How to Write Blood, Gore, and Violent Death – Part the Third

This might be a long one. So if you don’t feel like hearing some asshole tell you what he thinks about writing over the course of several paragraphs–well, you’re probably on the wrong blog altogether. If you missed the first two parts, you can find them over here: Part One and Part Two.

Now let’s get to the killing!

There are lots of ways to write a fight scene. How you choose to do it really depends on the way you want the fight to impact your audience. Do you want your reader marveling at the epic scale of your conflict? Counting the columns of soldiers crawling across the hills of your battlefield? Or do you want the reader wiping blood out of their eyes, crawling through the mud, worming their way through the tangled legs of your frenzied combatants? Or do you want some blend of both, or some other effect entirely? Cold, distant, calculating? Or visceral, emotional, horrifying? It’s up to you, and the way you write.

Today we’ll talk about battles in particular, as the style of the piece really has a great effect on the way the reader perceives something as meaningful and important as a pitched battle. You see, writing style is very reminiscent of camera work in a movie. I’ll explain.

The way I see it, there are two main styles in which to write a battle: cable rig and shaky cam.

Now the term cable rig is interchangeable with any number of long-distance camera techniques. Shots from a helicopter, a crane shot–it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is what this conveys to the audience. It’s far-reaching and huge in scope. There is a sense of order implied. A general surveying the battlefield does not feel the same that the soldier on the front line does. That’s the effect of distant, sweeping camera work. The corresponding technique in writing is not merely in the description, but the style of the description. Long, flowing sentences that focus on large movements rather than tiny details give the reader the same sense of order and understanding. This is an expository, descriptive writing style rather than a character-driven, immersive style. Of course those things can be written in, but they are less emphasized. So it sounds like this:

General Markham brought the looking-glass to his eye and surveyed his men. The field was theirs, or his rather, and he cast his eye on their progress with pride and confidence. But something was wrong…Was that smoke?

Thick black plumes coiled above Captain Berthol’s column, twisting their way skyward with a patient ease that was quite at odds with the chaos beneath them; angry red tongues of flame could be seen at intervals among the Captain’s troops, who were roiling about in evident panic. General Markham swept his magnified gaze across his battlefield to determine the source of the conflagration–and found it. A small troupe of enemy horsemen carved their way into a nearby field of barley–returning whence they came, Markham guessed–only to come careening out of the grain at a different location. They hurled projectiles at Berthol’s column, and though General Markham could not hear the noise of the battlefield, he was certain by their expressions that they raised quite a din as their missiles exploded into gouts of searing flame, the black smoke from which was now beginning to crawl up the hillside toward the general’s position.

“Shit,” he said.

So there’s your cable rig/chopper/crane shot. The length of the sentences, the measured diction, and the overall tone–they give the passage a sense of control. The general is still a personal part of this story. But his experience and confidence is felt in the style of the writing. I (the author) don’t want you (the reader) to feel panic, because the general, despite the unfortunate turn of events, has not begun to panic. Yet.

The next passage will illustrate the other style. For fluidity’s sake I’ll get right into it, and then I’ll break down the stylistic choices.

The smoke was seething over the crest of the hill, and in an instant it had swallowed General Markham’s camp. His fellow officers hacked and coughed as the gritty cloud enveloped them. Markham tried to maintain his steadfast composure. But something distracted him. A noise… What was that God-awful noise? Over the whooping and wheezing of his associates, a thunderous growl was growing. Markham knew that sound. It had been a long time since he’d heard it so clear. But he knew that sound for sure. His bowels twisted in his gut.

He knew that sound.

He amended his previous statement. “Fuck,” he said. And then the riders were upon them.

Awful, tortured screaming replaced the pounding of hooves in his ears. He had to move; his legs were frozen in place. It had been too long. This wasn’t supposed to happen. What the hell did he do? With an inhuman wail one of the riders appeared  out of the smoke. And began riding toward Markham. He brandished a sword in his free hand. His eyes were wide. Wild. They found a mark. A horrible sound then, like a rotten cabbage being kicked, and the horseman’s blade buried itself in the face of a nearby officer. The body fell, rolled over with the rider’s momentum as he jerked his weapon free.

Markham’s legs suddenly decided to move. But in the wrong direction. He buckled to his knees on the turf. He couldn’t stop staring at the dead man. Ander. That had been his name. Markham had met him at a ball once. His face… Not a face anymore. Almost unrecognizable. Blood and splintered bone. Markham felt the bile churning in his throat. But he didn’t get any time to be sick.

Because the horseman had come back. The cries of Markham’s cohorts were dying out as they themselves surely did. The horseman sat his horse and stared at Markham. The wildness was gone from his eyes. The bloodlust was gone. Instead there was a cold joy. An expression Markham had worn himself many times. The look of a man who had planned everything perfectly. The look of a leader, victorious. General Markham swallowed.

