Monday, January 30, 2006

Fight! Fight! Fight!



Yeah, Baby!
Some of the best battle scenes I've ever read have been written by women.
Some of the best one-on-one fight scenes too.
Go figure.
I get seriously annoyed when a confrontation is built and then happens off stage - when we are shifted from the anticipation of some good, raw violence and instead are treated to a fast forward of our hero/heroine dusting their hands/ mending their clothing/wiping blade/ prying open their crusted, swollen eyes sort of thing.
I pound my fists and holler and hoot,"Cheat! Sucker! Wimp! Sieve! You took a dive!"
Not really.
However, I do raise my eyebrows, elevate my nose and sniff in disdain.
Which is very odd, now that I think about it.
Don't think I've been in a violent physical confrontation in my life. Close, mind you.
Maybe because of those "Eyes of Death" my kids talk about.
A good thing, really. Might flick the berserker switch.
While I don't go so far as working out every feint, enfilade, company shift, leg lock or imbrocatta on a sand table or paper diagram, I do follow the action in some chortling detail.
And there's the aftermath. Some writers exchange battle order for a pres description and leave the main event to our imagination and general assumptions about battles and such.
Gawd help you if you neglect the smells, the scavengers, the guts and the flies though.
Unlike the small mano a mano dance, this substitute can be acceptable if major forces are engaged.
Too much loving and specific examination can make me wonder if the writer has issues though.
And I like it in either case when some tactical item is casually mentioned that justifies the result.
How do you read the customary mayhem? In detail with a cautious, critical, sanguine(!) eye? Or do you glide over it with a yeah, yeah, that's bloody, shudder?
Do you follow the punches, slashes and footwork to discover if the hero/ine has three legs, no pressure points and a concrete skull? Do you trust but verify?
How bloody minded are you?

39 comments:

Savannah Jordan said...

VERY bloody minded. :) I love the fight scenes!! Enemies enviscerated, holding their steaming entrails before they pitch headlong into death...

Hmmm... Maybe I got too much sleep last night??

Carla said...

I'm always more interested in why the fight is happening and what effect it has on the people involved than in the choreography.

For big battles, I tend to be more interested in tactics and strategy than in the who-disembowelled-whom-with-what details. For a duel or a skirmish between important characters that's a major event in the plot, I tend to like to have more of the details, partly because it gives the incident weight and partly because the way someone fights can say something about their character. If the big battle is acting as a backdrop and the focus is on some event that's important to a character (e.g. finding a personal enemy, avenging a friend, protecting a friend, gaining confidence as a warrior, being traumatised by the horror....) then I'd tend to skip generalised descriptions and focus on the character's personal experience.

I often skip through the battle scenes in Bernard Cornwell's books, even though he writes very good battle scenes, because I know Sharpe and Harper are going to survive and are going to slaughter a suitable number of the enemy. The scenes that do hold my attention are the ones that illustrate some tactical manoeuvre, like the infantry regiments retreating unscathed from cavalry at Salamanca by forming square ('Sharpe's Sword', I think) - having read that, I now feel I understand that tactic much better than when I read it in a military history.

If there's a big, complex story going on, big battle scenes tend to slow the pace for me, rather than speed it up. In her description of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, Colleen McCullough generally sets up the tactics and strategy and then fast-forwards to the aftermath and the next event in the story. Whereas Conn Iggulden, covering the same events, favours long Sharpe-style battle descriptions. In this sort of case I much prefer Colleen McCullough's approach.

I don't verify. If I notice an absurd continuity error (someone's sword breaks, then three lines later they're using it again) it goes on the debit side; if I'm involved in the story I don't mind, if I'm already getting bored or confused then it gives me another reason to skip to the end of the scene. The only place I consciously check continuity is in my own writing.

I also find battle/fight scenes get a bit repetitive after a while. I generally prefer books that use them sparingly, otherwise they start to lose impact for me.

This only applies to me, and I think I might be in a smaller minority than usual. A lot of Bernard Cornwell's and Simon Scarrow's fans obviously love the battle scenes as the highlight of the book.

Sela Carsen said...

One of the best fight scenes I've ever read is in Mercedes Lackey's EXILE'S VALOR. Absolutely amazing. But I think the battle scenes in the Sharpe books are only so-so, probably because they're in every book.

Bernita said...

Visualization works for you, I take it, Savannah.

