What happens when you put seven grown men together in a room late at night and give them free reign to talk about guns, explosives, and bare knuckle brawling? You get the “Fightin’ and Writing” panel on Friday 10PM at Manila/Singapore/Hong Kong (Hy). With more than 70 years of experience on the subject between them, these panelists were as qualified as they were eager to sink their teeth into the discussion. So, why do they have people fighting in the books they write?
“A lot of the drama comes from violent conflict,” said John Ringo, “and the whole purpose of the drama is to cause a neurological response.” The central focus has to be on creating an emotion in the reader, he elaborated. The reader has to care about why the fight is going on. “It’s less about the actual fighting—you’ve got to do that right, don’t get me wrong—but it’s about the readers caring about the characters involved in the conflict. It’s a character-driven issue.”
“People fight either because we want something or we fear something.” With 20 years in Air Force Intelligence, John Robinson certainly understands something of conflict on a large scale. “As far as resources…there isn’t enough to go around for everybody. So as long as some people are able to get more and some people are stuck with less, you’ll have a basis for conflict.” And that is fodder ripe for every author’s fertile, and sometimes devious, mind.
“Is getting that emotional response the primary goal of a fight scene?” asked moderator Gary Kim Hayes.
Yes and no. “Sometimes it’s also a plot element,” said David Coe. In getting a character from A to B to C, “a fight scene can help you bridge that…rather than 30 pages of dialog.” Not to mention that it can be more fun. “Yeah, they don’t buy my books for the conversations,” joked Larry Correia.
Using the sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the masked man from The Princess Bride as an example, John Ringo illustrated how a fight scene can perform multiple tasks for a writer. “During that [scene], the plot is advanced, the characters are expanded, and it is one of the greatest sword fight scenes ever! Especially for the dialog.” The audience is engaged, and that’s important, because they have to care about the characters.
That remains true even when the characters in question are being killed. “Even if it’s only a few lines of dialog, it’s got to be enough so that they seem to the reader that it’s a real person, and not just…a red shirt,” insisted Eric Flint. Still, he says, he tends not to give very much detail in fight scenes. “I think it tends to bore readers. It’s one thing for Howard Cosell to announce a boxing match blow by blow, it’s another to try and do it in a book.” One way around that is to follow his motto: vague is your friend. “Put in some very vivid details, and then it’s amazing how much you can leave kind of not quite stated and let the reader fill it all in.” But you do want to make sure those details are accurate and precise. Find someone who is an expert, and use them shamelessly as a source.
Also, if that is the person involved in the action, they don’t have time to really analyze what they’re doing, they’re just doing it. If it’s someone watching the action, they may or may not know enough about the technical aspects of the fight to think in those terms. This gives the writer the freedom to choose how much—or how little—they need to explain.
As so often happens at Dragon*Con, the conversation inevitably turned to porn, tech porn. “With some people, they totally get into it,” said Ringo. “With others, it’s MEGO (My Eyes Glazed Over). Here’s a little trick for writing tech porn. The whole thing is about causing suspense and then releasing the suspense, causing that cathartic reaction. It’s a little bit like a James Bond opening. You get up to a certain point, just before the climax of a scene…like where the two gunslingers go for their guns, we all understand that Western motif. You now have 500 to as much as 1500 words where you can dump tech porn in.” The example he used was in describing a sniper shot in one of his books, where it took the reader just as long to read the passage as it would have taken for the bullet to actually reach its target. “That makes it very realistic.”
“There is a certain art to how much you can use,” agreed Correia. A mistake many newbies make is putting in too much. “My rule of thumb…is don’t write the parts that most people skip.” That earned a groan from the audience, but a lot of nods as well.
“There are going to be people who will skim over all of that wonderful stuff,” said Hayes, “but there are other people that are going to really get into it.” He agreed that finding an expert to help with details is important, but admitted that actually being an expert could be a hindrance. How accurate should you be? As wonderfully choreographed as a fight scene may be, a real life street fight usually lasts only about five seconds, and is nothing like what you see in the movies.
The same holds true for gunfights, according to Flint. “What’s striking about [Old West gunfights] is that they’re utterly chaotic; it’s amazing how many shots go wild.” Prior to the 1950s and 60s, all professional pistol technique was based on things the human body didn’t do under the effects of adrenaline. “We basically had to throw out all the firearms instruction we’d come up with before that because it was crap,” said Correia. “If you look at guys that are trained now in modern craft, you’ll see that almost all of us shoot with a methodology that’s kind of similar. That’s because we’ve learned from before.” Adrenaline makes your fine motor skills go away. You start taking really deep, really strong breaths trying to blow the adrenaline out of your system. “I’ve seen people pass out going through training because they forgot to breathe,” Correia admits.
John Robinson pointed out the absence of both immediate and long-term physical and physiological consequences to having just been in a fight in both books and movies. “You don’t stand up, brush yourself off and make some Whedonesque smart-ass remark and stroll off.” Once the danger is over and you shift back from high gear to regular gear, all that falls on you at once. “Your hands shake, you can’t make a tight fist, you can’t walk straight, you don’t want to eat or drink anything for a very long time.” You don’t see many modern heroes showing these weaknesses.
But this isn’t always the case, says Correia. “Some people are just wired a little bit differently.” Ringo agreed. Many of his military contacts are people who, if you shoot them, “would just laugh at you. They love going right into the fire. They would run through machine gun fire and not even blink.” So you can get away with a lot as a writer with a character, Correia said, because these guys are real.
But they are not the norm. “At least as many soldiers come out [with] PTSD from war from having hurt somebody as having been hurt,” said Flint. “Human beings generally don’t react well to it.” Hayes agreed. “For most people, if you kill someone it will [mess] you up.”
But this is fiction, after all. And “fiction can’t be realistic,” Hayes said. “It has to be better than realistic.”
What else could the panel end with other than a question about the zombie apocalypse? If you had the choice of one weapon, Hayes asked, what would you choose? After all of the usual choices–guns, battle axes and the like–the best answer came from David Coe. With a smug grin, he said, “Poisoned brains.”