The Dying is in the Details, Combat Diatribes #3: On Fight Scenes, Rhythm and Why Music Is Your Friend

In his singular book of teachings on the Niten-Ichi-Ryu school of Kenjutsu (singular for actually being written down, mostly; most Samurai didn’t like doing that), Miyamoto Musashi emphasized the importance of rhythm, of taking control of a fight by perceiving its pace, and making that pace suit your whims, so you could trip up your opponents and ultimately dice them to bits. While we can spend hours debating just how good Musashi actually was- the Japanese themselves have been at it for centuries!- it’s broadly accepted that he was at least really damn good, possibly ranging up to oh god where’s my arm I never saw him move…good. And he makes an excellent point- ever played tennis, ping-pong or the like? Melee has some weird parallels, but with a much higher chance of sudden, painful evisceration. Two or more fighters establish rhythm with every stroke they make or block, every dart, duck and dodge, every warcry or shriek of pain. As an author, being able to visualize and hear this is one of the best things you can do to help yourself write a fight scene. In comic strips or graphic novels, artists will think of an action in full motion, then pick the part of it that best captures the mood of the moment.

While we have a harder time conveying pictures as such, it’s much easier for us to draw our readers’ attention to tiny details. Doing this the right way also helps to establish basic competency for your fighters. I have a somewhat unfair advantage over most of you, in that I’ve actually figured out a number of things through my amateur practice that people don’t normally think of. So HA! Don’t worry, I’m going to give you some of my favorite examples, just to diminish you even more. Moving on! Musashi also said that there are only so many ways to cut a man down, but he was speaking on broad terms- what defines the feel of a fight are the nitty-gritty things. Word choice is crucial here. Does a character sweep her sword free, connoting grace and smoothness, or does she wrench it from the scabbard in anger? Does her opponent eye her stoically, or gleefully, or hungrily? Okay, I heard that- get your minds out of the gutter! We’re just discussing honest bloodlust, friends. The personalities of the characters should play into how they fight- a moralistic character will do their damnedest to end the fight quickly, regardless whether it’s to the death. A more cynical sort of antihero who really loves a damn good fight may or may not drag things out, but the words you choose should show how violently ecstatic he is to fight a worthy foe.

It helps to realize that a lot of terms we apply in other areas- jab, wallop, poke, and so on- all have their own little meanings when applied to swords or other stabby implements. A jab is quick, powerful and precise; a poke is tentative, testing, but still painful if allowed through- a wallop is pure, brute strength, only the faintest skill behind it. Bear in mind also that the extension for every swing is a bit different, and some of them are genuinely brutal for both parties (a vertical chop is so much harder than you’d think!). All those fancy disarming twists in movies aren’t nearly so useful as the fencing crowd wants you to believe- those are hard to do, and pretty risky if you’re not careful. Again, do your research, find the practical, out of the way alternatives to the stereotype stuff. A rather rare stroke, but a very powerful one done correctly, is the main-hand uppercut. It takes a lot of core strength and ungodly amounts of practice, but with a slight shift of your grip, you can engage your arms, torso and hips to deliver a nearly vertical strike- going upwards. It’s a movement people don’t practice very often, and it’s also remarkably hard to block; it’s sometimes painful holding your blade up against a stroke coming down, but the reverse is truly hellish. Yet when I said uppercut, the first thing you probably thought of was a form of punch- you know, with your fists, probably the least suitable implement for cutting anything.

Let me wrap up that whole thing about rhythm before I go any further. In order to get an idea of rhythm, here’s an nicely off-kilter source for you- video game boss fights. A well-constructed boss character generally has at least three things: their own fighting style, their own personality, and their own theme song. My favorite example of this (look it up if you’re into speed metal and don’t mind electronica; otherwise, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere) is Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Well-written, well-played music of any kind is extremely evocative- try watching your favorite sad movie scenes without the heartrending violins. Kinda meh, aren’t they?  My personal favorite boss, and favorite theme, being the giant Samurai fanatic that I am, is Jetstream Sam and his tune, The Only Thing I Know For Real. I don’t think I’ve ever seen guitars and synth sync up so perfectly with a badass cyborg duel- hey, it prompted me to actually type out badass, you know it has to be awesome! A big part of Sam’s theme is its percussion, both in drums and simple bass synth, setting up a sort of amped-up, tense waiting period directly in line with the psychological pacing of Samurai mythos. This then explodes into the lyrical portion of the song, which also features a very nice reed flute synth that rises up at the brief pauses between this word and that. No matter what Sam is doing on-screen, it always seems to mesh perfectly with the beat of the drums.

And that’s what I mean when I say rhythm. I don’t know what example will work best for you, but once you have one to work with, you’ll start seeing how to work it into your fight scenes. Remember, a fight is supposed to be an emotionally intense, adrenaline-pumping experience- even sparring is pretty heady at times, so fighting for one’s life should always provoke some reaction. If your reader doesn’t get any of that in spite of having become invested enough in your characters to reach a dueling scene, you’ve got a disconnect somewhere. Always be thinking of the environment, too- real fights don’t happen inside a green-screen world where only the approved objects are usable. A table one character uses as high ground might collapse, or the other might cut out the legs, gaining an advantage. Fighting from your back does not work well, and no, stabbing upwards isn’t a reliable way to win. More likely, it’s a reliable way to have your hand cut off and then die pointlessly anyway. Anytime something is broken, or if something is available to get broken, that’s an environmental element that should play into a more vicious fight. In the same way, it’s pretty clear, without using any dumb jargon, that a character who’s just been hamstrung and is getting tossed into chairs or slammed into walls regularly is losing the freaking fight- unless that’s both of them, in which case I salute your magnificent degree of sadism.

I mention music not just for rhythm or even the emotional highs, but because of how over the top it can make things seem, how bombastic it makes even the dumbest little celebration if the notes soar high enough. Well, guess what- if your fighters are cyborg assassins from the Black Ops section of the Intergalactic Bounty Hunter’s Union, their fight shouldn’t be something that two morons with paintball guns and plastic knives could credibly mime. If you’ve got ridiculous characters fighting, then the fight should be a bit ridiculous too. Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy- this is an action vignette, people aren’t going to demand your head for it. Unless, that is, you just explode everything, because no one likes a Michael Bay rip-off. That joke, however, was brilliant and original and you should all give me Pulitzers for it.

All this extends to the magic-duel part of things, too. A duel between mages should be about much more than just who can shove the most fire up the other person’s ass before needing a nap. It should be about using things in the environment to multiply the effects of a simple spell to break down the enemy’s defenses way more than a direct attack could- knocking out the supports of a scaffold, or adding oil to a fire just as the other guy’s creeping by it. Mages are the artillery of fantasy worlds (along with actual artillery like trebuchets, ballista and so on)- surprisingly, a lot of artillery duels in history resolved themselves through positioning, camouflage and timing as much as actual firepower. My point is, don’t make it a simple slugging match- of all the dueling options, a mage-duel should be the most psychologically tense, two near-equals picking from an effectively limitless number of options, testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Knowledge truly should be power, which is why I’m starting to regretting handing out all this info. Is it too late to ask for a few bucks?

Yep, guess so.

(Part Two Here)
(Part Four Here)

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