Dressed for a Fight

When I was a kid, I liked to be ready for anything. So even if I wore a skirt, I liked to have a pair of shorts on underneath. You know, in case I wanted to turn a cartwheel or something. I had a tendency to bust a move like that at a moment’s notice. (Culottes also were an acceptable fashion statement.)

And being “ready for anything” sometimes meant “ready to engage in fisticuffs.” That was life on the south side of Chicago for a nerdy kid (and those who weren’t; bullies didn’t discriminate). The time 3:15 still sends chills down my spine. That was when school let out. That was when fights were scheduled. You had to be ready to throw down if someone picked a fight with you. (My older brother, whose birthday is today, taught me to fight.)

I’m reminded of how people readied for fights in my neighborhood. If girls started braiding their hair and taking off earrings, you knew a fight was about to happen. But nobody had a catsuit to don for a fight like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from the Marvel movies or Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) from The Avengers, a British show from the 1960s. (Uh-huh. I’m totally dating myself. Oh well. You knew I was old.) I’m not dissing the catsuit. I’ve longed to be Black Widow or Emma Peel—easily dispatching villains. And if I could look as cool as they look in a catsuit, believe me, I would throw one on and pick fights with people, just to look cool.

  

Now that my introduction is out of the way, let me share something I’ve been thinking about: fight scenes. Maybe you’re not into fight scenes. I can’t say I live and die for them. But a compelling fight scene with high stakes can be very satisfying to watch. And since I’m revising some fight scenes in a young adult fantasy book, I pay attention to them in movies.

In the Vanity Fair video below, the director of Black Panther, Ryan Coogler, discusses a scene in the movie. What I love about this video is the fact that he discusses why the clothing of two women in the scene fit the theme of the fight. Though part of the scene can be seen in the trailer, it contains some spoilers, so be warned!

What I loved about this scene in the movie (and I get it if you don’t have the time or interest to watch the video; it’s over nine minutes long) is the fact that the characters (Okoye played by Danai Gurira and Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o) had to fight in fashionable attire. They were fierce and feminine. There was no time to change clothes. The fight came to them.

This is the action figure for Shuri, sister of T’Challa (the Black Panther). She’s not in the video, but she’s in the movie. This is how she dressed for a fight.

The reason why this video struck me is that I agonized over what one of my main characters would wear on the worst day of her life. She’s not a trained warrior, but she has to fight for her life, as many heroines have had to do. I had her in pants at first, because I was still of the “always be prepared for anything” mindset (shorts under a skirt, remember). But as I saw in the fight discussed in the video, and as I recalled my elementary school years, sometimes the fight comes, whether you’re ready or not. So, it’s nice to know that though my main character is wearing a dress (which felt more natural to the character), she can still look convincing in a fight.

Diana Rigg photo from somewhere on Pinterest. Culottes photo from thirdeyechicfashion.com. Other photos by L. Marie. Shuri action figure by Hasbro. Boxer Hello Kitty figure by Tokidoki.

Like a Movie?

I’ll get to who won Kinda Like Brothers by the awe-inspiring Coe Booth in just a minute. But first, you know me. I have to share what’s on my mind.

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Three years ago, I wrote a fight scene and submitted it to one of my grad school advisors, thinking that it was pretty good. She totally ripped into it. Her problem with it had to do with cause and effect. If Adam punches Claude (cause), what is the effect of that punch? If the effect is Claude falling against Jared, why didn’t I state this? Why did I instead cut to Sam throwing a knife, when I started the fight talking about Adam and what he’s doing to Claude? And where is Adam positioned by the way? Where is Claude? I didn’t provide enough information to make the fight understandable. 

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Though I thought I adequately conveyed the scene I saw in my head, I left out key steps to help a reader track the action. I’ve begun to think of that experience as “movie shortcut thinking.”

In a movie, we can see a ton of action in a wide shot. I can’t help thinking of a scene from The Return of the King (2003, directed by Peter Jackson), specifically, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields where thousands of characters fight. (Um, my fight scenes are not on such an epic scale by the way.) A camera can easily pan or zoom in quickly to show us key elements in a scene. Also, a director might make the decision to fade to another scene altogether in the blink of an eye.

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The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

We’re not bothered by the switch in scenes, because the eye can process a lot of images quickly. We’re getting used to seeing films like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, directed by Peter Jackson), which was filmed at 48 FPS (frames per second). But the mind’s eye is different. In a book, a reader’s imagination requires more cues to track the action. While writing my fight scene, I had taken too many shortcuts, as if I were a camera panning across a landscape. The scene I presented to my advisor needed more work than I’d originally thought to make it effective. Every action needed a reaction. Newton’s third law at work.

