Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.33: Combat, with Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan joins us again, this time for a discussion about writing combat. She’s studied fencing, combat choreography, and is *this close* to having a black belt in shotokan karate, bringing a valuable perspective to the discussion. Also, she’s written an ebook called Writing Fight Scenes, so she knows how to talk about this stuff.

We discuss some of our favorite fight scenes in movies and in books, why they work well, and how we can go about creating those sorts of things ourselves.

That Scene We Couldn’t Stop Gushing About: Here’s a no-Netflix-membership-required version of the Daredevil fight scene. It’s a teaser from Netflix, but it’s unabridged. For context, Daredevil is looking for a kidnapped child, and has tracked the boy’s captors to this hallway.

Homework: Look at the purpose of the fight you’re about to write. Make a list of everybody who is in the fight, and what each of them wants to get out of the fight. Include what do you, the author, want to accomplish. Then write the scene.

Thing of the week: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, narrated by Kate Reading.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: The fight should be part of the story. It should change something for one or more of the characters. Draw a map of the space. For blocking, but also to let you know what the participants can use. Concrete, specific details make combat and action come alive. Don’t forget the buildup. Point of view influences what you tell and how you tell it. Don’t be afraid to include an iconic moment, an awesome point. Make sure it has stakes involved, and belongs. Beware contrivances, make sure that everything has already been introduced and shown to be important before the fight. Don’t forget Chekhov’s chainsaw. Finally, what the characters are thinking may be more important than the blocking.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 33.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Combat, with Marie Brennan.
[Marie] Hey.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we hurt her.
[Dan] And you are just…
[Howard] We hurt her intro. I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And we are joined by Marie Brennan, again. Hello, Marie.
[Marie] I promise not to kill anyone.
[Howard] Okay. I’m sorry, Combat with Marie Brennan probably needs a comma.

[Howard] We want to talk about writing combat. This is not the first time we’ve talked about fight scenes or guns or whatever else. But Marie, you’ve got some neat perspectives on this, and we haven’t heard from you before. So why don’t you lead with telling us how you do it? What’s your starting point? What’s your point of passion on this?
[Marie] Well, brief credentials first. Just that I studied fencing for a while. I’m nearly a black belt in Shorin-ryu Karate, and I actually did combat choreography for theater for four years in college. So I’ve got kind of multiple angles on the combat thing. My take on it is that… And this seems like a no-brainer, but I’ll unpack it a little. The fight should be part of the story. Fundamentally, violence is something kind of hardwired into our brains, right up there with food and sex as things that we respond very strongly to. So it’s always sad to me… I think movies can get away with making a fight be just spectacle, of just the pyrotechnics of people punching each other. But it’s hard to make that work really well in a book, and it’s so much more powerful when there’s something going on, on a narrative level, more than just the plot of “Oh, I need this guy to be killed so that the story can move forward.”
[Dan] You’re absolutely right. So many times, the fight doesn’t even serve that purpose. It’s just I would like to have a fight scene here.
[Marie] I need something exciting to happen. But it’s not exciting if there’s nothing riding on it.
[Dan] I am at the point now where I… If a fight comes on in a TV show, I’ll just stop paying attention for a couple of minutes and get back to it when the plot returns. Because…
[Marie] I can have some aesthetic appreciation if it’s well done technically, but if there’s nothing really… So what I think if I can do for a story is, it can either reveal or confirm or change something profound about one or more of the characters who are involved. When you get that in there, it’s amazing.

