by Carolyn Haley
I edit a lot of genre novels, and many of them include funny fighting. Not the ha-ha kind of funny, but the eye-rolling, groaning kind of funny caused by absurd or impossible situations. I believe some authors create such scenes because they have lived secure, nonviolent lives, and gained their impressions of battle from media. Young writers, in particular, are prone to composing fight and chase scenes that come across like video games. But young or old, many authors’ combat scenes show either a lack of direct experience or a failure to do research. As a result, the ordinary heroes they strive so hard to make human and believable suddenly become idiots or superheroes when faced with violence.
Editors sometimes allow fighting bloopers to pass unchallenged because they, too, have led secure, nonviolent lives. Editing is a desk job, and the types of people drawn to it generally are neither fighters nor athletes, nor come from mean streets. An inaccurate fight scene may make just as much sense to the editor as the novelist. Which is fine in one context but a problem in another, because savvy readers will spot the bloopers and lose faith in the author.
The difference between a context that works and one that doesn’t is nicely defined in a reference book I recently discovered, Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall, a volume in this author’s Writer’s Craft technique series. She calls one context the “gritty fight scene” (realism and brevity required) and the other context the “entertaining fight scene” (realism and brevity optional). Understanding the difference is key to determining whether a scene involving violent action is plausible.
Writing Fight Scenes is the most helpful resource I’ve found for both writing and editing fight scenes. It covers not only the gritty-vs.-entertaining distinction, but also ancient and contemporary weapons (including magical ones); unarmed combat and self-defense; how to use settings in fights; individual and group combat; nautical and land battles; differences in technique and advantages between men and women; fighting with and like animals (including fantasy beasts); and psychological barriers to successful fighting. For each topic the author includes “Blunders to Avoid” and provides video and website links for more information and illustration.
The book also includes tips on story and fight pacing, and vocabulary to use for best effect in different scenarios. It comes in both ebook and paperback format. I recommend it to all authors and editors working in adventure fiction.
In the absence of such a handy reference work, and any personal experience in combat, editors can still spot implausibilities in client manuscripts. They just have to know the basics.
The Big Three
The problem areas I see most often in fight scenes pertain to weapons in general and firearms in particular; the next most often seen problem areas are implausible character actions and reactions.
The basics of gunfighting involve weapon and ammo types, handling characteristics, and sounds. Authors who have experience with firearms usually get their facts right, and editors just have to spot-check a few to confirm, then verify exact spellings of makes and models throughout the manuscript. Authors with no firearms experience, however, tend to just say “a gun,” sometimes specifying handgun, rifle, shotgun, or machine gun, but often not knowing, say, that revolver and pistol aren’t synonyms. (A revolver is a type of pistol, but not all pistols are revolvers.)
The type of gun and its ammunition can profoundly affect the veracity of a story. A popular fight outcome is the shoulder wound, where a bullet passes cleanly through the narrow bit of flesh in that joint and the hero keeps on swinging. While this is possible, it’s extremely unlikely for anyone to be that lucky. Most bullets would damage or destroy the joint and drop the hero like a stone, or at least put him out of action. Any gunshot wound is likely to cause shock. More often than not, a gunshot wound means an ambulance ride.
Then again, adrenaline — the amazing chemical that allows humans to perform extreme physical feats — lets people live through their injuries to win the day, then collapse later. The same is true for certain drugs. So fictional fight scenes can get dramatic and remain within the realm of believability. But to get there, the author must lay the foundation prior to the fight scene and be accurate with the details of weapons and human physiology.
An often overlooked detail is the noise guns produce when fired. In general, small-caliber weapons make cracking or popping sounds, and large-caliber weapons make bangs and booms. All firearms are LOUD. People who practice at shooting ranges wear ear protection for good reason; and people within blocks or miles will likely hear the firing. Shootouts can’t occur without drawing attention unless the shooters are way out in the boondocks or employing silencers, so editors must watch for gun battles that occur in a vacuum. They must also be aware that certain powers of ammunition will cut through barriers of different material, and others will ricochet around in a closed environment, creating new dangers. Unimpeded bullets can travel long distances and hit unintended targets.
