Being a Man

Is part of being a man doing things that you don’t enjoy?

I’ve been mulling this over lately. There’s a certain perception that men should do classically manly things. Even small things that you might not think of. Drinking black coffee, for example. How many TV shows have you seen where the wannabe pussy-man orders some fru-fru coffee drink with four sugars and plenty of cream–or, in this modern heyday of Starbucks and its own brand of coffee culture, some kind of soy latte frappa-whatever-cini? Right? And then the manly men on the show, usually characters with whom our sadly feminine main character is trying to gain masculine acceptance, all laugh in his face as they drink their burning hot black coffees and smoke their unfiltered cigarettes. Because that’s what men do.

So why is that? I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a huge fan of black coffee. But for a while I tried to be. I assumed that it was more mature to like black coffee, and so I tried to condition myself to liking it. A good friend of mine is a stout believer in the virtues of black coffee, and I have to wonder if he initially liked the taste, or if he had to learn to appreciate it. Because of course it’s possible to come to like something. But why? Why do we strive to appreciate things because we’re supposed to appreciate them?

You know how I like my coffee? With lots and lots of cream. Heavy cream or half & half and, again, absolute tons of it. I just finished my second cup today, and I made sure to add even more cream the second time around because the first time the coffee was still vaguely coffee-colored, and that ain’t the way I like it. And I’ve only learned to like it this way after having started a low carb diet that doesn’t allow me to add sugar to my coffee. And guess what? I put some artificial sweetener in the other day, and holy damn it was delicious. Sweet coffee tastes good, and I’m not really sure why I find it hard to acknowledge that.

It’s not just coffee, either. My girlfriend got me a pipe for my birthday, because I’m the type of prematurely old and cantankerous weirdo who would love to receive a pipe as a gift. And–thank God–I really enjoy smoking it. The smoke tastes and smells nice, there’s a level of simple but satisfying skill to pipe smoking that appeals to me, and it looks super cool. But I’m fairly confident that, even if I’d hated smoking the pipe at first, I’d have stuck with it until I enjoyed it, because to my mind it seems to be the sort of thing a growed-ass man should enjoy. The kind of thing you could offer a less virile friend to try, and then laugh with satisfied smugness when he spluttered and coughed, confident that you had won the manly day.

The list goes on, too. Whiskey is another obvious one. I like whiskey. I’m a big fan of bourbon, in particular. I like bourbon and coke. I like bourbon straight. I like Manhattans. But I’m pretty certain that I didn’t really like it when I first tasted it. I’ve come to like it and appreciate it now, and I feel like a straight up boss every time I drink it.

But what’s the use, really?

I read some comments online about dieting recently that brought these thoughts to my mind. The question posed was something along the lines of, “What should I use to sweeten my food?” and the low-carb advocate’s response was, “Why do you need to sweeten food? I encourage to learn to appreciate the way food tastes.”

I read that and thought, yeah! You totally should learn to appreciate the taste of food without sweeteners.

Then I stepped back a moment and analyzed my reaction.

Wait, what? Why? Why should you feel pressured to like something that, upon first experiencing it, you don’t enjoy? Of course it’s possible to learn to like something, and liking more things is good, generally speaking. But who says that you can’t dislike things? Especially as an adult. It’s accepted that kids are picky, but once you become a man you’re supposed to like manly things? Shouldn’t adulthood be the point where you no longer have to pretend to like shit? Shouldn’t a tall, bearded son-of-a-bitch be the last person to have to like certain things?

Of course, you can’t blame it all on the pressure to seem manly. There are plenty of things we do once we grow up that we don’t really enjoy, but feel are appropriate to do. If we’re lucky we learn to enjoy them. “Yes, I train Muay Thai. Hm? No, it doesn’t hurt to get hit in the face. It’s awesome! What’s that? Oh yes, I like to wind down after sparring with a glass of Scotch and a cigar, followed by a drunken walk in the woods, avoiding clearly marked trails at all costs, of course.”

Well, guess what? I don’t like getting punched in the face, and I ought to be able to admit that. I don’t like Scotch. I do like the woods, true. And I do like cigars. But I don’t like having to learn to like things that rub me the wrong way, even if I do so anyway.

