Tips for Writing Combat: Where Do You Focus?

Here’s Part 4 of my VirtualBalticon panel notes.

Even veterans and long-time practitioners can have problems writing fights that are both compelling and realistic; how is someone new supposed to keep up? We’ll discuss getting experience with the weapons you’re writing about, how to handle pacing in brawls, skirmishes, and battles, and how to keep the tension high when your protagonists have to survive.

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: James Mendez Hodes (as moderator), Jeanne Adams, Ken Schrader, and Ryan Van Loan.

Ways to decide which details to focus on

Who is the character?

  • A new fighter
    • Focuses on scary things: the knife, the big guy, the gun
    • Is surprised by combat: how much their hand hurts after throwing a punch, how loud the gunshot is, the feel of the other person’s gut
  • A trained fighter
    • Notices small details
    • Can analyze their opponent, at least, before they get into things
    • Sometimes, time kinda slows for them

What type of scene are you showing?

  • In Hollywood:
    • Every move works (for the main character), every punch hits, every dodge works. Unless the plot needs it not to.
  • In real life
    • People don’t move as expected, and you’re mostly left just trying to react as the situation keeps changing

What’s the character’s flaw?

  • When the character is in combat, they’re usually dealing with a weakness
    • Are they in the fight because they won’t back down or have to instigate?
    • Is the weakness going to cause them to lose?
    • Do they overcome their weakness to win the fight?

What is the scene’s purpose?

The scene needs to either:

  • reveal something new about the character
  • move the plot forward
  • raise the stakes

The best scenes do all of these things.

[Note from other panels: Don’t have the bad-guy hurting babies/women just to show they’re bad. It’s cliche, overdone, and could be done far more subtly, with just as much impact.]

Tips for Writing Combat

  1. Use visceral details
    • You can keeping them to what the main
      character is feeling, they don’t even need to be graphic, just their physical/emotional reactions to the fight
    • Focus on the sensory details
      • Emotions – anger, fear, panic
      • Smells and Sounds
      • Feelings – texture, pain, loss of sensation
  2. Walk it through
    • Sit down with a friend/family member to make sure it tracks or just plain act it out.
  3. Make sure they’re hurting after the fight
    • If you get in a hand-to-hand fight, you’re going to be hurting the next day. You’re going to be tired after 30 seconds, exhausted after 3 minutes, and your adrenaline is gonna crash hard when you’re safe.
    • Note: The Indiana jones movie got a shout out for actually SHOWING him bruised and battered after a fist fight.
  4. Being in the military doesn’t make you an expert at every fighting style
    • Basic is more intro to what you will have to train
    • Most military is only taught some hand-to-hand basics, the rest is personal choice.
  5. Fighters have limits — especially during war
    • To paraphrase Ryan Van Loan, “Everyone has a cup, and if it overflows, you break. If someone can help or give you a break, you can recover.
    • In other words, this is why we give soldiers respite, why we rotate them off the front lines. And why so many have trouble transferring back to civilian life.

Researching and Writing What You Don’t Know

I write fantasy, so I’m not a proponent of ‘write what you know.’ But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research.

War (throughout the ages) in media:

  • Restrepo – an Iraqi war documentary
  • Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War – by Karl Marlantes
    • An in-depth look at what it’s like to go to war
  • The History Channel – some of their stuff
  • Legion Versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World – by Myke Cole
  • Shadiversary on Youtube
  • “‘We Have Always Fought‘: Challenging the ‘WomenCattle and Slaves‘ Narrative” – essay by Kameron Hurley

Other Ways To Research Fight Scenes

  • Beta-readers
  • Ask people who fight in the style you’re writing
  • Read fight scenes — study the pacing

Some of the panelists favorite books for fight scenes

  • Dune – by Frank Herbert, especially the ending
  • Wheel of Time: The Dragon Reborn – by Robert Jordan

Remember, when writing combat, it’s not about the guts and glory, it’s about the story and the characters.

Any tips or tricks you like to use? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

Logistics and Tactics: Writing Campaigns

Most writers end up writing fight scenes — be they verbal or physical. But some writers, especially if they’re writing historical novels, epic fantasy, or military fiction are going to be in the fight for the long haul. They’re going to writing a Military Campaign.