According to Newton, whenever objects A and B interact with each other, they exert forces upon each other. . . . For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

fall_2013_sketcheskey_3I needed to show the pertinent actions and reactions in this fight. Doing so doesn’t mean spelling out every microbe (which would be boring) and spoon-feeding a reader (which would be condescending). It simply means making the action clear and compelling. That required slowing down and writing the fight step by step.

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But I didn’t understand all of this when my advisor ripped into my scene. Understanding dawned finally this year when I was asked for my opinion about a manuscript written by the relative of a friend of mine. I had trouble tracking the action in—you guessed it—a fight scene. I didn’t understand who was fighting whom or which actions caused the reactions described. Now that I had walked a mile in my advisor’s shoes, I understood her frustration with my scene. Some lessons take years to sink in, I guess. The gist of the lesson: when it comes to writing, a shortcut is not a good thing.

Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the announcement of the winner of Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth.

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That person is . . .

. . . Is . . .

. . . Is . . .

. . . Is . . .

Sharon Van Zandt!

Congratulations, Sharon! Please confirm below. Let me know if you want a hardcover or eBook.

Battle of Pelennor Fields image from comicvine.com. Step 1 from kirbasinstitute.com. Step 2 image from addictionblog.org. Action/reaction image from wired.com. Fight scene image from forgotmylines.com. Mind image from bubblejam.net.

A Fight to the Finish

I’ve written posts before about my middle grade years and how rarely anyone at my old school avoided a fight. But participating in a fight and writing about one are two very different things. So, as I approached the end of my young adult fantasy novel, I faced the challenge of writing a fight scene. But how to make it meaningful and avoid clichés—ah, that was the difficulty.

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I turned to other authors for inspiration. Let me tell you what I found. In an online seminar on writing action scenes, author James Alan Gardner comments

Roger Zelazny once recommended that fight scenes should have at least two sentences of filler for every sentence of genuine action. . . . . This doesn’t mean useless filler—it means various kinds of reaction shots and other material that contribute to mood or characterization.

Okay. Now I still needed to see how it was done. So I headed to a book written by Markus Zusak, an award-winning author of young adult fiction. Zusak uses filler to showcase character and mood in Fighting Ruben Wolfe, a contemporary realistic novel (in the anthology Under Dogs) about two brothers—Ruben and Cameron Wolfe—caught up in the world of underground boxing. If you don’t like spoilers, you should stop reading now. I can’t avoid them in this post.

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In the following excerpt, Cameron’s viewpoint is the camera that moves us through the opening minutes of the brothers’ last and most spectacular bout—with each other.

In the suffocating seconds between now and the fight, I wait. No practice punches, I’ll need them all. It’s fear and truth and future, all devouring me. It hunts through my blood and I’m a Wolfe. Cameron Wolfe.

I hear the bell.

With it, the crowd comes storming into my ears.

I walk forward and throw the first punch. I miss. Then Rube swings and gets me on the shoulder. There’s no slow beginning, no warm-up period or watching time. I move in hard and get underneath. I hit him. Hard to the chin. It hurts him. I see it. I see it because I want it more and he is there to be hurt. He’s there to be beaten and I’m the only one in the ring to do it. (Zusak 296–97)

Perhaps you’re getting a Fight Club vibe right about now. This is not your typical fight between a hero and a villain. This is a fight between people we care about, and there can be only one winner. Here the filler and action work in tandem like the fists of a fighter to underscore the mood: tense. Zusak’s style is lean like a prize fighter at the top of his game. “The suffocating seconds” in the first line helps us experience the tension Cameron, the younger of the two, feels pre-fight, while “I’m a Wolfe” provides a moment of sharp realization that fits Cameron’s emotional arc. He has always been a reluctant fighter—unlike the more predatory, “wolf-like” Ruben. Now the fight—the need to win this bout—is in his blood, and thus in ours as we move through the fight with him. The short, punch-like sentences, action verbs, and figurative language throughout (“It hunts through my blood”; “fear and truth and future, all devouring me”; “storming into my ears”) keep the tension high and never allows our attention to flag.

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With every jab, Zusak reminds us that while the battle will undoubtedly continue, it is worth fighting and reading about.

So, what did I learn? The right filler can give a fight scene emotional punch. That’s what I wanted for my scene. The key is to carefully consider the details that add emotional weight or develop character in a way that fits the mood.

Facing a fight scene or at least a scene with conflict of a different sort? Get ready to rumble, but don’t forget: character counts.

Gardner, James Alan. A Seminar on Writing Prose. 2001. Web. 28 March 2011. <http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/prose/action.htm>
Zusak, Markus. Fighting Ruben Wolfe in the novel anthology Under Dogs. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press, 2000, 2010. Print.

Book covers from Goodreads. Boxing gloves from macho.com. Fight Club photo from movieroar.com.