Action scenesNovel writing

Actions Scenes—PART 2: In finer detail

From Scott:

Last time, I talked in general terms about some of the perils and pitfalls of writing a good action scene. But I also promised you that I would go into greater detail. How would your character react in a fight? What happens when bullets start flying? What kind of tactics should my military unit be using? Today, I will address these issues, and more. Before I go any further, I would like to offer one explanation. Although this is a blog about writing fiction, I will cite a number of examples from TV and movies. Why? Since the examples I cite are visually depicted, it will be easier for you to understand what I’m pointing out, whether the example is the right way or wrong way to put together an action scene.

Let’s start with the simplest form listed above: a fight. Although I wouldn’t care to put a percentage on it, I would wager that at some time in their lives, most people have been involved in at least one physical altercation. But as I said the last time, the lesser your experience with personal combat, the more difficult it will be to describe a fight in realistic terms that will keep your reader’s attention and make the altercation believable. Interestingly, the same difficulties you face as a writer should be facing your character in the fight you are trying to describe.

If your character is not an experienced fighter, then the “right” way of fighting that I will describe would not be known to that character, so a reader would expect the character to make mistakes. At the other end of the scale, you have characters who are supposed to be an expert in some form of the martial arts and would therefore know the correct way to land a blow. Most characters should fall somewhere in between. If your character has some idea of how to fight, then here are some guidelines for you to follow as you paint the picture in your reader’s mind.

The most common blow in a fight is a punch, delivered with a closed fist. In the movies, two characters will spend long minutes duking it out, throwing punch after punch at each other’s head. Let’s think about that. First of all, if you punch someone in the head, you are slamming your fist into a thick layer of bone. Yes, it will damage your opponent’s head. It might daze him, or might even knock him unconscious, especially if the blow is struck to the chin. There’s a nerve that runs behind the hinge of the jaw. A blow that drives the jawbone to the rear can pinch that nerve and cause unconsciousness (hence the term “glass jaw”). The downside is that there is a very real chance to break your hand. The knuckles behind the index and middle fingers are solid and reinforced. If the hand is properly clinched, and if the hand is aligned properly with the arm, you will only bruise your knuckles. But the other two knuckles are just the opposite. A punch to the head that includes these knuckles in the impact stands a great chance of breaking the bones between the knuckles and the wrist. I’ve seen it happen. The unofficial name for it is the “boxer’s fracture.” This is actually the reason for boxing gloves. The gloves protect the bones of the hand, while the reinforcing layer of tape on the wrists prevents an injury of that joint due to hyperextension or hyperflexion.

So why do you see martial arts sessions involving the practice of throwing punches? It’s all in what you strike, and how you strike. A punch thrown against the torso or a major muscle group can be very effective, with minimal risk to the one throwing the strike.

However, the safest way to throw a strike is by using one of six striking points: elbows, knees, and feet. A great movie example of this is The Bourne Supremacy. Watch his one-on-one fight scenes, especially the one in Germany versus the other Treadstone agent. They get in tight, and all of the strikes are with the points mentioned above. You minimize the risk to yourself, and you don’t overextend. That’s another problem with throwing punches. Most brawlers like to throw a massive roundhouse punch, telegraphed from a mile away. Not only is such a punch easy to duck or block, but it will throw the aggressor off-balance and allow the other combatant to gain control. Remember, most fights don’t involve people on their feet for long. They throw a few blows at each other and end up wrestling on the ground.

Moving on, let’s talk about firearms. I’m not going to go too deep into the details of firearms. With the wide variety of choices—pistols, revolvers, shotguns, rifles, single-action, double-action, semi-automatic, automatic, and so on—firearms are worth a blog of their own. I will say this: Please, for the love of all you hold dear, do NOT say that someone is firing on “full semi-automatic.” This is a phony term that was recently invented in an attempt to make firearms appear more frightening. Use of that term in your novel will illustrate your lack of knowledge about the subject.

Ballistics, to the police, is the study of the flight and behavior of bullets. Watch any cop movie, such as the Lethal Weapon series, and you are sure to see gunfights involving people who are hiding behind cars. Rather than apply the rules of ballistics, the movies depict characters are who perfectly safe hiding behind car doors, as the cars seem to stop every bullet fired at it.

But reality is quite different. Most firearms will easily penetrate the metal in a car, especially the thinner metal used in cars built over the last two to three decades. If I place a target on the outside of the passenger’s door on a car, go to the other side of the car and fire at the driver’s door, I will very likely hit that target. The bullet will penetrate the metal of both doors, the softer filler material, and keep going. So if a character hides behind a car door, and that door is hit, the character should be hit as well.