At Balticon 53, Eric Hardenbrook, Kim Headlee, John Appel, Mike McPhail, and Charles Gannon sat down to talk about the tricks to handling a campaign.

First off? A battle might be won by numbers or technology, but a campaign is run on logistics and tactics.

What Are Logistics?

Logistics are a way of providing whatever the soldier needs.

Be it physical things like beans, bullets, or boards. Or things like transportation, pay, and sleep.

Whatever it is that a soldier needs to do their job well, it’s up to the support staff to provide it. And? Logistics inform the tactics, just as much as terrain and enemy movement.

5 Ways To Portray The Effect Of Logistics When Writing

This is clearly not a comprehensive list, the panel wasn’t long enough for that. But here are some good concepts to consider when incorporating logistics into your writing.

  1. Living off the land. This is a traditional thing for armies to do. It sounds so hippy-dippy, maybe some hunting and trading. But, in reality? It was mostly stealing from farmers and merchants. Plus, plundering whatever cities and towns they conquered.
  2. Account for travel time. Horses need rest, rivers flow in one direction and oceans have tides. Mis-information can have you take 1 day to travel in the wrong direction, and 3 days to travel back. Plus? You still need to feed your army (and any animals or gas/etc your tanks/trucks)
  3. Scavenging. Just because something is broken beyond repair doesn’t mean it doesn’t have useful parts.
  4. Pay attention to carry weight.
    • With historical inspired writing, armour and gear can weigh a lot.As you get more modern, the gear and protection keep getting lighter — so we keep adding more stuff to keep our troops safer. And more trucks of supplies and gadgets.In modern/futuristic setting, you might just think you can print out what you need on demand. Just know that real-life 3d printers are SLOW. And you still have to carry the component materials.
  5. In The Field. When not in outright battle, securing parameters, calming citizens in your occupied territory, etc — all these things are going to require actual people, on their feet, face-to-face with hopefully non-violent citizens, often mixed with enemies in disguise. No matter how high tech you get, there’s probably going to be people involved on the front lines. Unless you annihilate everything.

Writing Campaigns Versus Battles, 7 Things To Think About.

Once again, this is just a list of suggestions. Things that come up during campaigns that show up less during a battle. There are millions of differences, but here are a few.

  1. Logistics matter. A lot.
  2. Soldiering has a lot of down time. What sort of mischief do the soldiers get into in their off time?
  3. There are more support personnel than front line fighters.
  4. What to do with the ‘problem soldiers’, that haven’t gotten themselves kicked out yet.
    • Great thing to do – if you’re a writer – give them a mission. You either get the mission accomplished, or you’ve got fewer mouths to feed.
  5. The modern Command and Control Center isn’t some guy standing there barking orders (typically). It’s more like 20 people staring at different screens with information coming in, and the guy ‘in charge’ standing around going “hmmmm…” and hopefully listening to his subject matter experts.
  6. Orders aren’t barked out last minute. Any halfway competent military is going to have multiple plans, and contingency plans. When it’s go time? The order’s more like: We’re good to go for Plan B, modification 3.
  7. Reverse engineering. Romans were huge into this! It’s been around for a while. Don’t assume just because one army has the technical advantage that they’re going to keep it for long.
    • In fantasy, if you’ve got magic with verbal and physical components, people are going to be spying.
    • My thought? Add some extra things, and hide some of the real requirements to throw them off!

A Few Closing Thoughts on War

Friendly fire. Is it?
Military intelligence. Is it?
Just-in-time supplies. Are they?

“War is entropy, not order.”

“If you would have peace, prepare for war”

Have you written any campaigns? Any tips that our panelists ran out of time to mention?

Thank you for tuning in, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips from my over-24-hours-of-Balticon53-programming to share!

Injury Mechanics: A Brief History of Hurting People

Injury Mechanics: A Brief History of Hurting People #WorldCon75

I knew most of this information about weapons and injuries, but the presenters of this panel laid it out in such a useful way for a writer. If they use this weapon, these injury choices. So, this is my follow on to Thursday’s Writing Fight Scenes That Work.