So here’s to being your own version of manly, womanly, or whatever you want to be.

And here’s to coffee with sugar (or Equal) and lots of cream. Because face it–black coffee tastes like a kick in the teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Decemberists and the Tale of the Tale

I’ve talked about music once  before on this blog, but today I’d like to talk about some music in particular. I want to talk about one specific band: why I enjoy them, and the lesson that I’ve learned from their music.

I’m talking about the Decemberists. Have you listened to them? They’re fucking ace.

It’s funny; I got a Decemberists CD from a friend some years ago, back in the ancient days of high schooling. It was Her Majesty the Decemberists, I do believe, and–well… I didn’t like it. That’s right. I thought it was pretty boring. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll recall that I once mentioned that I don’t typically listen to music for the lyrics. I’m usually all about the music itself unless it’s something like hip-hop, for which the focus is much more obviously placed on the lyrical content. For me, lyrics were all about having something slightly coherent for the melody to sit on top of.

Well, I’ve very recently started appreciating lyrics more, and it’s all thanks to the Decemberists. Why? Well, when it does come down to lyrics, the Decemberists write almost exclusively one of my favorite varieties of song. That is, they write story-songs. Their catalog is lousy with the things. There’s a song retelling Shakespeare’s tempest. There are fairy tales about a man who transforms into a fawn by day and falls in love with a forbidden young maiden. There are tunes about all manner of events historical and fictional, realistic and fantastic. And holy shit, do I appreciate that.

Story songs are something that has fallen out of favor in modern music for the most part, and I think that’s a shame. Songs used to be all about storytelling, you know. There are plenty of well known traditional examples to prove this. The Railroad Boy, Whiskey in the Jar, Greensleeves… American folk music is also filled with story-songs. So why have they gone out of fashion?

Well, normally I’d answer that apparently rhetorical question in the next paragraph. But the truth is, I don’t know. Songs about abstract concepts and boring love songs seem to be more popular these days. Even old-school dancing tunes, when they did have lyrics, were usually stories. Nowadays they’re usually about… I don’t know, dancing? They seem to even be about dance songs. You know, that seems pretty meta now that I think about it. Like a movie about the making of the movie itself. Or a TV show in which the main character writes the script for the next episode. Whoa… This is turning into some stoner shit right here.

The thing is, story songs have probably fallen out of favor because people focus less on the lyrics of music than they used to. Even the Beatles, man. The Beatles were an amazing and influential group, but let’s be honest–a lot of their lyrics were complete and utter balls. Mostly vapid love songs. One of the best songs lyrically is Eleanor Rigby, because it tells a tale. And even that is a bit abstract. You get the idea that some of the lyrics are less metaphorical and more, well… malarchy. And the idea that lyrics should get more appreciation makes me rethink my previous feelings about music. Sure, I still do like the sound of music alone. But the lyrics aren’t just there as fluff. They shouldn’t be, I mean. As stupid as it sounds, lyrics should speak to the listener. And they usually don’t. When is the last time you heard a Kesha song (I refuse to write a dollar sign in place of the “s”) and thought to yourself, “Yeah! She’s right! This place is about to blow!” Exactly. What happened to our musical tastes that we accept that kind of shit as lyrics? It’s empty, meaningless… It’s Kesha, God damnit.

The stories that the Decemberists tell aren’t all the sort of realistic tales that I like to write in the form of prose. Some are dark, some are uplifting… but nearly all of them, even the love songs, tell a tale of some kind. There is something about the sweetness of a touching melody that allows even a simple story to move us. The perfect high note can make that pleading cry for love that much more touching. The heart-wrenching dissonance of two distorted guitar tones fighting to overcome each other can help drive the accompanying lyrics into your heart and your mind to stay. They don’t have to be complex lyrics, you see, because they have the music to help them, and music speaks to people in a way that words alone cannot. So why has popular music been largely unable to tell even simple stories in what seems like such a long time? Maybe storytellers are just being driven underground, I don’t know.

