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In today's interview, I get very enthusiastic about writing fight scenes with the brilliant Alan Baxter who combines his martial arts life with writing.
Alan Baxter is the author of Realmshift and Magesign, speculative fiction novels published by Gryphonwood Press as well as a podcaster with Thrillercast, on writing and reading thriller novels. Alan is also a martial arts instructor with 25 years experience and has published “Write the Fight Right” in order to help authors write more effective fight scenes. **warning – there are a few mild swear-words in the interview**Video interview is below the text.
In this interview, you will learn:
- Constant improvement in both martial arts and writing. You never finish becoming a better writer or better at martial arts. There is discipline in both. Alan has always done both and the book has sprung from a workshop he does for writers which combines both of his loves.
- I went to a Krav Maga class last weekend and got my ass kicked and we talk about this and how I was completely out of my comfort zone. There was a lot of adrenalin and I'm covered in bruises but it was good experience.
- What is it like when a non-fighter is in a fight? What does it feel like when you don't have the experience of fighting? From a character's perspective, you need to understand responses. There is the classic fight, flight or freeze. If you have no experience and are not aggressive, you will react differently. It is also surprising how people react when threatened. From a writer's point of view, take the character's personality and how they would react in other situations e.g. being upset, angry – would they just run away? The situation also makes a difference e.g. defense of a child vs. self-defense.
- What does a professional see and feel? It's important to relax which is very difficult when under stress. The more relaxed you are, the more control you have over yourself. Constant training for peripheral vision is important. It happens in normal life but when threatened, there is tunnel vision and you lose peripheral vision. A good fighter will see a punch or a kick coming which comes from practice of watching how the body moves. You can see from other signals how they will move. This will give more time in the fight which untrained people don't have.
- The attraction of violence for writers and ‘normal' people. It is partly escapism as most people haven't had a fight. Fighting is awful and the first defense is run away. When you are writing action, it is good fun and adrenalin on a fun level whereas if we were actually in that situation it would be awful. It's also the natural extension of conflict in stories. You don't need to write what you know. You can write what you find out about. Research is one of the most fun things about writing, especially in thrillers as you can go rent a fast car, or go shooting (and it could be tax-deductible!)
- Movie fight scenes vs writing a proper fight scene. The movies are a visual genre and the fight scenes are awful. They are choreographed for 2 dimensions and so are a turn-based arrangement. People never take turns in fights. People regularly punch each other at the same time. It is chaos, not choreographed. In writing, we don't have a 2D environment. We can be in the heads of the people, we can explore sounds and smells as well as visceral contact. Fighting is barely controlled chaos.
- Fight scenes should also not be blow by blow physical description, a bit like sex scenes – don't make it too clinical. It should be fast and furious and chaotic. It's good to have a bit of experience through classes or something. Have the writing match the pace e.g. shorter sentences, less detail. When you're fighting, you don't have that detail. If you saw the punch coming, you would move or block. The writing cannot be slow.
- Is there an internal sense when writing fight scenes? There is no dialogue while fighting. It never goes like that. You don't have time, although there may be a few sharp words but no conversation. An experienced fighter will have a bit more time for internal dialogue but all a novice will do is not think or panic thoughts. There is very little coherence.
- Training is about knowing how it feels. Something happens, we react without thinking. By practicing, you can understand how adrenalin feels and how to react but most people don't have this.
- Gender differences in fight scenes. Alan's wife is a martial arts instructor as well. In books, women are often beaten on and defended by guys but I have a female protagonist who kicks ass. Can women beat a guy? Yes and no. It depends on training but there is always an advantage in big, heavy and strong. That's why there are weight differences in pro fights. Skill and training, speed and footwork, learning the right targets to hit – these can all balance out the difference. More vulnerable targets are smaller, harder to find but women would maybe have to hit there. Women can defeat big guys but they are at a disadvantage. Women also take longer to get used to hitting anything, even pads in class. It is more confronting for girls to be violent but once they get into it, they are usually enthusiastic! So give your female protagonist some training and they will have a better chance!
- Creating a setting that will make a fight more interesting in your writing. Whatever environment you are in, you need to use and make it real. In a bar, you need to have lots of chairs, other people, bottles, glass – use the environment. When writing, you can set up a good place to fight that is more interesting e.g. restaurant means you can move into kitchen with knives, hot water etc vs/ a field with nothing interesting to use.
- What is the role of bystanders in a fight? How do people react? In this day and age, the first reaction is to pull out a phone and start filming for YouTube. Then some people will have nothing to do with it, they will leave or ignore it. Or the people who will call the police or try to stop it. It depends on the person and also their experience. If you do get involved, it may be dangerous. There are gender differences in reactions as well.
- What happens after the fight? I was shocked by how exhausted I was and bruised just from a class. How do our characters feel afterwards? (in a fist fight, not a gun or knife) Chinese saying – When two tigers fight, one limps away horribly wounded, the other is dead. If you fight, you will get hurt. You will absolutely have physical results and many movies show people carrying on fine, even after concussion. You need to have a realistic recovery period. Adrenalin also has a long lasting effect on the body. That happens with real fighting too but the adrenalin will always be there. If you even get in the one punch that finishes it, you will likely hurt your hand. Being hit in the face means you can't chew or eat. The first time a person gets hit, it is a shocking experience and many people break down. It's unsettling. There are always effects.
- On writing fight scene cliches. When you write the scene, go back and check whether you have transcribed a movie fight scene and rewrite. Get more chaotic and less removed from the fight. Engage emotion. Some of the cliches are true e.g. tunnel vision – so it's more about how you deal with them. Keep the writing fast.
You can find “Write the Fight Right” on Amazon and other online bookstores. You can find Alan and his other books and short stories at AlanBaxterOnline.com and on twitter @alanbaxter