Excellent, excellent, Carla! You got to the meat of what I in my enfeebled way was trying to outline- the factors that are involved in assessing and/or describing fight scenes.
Panoramic battles have their place, especially when "national character" is also a themed character in the conflict (I tend to think of certain thematic elements such as murder or nationalism as amorphous characters,) but like descriptions in erotica, physical conflict should reveal, expand and promote elements of character, the why and the what-next, not just the physical how.

Bernita said...

Indeed, Sela, Lackey does it very well - one of the reasons I like her stuff.

Tsavo Leone said...

My first question would have to be: does the story need the fight/battle scene describing? If so, how much detail is warranted?

Whilst reading this post I did wonder if I myself was guilty of "here's the build-up... here's the build-up... oops, you blinked, it's all over..." with a recent post of my own. Hindsight says "No", based on my opening statement. However, were the story to be presented cinematically then I would expect a full on 'Gladiator' opening...

Writing an interesting fight scene isn't particularly easy in my opinion. My main WiP has plenty of them due to the nature of the tale I am telling: however, I sat myself down and wrote what I considered to be the hardest fight(s) within the narrative first (the protag' faces eight combatants one after another) just to prove to myself that it was possible. Based on what I've been told to date I seem to have pulled it off, and there's nothing jarring about them in terms of narrative style and structure. Indeed, the only complaint so far has been that the fights are too short!

As I recall, fight club doesn't actually go in to too much detail about any of the fights...

As for pitched battles... well, having never read any attempts at describing them (Any suggestions people? I'm in the market for something akin to the battle scenes shown in Highlander or The Mummy Returns...) I would have to say that my opening statement stands. As Carla points out, a pitched battle halfway through a Sharpe novel isn't really going to achieve much, since the reader already knows that Sharpe must survive as there's still 'x' amount of book to go.

As to why it appears that women write better fights/battles than men? Probably because of the way human brains are wired. Without wishing to cause any arguments, men and women think differently, and this reflects in how they go about things in general...

Either that or they're all plainly just as blood-thirsty as Savannah.

Bernita said...

Hey, I didn't mean to suggest that women are the best at writing battle scenes or individual fights - just that they seem to be just at good.

Dennie McDonald said...

As someone who watches hockey games for the fights (yes I truly do) I read every word - I will gloss over every description in a book but re-read the fight/battle scenes - hmm. . . what does that say about me?!?!

Bernita said...

One thing it says, Dennie, is that we're alike there.

Carla said...

Tsavo - Bernard Cornwell is very good at writing pitched battles. Any of the 'Sharpe' books will have at least one - 'Sharpe's Sword' does Salamanca and I think is one of the best for a pitched battle description. Usually the big battle comes near the end of the book (often it occupies most of the last quarter or so). If you want something pre-gunpowder, then 'The Last Kingdom' ends with a big shield-wall infantry fight against the Danes, and I think 'The Pale Horseman' ends with the (similar but bigger) battle of Edington. In 'Excalibur' he does King Arthur's battle of Badon Hill (cavalry vs infantry). I don't know which of these would be most akin to Highlander or The Mummy Returns, having never seen either.

As I said, I often skim the battle scenes, but that's me; it doesn't stop them being well-written. For a lot of people the battle scenes are the whole point of his books.
Conn Iggulden's (mis-named) 'Emperor' series is also big on pitched battles (Roman legions versus assorted barbarians, mostly), as is Simon Scarrow's 'Eagle' series (Roman legions versus Britons, mostly), but I'd say neither is quite up to Cornwell's standard.

Edith Pargeter's 'A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury' has a superb description of the pitched battle between Henry IV and Hotspur (14th century). It's quite different from Cornwell's style; less in the way of spilled guts and more panoramic. Also, Sharon Penman does the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury (Wars of the Roses, about 1470) in a similar panoramic style in 'The Sunne in Splendour'. Both of these were more to my taste than Cornwell's battles, I think because they were part of a story rather than an end in themselves.

Hope this is useful.

Erik Ivan James said...

Depends on my personal mood at that moment. If I'm pissed about something else, I'll probably read blow-for-blow. If my mood is good, I'll skip to the next event. Same with sex scenes. If I'm horny, I'll read push-for-push, so to speak. If not, I skip those scenes too.

Rick said...

Hack & hew versus strategy & tactics - an awful lot depends on the character. An ordinary grunt is not going to see the whole battle; only maybe some fighting in the distance, before or after he is very busy keeping his ass alive.

Even generals, in those days, often ended up in the thick of it - they could set up their battle plan in advance, but then just had to hope that it would play out as intended.