I appreciate story songs for another reason. As a would-be writer of music (I dabble), I find them easier to write. Thinking of melodies is hard. But sometimes the melody will just find your song after you’ve got some words for it to cling to. The natural rhythm of words works that way. Whenever I’d think of a melody first and then try to stick some words on it, they were utter shit. They still usually are. All vague ideas and empty “messages.”

The point is, I wish that songwriting would follow the tack of the Decemberists and lean back towards storytelling. It’s not as if the concept is inapplicable in modern music. Nas did it, and that’s why he kicks so much ass, or used to, anyway. Don’t you even dare tell me that Nas didn’t used to kick ass. Shut your mouth.

We all like stories, is what I’m saying. In any case, aren’t you tired of hearing autotuned party-boppers tell you what a club looks like? I sure as hell am. Bring back the stories, man. It’s time for a revival.

Peace, friends.

 

Tabletop Role-playing: Revenge of the Worldbuilding

 

Oh, tabletop role-playing games… You have brought me back to my roots. Back to the pure, unadulterated joy and excitement that I first felt before ever I became bogged down in the drudgery of writing complex characters and interesting plots. Or the successive disappointment I experienced when I realized that my plots and my characters were pretty shitty after all. But oh, role-playing games! I find myself once again reliving my salad days: drawing maps, doing write-ups of city histories and regional lore, imagining political and religious conflicts…

Yes folks, I’m talking about worldbuilding, undeniably the most fun part of writing a book and, luckily for me, the largest part of creating a module for a tabletop RPG. Now, I know that to most people a lot of that stuff up there doesn’t seem very fun. Political and religious conflicts aren’t exactly the stuff of daydreams. At least not for normal folks. But I’ll tell you why it actually is fun, and also why you’re wrong if you still disagree. Why do you always need me to convince you, reader? You’re really starting to piss me off, you know.

Er–well. The point is, the worldbuilding is fun because it is the sole reason that most of us got into writing fantasy in the first place. When we all read Tolkien for the first time, those of us destined to write in his genre were struck by a few things: his languages, his cultures, his histories, and his beautiful, beautiful maps. But most of all, we were impressed with his creativity. And that’s what worldbuilding is–pure creativity. That’s why we got into books, right? That’s why we’re fantasy nerds and not just people who like to read.

Or wait.. I’m the fantasy nerd. I keep assuming that you and I are the same, reader. But you probably wear cool European clothes and read Noam Chomsky, and you’re only reading this blog until you inevitably discover that other people know about it too, at which point you’ll toss my paltry words to the wayside proclaiming, “I read Discipulus once in a bar with, like, five other people.”

Anyway, I’ve been doing my worldbuilding nonsense. I’ve been just creating. Not worrying about the structure of the writing, but just recording made-up facts, drawing maps, and relishing every moment.

So. A status update. At this stage in our journey to Tabletop-Gamingtown I’ve written six pages of material. I’ve drawn a city map of our starting location. I have come up with a number of potential quests. I’ll share with you two revelations I have had about the process while doing these things.

Firstly, it is hard to avoid clichés. I have a bit more sympathy now for people who design video games. Perhaps I’ll complain a little less the next time I have to do a fetch quest or escort some wuss without any semblance of artificial intelligence through a dangerous sewer. These clichés happen, I now realize, because of the restrictions of a story-telling game. Namely, if you want your characters to fill out much of the story for themselves (and in tabletop RPGs especially you do), then your options are limited. It boils down to: I can have my characters go somewhere to collect something, I can have them escort someone, and I can have them go somewhere to kill something, plus any combinations of those three quest types.

It’s the background of your tale that makes these simple types of story compelling. So the realism with which you portray your world has a serious effect on how seriously your players will take the quest. Fighting might be fun, but if all of your fights are against mere goons then people will stop giving a damn after a while. Some of this comes down to your live storytelling skills, but a lot of it has to do with how much effort and thought you really put into your world. A play that takes place on an empty black stage might impress a few theater snobs, but it’s hard to argue that the experience isn’t a hell of a lot more immersive when the actors are surrounded by a spectacular set, and their lines and behaviors reflect their surroundings and their times.

