Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes: Enter The G.A.F.F.E.

I wasn’t sure what to do for a header this time, so here’s the Wismeyer Longsword–now extremely blue.

Welcome back to Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes! I’m your host, a sapient Camcorder with legs made from broken pencils.

That is a lie. I am obviously Cullen, and today I present to you my G.A.F.F.E., here meaning “Generalized Authorial Fight Framework, Expandable.” Of course, we all know that I chose those specific words to let me spell “gaffe”. After all, this is something I present enthusiastically which may very well offend a lot of people.

Is it still unintentional if I’m aware of that? A discussion for Twitter, we’re here to discuss the G.A.F.F.E. From now on it’s mostly “the Framework” for reduced cheese. So… what the hell is it? The Framework is a guiding suite of questions, points of concern and suggestions I believe every author should take into account if they’re writing fight scenes on other worlds or in other realities. And since that’s obviously a Herculean labor taking a long friggin’ time, let’s get right to it!

The fundamental question: will this story contain fight scenes? If yes, activate the Framework and bust some heads. If no, go have a nice cup of (your beverage here) and read something else. Obviously that’s not a useful starting point for this post, so let’s assume somebody, somewhere, at sometime in this story, will engage in choreographed ass-whoopin’ against other characters. The G.A.F.F.E. isn’t for exploring exactly how to handle the results of all its questions–that comes later in this series.

The Framework focuses on overarching lore questions that you’ll already know something of, the questions which ultimately determine just what kind of fight scenes you’ll write for each story.

This is less so you obsessively catalog the hurty-stabby aspects of your world, and more to grease your brain-wheels about the natural implications of hurty-stab. How common is violence on this world? Which societies are regarded as most violent, and is that accurate or are their neighbors a bunch of bigoted sap-snorters? Just to unpack these questions and their implications: if violence is common, that implies species who are a teensy-tad predisposed towards it.

Another crucial question early on: how violent is, er, your violence going to be? For my own writing, I decided early on that if The McCurdiverse was a gaming series, every release would be rated M. I don’t mean you need sickening detail on every individual death-blow, but you do need to set the maximum gore level early on. This goes beyond grossing people out; it’s hard describing combat’s ebb-and-flow in-depth if you must avoid specific details about what this technique does to that organ. A screaming uppercut sounds pretty cool; a screaming uppercut carving into the bandit’s left hip and out his chest in an aortic splatter is brutally so.

Next, a two-parter: have organized societies on this world practiced violence long enough to have martial arts based around it, and how much do you care about realism? This is a mandatory point because, as much as most fantasy pretends otherwise, martial arts isn’t optional if you want to be useful in pre-gunpowder warfare. More than a few martial arts treatises from the 1500s were actually intended for civilians training to function as part of their city or town’s militia. Not professional soldiers, not knights, not mercenaries: cobblers, bakers and candlestick makers. Total goddamn normies.

Obviously all the professional types were way more hardcore, but we’re not there yet.

The point is that unless you’re depicting a world with so much upheaval that there’s no time to develop and study martial arts, or writing characters who would have no understanding of it, you’re going to need to get into that a little. Remember: for a long time nobody wrote magic systems either, but now they’re pretty much mandatory for fantasy.

You may worry martial arts are another worldbuilding element to juggle, and that’s certainly true–but it’s a worldbuilding element that lets your agile, dexterous fighter break people’s wrists, grapple them to the ground, and nimbly redirect the energy of the enemy’s attacks into immediate counter attacks. Keep in mind also that the “martial” in “martial arts” derives from the Roman Mars, the God of War. You may be aware that unlike the Greek Ares with whom he has some similarities, Mars was a legit war-god who people actually respected.

Why do I bring this up? Despite–Bruce Lee, respect the hell out of ya but damn did you make my job difficult here. Rest in peace.–our current pop-culture conviction that martial arts refers to something entirely Eastern, martial arts has not only existed in but been a pivotal part of every warrior culture in history. The English term for it comes from Latin, and the Romans had plenty of martial arts of their own.