The rider spurred his horse.

So that’s shaky cam. You see the difference? Though the passage was longer, it reads more quickly. Choppy. Erratic. Lots of. Interruptions.Very annoying when. Used inappropriately.

Erhem. Sorry.

You see, shaky cam in movies is of questionable value. A movie is different from a book. Sometimes it’s best to just see what he hell is happening onscreen, and shaky cam gets in the way of that. But in a book, the equivalent effect–that of disorder, confusion, and mayhem–can be very desirable. The difference is in point of view. I’ll call it PoV because I’m lazy.

With few exceptions, movies are very loose in terms of PoV. The audience is free to see things that the character cannot. Books, on the other hand, are made and unmade by their authors’ effective (or ineffective) use of PoV.The most common PoV is limited third, and it’s a doozy. The writing is not directly from the character’s point of view. The author has some freedom to explain things about the character that said character wouldn’t notice by him or herself. But the author also explores the character’s thoughts. Observations and descriptions are colored by the character’s personality and understanding of the world. So when the character panics–you guessed it. The writing reflects that.

Short. Choppy. Sentences. Hard, sharp consonants. “The jagged blade twisted into his guts” has a lot more immediacy and violence to it than “the knife slid smoothly between his ribs.” Both styles have their place, but they both tell the reader different things.

And that’s how you write blood, gore, and violent death. I’m by no means an expert on writing, but I read a lot of books about people who stab other people with sharp things, or get stabbed themselves. And I hope my experience with the subject can shed some light on your future reading and writing endeavors–at least those that involve some amount of stabbing. So next time you want a character to fall gurgling to the ground with an arrow in his throat, think of me, dear reader.

And, as always, go in peace. That means keep the murder on the page.

Bye, now.

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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.

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

What up suckas. It’s your good friend Discipulus again, and I’m here to make another hullabaloo. Last time I talked about fighting. Why I like fighting sports, why I desire to be an ass-kicking machine–you know, the good stuff. I thought it was about time I talked about writing on this blog, since that’s another passion of mine. But jumping straight from tapping bad guys to tapping keys seems like a big jump, so I figured I would segue.

So tonight I want to talk about fighting in books.

I’ll clear up a little first. I write fantasy. It’s mostly what I read, too. I always feel a little embarrassed when I say this, considering the state and reputation of much of modern fantasy–all Lord of the Rings rip-offs and stories about young farmer lads destined to defeat Not-Quite-Middle-Earth’s version of Satan. That’s not really my kind of fantasy. Not that I don’t like simple, predictable tales like that on occasion. But my true interest lies in the realm of gritty fantasy, a relatively new subgenre named in such a cliched fashion that, the term gritty having become a buzz-word as of late, you probably know instantly what kind of story I mean. And it’s not books filled with sand.

In fact, it’s likely you’ve seen Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on the book series that pretty much started this whole movement.

Ooh, I’d never thought of it like that. A movement. It feels good to be part of a movement. I’m suddenly empowered.

Anyway, that’s the sort of fantasy I like. The word fantasy sounds so wrong for this genre. What I really prefer is harsh medievalesque novels that flirt with the supernatural. But we’ll stick with fantasy for now, I guess. Easier to say, and I’m lazy.

Now, I don’t only like fantasy, but I do tend to read and watch things with a touch of realism to them. Some even go beyond realism into the realm of the downright pessimistic. Things like The Black Dahlia (which I just started reading–fantastic book so far), Joe Abercrombie’s novels, the Wire, Donnie Brasco. You get the idea. Things with a dark tone. Stories that don’t play around with idealized versions of the real thing, and often show the worst possible scenario instead. Tight focus on realistic characters that just live life the only way they know how.

Alright, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk more about people kicking ass.

You see, as a writer of fantasy, I have occasion to write an awful lot of fight scenes involving guys with swords wearing metal shirts. A good swording is great no matter how you color it, but as a lover of both medieval history and actual fighting, unrealistic fight scenes kind of irk me. They really irk me, in fact. Not only the action itself, even. I get annoyed at all manner of things that have to do with fighting and how it’s portrayed in books.

Things like wearing your sword on your back, whence it is literally impossible to draw it. Seriously, you’ve probably never thought of it, but it cannot be done. Same with giant, super-heavy swords. Why does Cloud from Final Fantasy need to use the almighty Buster Sword, a weapon so heavy that only he can lift it, not to mention wield it. It just doesn’t make sense. If you’re strong enough to lift a ton, you’ll be even more effective with only six to eight pounds, which is about how much a real sword of the same length as the Buster Sword would weigh.

So you see, as a writer, I understand visual appeal and all that, but I’m far more concerned with the real. I like things that feel like real life, even when they’re fantasy. Something else that people don’t seem to get. But that’s for another day. And so is the rest of this post! Soon, I shall talk about the actual writing of a fight scene, and why realism matters.