[Dan] One of the best fight scenes that… Again, I’m thinking of visual media. One of the best fight scenes I’ve seen recently in anything was the second episode of Daredevil. Oh, my stars. What it did is exactly what you’re saying. Part of what it confirmed about his character is in showing his fight style, which is basically I’ll just keep coming until I’m dead, that told us so much about who he is, how he intends to win this larger war against crime. Fantastic. I mean, it was gorgeous to watch, but also revealed a ton about who he is as a person.
[Marie] I think I remember the one you mean. It’s the one in the hallway, right?
[Dan] It’s the hallway fight.
[Howard] Single shot hallway, right.
[Marie] Watching his body language during that, because he’s exhausted, so you get that character element in there of he keeps on just kind of lurching back off the wall to go at them again. That is so much more cooler than if he was going through it like a robot that doesn’t actually have tiredness.
[Mary] I haven’t actually seen it. You said it’s a single shot?
[Marie] Yes.
[Mary] This is something… There’s a really fantastic documentary by Jackie Chan where he talks about choreographing fight scenes and how to show them.
[Dan] Oh, cool.
[Mary] Specifically, what he thinks a lot of people do wrong. But one of the things that he says is that what you’ll see is people will hit and then you immediately see the other person… You see someone throw the punch, and then someone else reacting from the punch. But that what he does is he shows someone hitting… Throwing the punch, shows the punch landing, and then shows the person reacting. So he said you’re actually seeing the same movement twice, but the brain stitches it together.
[Marie] Just a brief overlap.
[Mary] Into one thing. The reason that it’s important to do that is so that you can see the… Both things are important. The impact on the person who is throwing it, and also the impact on the person who is receiving it. That showing both of those…
[Howard] The thing that was fantastic about the Daredevil fight, and this is the show… This is the Netflix’s series that just came out. Very early in the fight scene, he kicks down a door. The camera is aimed down a hallway. He kicks down the door and goes through the door. My brain says, “Oh, the fight that I can’t see and tell myself about is more interesting than the fight that you’re going to show me.” Sure enough, somebody gets thrown back through the door, and I think, “Yup. This is going to be one of those.” Then Daredevil come sailing back through the door. Then everybody piles into the hallway, and it keeps going for another two or three minutes.
[Marie] They play both sides of it really nicely.
[Howard] At least. They play both sides of it. You talked about the goals and the expectations. You get a real sense during the course of that, even though we’re not seeing the Jackie Chan style of multiple cuts. Show the throw, show the hit, show the reaction. We’re getting this sense that everybody who’s fighting has something at stake.
[Dan] At the risk of just gushing over this one particular fight… Although seriously, it’s amazing. One of the other things that they accomplish, narratively, by not showing a lot of the scenes because there are two or three bits of that fight where the fight moves into a room…
[Marie] And all you hear is the noise.
[Dan] All you here is the noise.
[Marie] With shadows.
[Dan] This is Daredevil. It is a blind guy who fights by sonar. So having chunks of the fight exist primarily as sound is a perfect fit to the character.
[Marie] I will also say I strongly recommend… And that fight again is a good example for this, so everybody should use it as their teaching text.

[Marie] Draw a map for yourself of the space. It doesn’t have to be pretty. In fact, mine are hideous. But draw some little sketch map that will tell you where are all the major pieces of furniture and entrances and exits are. I usually draw my map in pen and then the people themselves and arrows showing where they are going, I do in pencil, so I can erase things if I need to. But if you can’t keep straight in your mind where exactly everything is, it’s pretty likely that your reader can’t either.
[Mary] The other thing about that is… Because I do this too. Not that I have as many fight scenes. But the other thing about that is it makes you aware of the geography, not just that you have to communicate to the reader, but that the participants of the fight will be using. Like if there’s a chair in the room, then you’re going to use that. You’re going to inhabit the space, much more differently than if you’re doing it in just blank.
[Dan] When you take the time to figure out what that setting looks like, what you’ve set the stage, it helps. I’ve done this with several of my books, gotten to a point where there’s a fight scene or a character gets trapped somewhere or something is going on and I realize I have to establish this for the reader, not just for myself. Which means going back and either inserting an earlier scene that gives me the opportunity to describe that setting, or just expand the current scene. I mean, once again, Daredevil, before the fight starts, the camera walks down the hall following a guy. We get to see all three rooms, we get to see what the hall looks like. Then the fight starts.
[Marie] I will say fights, and I think this is true of other kinds of scenes as well, but anything that involves movement, they live or die by concrete, specific details. I don’t mean it has to be every blow that the characters are throwing. I mean the environment they are in, the condition the people involved are in, you need to get that vividly and viscerally into the reader’s mind.
[Howard] Years ago, Peter Molyneux, development head of one of the game studios, I can’t remember which one, talked about videogame fighting. He said the fights in video games currently… I mean, state-of-the-art back then was, it was all very flat, it was like being in a very well decorated and well textured boxing ring. But fights that we see in movies take place in three dimensions. I mean, if you’re anything like me, you probably play some video games. It’s important to not learn your fight choreography from a medium that is inherently limited. Think in three dimensions, build this set.
[Dan] Another great example of this principle is from… I want to say the first Bourne movie, but I might be misremembering. Where he has a fight in a living room. So the tools at his disposal are a magazine he rolls up, a pen he jams into somebody’s neck, all the kinds of things you would find in a living room. It’s very present in that [garbled]
[Marie] Kill Bill has that as well. One of the first fights in that.
[Dan] In the kitchen.