The second revelation is this: that I have no clue how a city is organized. Drawing a map of a city (the first time I’ve done something with this level of detail) was an eye-opener. “Wait… where do the churches go? How much of the city is walled? How much open space is there within the city, again? Wait… where do the markets go?” During the creation of this map I probably spent more time staring, drooling, and scratching my head than I did actually putting pencil to paper and sketching.

But in the end I like the way things have turned out so far. So now I need to meet up with my fellow GM, the man who will run the numbers while I tell the majority of the story, and hammer out the details of how to get this thing started. More to come on my descent into the heart of dorkness in future episodes!

Farewell, gentle reader.

Tabletop Role-playing – The Adventure Begins

 

I would apologize for my long absence from this blog. But the truth is, it was a calculated marketing move. You see, now my multitudes of fans are clamoring for my wisdom in my long absence, lost and confused without the soothing power of my words. I know. It was rough. But now I’m back, and I haven’t tired of talking about myself yet. So here we go.

I’ve recently become involved with a group of friends who enjoy role-playing games. Actually, my girlfriend is one of the players. (A word of advice to the fellas out there: if you find a hot girl who’s willing to role play without the reward of sex that most women would expect upon hearing that phrase, then you stay with her. Also, you steal her lunch money, because she’s a major nerd.) So we’ve been playing a pretty fun quest so far, and there has been talks of yours truly writing a module for the next campaign. And I thought, what an excellent idea for a series of blog posts.

So that’s what this is. The first installment in a series that will go on till the ends of time. Or for a couple of weeks. You’ll get to follow me in my process of being a story GM (that’s game master for you normies). We’ll work on constructing the world in which the campaign will take place. We’ll create interesting antagonists, a number of routs for our players to follow, unique NPC’s, and probably some giant spiders, because everyone hates giant spiders.

So what’s first?

Well, much of writing a tabletop RPG is just a visit with our old friend worldbuilding. The players are the characters, and they drive the story, so you needn’t write a protagonist’s personality into the tale. You also need flexibility, because nobody likes a GM who refuses to let the players have their way. That’s part of the appeal of tabletop gaming. There’s no graphics or exciting visuals, but there are virtually no limitations in terms of where the tale can lead. The GMs of the campaign I’m currently playing meet between play sessions to talk about where the story will go next, because sometimes the players want to read the mysterious note and follow your intriguing quest, and sometimes they just want to burn it without opening it and start a barfight that culminates in the destruction of the entire city. It’s your job as GM to adapt to their desires, while still imposing some sense of direction.

And it’s important to have a background for all of these shenanigans. That’s where the worldbuilding comes in. You need a well fleshed-out world in which to run the campaign. You need religions, politics, cities, towns, dungeons, and loads of sweet, sexy maps.

So that’s what we’ll be doing in a couple of days. We’ll begin designing our starting point, explaining the world, and I’ll talk a little about the place of RPGs in the realm of fantasy fiction.

Until next time, intrepid readers!

Why All Music that I Don’t Like is No Better than Elevator Music

Today I want to talk about something besides writing. I’ve got a few ideas for writing-related posts on the back-burner, but we’ll take a short break from that after the epic conclusion to my fight-scene trilogy two days ago.

Today, I’d like to talk about music–how it affects people; why it’s so important to me and some of my friends but not to other people; and why it can be so divisive a subject. Music is something that has meant a lot to me… since high school, I guess? It actually started before then. In middle school. (By the way, here’s an interesting tidbit–where I come from, the fact that I just used the words “middle school” would immediately tell you that I am most likely not Catholic, and attended a public school. Catholic private school kids say “grade school.” Now you know.) Anyway, yes. My love of music began in middle school.

I used to play in the school band. Clarinet was my thing, and I was the best player in the class, despite the fact that I never practiced outside of school. I’m not being a braggart. It’s merely the truth. I don’t know if it just clicked for me, or what. But I really enjoyed making music. I always had favorite parts of the songs we were currently learning, and I got the sense that most of the other kids weren’t even listening, just following along, waiting for lunchtime. But I listened to those songs. There were always details that stuck out to me. And me and my friends used to teach each other how to play Iron Man and Smoke on the Water and Crazy Train on our woodwind instruments. In the later years of middle school, the band teacher let three of us form our own band and play at the Christmas concert. I got to play the Star Spangled Banner Jimi Hendrix-style with a wah pedal, and then I and two other kids played some faux-metal nonsense that we had written over the course of a few weeks. I got to see a bunch of grandparents applaud music that they would have spanked their kids for listening to.

