Writing Excuses 8.43: Realistic Melee Fighting with Wesley Chu

Wesley Chu joins Brandon, Mary, Howard, and a live audience at GenCon Indy for a discussion of writing realistic melee fights. Wes has lots of martial arts experience, he learned rope-dart fighting from Scorpion, he has worked as a stunt man, and his latest book, The Deaths of Tao, is out this week!

He talks to us about melee fighting. What sorts of things knock us out (ahem) of the story? How can we realistically portray combat without losing the heroic, incredible edge we want in our story?

Out of Order Episode Moment: Scott Lynch’s episode was mentioned, but has not aired yet. It’s okay. We’ll get to it.


Write a scene in any world where a pirate actually can beat a ninja.

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu, narrated by Mikael Naramore

20 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.43: Realistic Melee Fighting with Wesley Chu”

  1. It’s important to describe the melee fighting in the right way for the POV character. Depending on competense and experience there are differences in what the POV notices and what captures their attention. An expert would notice the essential parts of a fight whereas a novice might only be confused by the chaos of it all.

  2. Very entertaining episode. Although this episode went well over the fifteen minute mark, I feel that it could have legitimately gone on for much longer.

    Pirate + Gun = Dead Ninja

  3. Good point, Tomas. The viewpoint character colors everything from Inigo Montoya’s “You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?” to an average school kid’s “Not in the face! Not in the face!” view of the fighting.

  4. Speaking of holding weapons up, I heard a similar thing from a police officer. He told me that during training they had to hold their firearms up at the ready for like half an hour, and by the end, several of the grown men were crying.

  5. One big problem with the night’s sleep panacea is actually touched on in the episode on violence way back in book 2. “Violence has consequence.” I fully agree with that as a hard rule in writing – it’s why I like Jim Butcher so much. In his Dresden files books, over the course of each book, as Dresden accumulates injuries, he becomes less and less physically capable, increasingly desperate and willing to take insane risks in order to survive, since he doesn’t get the few days he needs to recover. Like Mary said, adrenalin does amazing things. It also makes you do stuff you would normally never consider doing. It also comes into effect between books – I can’t remember if it was a fire or some magical effect, but basically, he ended up burning one of his hands to the point where it was semi-functional and a very obvious disfigurement. The next book I had in the series was 3 books later (since they’re not numbered, it can be difficult to find them in chronological order, plus they’re separate enough that it’s not critical) – and I figured that, in a world with that much magic, there’s no way he’d bother carrying over injuries for that long. But it was still there, and I suspect those 2 books between the ones I read partially involved him learning to live with one hand being barely usable.

    Bryce – if you’re curious about how this works: Fill a glass of water, hold it at arms length with the elbow slightly bent, out in front of you. Use a big glass and one arm – guns are much heavier than glasses of water – a Sig P239 is about 3 pounds or so (one of the FBI’s current service pistols).

    Hmm…The only thing I could think of for a pirate beating a ninja (assuming the pirate is not on a different ship with more cannons) is in a really bad storm on a ship. But then I remember that Fight Science documentary National Geographic threw together years ago, in which the ninja participant basically ran up a set of plum flower poles. If that’s anything to go by, the pirate wouldn’t have the advantage in balance in any circumstance. And the only people pirates had better training than was the random civilian sailors and merchants they preferred to prey upon.

  6. @Brice @Rashkavar
    I’ve been both watching and reading The Silence Of The Lambs lately, and one of the many things that I absolutely love about the Book is how it’s established from the start that Clarice Starling excels at gun training because of her dedication to exercise and weapon drill, including some spedific exercises to improve arm, hand and finger strenght. She also learns how to best carry a weapon – all this holster stuff – and constantly practices drawing her gun until she can do it really fast and effortlessly.

    The payoff is great when she finally confronts Buffalo Bill: Aiming at the characteristic click of the revolver being cocked, she fires four rounds in quick succesion, then, not knowing if she hit him – in the Book, it remains dark, and she is deaf from the gunfire – she reloads her gun with the speedloader, and even picks up the two unfired rounds, all in the dark, before she slowly regains hearing, and finally hears Buffalo Bill dying from the chest wounds that destroyed his lungs.

    As much as I love the movie, I think it’s a pity that this integral part of the story doesn’t come across well. (Same with the fact that she has worked as a forensic fellow before joining FBI Academy, and that she has a counsellor licence for working in a mental institution.)

