Action scenes are very common in novels. Obviously, this can include fight scenes ranging from hand-to-hand fighting to group combat. In books with a contemporary setting, car chases are common. A skillfully written scene where the author has ratcheted up the suspense, forcing the reader to wonder what will happen to the current POV character, will compel a reader to keep moving through the book (a “page-turner”). Knowing how to properly set up and deliver on action scenes is key to keeping your project moving forward, without your readers rolling their proverbial eyes.
Let’s start by taking a look at fight scenes. This could be the most basic case of one-on-one brawling; it could involve weapons such as knives and clubs, or it could even involve firearms. The common thread between them is the need to stick to reality, or at least, believability.
The easiest way to write fiction scenes in a believable way is to write about something you have personally experienced. This is part of the reason why writing fight scenes comes more easily to me. Before high school, I grew up in a neighborhood where fights were common… plenty of experience to draw on there. During my high school years, I was on the wrestling team—not exactly fighting, of course, but very close to it. And I’ve been a police officer for nearly twenty years, so you can imagine the experiences I can draw on from that. Assuming you’ve seen two people in a fistfight (in reality, not in movies), you realize that these types of brawls always end up on the ground, and that’s where techniques learned in wrestling or judo will win the day.
When I have two characters begin fighting, I draw upon my experiences from four years of high school wrestling (plus another year in the Army, where I trained for and competed in a wrestling tournament at Fort Bragg). It adds a certain level of reality to your writing when, rather than making things up out of whole cloth, you are drawing upon your personal experiences.
As I write the scene, I’ll put my POV character into a certain position, then stop and think about how I would react in the same spot. It makes these types of scenes just flow. At the police academy, they taught us a number of techniques to use when a potential arrestee begins to fight. But in reality, with every fight I’ve had as a cop, I fell back on what I knew best, which always worked for me: wrestling. That instinctive knowledge helps me in writing scenes involving personal combat.
Just because you have no experience in fighting doesn’t mean you can’t write excellent fight scenes, however. There are other ways to immerse yourself in the world of personal combat. One idea that comes to mind is to take a self-defense course. You don’t need to train to become the next Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris. You just need enough experience to get a feel for what people in a fight are really thinking.
Another way—obviously less helpful, as you distance yourself from the action—is to watch actual fights on television. I’m not talking about movie fights, which typically go over the top in their depictions of what a human body can withstand (more on that in a moment). I’m referring to actual competitions. For you boxing fans, I’m sorry, but boxing matches aren’t much help in this area. Yes, it’s a real fight, but the rules of engagement in a boxing match are not realistic for drawing a parallel in the real world, beyond getting a feel for how much punishment a person can take. Martial arts tournaments are a little better, as many of them allow full body contact (as opposed to boxing, where strikes are only allowed above the belt), but they still don’t give the full feel of a real, no-holds-barred fight. I’m actually referring to UFC-style fights. They are about as close to a real “street fight” as you can get, without encountering the real deal. Watch them, study their moves, and learn a bit of what fighting actually involves.
One area of action scenes that is a real pet peeve of mine is the depictions of injuries from an assortment of activities: fights, falling from a height, blows to the head, and so on. Depending on the needs of the plot, and the character receiving the injury, I’ve seen characters survive multiple injuries, any one of which would be fatal, and other characters receive a minor blow that incapacitates or kills the character. You don’t need a medical degree for this, just a sense of realism. We’ve all been injured at some point in our lives. We’ve suffered blows to the head, falls, broken bones… things that we, as writers, subject our characters to. The key is to try not to make your protagonist look invincible, because it takes away from the sense of danger you are trying to convey, but at the same time you need to be consistent with what it takes to incapacitate antagonists and other characters.