When I got to high school, music became an even bigger part of my existence. I wasn’t the type of kid who really connected to lyrics–I didn’t start really listening to lyrics with intent to understand until I got into hip hop a few years later–but I just connected to the sound, and the feel of music. I connected to the particular atmosphere that certain songs cultivated. And in high school, where clique and lifestyle are defined almost entirely by clothing and musical taste, my ideas about music became more and more clear, and more cemented.

I realized that music is not just background. Listening to music is an activity in itself. I once listened to a whole album in one sitting while looking out the window of my college dorm, sitting in the dark and just… listening. Just the sound of the music, and the way it made me feel. The melody and the rhythm. Other times, when I do listen intently to lyrics, I really appreciate when serious effort is put into making them mean something. It’s not a deal-breaker if lyrics are an afterthought, but good lyrics can make a mediocre sounding song interesting.

A brief aside: Some people are under the impression that you must agree with the lyrics of the music you listen to–this is the basis for uninspired Christian rock’s entire existence. But that’s bullshit. I’m not so dull that I need my music to think for me, or agree with what I already think. The lyrics are a snapshot of a moment in that artist’s life. When I listen to Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” I don’t suddenly think that relationships should be based around having someone to clean your house, fix your meals, and then leave. I think, Gee, that must have been a tough time in Neil’s life. I think of all the similar crazy thoughts that have jumped into my head over the years, and how those fleeting emotions are important because we can all connect to them.

Anyway, my innate sense of pacing tells me that this introduction has gone on far too long, so let me get to the point. What makes music important to us? For the vast majority of people, it seems to be the desire to dance. I hate to sound like my high school self, but much of it also seems to stem from the desire to belong–to any group, be it clique, religion, or just the masses of average, unassuming people.

For me, music is important. It speaks to me. And that’s why I have, ever since I discovered music’s power, sought it out. I emphasize this because I am struck by the fact that the majority of people don’t seem to find music. They don’t go out in search of the next little bit of sound that will really move them. They just let the music come to them. And this is whence (third time I’ve used that word on this blog–boy am I proud) much of my hatred of popular music stems. Pop music is just too easy. It’s right there. Yes, everyone’s eyes–ears, rather–are first opened by something they heard on the radio. But then you should go and discover more. It’s out there. There is so much good, underappreciated music out there, in literally every genre.

So why the hell don’t people look for it? When I tell people what kind of music I like, I usually start by saying “I listen to just about everything.” Which is broadly accurate. I like my fair share of metal (screaming and singing alike), bluegrass, folk, indie (which isn’t much of a genre description, but whatever), classic rock, hip hop–you get the idea. It’s a mix of whatever I like. But then I realize that that’s the answer people give when they don’t give a shit about good music. When most people claim that they listen to “everything,” what they really mean is “I listen to the top 40 on the way to work.” See, that’s not everything. It’s not even remotely close. And I don’t want this person to think that I don’t give a shit about music. So I’ll add to my statement. “Well, I listen to a lot of music. You know, metal, rock, some underground-type rap…” Hm, I’ll think, how do I clarify this jumble of words? I know: “I listen to basically anything that isn’t on the radio.”

That usually clears things up. Now they at least know that the music I like they won’t have heard of, so they’ll leave me alone. Time to pop the headphones back on. But recently someone picked that little statement apart. “So,” they said, which much snark and self-satisfaction, “You just don’t listen to it because it’s on the radio?”

“No, no,” I replied, not wanting to look like an obnoxious hipster. I covered my tracks with some lame explanation, but I was left thinking about the remark. And I realized: yes. I do avoid things that are popular. And I recognize that that’s stupid. The fact that something is well-known does not guarantee that it is of poor quality. But I’ve associated pop music with a lack of creativity for so long, that I can’t help but make the distinction. My wiring has officially changed, and my brain now designates just about everything I hear on the radio as sub-par. I know I’m like the kid who eats liver and onions and loves it until dad tells him what it is, but I can’t help it.