But something else that I have been thinking about lately is attitudes toward battle and war. Premodern warriors, I believe, often regarded war as something akin to an Xtreme sport. This doesn't mean they didn't feel gut-clenching - or bowel-loosing - fear in battle, but I imagine skydivers have to suck in some pretty primal fear to jump out the airplane door.

The difference in attitudes comes from both sides of the equation: Ordinary civilian life was far more dangerous than today, while a soldier was not usually in constant danger. There were no Improvised Explosive Devices hidden by the roadside. Yes there was the occasional ambush, but on the whole, you knew in advance when you'd be facing danger, and that in a few hours it would be over, and you'd be either alive or dead.

Which leads to two further challenges: portraying characters who have a very alien attitude toward war, and making them seem human to the modern audience.

Carla said...

Rick - Have you read 'The Face of Battle' by John Keegan? The issue you raise is the focus of the book. He's a British military historian who teaches at Sandhurst, and he clearly knows his stuff.

Bernita said...

That implies that you are impervious to the writer's skill that might draw you into the narrative, Erik.Very objective. Or subject to headaches...

Interesting comments, Rick.
Believe I read somewhere that the survival rate for soldiers in modern conflict was much higher than civilians.
I suspect the problem about alien attitudes faces the writer in a modern setting as well, seeing that there is a fatuous mind-set that considers any soldier an automatic blood-lusting war-monger, bereft of humanity. And stupid,I might add.
In any age, I think there were many men-at-arms who considered war a job, a duty and should not bear the stigma of war-lover.
On the other hand, have met veterans to whom conflict was the most exciting high of their lives, the moment of truth and challenge, and forever after sought that adrenalin edge.
I'm particularly interested, naturally, in making "real" the psychology of a female civilian thrust into a physical conflict situation.

Rick said...

Carla - yes, I've read the Keegan book; I should probably pull it out and re-read.

Bernita - I should clarify: you're right that soldiers today are safer than civilians in war zones, but I'm contrasting (for contemporary Western troops at any rate) the difference between peacetime civilian conditions - where, for most of us, untimely death is rather rare - and the constant low-level danger of wartime.

Of course, more soldiers died of dysentery (sp?), etc., than ever died in battle.

And it is true that even modern veterans often do look back on the war as a peak experience in their lives.

Damie not only finds herself thrust into combat situations, but ones entirely different from anything she's seen on the news or even really imagined. Not just the obvious difference of technology, but - I would imagine - the personal scale even of the politics, the enemy the guy from the next valley or whatever.

M. G. Tarquini said...

When I read, I skip battle scenes as often as I skip sex scenes, both for the same reason, so few are written well. That said, anybody writing a war novel who leaves out the battle scenes is cheating. Authors who cheat are obvious. I don't waste my time with them.

I don't need to read sex scenes to know a couple went at it. I only want to read it if it truly contributes to the story. If it doesn't, I'm angry the author has wasted my time.

Prime annoyance with battle scenes: Having everything suddenly go omniscient in a work that's been first person present up until that point.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm very bloody minded.

It comes with the genre.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I'm like Savannah, Dennie and Bernita....yea...good company. I love to read blow by blow especially if it is well written. I like to see the scene in my head.

Women are better at writing this kind of scene because we are more detail oriented than men!

Tsavo Leone said...

Bonnie: you said what I didn't dare for fear of evisceration! I've often wondered if it might also have something to do with the dormant Amazon or Valkyrie genes...

The issue of soldiers came up over on Ali's blog (albeit in passing) a few days ago, in relation to a documentary she had seen. Like everything else, one can over-simplify a soldier's reason for being: career soldier, out for glory, conscript, not qualified for anything else... The fact of the matter is that throughout history there have been some men (and women no doubt) who excelled at the art of killing on the battlefield, and a great many more who were simply destined to fall to their sword.

"... and though he stood knee deep in the dead, he did not think it too many..."

Savannah Jordan said...

*pokes Tsavo's post* I'm not bloodthirsty... Just very visually minded when it comes to viloence.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Rick. The difficulty as I see it is insuring that her ability to make an almost instaneous decision either consciously or instinctively has been given sufficient basis.

Well put, Mindy.The action must both follow and lead the plot.

And add Sandra to our bloody crew, Bonnie.