Common Injury Reactions

When a body is injured, there are four things that commonly happen.

  • lose their guts (vomit)
  • bleeding
  • shock (from blood loss or emotionally shook)

Causes of Death

At the most basic, there are three things that cause a body to stop.

  • Brain damage
  • Low blood pressure (blood loss)
  • Heart Stop

Realistic Capabilities of First Aid

  • Prevent infection
  • Clean/Stitch wound (cuts/punctures)
  • Modern – CPR/fluids/Heimlich maneuver

Combat Types and Injuries

4 Types of Close Combat Damage and the Injuries They Incur

  1. Slashing (Cutting to the heart of the matter)
    • Main damage to unarmored areas
    • Blood loss can incapacitate or kill without treatment
    • Flesh and muscle injuries are recoverable if the organs are intact
  2. Stabbing
    • Potentially immediately deadly, especially in the liver
    • Can cause internal bleeding
    • Weapon can get stuck
    • Can bypass armour
  3. Clubbing
    • Main damage is bruising and losing combat effectiveness.
    • Concussions, maybe fractures and internal bleeding
    • If a clot breaks free, someone who seems okay can seem to randomly die even 2-3 days later.
  4. Wrestling (Twisting people to your will)
    • Most basic type of fighting
    • Breaking joints is easier than snapping bones
    • Joint injuries are harder to recover
    • Armor both protects and hinders

In large scale battles, training matters. Studies show untrained armies had large numbers of people hit in the back, head, or off-hand. If you lose, they’ll kill you. If you run, those behind you don’t know you’re from their side, they just see a warrior running at them…

Fun fact: When using a shield, the back leg won’t be hit as much.

Modern Ranged Combat

Otherwise known as poking holes in people from far away. In 50 percent of gun fights, 1 hit ends the fight.

  • Most people hit once with a pistol will walk away
  • Most people hit once with a rifle or shotgun are incapacitated.

Why are they so deadly?

  • Bloodloss
  • Damage to nervous system
  • Organ damage
  • Longer term
    • Infection
    • Internal bleeding
    • lead poisoning

Note: If you hit bone, the bouncing of the bullet makes exponentially more damage

Other Types of Modern Weapons

  1. Napalm
    • The flames aren’t what kills you, it’s the carbon monoxide poisoning
    • Most common are burn injuries
    • Loss of combat effectiveness, you drop immediately
    • The burn probably won’t kill you unless it’s a massive lethal shock
      • But infection is very, very easy
      • Fun fact: New skin often grows back with no sweat-glands so it’s easy to overheat
  2. Mustard Gas/Tear Gas, Venomous Agent X, Radiation
    • Effects internal organs, sometimes immediately, sometimes letting you live long enough to develop cancers. Depends on amount.
  3. Tasers/Electrical weapons
    • super bad for heart conditions
    • scars along nerve lines
  4. Plasma
    • both heat and electrical damage
  5. Lasers
    • burn damage

And, one of the old standbys:

  • Gravitational damage
    • Shoving someone off a cliff/out a window
    • Blunt force, similar to clubbing. Think about how they land

(These notes are from the titular panel at WorldCon 75. The panelists were Asko “Mostly Harmless” Metsäpelo, Ikka “Warlord” Niemi, and Kim Hokkanen.)

Vlog: Writing Fight Scenes That Work

Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Bear,&Sebastien de Castell discussed how to Write Fight Scenes That Work at #worldcon75. Here are my notes.

Writing Fight Scenes That Work

“Point of View solves everything.” – Elizabeth Bear

These notes are from the titular panel at WorldCon 75. The panelists were Elizabeth Bear, Jack Campbell, Sebastien de Castell, I. Simes-moderator)

How To Start A Fight (in a story)

By establishing what each opponent could gain or lose, we establish the stakes and make the reader care about the fight. Preferably by giving the reader a favorite, someone they want to win and someone they actively want to lose. – Jack Cambell

Fighting starts with two or more people with diametrically opposed goals. The fight is typically triggered by a change or ramp-up of the time line or a ticking clock’s time running short. One of the best fight scenes in writing is from Watership Down, in which Bigwig faces General Warren to save the baby bunnies. – Elizabeth Bear

