LESSON #16:

MIKE SHULTZ’S WRITING ADVICE


"BANISHING BATTLE BS"

or

"THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF FIGHT"




Even though these lessons are geared toward writers of fiction, including this one, I conceptualize this subject more in the context of TV and movies. That in mind, I have a word for any major Hollywood directors reading these Ten Commandments of Fight. If you come to realize that you've been doing it all wrong and you want to become a disciple of my teachings, please contact me. We will work out an agreeable arrangement for the transference of large sums of money into my bank account in exchange for the conversion of your annoying, unrealistic combats into battles so believable that they will transform the industry.

Thank you. Moving on...

Good fight scenes are a dying breed. Follow the Ten Commandments of Fight and you will raise them from the dead.


I. Thou Shalt Have Even a Black Belt Get Injured, Or Even Killed, When He or She Faces Three or More Foes Simultaneously, Especially Against Superior Arms.

Friends and neighbors, kicking three peoples' butts simultaneously is bullpucky. Imagine this: two angry middle school boys come after you with knives. You are unarmed. Are you scared? Yes? But wait, you're a black belt in karate! No worries!

Yeah, right!

Numbers are a tremendous advantage in combat. One grabs while the other stabs. You strike at one foe and expose yourself to the other. Keep in mind that most real unarmed combats turn into wrestling matches; once it goes to the ground, numbers matter even more. Pin one of your enemies and the other two beat you on the back of the head. And if your multiple opponents are reasonably trained, it's even harder. If you still need convincing, watch a movie fight scene of one against many. You'll see one of three things:

(1) Opponents who stand around doing nothing, despite obvious openings, while the hero attacks one or two foes.

(2) Close camera angles and quick cuts blocking your view of the other opponents to hide the sheer illogic of the scene.

(3) Kicks and hammer-blows that propel opponents backwards through the air by distances of ten feet or more to remove them from the fight (c.f. Commandment VII.)

All of the above are confessions of guilt. 'Nuf said.


II. Thou Shalt Have Injuries Suck. And Not Go Away in Five Minutes.

See Commandment I for one possible source of said injury.

Some stories get this right, but not many. I wish a stubbed toe upon all storytellers who have their characters shrug off injuries. After they hoot and holler and curse and hop around on one foot, let them tell me again that their heroes can shrug off an arrow through the thigh. Yes, I know what adrenaline is. I know that people can be crazy or taught to tolerate pain. But many protagonists aren't these things but still press on after terrible injuries with virtually no mention of that injury hampering their strength, speed, agility, sleep, etc. I'm not saying that your warrior has to whine and crawl into a ditch. I'm saying that her injury needs to suck. Limitations make for gripping stories and allow protagonists to overcome the odds. They will come out more heroic, not less, when they (gasp!) suffer the logical consequences of a serious injury.


III. Thou Shalt Not Be a Blockhead about Head Injuries.

This Commandment is broken so frequently that, while it could be part of the Second Commandment, it gets its own number. Single-punch knockouts are unlikely in the extreme. What makes it a truly criminal breach of even the most basic common sense is when our daring hero seems to rely on his ability to knock out the guard quietly with that single punch. As if that had been the plan all along--sneak up, smack him unconscious, and sneak into the building.

Yeah, right.

The follow-up to the single-punch knockout is knockouts that are shrugged off five minutes later with no symptoms. Ask a doctor: any loss of conscious, especially due to a blow to the head, is a serious medical situation. It's like the writer/director never heard of a concussion. Symptoms include dizziness, memory loss, confusion, inability to concentrate, and even long-term problems like insomnia, irritability, and depression. Oh, and possible brain damage and a chance of death. One irritatingly common use of the knockout punch is against a friend or neutral party of some sort that the protagonist doesn't want to seriously hurt. Uh... last time I checked, the symptoms listed above aren't the sort of thing you'd inflict on a friend.

P.S. Karate chops to the neck and Vulcan nerve pinches are also breaches of the Third Commandment.


IV. Thou Shalt Portray the Throwing of Weapons with at Least a Modicum of Realism

Thrown swords and knives don't often strike point first, and if they do they don't sink in to the hilt. Frisbeed circular saw blades don't decapitate or even sink half way in. Thrown forks and pencils bounce off.

But what about knives designed for throwing, you say in a tone that suggests a 'gotcha'. What about them? I bought some once when I was a teenager and tested them out in my friend's big backyard. They work, sometimes. It takes a lot of practice to throw accurately, have the point strike first, and throw hard enough to do serious damage. Throwing a knife across a room into someone's eye is about as likely as Robin Hood shooting an arrow through the rope his friend is about to hang on.

The final sin of the sword-throwing hordes is the seeming ignorance that there are weapons designed for effective throwing, but now I'm getting ahead of myself. See the Tenth Commandment.


V. Thou Shalt Not Portray Combat as an Orderly Trade of Solid Blows, Nor as so Chaotic that We're All Confused.

Ever see a real fistfight? How many clean, solid blows did the brawlers land? Ever watch mixed martial arts on TV? Even there, you don't see many blows that aren't at least partially blocked or dodged (and when there is one, it sometimes ends the fight.)

So some storytellers swing to the opposite extreme. In the name of 'realism', in the name of 'showing how chaotic real combat is', they portray it in such a way that the audience has no idea what is happening. Friends and neighbors, we're telling stories. We're deliberately making sense of things--more sense than is normally apparent in regular life. Readers who don't understand what's going on don't gape in amazement at your lucid portrayal of chaos; they scratch their heads and get bored. Would you show that your character is sleeping with a dozen blank pages or a string of zees? Would you depict a boring classroom by boring the reader?

Okay, then. Knock it off with the inexplicable action, and knock it off with the textbook punches. Oh, and movie directors--can we cut it out with the swooshing sounds that fists (don't really) make through the air and the sharp smacks that blows (don't really) make when they land (perfectly?)

Thanks.





BOTTOM LINE: Look at most paintings of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments to the Israelites and you'll see two stone tables: one numbered I-V (in Roman numerals, but we'll overlook that glitch), the other VI-X. Odds are they were both full copies, each containing 1-10. But in the tradition of copying other peoples' mistakes, like the myth about punching someone's nasal bones into their brain (bullpucky!)...


NEXT: Commandments VI-X.




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