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 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!

Reasons For Hope

Preview – A Short Story About Hope

 

The voices of the people in the next room were louder than usual, and that is saying something in the area I live in.  People come to the local coffee shop mostly to socialize and it always seems like they are used to shouting across a field of corn in order to be heard instead of talking across a small table.

But this morning their voices were even louder, tinged with anger…and fear.

It’s understandable.  I sat in the backroom of the coffee shop, working on the sequel to Schism and my mind kept wandering to all the bad news we’ve heard over the last month.  No matter if we listen to the radio, read the newspaper or watch television, there has been a barrage of stories about violence in the middle east, disease in Africa and anger in the United States. Because of Wattpad, I now have friends in each of these areas and I worry for their safety and well-being.

There has been so much bad news lately that it’s been sinking in, pulling my mood down into worry and fear.  You probably have felt the same feeling…like you are being pulled deeper down into a hole that won’t let you climb out.

But I want to tell you a quick story.

Twenty-three years ago I had cancer.  First, there was a lump on the side of my neck that kept growing, then another lump below it, and finally two.  I wore turtlenecks and dress shirts with high collars to hide it.  I would lean sideways in class to cover it all with my hand and I did not want to go to the doctor.  But, my parents saw the lumps one day and made me go in.

First, there was a CT scan, which showed a solid mass in my neck, then a needle aspiration that turned up “suspicious” cells.  Within a week my neck had been opened up for a full biopsy and I waited for the results in the recovery room.  My family was around me, very worried about what we would hear.

The surgeon came in and gave us the news.  I had Hodgkins Lymphoma.  My parents and siblings were distraught, but I wasn’t.  I had done my research.

The most important thing that I had uncovered in that busy week was that if I had received that diagnosis in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or even 80s, it probably would have been a death sentence.  But a lot of progress had been made in treating Hodgkins and things looked good.  Very good.  I had every reason to be hopeful about what would happen.

Now, don’t get me wrong…the next six months were…not fun.  I was cut open again.  With my abdomen pulled apart, they pulled out my spleen and lymph nodes and replaced them with little metal clips.  It makes for some cool looking x-rays, trust me.  And then, there were the radiation treatments.  Imagine the worst sunburn you’ve ever had not only hitting your skin, but your muscles and the connective tissues in your back, neck and shoulders.  There were days and weeks when the pain and exhaustion made it almost impossible to get out of bed.

But, I made it.  And through it all, I was able to keep my chin up because I knew that medical research and progress had turned Hodgkins into something that was often treatable.  I’m here, writing in the coffee shop today because of that progress.

Now for the big part of the story…remember that research I did in the week before I was diagnosed?  I’ve continued it.  I had a hunch that medicine wasn’t the only area where we’ve made progress, and that hunch was absolutely correct.

The simple truth is that the world is a much better place than it was 70 years ago.  It is a phenomenally better place than it was 1000 or 2000 years ago.

I’m so glad that so many of you have loved my book Schsim, but I actually don’t write only fiction.  I also write nonfiction, particularly about how the world is changing and I’d like to share with you a preview of my upcoming book Reasons For Hope.  My wish is that it helps lift you out of that pit that the news media throws us all into.  We all need that help.

 

I’ll be posting these previews on Wattpad.  Click here for the link.

The blog hop…

Hello everyone!  I’ve got a different sort of post today, as I’ve been invited by a friend on Wattpad to be part of a blog hop.  And…as it gives me a chance to promote a few fellow authors, I jumped right in.

For those of you who don’t know what a blog hop is (I had to look it up), it’s basically a chain letter, but on blogs.  I hope the web doesn’t get mad at us for plugging up the wires, but it’s a fun idea because the person who invited me answered the following questions, I answer them, and the people I invite answer them too..and it keeps going until everyone in the world has answered these questions.  Maybe it’s more of a blogging pyramid scheme than a chain letter?  Hmmm…

So, I was invited into the pyramid by Katrin Hollister, who has a great book on Wattpad called Rise of the Vengeful Dragon.  If you are a fantasy fan, check it out now!

And after I’m done with this post, I’ll be passing the proverbial pyramid torch to Emily Godhand, Everyn Kildare and Kat Loveland.  Go check out their pages!  Emily writes a fantastic horror thriller called Fear of the Dark, Everyn’s book Crow is a great paranormal fantasy that reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman and Kat is working on book 2 of her Honor Bound series…a very cool action packed thriller that mixes fashion models, superheroes and child trafficking.

