choked in your story, go for the rear naked.  The rear naked choke is a blood choke (cuts off blood supply instead of air) that traps the opponent’s neck between the biceps and forearm.  The attacker stabilizes the choking arm by grabbing the biceps of the free arm with the choking hand.  Amateurs try to apply this choke by squeezing the arms, but the pros know that the real power is from the muscles of the back.  Once the choke is in position, the attacker simply shrugs or rows the shoulder blades together.  The opponent will struggle violently for about five or six seconds and then go limp.  The choke can be let go then and the opponent will wake up with a headache, or it can be kept on, with obvious results.

Just one thing to remember about the rear naked choke…there is no snapping noise!  Nothing breaks, they just pass out.  If the choker is nice, then the chokie gets a chance to wake up.

Sticks, Swords and Knives

This is where things get wild.  With an incredible array of weapons out there, it’s important to focus on the different facets of the style of attack.  With any bladed weapon, there are two basic methods of attack, slashing and stabbing.  That said, some types of blades are made much more for one than the other.

An easy rule to judge this is to focus on how curved the blade is.  A straight blade, like a stiletto or rapier, is used primarily for stabbing and piercing.  Only the very tip is good for slashing, so it isn’t very effective for any attack other than stabs.  On the other hand, a knife or sword with a long curve, a scimitar for example, is no good for stabbing but its broad cutting surface is ideally suited for slashing things open and making deep cuts.

Here’s an odd but important tidbit…what’s the single most influencing factor on the development of a martial arts system (in this case a knife fighting system)?  It’s probably not what you think.  It’s the weather of the location where the art is developed.  In colder climates, people wear layers of heavy clothing and slashes have a hard time getting through to skin and vital organs, but stabs pierce through.  In hot climates, bare skin is much more accessible, so the devastating damage of slashes comes into play.  Where is your character from?  That will tell you how they use a knife or sword.

Now, add the character element to these slashes and stabs.  Is your character an enraged barbarian type?  Then don’t make them move with a lot of finesse and quick darting strikes.  Instead, let them smash or hack away repeatedly with the same strike over and over and over again.  Think of Conan or Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi.  But, if your character is on the cunning and crafty side, they won’t take the barbarian’s route; they’ll move quicker, be more precise, and will probably have a smaller weapon.

With all of that in mind, the most fundamental way to improve your weapons fight scenes is to talk about targets and the best ways to do damage.

Everybody who’s seen a gory movie knows about the arteries in the throat.  It’s a prime target in films and with good reason.  There is a lot of stuff in there that calls for gallons of fake blood to spurt out of hidden tubes.  You can slash the neck, stab it, and the results are always gruesome.  In books, authors love to talk about blood pulsing out of arteries, and here is where most of that would happen.

But, let’s not forget some equally deadly targets.

One of the least known targets for a bladed attack is the femoral artery.  The location of the femoral artery is in the inside of the thigh, near the groin.  The femoral carries blood for the leg and is a major blood vessel.  Plus, it’s under tension.  This taut artery, if severed, will snap deep into the leg on both sides of the cut.  There’s no tourniquet or pressure bandage that will save the victim from bleeding to death.  There’s a scene in Black Hawk Down where they try to save a guy who had this artery severed.  It’s gruesome and accurate…and the guy doesn’t make it.

In the torso, slashes or stabs to the gut can be equally effective attacks.  A deep slash can open up a spilling wound, while a stab, especially one that is directed upward through the diaphragm into the lungs or heart is another show stopper.

In terms of defense, knife disarms are notoriously tricky and difficult to pull off.  Save those for your martial arts-experts characters.  The old fashioned struggle for control of the knife is generally good to fall back on, but there are things you can do to show that your character has a few working brain cells.

Remember the finale of Saving Private Ryan where the German soldier is pushing down on the knife while the American soldier, on his back, is trying to push the knife up.  In that case, gravity and the German won, but there is a simple solution for that situation or any knife struggle…leverage.

This is a little known secret that not many martial artists study.  We call them stab-backs.  The basic idea is that in an encounter where both people are struggling for control of the attacker’s knife, all the defender has to really do is to place the flat of the blade against his forearm (he might get a tiny cut from the pressure of his arm against the side of the blade, but it’s very minor) and then use this very strong lever to redirect the point of the blade back into the attacker.  This is bizarrely easy to do and because of the force of the leverage, a weaker defender can redirect a knife held by a much stronger or bigger attacker.

If you’re in a CSI kind of mood, here’s a tidbit about stab-backs.  The defender never touches the handle of the attacker’s blade.  No finger prints anywhere.

One final note about weapons and knives in particular.  I have students who think that knowing dozens of leg breaks is the height of coolness, but they get squeamish at the thought of training with the knife.  Bladed weapons have a visceral quality that hits us in our subconscious.  We know, deep within our most primitive selves, that being cut or stabbed is a very bad thing, so use knives judiciously in your stories.  Take time to show the threat, and the payoff will be a big one.

Be Careful Who You Talk To

Martial artists are notorious for being closed minded.  Traditional martial arts students are taught that their art is the only art worth practicing and if you consult them on your fight scenes, they may not recognize a particular technique or strategy that you are describing and will pass judgment on it without understanding.

This is similar advice to what I tell self defense students.  I tell them to be cautious who they practice techniques with as it takes some time to build competency and confidence in how a technique works.  If they practice with someone who isn’t a good partner, a very viable technique can come across as useless because the partner resists too much, when all the student needs is more practice time to learn the nuances and to build the muscles and timing to pull it off.

So, don’t necessarily rush off to your black belt friends with your new fight scenes.  Better to practice on your own, review them, and then find a reader who’s never put on a starchy white uniform and jumped around in their bare feet to review your story.  Ask this reader to review your fights for clarity and see if they find them understandable, vivid and exciting.

And once you have that, a fight scene that is clear, vivid and exciting, you’ve got a great new way to add some, uh…punch…to your stories.