The exception to this is the engine block. There is enough metal in an engine block to stop a bullet. Glass will barely slow a bullet down. Even the windshield will not stop a bullet and will only cause a slight deviation in the bullet’s trajectory. A few years ago, I sat right across the street from a shooting that occurred in a bar parking lot. The bullets went in through the windshield (narrowly missing the driver), out through the rear window, and kept going. Remember, most parts of a car provide concealment—meaning the shooter’s view is obstructed—but not cover. Cover would be the engine block, which can stop or deflect a bullet.

Another source of great irritation to me is the idea that someone can (or should) shoot to wound, such as aiming for the leg. In the movie Ricochet, the protagonist was facing down the antagonist, who had a hostage. The protagonist pulled a hidden gun out of his waistband, where the gun was placed in the small of his back. Rather than bring the gun around to the front, where he could actually aim, the protagonist shot while the gun was behind his back, like he was passing a basketball on a fast break. And of course, the bullet missed the hostage and struck the antagonist in the knee. The hostage was free, and the antagonist didn’t have to die. In reality, such a shot would be impossible. In fact, he would be far more likely to shoot himself in the back than to even get the bullet fired in the general direction of the target.

As for trying to hit the target in the leg, that presents a different problem. Anyone would understand that the previous example is a horrible idea, but rampant public opinion holds that a police officer, when faced with a deadly force situation, should shoot the offender in the leg. First, the leg is a much smaller target than the torso. If an officer is firing her weapon, it is because she believes her life or someone else’s life is in danger. This basic tenet should hold true with anyone who discharges a firearm at another person, police officer or not. To attempt to fire at such a small target, when someone’s life is in danger, would be foolish and dangerous. If the officer (or other shooter) misses the leg, the consequences would likely include the death of the officer, or whoever the officer was trying to save. And not only is the leg a small target, it is likely to be moving, making target acquisition much more difficult.

Now let’s add in another factor of reality: adrenaline. When faced with what is called the “fight-or-flight” response, the human body goes into survival mode. Massive amounts of adrenaline are released into the bloodstream, making a person faster and stronger. Unfortunately, it comes with a trade-off: a loss of fine motor skills. Aiming a gun requires such skills. You can see this effect rather easily. Hold your hand up, palm down and fingers spread, and look at how steady you can hold it. Now go outside and run for two minutes, at as fast a pace as you can sustain for that time period. Now repeat the experiment with your hand, and you will see it shaking. The same effect occurs when pointing a firearm at another human being. It becomes very difficult to aim. That’s why people are taught to fire at the torso. It’s the largest target on the body, giving the greatest room for error.

Moving along, I think we should briefly touch on combat strategies (again, to deeply delve into this would require its own blog entry). What I would like to discuss is how a combat unit should move when either on patrol or deliberately attacking an enemy position (“movement to contact”). This pops into my head because of the final episode of season eight of The Walking Dead (spoiler alert). Rick Grimes was leading his people on a movement to contact, attacking the “Saviors.” He had a group of around 30–40 people, all armed with some type of firearm. They knew they were attacking a group that was similarly armed. They moved in a mob, with each person no more than an arm’s length or two from other people.

This is a horrible idea. If the enemy used explosives, be it land mines, grenades, or artillery, moving so closely together would serve to maximize the effectiveness of such an attack. Additionally, if the enemy engaged Rick’s people with machine-gun fire, the casualties would mount much more quickly when firing into such a tight group.
Instead, they should be spread out. Put ten meters between each person in the formation, which is usually a series of inverted V’s. And you need at least two groups. That way, if Rick’s lead group gets ambushed, they can take cover and return fire. The second group would then sneak up on the enemy’s flank and hit them from behind, catching them in crossfire.

Another major strategic sin frequently seen in TV and movies is the way the soldiers carry their weapons. In a combat zone, be it a modern battlefield or the post-apocalyptic fields of The Walking Dead, weapons should always be held at the ready. No one should have a rifle slung, or laid across their shoulders, or trapped between arm and hip. The weak hand should be supporting the barrel of the rifle, while the strong hand is on the grip, index finger along the side of the weapon and near the trigger. This is important: trained soldiers and law enforcement never put a finger on the trigger until they are ready to fire the weapon. A finger on the trigger could lead to an accidental discharge.

Once they reach the objectives, the two groups would provide cover for each other. One group lays down heavy fire at the enemy positions (“suppressive fire,” designed to keep the enemy from taking aimed shots), while the other group maneuvers closer. The two groups take turns firing and maneuvering, allowing them to approach the enemy positions in a much more efficient manner. Even before the shooting starts, if enemy contact is expected at any time, this same technique is used, minus the firing. One group watches for the enemy, while the other moves forward a short distance, and then they switch. The term for this is “bounding overwatch.”

So there you have it. A very basic, but (I hope) helpful overview of some of the more common action scenes. And it sounds like I’m promising a bit more in the future along these same lines. Let’s see what I can do…


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