So, here we go!  Onto the questions…

1.  What am I working on?

Currently I’m working on the sequels to Schism.  I have been working on the outlines for several other novels, but the reactions of a few people who have read the entire book and demanded the sequel have convinced me to focus in on Schism II and III.

While I can’t give any story details away, I can tell you that these books are shaping up to have even more action, more twists and even worse bad guys for our heroes William, Bryan and Jess to deal with.  But, they have a few new allies to give them a fighting chance.

2.  How is my work different from others of its genre?

I guess I should try to answer this…okay, please correct me, but I’m not too aware of other paranormal thrillers that dive so much into transpersonal psychology???  Is that different?

But honestly, I think every book that tries to be original ends up being different from the rest.  I think every author wants their characters and story to stand out and work hard to make that happen.

It’s up to the readers to tell me how mine is different.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

I love to tell stories.  I love to stay awake too long thinking up plot connections, ways to express themes that interest me and come up with horrible situations for my protagonists to have to get out of.

Most of all, I try to write stories about things that interest me.  If I end up liking it at every stage…planning, outlining, writing, editing, posting, recording audio and audio editing, then I think there’s a chance others might like it too.

4.  How does my writing process work?

Oh wow where to start…you can take a look at the archives of my blog to get a hint of that…but basically, I plan!  Before I put even a paragraph down, I work out every bit of the plot, the character arcs, the theme, the point of view switches…it all gets nailed down.

That way, all of the pain is up front.  Once I start the writing, I get to focus in on that and don’t have to worry about going astray.  I still re-write and edit like crazy, but I’d say the planning cuts the re-writes in half, at least.  I don’t have to do structural changes, just cosmetic work and that saves a ton of time!

I recommend it highly.

There you go!  Now it’s up to Emily and Kat to take up the blog hop banner and continue to build that pyramid.  Please check out their blogs and their work!

Bruce

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.

 

 

 

Writing – The Basic Outline

One of the tools I think is most useful when you are starting a book is a strong outline.  This is the blueprint for the story you are building and when you spend a little time on it, it can show you new opportunities  and twists and turns that you hadn’t thought of before.

Some people say that writing outlines stifles creativity.  I think that’s pretty silly.  Those writers that just dive in and write the whole book without planning beforehand are actually still outlining…it’s just that the first draft is their outline.  Then, they have to start over, once they know what is going on.

Imagine, instead, that you work on a regular outline and make all your missteps and figure out your big ideas before you write 100,000 words.  That would save a lot of time and frustration, right?  Why not use a tool that’s going to help you?!

So, let’s get down to it and see what you can put in your basic outline…

Three Act Structure (Thank you, Syd Field!)

The basics of three act structure are very simple…beginning, middle and end.  Another way to look at it is set up, development and resolution.

What you get between each of these sections is what most screenwriters call a plot point.  It looks like this…

Act 1…beginning/set up

Plot point 1

Act 2…middle/development

Plot point 2

Act 3…end/resolution

If you put those down on a piece of paper and start to fill them out, then you’ve got a start on your outline!  But…you may need a bit more detail to make it really helpful.

Act 1 generally has two or three parts.  The very beginning shows the status quo of the world you are building and introduces the protagonist.  Then, something happens that gives us a hint of upcoming problem or opportunity that the protagonist has to figure out.  This is the inciting incident.  Remember that this is still Act 1 and that there is still some developing to do.  If you present the problem and have the hero tackle it immediately, then you don’t have much of a story.  Instead, take the time to give us a little more information about the hero.  Maybe they are reluctant to tackle the new problem (a reluctant hero is a pretty common theme and it can make the protagonist a little bit more relate-able.).  So, give us a chance to know the character a bit and give us some more info.  Like…

The antagonist…make sure we meet the antagonist in Act 1.  This character helps us know what the hero is up against and what is at stake.  Plus, you don’t want him or her to show up out of the blue later on…that’s pretty boring.  The antagonist needs to be present and after the same goal as the protagonist in order to be a threat.

Then, what separates the set up from the development in Act 2 is a moment when the hero is locked into the quest or struggle to figure out the problem that is hinted at in the inciting incident.  This point where the hero can’t turn back is Plot Point 1.

Then you’ve got the middle…the giant, hard to fill middle.  But, this is also where the fun stuff comes in.  Here you get to brainstorm all the painful things that happen to your protagonist and all the ways that she tries to solve the big problem.

Remember, at this point, you’re just doing a rough outline…so you don’t have to have the whole middle figure out yet.  I’ll give you some strategies for that later, I promise!

