Combat Scene: Zero Draft

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there is even more advice, and giveaways too!

It’s Friday again. How on earth did that happen? Before we get started, here’s Philip Pullman: “Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value.

There are a couple new-this-week interviews with me, one at Reading Awesome Books, and another over at CJ Redwine’s place, where I am interviewed by Captain Jack Sparrow. You can also enter to win a signed set of the first three Strange Angels books at CJ’s until Sunday.

It’s time for another in my ongoing series about writing combat scenes. So you’ve figured out why you want to beat the snot out of your characters, and you’ve got a grasp on the reason, stakes, and cost. Now it’s time to write the damn scene.

The bad news is, writing a combat scene is just like writing any other damn scene. It requires your ass in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. The not-so-bad news is that the key to combat scenes is revising; but in order to revise you must have a chunk of original text to tweak. The good news is that there are ways to make it easier, and if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve watched enough action movies to have some idea of how to visualize a good combat scene.

The usual disclaimers (every writer’s process is unique, some of this advice may not work for you, your mileage may vary, beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot) apply. Given that, here’s a few things that may help while you’re writing a combat scene.

* Research, research, research. I like research. Plus, it can save one from making embarrassing mistakes. Research can be: reading a forensic pathology study guide, or a guide on combat psychology and physiology; going to the range and taking some handgun classes to understand just what it feels and sounds like to fire a gun; swinging a dress-metal katana in your backyard as you work out a fight in your head; asking a hobbyist about their passion for stamps/kung fu/military history; interviewing a cop/firefighter/martial artist. Most people love to talk about themselves and their passions or their jobs. A writer can learn a lot by listening, and buying a few drinks. There’s also the Internet, which one can use as a research tool only if one applies a strenuous bullshit test to every piece of information found on it. You get the idea.

The danger with research is that you can mistake it for the actual work of writing. I’m a magpie for knowledge–my TBR stack is actually an overflowing bookcase, and I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting little facts and connections. I’ve fallen into the trap of getting so interested in a small research question for a book that I’ve lost a day or two to chasing down more and more about a subject, finally blinking and looking up and giving myself a good headsmack. Be open to serendipity, but give your research boundaries. And always, always, go about it safely. I do NOT recommend going out and getting into fights just to see if it’s true that they hurt. That’s stupid and dangerous. Please just take my word for it.

* Blocking. I found out about scene blocking in high school. I wasn’t in drama–I wasn’t pretty enough for the drama teacher to have as a protege–but I was an extra in a play or two, and the concept of blocking out a scene felt very natural to apply to combat scenes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out in the backyard (or in the field that used to be behind my house) swinging around a dress-metal katana or cracking a bullwhip at a pile of something, blocking out a fight in my head. Something about the physical movement gives the visual inside my skull pegs to hang on, and informs them with a great deal of immediacy for me.

If you are concerned about looking like an idiot while doing that, you’re just going to have to let go of that. I love ballet, but I had terrible anxiety in class until my teacher said, “Nobody is looking at you funny. Everyone else in here is worrying about their movements. I am watching, but even I can’t watch you all the time, and I’m watching you in order to teach you. So relax. Everyone else here is worrying about the size of their legs too.” By and large, nobody’s watching. If they are, well, you can just tell them you’re a writer.[1]

* Music. Music is a very integral part of my creative process. To get myself in the mood for a Kismet fight scene, for example, I would often listen to the Cure’s Wrong Number with my eyes closed, watching Jill clear a hellbreed hole. I play certain songs for certain scenes, and I spend a lot of my morning runs in what seems to be a trancelike state, the music accompanying scenes inside my head while my body’s occupied with running one mile after another.

* Sensory cues. Most fights are chaos. Tunnel vision happens when an average person gets adrenaline really going. These two things can make it difficult for a writer to tease out how to describe a combat scene. Blocking the scene out will help immeasurably, but once you have, get some detail on the page. Tell me how the blood tastes, that the punch to the gut huffed all your air out and brought your dinner up in an acid rush, that the sound of the damned screaming as bullets plowed through their unholy flesh was a chorus of glassine despair. Don’t worry that you’re giving too much–that’s what revision is for. Get as much sensory detail as you can into the fight scene so you can pick the best of it later. Here is where the ability to visualize is worth all the practice you can give it–and if you have trouble visualizing, find the sense you have the least trouble using. Some people are auditory writers, some are tactile; I’m very visual and olfactory. (Writing about death and decay sometimes makes me physically ill, since I smell what my characters do.)

Training yourself to go into a story like this strikes directly at the heart of what most of us are told when we’re kids–to stop daydreaming, to pay attention, to not space out. It’s a balance, like so much about this writing gig. Keen observation and paying attention are necessary (and they can’t hurt when you’re trying to cross a street or walking in a bad part of town); finding that little “click” and stepping into the hallucinatory space of daydreaming a story, that focused creative state, is necessary as well. You need both in order to do this well, so practice both; they will feed and inform each other in startling ways.

* Get in and get it done. I don’t leave the keyboard in the middle of a combat scene unless there’s an immediate physical emergency. Sex scenes, dramatic scenes, bridging scenes I can all walk away from, and sometimes I even let sex scenes marinate a couple days. (Again, YMMV.) But a combat scene depends on me sitting down, having it clear in my head, and getting out a chunk of text. Knowing the reason, stakes, and cost before I go into it helps.

These sessions are usually the ones that leave me soaked in sweat or shivering, adrenaline copper on my tongue and my body aching in sympathy for my hero/ine. These are also the scenes where the house could quite probably burn down around me and I might not notice unless I had to rescue children or cats. I am not quite deaf to the world during them, but it’s close. I like this, it’s one of the perks of writing as a career. But if I get up in the middle of it and go away, I lose steam and sometimes it’s hard to find the hook to get back into the fight. I get exhausted if I stop or slow down. (Or, God forbid, use the loo. Forget Kegels, writing combat scenes straight through is great practice for one’s perineum. Ah, the glamour of this career!) As an aside, this is related to my practice of not leaving the keyboard at the end of a scene or chapter. For some reason, I find it easier to regain momentum if I have even just a couple throwaway lines to begin the next chapter/scene before I walk away from the writing.

* Have fun. Fighting in real life is deadly serious. It is a last resort, not to be engaged in unless one or one’s loved one is in direct dire physical danger. But fighting in fiction is fun. Action movies are fun to watch. Writing a combat scene, especially one in which you can bend the laws of physics a little, is a blast. Yeah, there’s cost and stakes for your character, but you should be having a ball. Don’t forget Steven Brust‘s invaluable little sentence to tack up in your writing space: And now, I’m going to tell you something REALLY cool. You’re telling someone something really goddamn cool. Get into it. Have a ball, have a blast, have some fun. If you aren’t, it’ll be even more difficult for your reader to. You don’t ever want that.

Okay. So, those are things that help you squeeze out the zero draft of a combat scene. But your work isn’t finished yet. Not by a long shot. To really make a combat scene pop, there are specific ways to revise that lovely zero draft of that scene that made you go “ooooh!” We’ll go over those ways next week.

Class dismissed.

[1] I really think this saved me from getting arrested once. (Suffice to say I was blocking out a fight with a dress-metal katana and a cop noticed and bounced his car up into the field. Once I told him I wrote romance, he just laughed and told me to be careful.)

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