British author I.A. Watson is a prolific adventure writer with his feet firmly planted in the New Pulp genre. His numerous stories published in collections from Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura imprint further the adventures of such pulp stawarts as air ace Richard Knight and adventurer Armless O’Neil, and his three Robin Hood novels published by Airship 27 are a tour-de-force ... Today he’s on Bish’s Beat talking about the writing of top-notch fight scenes – a subject near to the heart of all Fight Card fans ...
WRITE THE GOOD FIGHT
The fight is one of the staples of pulp fiction. Whether it’s two guys brawling it out in a ring, a life and death punch-up on the top of a speeding train, or a shoot-out showdown in the ruins of some alien civilisation, that action finish is the capper for a lot of stories, old and new. Writing fights is an important skill for anyone who wants to pen pulp stories or adventure stories in general, so here are some thoughts on what makes for a good on-paper punch-up.
It might seem strange to talk about images in a print medium, but it’s that lack of pictures that makes them all the more important. The author’s got to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Do it well and its better than the best big budget blockbuster. Establish the scene. Show the terrain. Reference anything that’s going to be relevant in the fight to come. If someone’s going to get a bottle smashed over them then mention the bar. Make sure its clear who’s there: protagonist, antagonist, and onlookers. Paint in the details – and don’t forget sound, smell, and taste.
Real life can get away with things that fiction can’t. Story fights have to be mini-stories themselves, plotted so there’s a pace, continuity, developments, and a climax. There should be twists and turns, drama, shocks, horror, maybe even humour. If the fight is the climax of the story then it might be quite long, so changes of speed and an evolving conflict really matter.
There are all kinds of tricks for helping the story of the fight along. One is to have the fight interact with the environment. A duel in a blazing building or a free-for-all in a seedy waterfront bar will automatically interface background with the combat. Another way is to identify a problem that must be overcome to win the battle – the villain cheats, the big bad guy doesn’t even flinch when he gets hit, our hero has to get past the enemy to shut down the doomsday clock. Yet another is to run the fight through a character’s perspective, following his internal thoughts, feelings, and experiences as he struggles through.
It’s quite possible to do a great punch-up without any chatter, but unlike the real world, fictional characters are quite capable of holding a conversation as they beat nine kinds of hell out of each other. Dialogue allows for an automatic change of pace as hero and villain exchange threats, banter, trash talk, plot points. It can be a breather in the action, a way of narrating events, or even another form of combat. An enraged villain is a careless villain who might let his guard drop. An outraged hero might just go that bit further and make the supreme effort.
Different heroes fight in different ways. Picking on a couple of pulp characters I’ve written for in Pro Se publications:
* Detective airman Richard Knight is in the gentleman hero category. When he’s taking someone on he’s an expert pugilist with scientific method. His sidekick, raucous ex-Marine Larry Doyle, is more of a slugger.
* African soldier of fortune adventurer for hire Armless O’Neil comes from a Bogart/African Queen background by way of Popeye the Sailor Man. He’s tough as nails. He’ll take his licking and still come back fighting ‘cause he’s too dumb and stubborn to lie down. Of special note with O’Neil is that one hand’s replaced with a wicked hook, which also makes for a different kind of brawl.
Clearly, to do justice to each combatant their fights need to reflect their character. In my Robin Hood novels, the bold outlaw swashbuckles and quips his Errol Flynn best. At the other end of the spectrum, the Spider is ruthless and terrifying when he enters combat. Good fights are driven by the nature of the adversaries. Really good fights can amplify and develop the characters themselves.
A good fight has a good ending. It might be the main character’s final triumph as the villain topples into the volcano. It might be a nail-biting cliffhanger as the Nazis beat our hero unconscious. Combat might be interrupted as the whole spaceship lurches into the gravity well. At battle’s end we and the characters might feel exalted by victory, sickened by loss, exhausted by some supreme effort. The winner might have saved the day, got the girl, or lost everything. The last moments of the fight are vital to whatever happens next in the story, so they have to hit exactly the right notes to lead the reader on to the next narrative beat or to the story’s conclusion.
Fiction tales depend on conflict. Physical conflict is a big subset. Getting it right is hugely important in getting a pulp story to fly. Pulp tends to be stripped down, visceral stuff, designed to have an emotional as well as an intellectual impact. Fights go straight to that primal part of us that struggles to survive. Fights to save the damsel, rescue the baby, prevent disaster, prove oneself the best, all speak to deep elements of our psyche. Get that right and the readers follow.
Don’t underestimate the art of fight-writing.
I.A. Watson is a freelance writer operating out of Yorkshire, England. He’s authored four award-shortlisted novels and a whole load of short stories.
His work on classic airman detective Richard Knight appears in The New Adventures of Richard Knight, volume 1 (on sale now) and volume 2 (forthcoming), from Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura imprint.
His work on African adventurer Armless O Neil appears in Blood Price of the Missionary’s Gold: The New Adventures of Armless O’Neil, also from Pro Se’s Pulp Obscura imprint.
A volume of I.A Watson’s essays and comments, Where Stories Dwell, is currently in production.
TO VISIT HIS WEBSITE CLICK HERE