Because music is important to me, and it truly irks me that it’s not just as important to other people.

Motivation in a Vacuum

So if you’ve read any of my other rambling posts, you’ve realized by now that this blog will have a lot to do with writing. In truth, that’s what I want to do with my life. Just like a child imagining himself as his favorite pro wrestler, or baseball player, or… I don’t know, what’s a third dream occupation? Celebrity glass-blower? Well, just like that little boy, I often imagine myself as a successful, well-loved writer of fantasy fiction. It’s not about the fame, of course. I simply love to write. But if the jolt of joy I felt when I saw that this amateur hour weblog had six views in one day is any indication, having George R. R. Martin-level success feels amazing. So that would be nice, too.

Today, however, I don’t want to talk about my future aspirations. I won’t even talk about the story I’m working on currently, although I’ll probably shed some light on my pet project later. Please, please. Return to the softer, more spacious parts of your seats. No, today I would like to talk about what it takes to write–at least, what it takes for me to write.

I think that every story–screenplays, books, and short stories alike–comes from some source of inspiration somewhere. I don’t think any writer has a problem with inspiration, at least not in their glorious creative youth, before they become jaded and angry and alcoholic. Inspiration is that little spark that sets off the story. It’s the question that must be answered, or the character that won’t stop pacing around in your head, or the world that must exist in more imaginations than your own. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but there’s on aspect of inspiration that you don’t realize when you first aspire to write: it’s very, very rare.

Inspiration can happen at any moment. Aha! Eureka! That sort of thing. It’s like a bolt of sexy, creative lightning. But how often can you expect to get struck by lightning? Even writers. I guess if inspiration is like lightning then writers are like lightning rods; they’re more prone to the phenomenon than other people, who… I guess are like people lying in a ditch? That metaphor seems to have wandered away from me. Anyway, my point is that even writers don’t get to experience the privileged presence of inspiration that often.

Therein lies the rub, my friends. Because, no matter how much you think you enjoy writing, you’re going to have to hate it sometimes to get any work done. You’ll get that delicious taste of a truly inspired idea, and you’ll be raring to go. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll make a map, or maybe write up some character descriptions. Maybe you’ll jump in and try to start writing right from Chapter One. If you’ve got a little more juice in the tank, you might even outline most of the story–enough so that you have a vague idea of where you’re going.

And then you’ll drop the project for months at a time. Not entirely–you’ll still think of it. A lot, most likely. But thinking of cool new things and awesome future scenes is easier than actually writing. So you’ll just leave it. Either that, or you’ll suck it up and do the hard work.

For me? It was the first option. For two years the story I’m currently working on milled around on my hard drive wishing someone would talk to it. I still thought about the story. A few times I’d open up the document. But I rarely touched a key after doing so. Because motivation and inspiration are not necessarily the same thing. And motivating oneself in the absence of inspiration is a truly difficult task.

That’s the shitty part of being a would-be writer. You think you like writing. But you won’t enjoy it a lot of the time. Getting those first words down on the paper is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Finishing a first draft–not worrying about making it sound pretty, but just getting the damn thoughts out of your head and onto the page–that is a nightmare of a challenge. It sure as hell is for me.

But I’m not letting my lack of motivation halt me anymore. Sitting around always telling yourself that you’ll do it tomorrow, and just letting the fun ideas run the show is not the way to go. I won’t be a slave to the whims of inspiration, and if you’ve ever yearned to be a writer, published or otherwise, you shouldn’t either. Have your idea, and then kick that bastard book’s ass.

More on my stuff later, friends.

Pro-tip: Listen to Neil Young’s Harvest. Shit is the mood music of the gods.

How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part Two

Let’s continue, shall we? If you missed part one–well, don’t look now, but it’s right over there.