[Mary] You were mentioning, when we were on the road, one of the best fight scenes you’ve ever read… Because I want to bring up some literary versions.
[Marie] I think it is important to look at literary examples because you’ve got to figure out what you can do with prose. Dorothy Dunnett, the first book of the Lymond Chronicles is called the Game of Kings. It’s just historical fiction, but it’s historical fiction that I frankly think every epic fantasy writer should read. Single best fight scene I’ve read in my entire life. There is a duel near the end of that book. She made me feel so inferior with this scene that I decided I was going to exorcise that feeling by anatomizing it, and saying, “Okay. Why is this so good?” I realized that on my mental list of things you can put in a fight scene to make it awesome, every single thing in my list is in that scene. It has everything from the very well detailed environmental detail that then becomes important to the course of the fight, important stakes for the character, she has… A term that I got from acting, beats. There are distinct subdivisions within the scene where the goal that the characters are pursuing and the tactics that they’re using to pursue it changes. So you can have a very long fight without it feeling monotonous, because there are these inflection points in it. It’s phenomenal.

[Howard] On the subject of books, Marie, you’ve got our book of the week.
[Marie] Yes, I do. It is A Natural History of Dragons by somebody named Marie Brennan.
[Marie] Narrated by Kate Reading who does an amazing job with it.
[Howard] Kate Reading’s one of our favorite narrators. She’s done Brandon’s… Gosh, I can’t even remember the…
[Dan] Stuff?
[Howard] Stuff. A lot of his stuff. The whole Robert Jordan series.
[Marie] She is amazing. For those who aren’t familiar, the series is about a lady adventure and Dragon naturalist in a 19th-ish setting, going around the world to study dragons.
[Mary] I love those books so much. I picked up the first one, I was like, “She just wrote this for me.” I love these. Go get it.
[Howard] How can they go get it?
[Mary] You can go to and pick up a 30-day free trial membership and get a copy of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan for free.
[Howard] Outstanding.

[Dan] I want to move on to a different kind of fight scene, which is one that we have talked about before. I’m thinking… I like Dorothy Dunnett, I read a lot of historical fiction. One of my favorite authors in the world is Bernard Cornwell. Particularly his Saxon tales. That is kind of early Alfred the Great era. The primary form of battle was the shield wall. What he does that I find fascinating is that if he’s going to describe a battle, he’ll spend 10 pages building up to it. Everyone is getting in order, everyone’s kind of psyching themselves up because they know that once it starts, it’s going to end in about 30 seconds and most of them will be dead. So there’s so much tension to begin and then the fight itself is chaotic. You don’t get this kind of blow-by-blow thing, you just get this sense of I’m still alive, I’ll keep swinging this hammer and hope I live through it.
[Marie] This is where I think point of view becomes hugely important, because first-person point of view, of the sort where it’s just the cameras perched on the character’s shoulder in that moment, that’s going to be very different from first-person I’m telling you about this after the fact. That’s going to be different from a third person omniscient, which is what Dunnett is using. That’s going to be different from third person limited. So what perspective are you telling this from, that’s going to control how much can you say about the specifics versus the immediate visceral experience of that event.