Every action involving a firearm has consequences on several levels. Characters can’t just whip out a weapon and fire it without the author accounting for where it came from. Save for very compact personal-protection weapons designed for concealed carry, or very high-tech weapons made of ultralightweight materials, firearms are bulky and heavy. Handguns without proper holsters make clothing bulge or sag, and can turn purses into shoulder-straining totes. Among inexperienced shooters, firing handguns can fatigue or strain wrists and bruise palms with recoil. Rifles and shotguns are renowned for their kick, and can’t be concealed without special clothing or carriers. Any weapon needs to be reloaded if the gunfight goes on for a while, so authors must remember to provide their characters with ammunition.
Authors also need to account for weapons during and after a fight scene. For instance, hot barrels on handguns that are slipped back inside clothing can cause new problems. Dropped long guns can change a fight outcome by getting tripped on underfoot. One thing a weapon cannot do is disappear from the scene, unless magic is involved. Too often I see weapons arrive and depart at author convenience to enhance drama. Equally often I see amateur shooters hit moving targets. This is acceptable if there’s any backstory that explains where the character got training and practice. Without that background, however, there’s almost no chance it would happen in real life.
It’s common in manuscripts containing inaccurate fighting details to also have the hero and villain chatter during their battle(s). I call this “honor fighting” because it’s more about the characters’ psychological battle than actually taking the other guy out. When in reality combatants would have no breath for conversation, in honor fighting they bait and insult each other, explain their motives, reveal their secrets…meanwhile giving so much time for henchmen to ambush the other party while distracted, and so much opportunity for any form of power reversal, that the encounter becomes silly. This is where Hall’s “gritty” versus “entertaining” distinction especially pertains. Honor fighting has no place in a gritty story, which is why otherwise compelling tales may move readers to groans or laughter during climax battles.
A story centered on a character desperately trying to stop someone from wrecking their life turns unbelievable when they ignore a golden chance to stop them; worse when they ignore multiple chances. Logic says that if you fear someone and they’re trying to kill you, you do everything you can to stop them before they can get you. When characters fail to do this, they need darn good reasons. Editors need to ensure the author has supported such action or inaction in the story leading up to it.
A subset of honor fighting is incomplete disabling of henchmen. In so many stories that it’s become cliché, heroes fight their way through a screen of hardened bad guys on their way to the target villain, knocking them down and moving on. Then they are surprised when some or all of the bad guys bounce back to menace them again. I suppose the author is trying to demonstrate the hero’s humaneness by having him not kill people unnecessarily. And when urgency counts, there’s no time to truss everyone up, and usually no materials. So why doesn’t the hero at least give a second blow to ensure prolonged unconsciousness, or kick out a knee, or something to guarantee he won’t suffer a rear attack? In a story attempting to be realistic, this warrants a query.
Who among us has not sliced their finger with a kitchen knife or bonked their head against a door, or barked their shin on a coffee table, or slipped on the stairs? Each of those impacts gives hard pain at the time and lingering pain afterward, and generates bruises or blood. Sometimes simple domestic accidents cause injuries that require a trip to the emergency room.
From that knowledge, an editor can extrapolate the effects of getting slammed in the face with a two-by-four piece of lumber swung by a 250-pound man, or even a 99-pound weakling in a berserker rage. How credible is it that an ordinary person would rebound and chase the villain after that kind of hit? More likely, one would be spitting out teeth if one managed to stand up at all. A fictional character who doesn’t get similarly affected must have backstory provided to account for his ability to stay in action after a mighty blow. This pertains equally to being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, thrown, and falling from a height.
Framing Fights Credibly
Violence is ugly and painful. If it’s part of a gritty story, it has to reflect reality. If it’s part of an entertaining story, realism can be bent or ignored. Authors unwilling to do their homework might be able to fool equally uneducated editors and readers, but the world is a harsh enough place that a substantial audience knows how violence works and can see through author fudging. Readers’ possible rejection of the story, and maybe even public panning of it, counterserves the purpose of having a book edited and published. Editors can do their part in preventing negative reaction to a novel by informing themselves of the basics and paying special attention to the technicalities and choreography of fight scenes.
Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at email@example.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.