Fighting has a pretty big role in lots of genres. Who doesn’t like a good Indiana Jones style fist-fight? If it’s not that, it’s a gun fight. But those don’t take much attention to detail to write. You point the gun. You feel a little nervous. You pull the trigger. Applause.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is home to the more complicated type of fight. There are fist fights and the like, and those are good. But then there are armed battles. Fights to the death with cold steel and red blood. Tension! Excitement! A sharp blade carries so much more consequence than a balled fist. It sometimes seems to carry more consequence even than a gun. You’re used to hearing the stray bullets whiz by, never seeming to connect. When’s the last time a main character in a book or movie took a bullet anywhere but the shoulder or leg? And, according to Hollywood, those are least lethal places to be shot! Everyone gets shot in the shoulder at least once. You’ll be fine!

But see, a blade is different. Yeah, the guy with the knife might miss, but what if he doesn’t? He’s right there, in the character’s face. You, the reader, are forced to imagine the sensation of steel biting into flesh. No bang, thud, “I’ve been hit”–but a slow, searing pain as the weapon is twisted in the wound. Now that’s grit. That’s realism.

So why are so many fictional sword fights flawlessly choreographed displays of superb fencing? I’m certain that the reality is different. And reality is what I like in my fantasy. Here’s how it should go: the combatants square up. Sudden movement, and two strokes of the opponent’s blade are parried. Our hero counters, and his sword finds its mark. The enemy screams as the blood pours from his wound.

That’s how a fight goes. That quickly, and it’s over. It’s a scary thing. So I ask again–why all the smooth choreography and flash? It’s not  a dance, friends. It’s a fight to to the death. Where is the tension, and the risk? Where is the sweat and the blood and the dirt? Like I said, a blade should carry consequence.

Hm. Actually, there is a good example of a sudden, bloody battle that does involve guns. So it can be done. In the western film Appaloosa, the two main characters approach a bank in which four foul criminals are holed-up. Their approach is noticed, and their enemies are ready for them. In reality, this should not end well. And it doesn’t. The heroes draw their guns and immediately shoot down the two men by the bank door. One of them takes a bullet himself, but they switch targets all the same, continuing the fight. A bullet doesn’t kill you right away, you know. So they aim their pistols again. Before they can kill the two men in the bank’s second story windows, however, they are both shot down. The remaining bad guys ride away, and the good guys are left lying in the dirt. They’re leg and shoulder wounds, yeah… but one of them has a limp later, so the consequences are real. And most importantly, the fight is over in an instant, and that’s the way fights are.

Okay. Now, before you finish that thought, I do understand that a scene can’t always be written like that. I get it. A drawn out duel can even be more exciting than a quick one. Books and movies need drama. But the threat of that sudden, unforeseen final blow has to be there. I’ll provide an example in the realm of books. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series contains plenty of well-written action. In the first novel, the main character engages in a duel with his brother, a pretender to the throne. Both men are expert swordsmen, so we don’t exactly expect a quick kill. But the tension is there. Their blades meet, and they begin to fight back and forth across the room. There is fear in the main character’s thoughts as he duels. Trying something unexpected, he catches his brother on the arm and then mocks him, literally adding insult to injury. Suddenly his fear begins to dissipate, and he sees the same emotion growing on his brother’s face. The other man starts to tire. His wound is nagging at him and the main character knows it. He presses the attack. And then the duel is interrupted.

See, there is no death. There’s no brief, confused scuffle. But there is real tension because there is real danger. There’s also real, personal issues in the mix, and that’s always better for a story than a fight without meaning. The main character feels outclassed even when he is performing well. That is how a real fight feels. The confidence doesn’t come until you move in for the finish. The rest is only uncertainty and fear, and therein lies the tension. The realism of technique helps with that, too. In the second part of his series, two of Zelazny’s characters engage in hand-to-hand combat, and the author has clearly done his research. The main character wrestles with his opponent, and the techniques are there. He’s being outclassed again, this time by strength. He dives for a toehold, but can’t finish the move. He’s pinned. Yes, it’s another drawn out fight, but at no point does it seem silly or contrived.

So. Risk. Tension. Fear. Those are the keys to a good fictional fight. Being a bit of a practitioner myself, I think that some attention to technical detail goes a long way in establishing these things.

There’s a little more, but that’s all for today. Come back soon for Part Three, wherein we will talk about how writing style affects the feel of our realistic battle.

Until we meet again, gentle reader.