Be very afraid, Tsavo, we're swan maidens deluxe. Seriously, your writing does not lack the telling detail. I think eyes are non-gendered and some writers have the mental attitude that allows them to visualize bloody mayhem better than others.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yea, but that gene is predominate in woman. Just look at the real world, most of the time men are willing to forgive and forget....heheheh

Let's put it this way....If you love him, let him go. If he doesn't come back....hunt him down and shoot him...LOL...ROFLMAO!!!

Bernita said...

Men forgiving and forgetting might relate to a different standard of justice...and you're relating this standard to their lack of attention to detail...so...the devil is in the details?

Sandra Ruttan said...

"I think eyes are non-gendered and some writers have the mental attitude that allows them to visualize bloody mayhem better than others."

Oh, well said Bernita. For with blow by blow, Simon Kernick must be my favourite. (Thank goodness this isn't my blog, or that would be twisted to mean something else!) The man can write action in a way that has me right there. But then Val McDermid can do the twisted-murder-mayhem side of it superbly.

There can be differences on what men and women pick up on, obviously. But essentially, both are capable of putting it down on the page. In part it depends on what kind of writer you are. I mean that as in introspective versus action-based. In many ways, action is harder, because you have to be able to visualize all the nuances of the movement and project the realistic outcome of certain actions.

I've heard it said that women do tend to be more graphic. That's a topic for debate, surely. But when I attended Harrogate Crime Festival last summer in the UK (the UK's largest mystery writing event) the panel on sex and violence included Simon Kernick, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Natasha Cooper, and there was discussion about that. When asked the question "what writer do you think went too far?" the two female panelists named other women.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, and to clarify, the men named nobody. But Simon had already been soundly chastised for his powertools scene, so maybe he wanted to avoid stepping in it. And Mark...well, you can't take everything he says seriously. He is a stand-up comic, after all.

Dennie McDonald said...

OMG - Bonnie! hahahahaha

ask a guy what color eyes you have and you'll be lucky if he's in the ballpark of a general green brown or blue; ask a woman and she will name the main color and descibe in detail the way the other three colors enhance it all.

ask a man what a woman weighs and he will say fat or thin; ask a women and she can tell you to the pound, where you carry the weight the most and what to wear to disguise it -

details, details, details

s'all I'm saying

Bernita said...

Thank you, Sandra.
The amount one inserts ( oh dear) depends entirely on the writer's purpose, but the chosen details better not be wishy-washy or prissy vague. Likewise the movements in an action sequence better be logical. I tend to walk myself through the action over and over, and still worry.
And then worry some fastidious type is going to say "Ewweeew!" and I'm not even that viseral.

Bernita said...

Dennie, I understood that a man is likely to say instead, "Which woman? You mean the one with the tits?"

Tsavo Leone said...

Should any of you be in the mood for something suitably black-humoured I strongly recommend "Sleepy Head" by Mark Billingham (thanks for reminding me of him Sandra). I read that en route to the UFC's sole UK card and couldn't put it down. Billingham may be a comedian but he also puts together a 'reet rivetting read' as they (might) say in Harrogate...

Yes, I know it's off-topic, but...

Tsavo Leone said...

Also, I disagree with Bonnie about men doing the whole 'forgive and forget' thing. I recently took an ex-girlfriend out... and was pleasantly surprised that it only required one bullet.

On that note I'd also like to point out that the quickest way to any person's heart is usually via the sternum...

Sometimes the implied action is a much better writing tool than describing the action.

Bernita said...

I prefer just under the sternum myself...no need to scrape the knuckles.

Tsavo Leone said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
M. C. Pearson said...

I didn't skip the fight scenes in my book, fear not!

Oh, a good bloddy but Christian book is Comes A Horseman by Robert Liparulo. Yikes, there is even beheading in it and lots of blood. I loved it.

Glad you liked my funny e-mail...I've had it for about ten years...tucked away, waiting.

Gabriele C. said...

I'm very bloodthirsty. I love to read a good battle scene (and yes, Cornwell does especially fine ones), and I like to write them, too. A battle/fight at the right place can do a lot towards characterization.

Ric said...

Thrusting, taking out, inserting,

Now I know why I read this on a regular basis.

what was the topic again?

Bernita said...

It was hilarious, M.C.!

Yes, we know, Ric...engines, fast food and ..er... slot machines, all you ever think about.

Gabriele C. said...

If you like gory outside the battle context, try Tamara Siler Jones' books. She's very good at gory - sort of Forensic murder mysteries in a Fantasy setting.

Ghosts in the Snow
Threads of Malice

Bernita said...

And Gabriele's stuff isn't written squeamish either.

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