Piece.

Fighting (Grrrr)

Am I a bloodthirsty barbarian?

Because I like seeing people beat each other up. And I’m really not sure why. What is my fascination with the martial struggle between two men? I enjoy boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, MMA. . . a little Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, wrestling, and catch wrestling now and then. I like seeing two athletes attempt to pick one another apart with precise strikes, or force one another to tap or face broken bones and shredded joints. I like all that–I watch it all the time, and I personally train. But I don’t really like sports. So what’s the difference?

I think to me there’s a fascination with this idea that fighting sports are somehow more useful than other sports. I see a guy throw a ball into a hoop, and I’m not impressed. I think silently to myself, What good is that going to do him? But I see a man wrap his arms around another man’s neck and wait till he submits or goes limp before letting go? I like that. I see one man lay his shin across another man’s jaw and walk away as he crumples to the canvas? I think, Yeah. That’s the stuff.

So what gives? Really, we don’t live in a society in which those skills are overly important. At least I don’t (sorry, those of you from war-torn homelands). Yeah, in most of the Western World you stand a slim chance of being mugged on your way home from work or the bar. And yeah, you might run into some kind of lunatic who wants your blood for no good reason. But it’s not really that useful. And honestly, you’re better off running away regardless, right? And then your practice in football or soccer might prove more useful. At least you’ll be quick. And most martial arts deal in one-on-one encounters, anyway. That’s what the sports derived from them focus on. And you’re rarely gonna get mugged by just one person.

So why does it seem so important to me to know how to fight? I’d like to say it’s because I can stand up and defend someone’s honor. My family’s, my girlfriend’s. . . I certainly fantasize about that kind of stuff enough. Or having to defend my own life, and not feeling any fear in the process. I fantasize about that, too. Doesn’t every little kid? When you’re young you imagine yourself defeating evildoers, right?

I still do that now. I don’t know what that says about my mental state, but it’s the truth. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked home from work, sun already far below the horizon, and just waited, waited for that tough punk to step out of the alleyway behind me. And you better believe I’ve got my ear cocked for the scuffle of shoes behind me. Then I turn around, and the asshole and two of his friends are coming towards me. No weapon in sight, thank God–just planning to beat me into submission. Bad choice. See in these fantasies I’m not only a few cumulative months into training. I don’t lack the muscle memory that’s so crucial in panic situations–in fact, I’m not even panicking, because I know I can handle these suckers without breaking a sweat. They’re the problem, and I’m the answer. I’ve got perfect form, blinding quickness, crushing power, steel shins and knuckles that won’t feel an ounce of pain when they’re introduced to the hard bones of an elbow or a jaw. I’ve got precision and timing, and I’m a force to be reckoned with.

But that’s not why I train to fight. I don’t want to be attacked, really. So maybe I want to pick a fight?

Maybe somebody’s messing with my girlfriend, trying to push her around or force himself on her. Wrong move, asshole. Because I’m coming around the corner right when this shit’s going down. And I don’t even need to sucker punch the villain, because I’ve got the technique to square up and scrap without any need for the element of surprise. Quick jab and cross to the head, swift left uppercut to the body, smashing low kick to the thigh, just above the knee. Said knee buckles, the clown falls to the ground clutching his leg, and who stands victorious but I, brave vanquisher of evil.

But like I said, that’s all childish fantasy. And none of that is likely to happen. I’m unlikely to even survive an encounter with three money-hungry thugs in an alley, at least not without broken bones and a busted lip. I’d be lucky if they didn’t pull a gun or a couple of knives on me. The only situation in which I’ll have any hope of looking impressive would be in the defense of my girlfriend, and then all technique would go out the window at this point in my study. I’d likely get my ass kicked. She’d be left with telling me, “It’s the thought that counts” while holding ice on my black eye.

So what is it?

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. Maybe it’s the hope of finding something that I’m good at. Something physical that most other people can’t match me in. Getting punched in the face isn’t as popular as tossing the pigskin, you know. Or maybe it’s the idea that my doughy self can still snicker inside when I see a beefed up musclehead checking himself out in the mirror at the gym, because I know I’m working on what counts, not just what looks good. The truth is, I’m not a violent person. I don’t like hurting people, and I’ve never been in a fight with anyone but my sisters when I was young. I’m more one to bandy words than blows, and I don’t count myself as anything close to the most skilled guy in the gym.

So maybe it’s just the fantasy that makes it fun for me. The fact that seeing an expert in the craft of fighting put away someone with just as much skill helps fill my head with images of my own potential greatness. If I lived in the worlds of history that I study, or the worlds of fantasy that I write, I too could be that fighter, that noble hero with the skills to kill and the heart to discern when to use them. I really don’t know.

I don’t think I’m a bloodthirsty barbarian. But I really like seeing people beat each other up.