Gunshot wounds are a great example. A character takes a single gunshot to the torso and dies immediately. This has become a commonly accepted theme, due to the frequency of the occurrence in movies. The truth is far different. A bullet does penetrate the body with an amazing amount of force, and that force can potentially put the victim into shock. But what that bullet actually does is drill a hole through the body. Depending on the type of bullet, the wound created can be significantly worse. Hollow point rounds are designed to flatten on impact. The bullet can mushroom to twice its original size on the way through the body. It’s also spinning as it passes through the body, so the rotation is causing additional damage. This causes internal bleeding and, of course, extreme pain. But it won’t cause instantaneous deat, unless the bullet strikes a critical organ. The internal bleeding can be fatal, especially in the chest cavity, but bleeding out takes time. This is why law enforcement officers (and the military) are trained to shoot until the threat is eliminated. A person with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest could still be on his feet, fighting.
The exception to this, as noted above, is a bullet that strikes a critical organ. The most obvious of these would be the brain. Without the brain, the body can’t function. A bullet that passes through the brain will almost certainly kill the person on impact. If it’s a glancing blow, there’s still a high likelihood of a fatal wound, but it may not be immediate. The same goes for a bullet to the heart. If the path of the bullet punches a hole through the heart, you have a fatal wound. But depending upon the size of the hole, death (or even incapacitation) might take some time. As long as the heart is still able to pump blood to the body, that person might still be in the fight. But with a major heart wound, say for example a hollow point round, it might be only a matter of a couple of seconds before the victim is down.
While we’re on the topic, here’s another one that has always irritated me, and is especially prevalent in movies: so-called “silencers.” If someone in a movie is shot with a firearm, they always scream as they are dying. But when the characters are making a stealthy attack and use “silencers,” the victim falls without a noise. Amazing how the person’s body knew it was hit by a silenced weapon and decided to play along. But let’s get to the reality of the matter.
First of all, there is a reason I continued to put quotation marks around “silencer.” The devices are actually called “suppressors,” because they suppress the sound of the firearm. They do not actually silence the noise completely. Watch a movie where a suppressor is used. All you hear is a light hissing noise, but there are two problems with that. The lesser issue is that a semiautomatic weapon has a slide that moves back and forth when the weapon is fired. The slide, even without a bullet being fired, makes more noise than a suppressed movie weapon.
The second problem is the reason that these devices are called suppressors, not silencers. A pistol with a suppressor attached is still very loud. When used at a firing range, shooters with suppressors on their weapons still wear hearing protection. The sound of a suppressed weapon is louder than a firecracker. Much quieter than an unsuppressed weapon, but much louder than what you see on TV and in the movies. I’d like to give props to the movie The Bourne Identity. At the end, one of the antagonists is killed by a suppressed weapon. But the sound of that weapon is still a sharp crack, not a hiss. Much more realistic.
I’d like to make a final point regarding body injuries. When one character wants to knock another unconscious, the most common method is the blow to the head, usually with a heavy object, such as a pistol or a small club. The character wakes up sometime later and, aside from possibly having a headache, the character is fine. The reality: a blow to the skull hard enough to cause unconsciousness is at the very least going to result in a nasty concussion. If the blow is hard enough, it may fracture the skull, which can be fatal. Even without a skull fracture, such a blow could easily cause a subdural hematoma, which in some cases can be fatal without treatment. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, confusion, slurring of speech, and even coma are likely. Also, when you have some time, do some research on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI comes from this type of blow to the head, and results in permanent brain disability. Loss of memory, loss of muscle control, loss of speech all can come from a blow to the head.
Scott’s quick medical note: the dura is one of three membranes that encapsulate the brain. Blood that is pumped to the brain does not actually reach the brain. Instead, the oxygen and nutrients brought in the blood are exchanged through the membranes. If blood penetrates the dura (a subdural hematoma), it can put pressure on the brain, causing the symptoms listed above. Blood actually reaching the brain (through the membranes) can be fatal.
My advice is to take a few moments to think about the injuries you are about to inflict on your characters. Avoid the clichéd applications of force you see so much of in TV, movies, and books. A more reasonable application of such injuries will add a more realistic feel to your writing and give your readers a much more enjoyable experience. In my next installment, I’ll make some suggestions regarding strategies and tactics for action scenes.