  7. I don’t understand this though, who would put down a book over one single misplaced detail? In my own writing, I typically ignore a lot of this, I’m not trying to be realistic, it’s more fun to go the over-the-top route when it comes to writing fight scenes. Things like throwing thousands of punches a second or kicking stuff hard enough to make craters in the ground is standard practice. If you establish the fact that your “Special” characters are capable of doing that kind of stuff frequently then how would it bother the reader past the point that the individual might find it silly?

  8. An aside comment on what Mary / Howard were saying about the areas where fiction writing and film respectively excel, consider ‘Bullet Time’, the kind of super slow-mo action sequences, pausing the action to move the camera and show all the angles of a critical moment, etc., that are everywhere you look, especially since The Matrix came out. That is pretty much exactly the visual equivalent of detailing every tiny little thing that happens in a fight, and it’s -incredibly- effective and plays great with audiences. Because of that, a writer who is strongly influenced by films might be initially inclined to try to emulate that in their writing, even though it really, really does not work.

  9. I think delivery is the main issue here.

    Instead of ornamenting a scene with irrelevant details about the sound of an unsheathed sword, the writer should choose character-driven details that advance character development because it’s the characters who elicit the emotional bond with readers and who advance the plot. It’s the characters who are interpreting that scene and noticing those specific details.

    “Realism” depends on the character. Imagine how a 5 year old caught in the middle of a medieval battle would interpret that scene. His interpretation is what would make it “realistic,” even if he misunderstood what he saw, smelled, heard, felt, and tasted.

    And just to comment on a point brought up by Brandon about the length of fight scenes: I think you can write a very short fight scene without sacrificing dramatic impact or readerinterest. In fact, I find drawn-out fight scenes melodramatic, cliche, and therefore ineffective.

    Short but hard-hitting fight scenes leave a lasting impression, especially within certain genre fiction that glorifies war and over-embellishes details (fantasy). It’s all about choosing exactly the right details in the delivery. Brevity can be an even more effective tool than detailed description, I think.

    Anyway, good podcast. Was a pleasure listening to it :)

  10. Okay, now I’m addicted to the sword guy’s videos. And I should be writing an article on the impact of changes to the pay day lending regulations…hmm

    On another note, I saw Kevin Sorbo at a comic con (he of Hercules) and he really could manipulate a broad sword with one arm. He signed my friend’s replica Hercules sword. That’s quite a feat. I used to do Tai Chi sword form. Chinese broad swords are heavy enough. My point is – I’m with Brandon on the suspension of disbelief, when it comes to some aspects of fight scenes. This is especially true of ubermensch style heroes.

  11. Several things that can get overlooked in relation to violence in genre fiction:

    People who are untrained that enter into a fight, especially hand to hand, often experience extreme exhaustion, to the point that recovering from this fatigue is more important than protecting themselves. Their body is extremely hot and aching (lactic acid build up and heat produced by anaerobic activity) and this actually hurts more than getting punched in the face. This is the case even if the person is in good physical shape, but this exhaustion tends to lessen as a person gets used to fighting/sparring.

    People who are unused to physical violence will often freeze when they are confronted with violence, even if they have a great deal of martial arts or firearm training. The mind goes blank, and they have a hard time committing to action, such as throwing a punch, or moving to cover. This freezing period may only last a few seconds, people tend to “snap out of it” due to some physical stimulus, such as getting hit, or a sharp sound.

    When in a controlled environment, such as a gym or ring, throwing kicks is a fine idea. However, in the real world, throwing any kind of kick is a high risk proposition. Even well trained fighters can find themselves slipping and falling down due to the surface of the ground they are standing on. Brick, grass, gravel, wood and laminated flooring all have their own hazards when deciding to throw one’s weight around while standing on one leg.

    It is common, when the hands are not wrapped with tape and gloved to stabilize and protect the fist, for a hand to break when throwing punches. Fighting with unprotected hands requires a fighter to be far more conservative with their punches than most professional fighters are in the ring.

    The comment that most fights end up on the ground with someone getting punched in the head is close to true, but if either fighter is a hardcase it is more likely that they will be ripping at ears, gouging at eyes, biting or reaching for a knife. Richard Morgan’s “The Steel Remains” did a good job of highlighting this in a few scenes. Still, armbars are useful.

    When someone is strangled to the point that they pass out but are not killed, they usually wake up in under a minute.

    If someone is knocked unconscious several times within the span of a month due to blunt force trama they stand a good chance of dying.

    One bout of the ears being exposed to heavy gunfire will damage the ears. An example. My left earplug fell out when I was on a moving firing range in the military and I couldn’t retrieve it. After that event I had a splitting headache and was sick to my stomach the rest of the night. My left ear now has a constant ringing in it and it can no longer hear crickets.

    That’s all I have at the moment.

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