Then, when it’s time to get things wrapped up, you’ve got the point where the development ends and the resolution has to start.  This is Plot Point 2.  To keep this simple…PP2 is where the protagonist gets locked into the last struggle to solve the problem or achieve the goal.  Often, it’s a low point, when the goal looks out of reach.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of new information about the problem.  Play with it and make it your own, but just think of it as the moment when the hero places all her bets on one last strategy.

Then, all you’ve got left is Act 3.  In this last bit of the story, you’ve got two main elements, the climax and the conclusion.  In the climax, you’ve got the last, biggest struggle of the story, and if the hero wins, you’ve got a happy ending (probably mostly happy…as there was some sacrifice along the way, right?), and if the hero loses, you have a tragedy.

After the climax, there’s the conclusion.  In this, the hero may have learned something or gained something that can be brought back home to help others or maybe the protagonist just walks/rides off into the sunset.  Either way, this is the final wrap up and it gives the reader a moment to breathe after the big ending.

So, one last time with what your outline would look like…with a bit more detail…

Act 1…beginning/set up of initial situation and what the world is like. Meet the protagonist and antagonist

Inciting Incident…get a hint of the big problem or opportunity.  The hero might be reluctant to go after it.

Plot point 1…Hero is locked in on the journey.  This is the point of no return.

Act 2…middle/development.  Here, the protagonist has to try to solve the problem, but the antagonist puts up roadblocks and they struggle in new and interesting ways.  Things generally don’t go well for the hero.

Plot point 2…The moment the hero decides to launch into one final struggle to solve the problem.

Act 3…end/resolution…First there’s the climax, where everything is bigger and badder than ever before in your story.  This is the part that your reader will remember more than anything, so make it good.

Finally, there is the conclusion, where things are mostly wrapped up.

 

Remember, the outline is a tool to help you figure your story out, so you have less rewriting to do.  Remember the Jeet Kune Do maxim about absorbing what is useful and find out just how it can help you!

 

Talk to you soon!

Bruce

Loglines…Polishing the Rough Idea

Okay everyone, let’s start to dig into the first steps of writing your novel.

At this point, you may have a rough idea of what you want to write and you may have some particular scenes worked out in your head or in notes.  Maybe you’ve jumped into the writing itself.

These are all great steps, but let me ask you a quick question…have you written the logline yet?  Actually, I should ask this instead…have you written and rewritten and re-rewritten the logline for your novel?

If you haven’t, let me make a friendly suggestion.  Do.

There are lots of approaches to loglines, and lots of definitions, but basically a logline is a tool that helps you describe the heart of your story in the shortest, clearest way possible.  And it seems like everybody has a different way to do this.

One of the best that I’ve studied is from Blake Snyder, a screenwriting instructor and very good guy who sadly passed away in 2009.  His recommendations for a good logline were simple and direct.

In one sentence (maybe two) describe the protagonist, the antagonist and what’s at stake.

Want to practice a bit?  Think of your favorite movies and books.  Write a quick logline for each, then work on honing them until they’re interesting and capture the heart of what’s going on.

Though it’s simple, it’s definitely not easy.  But it’s worth the time it takes to practice and hone the skill.  Because once you have, this simple little logline will give you a much better idea what is going on in your story.

Here’s how it works and what you can get out of it for your own story…

One of the biggest problems that writers run into is the feeling that their story is stuck.  It usually happens about 100-200 pages into the book (30-50 pages into a screenplay), somewhere between the first act and the midpoint.  Some people call it writer’s block (which I may just rant about in another post), but what it really is is a lack of clarity about what is going on in the story.

And a good, clear logline is the first step in getting that clarity.

You see, your logline has a description of your protagonist, so you know something of the heart of your main character.  It also has the stakes, which tells you what the hero is after and how important it is, and the antagonist gives you a good idea of what the hero is up against.

Knowing what’s important to the protagonist not only gives you a goal that points to the plot, but it also informs you about the theme or underlying meaning of your story.  This can even influence subplots and character design.

In short, this is a very useful tool that can help you in many ways.  Plus, it’s very useful for queries and describing your book to people that you meet (a short description to a stranger is much more enticing than a whole plot summary, trust me!).

One final piece of advice I would have on loglines is to rewrite your logline at every stage of writing.  Start the process with a logline, do one after your first outline, after your final outline, after your first draft and even after you’ve polished the manuscript.  It can help you at each stage.

Talk to you soon!  Please don’t hesitate if you have any questions!

Bruce