Making the readers care and the stakes high isn’t about scale, it’s about the characters and the consequences. – Jack Campbell

In real life? Whoever is willing to risk more usually wins. In a bar fight, if one person isn’t afraid to go to the ER and the other is, the one who is unafraid is going to fight far more aggressively. – Sebastien de Castell

In The Princess Bride, the most important part of the sword clash on the Cliffs of Insanity wasn’t the fight itself, it was the introduction of Inigo and Wesley before the fight, establishing their rapport, and the fact that, had circumstances been anything other than they were, these two should have been friends. – Sebastien de Castell

Rules of Fighting (are they breakable?)

In stories, the cliche is for the honorable hero to pause and kick the sword back to their worthy opponent. What rules are necessary to the fight and which ones just seem unlikely?

Physics! (of course) is unbreakable in most settings. But if you change the expected rules of the fight, there need to be consequences. Just remember who the characters are informs their expectations. When two people agree to a no-rules fight, that means something different to a street girl than to a noble.  – Jack Campbell

There are expectations. – Elizabeth Bear

  • With the rules of war, in the modern day, we have expectations for the treatment of prisoners of war and avoiding civilian casualties.
  • In bar fights – eye gouging is not expected. If it starts off a fist fight, weapons are not expected.
  • In a fight for dominance – in a story, you usually end up with some sort of adventuring group deciding who’s in charge. It’s part of their ‘cute meet’ story.
  • In a fight for survival – there are no rules.

Fights need to follow the rules of motivation! – Sebastien de Castell

Remember the period you’re in and the expectations of that time and place.

  • Classically, most duels were not fought to the death.
    • It was easier to run or burn down your enemy’s house.
    • Also, duelists to first-blood were known to dip their blades in dog shit and hope the wound will go septic.
  • The story of David and Goliath is not what modern westerners think it was. Slings were well-respected battle weapons for shorter ranges.
  • There is only one recorded instance of gunslingers meeting at high noon. ONE.

How To Write Realistic Fights

Most people want to avoid fights. – Elizabeth Bear

  • When you write a fight, use the character’s point-of-view.
  • Don’t give the reader the blow-by-blow, complete Dungeons and Dragons initiative by initiative actions.
    • These can be hard to follow and are about actions, not motivation
    • Think about talking to a soldier or martial artist who’s actually been in a fight. They’re typically not going to remember the blow by blow, just the major actions.
  • The fight needs to be visceral
    • Showing how the body is feeling and the character is reacting emotionally can let us know how the fight is going

There are some weapons that can create a sort of distance. Physically and emotionally. – Sebastien de Castell

  • One can write a character who fights more intellectually, with snarky narration and emotional distance – when they’re not fighting for survival. If they’re trained enough, dueling or wrestling sort of fights can qualify.

Do The Characters Need To Know Why They’re Fighting?

If you want the reader to connect with the characters, they need an immediate goal they’re trying to achieve by fighting. – Elizabeth Bear

Never use a fight scene just for fun. A fight scene needs to be a physical manifestation of an emotion. For the protagonist or the antagonist. But, it can’t just be on a physical level. – Sebastien de Castell

Sex, fighting, and conversation scenes are all alike. Something has to change — knowledge unearthed, opinions voiced, character growth — during any sort of scene or the scene needs to be cut. – Elizabeth Bear

How Long Should A Fight Be?

As long as it needs to be.

In Indiana Jones, there’s the scene where Indiana just shoots the guy with the sword. It works because of the reversal of expectations, making it funny. Reversal of expectations is what keeps readers excited. – Elizabeth Bear

Fight scenes should have beats, a certain ebb and flow, like classical music.  The main character should make mistakes. They’re reacting to the circumstances, they don’t necessarily have time to plan the best course of action. – Sebastien de Castille 

Remember: Everyone in the fight needs to rationalize to themselves WHY their actions are acceptable.

Stay tuned! Monday, I have a bonus post of “Injury Mechanics: A Brief History of Hurting People” where you can find out just what sort of damage it makes sense for you to inflict on your characters.