[Howard] One of the things that I find with action scenes, fight scenes in particular, is I like looking for the iconic moment. I like… I want to tell a story in which somebody does something really awesome in combat. Dan, as you said earlier, first half of the episode, sometimes there are fight scenes that only exist because somebody wanted to put a fight scene in and it doesn’t really serve the plot. When you’ve got something awesome that you want to tell, how do you make sure that you get to put it in the book? How do you make sure that you get to put it in your fight? How do you justify it? How do you make it happen?
[Dan] Well, I remember when Peter Jackson did his remake of King Kong, there’s a scene that has been cut from virtually every filmed version of King Kong, that they call the insect pit or the spider pit, because it’s a cool scene that the effects guys all like but it never really matters, because it’s just people fall in a pit and get eaten by bugs. So what Peter Jackson said was I wanted to make sure it was important, so I threw the main character in with them. So then he couldn’t cut it. He had to make sure it mattered to the plot. The main character was the only one who made it out alive. But when you give it that kind of heft, that well we have to show this fight scene because otherwise you’re going to wonder why the main character is covered with spider legs…
[Mary] It is about giving it stakes in something that affects the arc of the entire thing. So like when we pitched Valor and Vanity, I said, “It’s going to end…” My pitch said, “It’s going to end with a rousing climax involving Italian nuns, a gondola chase, and cross-dressing.” I’m like, “I have no idea how it involves these things…”
[Mary] But I’m going to fit them in.
[Howard] I have thrown down the gauntlet…
[Mary] Here is the gauntlet.
[Howard] And now it is going to be in there.
[Mary] So what I had to do is figure out exactly how each of these things was important, but also go back and make sure that they were important to the plot at an earlier point as well. Because if it’s only in there once, it’s very obviously a contrivance. It’s not as rich for the reader. So there’s multiple gondola things, there’s multiple Italian nuns, it’s just they’re playing out differently. I have another thing where I have someone defeat… Not in this book, but defeat someone with the pen in the neck. It’s a fairly standard thing. But the reason that it has an oomph like a lo… My readers all comment on this moment is because it’s his favorite writing pen and it was given to him by his late wife.
[Marie] Ah. Yes.
[Mary] He’s been using it through the entire thing.
[Howard] That is very nearly the…
[Dan] The telephone cord.
[Howard] Grandmother’s telephone cord.
[Mary] It’s very nearly grandmother’s telephone cord.
[Howard] In Delegates and Delegation, the most recent Schlock Mercenary books to complete online, I wanted to put Sgt. Schlock on a flying motorcycle with a chainsaw. I set that out as a goal.
[Dan] It was such a wonderful moment when it happened.
[Howard] The way I had to set it up was by introducing the flying motorcycles fairly early on, make somebody else want them so that they became some sort of a goal… In fact, they’re a goal for the reader, “Wow, I want more of these.” So that when we get that scene, it feels justified.
[Marie] I want Chekhov’s chainsaw to be an official term of art in writing.
[Howard] The thing is, when you see the chainsaw in his hand for the first time, somebody’s reaction is, “Where did he get a chainsaw?” Somebody else replies, “Oh, we own a Parks and Recreation truck now.”
[Howard] So you are able to tell yourself… And you know that they’ve acquired these vehicles. Granted, I’m allowed to play it fast and loose, because comedy…
[Marie] You get away with a lot in comedy.
[Howard] But we’ve talked a little bit about blocking, and about telling these things right. We don’t have a whole lot of time left. How do you do minimalism in combat? How do you tell it fast?
[Marie] I mean, sometimes you just say, so this thing started and then it ended. You drop the entire middle out. It was the line we were talking about before of he came at me with a gun and I took it away from him.
[Howard] Sam Spade in Maltese Falcon. Max Gladstone called our attention to that a few weeks ago.
[Marie] I think also some of it is again focusing on what is going on for the character, what is happening in their head rather than worrying about the mechanics of the fight itself.
[Howard] That’s a… I think that’s a great place to stop. The things that the characters are thinking about might actually be more important than the blocking.

[Howard] Dan, do you have a writing exercise for us?
[Dan] We do. It actually relates to that exact point. What we would like you to do this week is to take a fight scene, one you have already written, one you are going to write, one you are just going to make up for the purposes of this exercise. But then, before you write it, make a list, actually write this all down. Who is in this fight, and what does each of those people want to get out of it? Write those all down. Then, this is key, write down what you as an author want to get out of the fight. So that you can have all of these various purposes in mind. Then, once you have all of those notes, write the fight scene.
[Howard] Be honest with yourself. If your reason is I want to draw a picture of a blob on a motorcycle with a chainsaw…
[Howard] That goes on the list.
[Marie] That’s perfectly valid.
[Dan] I mean, that’s how awesome stuff happens, is when you plan awesome stuff.
[Marie] It is perfectly fair or even desirable to have multiple answers to each of those questions. If your fight is there to do many things at once, so much the better.
[Howard] Outstanding. Marie, thank you for joining us.
[Marie] Thank you.
[Howard] Fair listener, you are out of excuses. Now go write.