Their wrestling traditions survived, and were actually used by European knighthood as a basis for grappling; armor and weapons change fast, but human bodies not so much. At this point, the debate among historically-versed martial artists isn’t whether a given culture had martial arts, but whether they left us enough sources to reconstruct those martial arts from.

Knowing how to fight better than other people is a really desirable advantage, hm? And if martial arts can earn you cool points today, even in the United States with our outrageous gun fetish, do you really think it wouldn’t have been a status symbol historically? You don’t need to answer–it absolutely was. This brings us to a key aspect of the Framework: the higher the stakes are, the more people will gravitate towards what works. Life and death are so high-stakes that even genetics gravitates towards what works better. Remember evolution?

I bring up realism for two reasons. First off, our reality generally has more depth than constructed reality, because constructed realities are made by five writers in a room running on coffee and hatred for existence, and our reality has been created by tens of billions of human throughout history. So, it is okay, just maybe, to take some notes from this universe. But if you’re dead set against that, martial arts probably isn’t going to do much for you.

Martial arts isn’t magical, you see. Unless in your world it is, but we’re not there yet. The second reason I bring up realism: if you’re going to seek it, you have to throw contrivances out the window. This will yield you much tenser, harsher fights. Whether that’s good or not depends a lot on the story you’re trying to tell and what your age-range is. If this is a rollicking high-fantasy adventure for readers under 18, maybe not.

If it’s a grimly psychological tale touching on the extent to which culture and family values can determine the entire course of a life, how we can’t undo in adulthood the mistakes we made in childhood, and on a purely narrative level on how violent Medieval-ish combat actually is… then yes, harsher fights are a good thing. (Does it still count as plugging The Necromancer and the Revenant if I do it without typing the name? Look, the question stands even if it’s just become irrelevant for this one post.)

How good are you with spatial reasoning? Okay, no, that’s not a lore question, but you need to be aware of it. It’s a really frequent problem in fantasy fight-scenes that if you plot out the movements, characters are doing things they shouldn’t physically be able to based on the movements they’ve made up to that point. You’ll want to be aware of this, and possibly corral some friends to plot out each move with. Obviously if you study martial arts, you already know some people you can abuse do research with.

Another vaguely on-topic image: yours truly with this big sword I have because… c’mon, look at this blog.

How long has warfare worked the same way on this world? Does the style of warfare lend itself to developing individual fighting skill? If it’s all guns and mortars, your fights are going to be less about technique than tactical reasoning, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Right now we’re still in the fantasy part of this series, so let’s put the gauss-rifles and orbital target designators aside for a little while.

Anyway, if warfare has worked the same way for more than a few years, the existing martial arts traditions will start adapting to it. Looking at that transition is, in fact, an excellent way to explore these fighting systems without feeling contrived.

How does a given culture or country’s favored martial arts tradition (or even group of traditions) reflect the geography, culture, and daily life of that country? If your answer is “I dunno,” better work on that. If your answer is “it shows how arrogant they are so the humble nomads can kick their asses,” better work on that. If your answer is, “it shows how they’re humble nomads who will kick everyone’s asses,” read This Post First and then you better work on that. Remember, the entire point of fight scenes is to add conflict.

What the hell is the conflict supposed to be if the nomads, who are always the most likable and developed culture in a fantasy, also win everything? Much as I might quibble about the Parshendi in The Stormlight Archive, the fact that they as good people ultimately lose (namely, by unwittingly trading their morality for the power to survive) is one of the series’ strongest conflicts so far.

This next one isn’t a question, but something I need you to remember: Martial arts is not easy to learn. It is not quick to learn. If at any point you have a character learning it to an effective threshold in a year or less, stop yourself. Ask if this is really the kind of worldbuilding you want to do. If the answer is yes… you’re going to have a hard time making use of my remaining advice. To put things in perspective: traditional Japanese martial arts often only taught footwork for the first several of training. In Europe, the focus was on wrestling and grappling to teach body mechanics long before prospective knights ever picked up a training sword.

You’re following me? In real world martial arts, you have to train to be good enough to train. Nobody’s learning to fight well in a year. And you know what? Work with that. The fact that your characters have to study is a Good Thing(TM). This gives you the opportunity, organically, through the narrative during their training itself, to help your reader understand the rules of your fight scenes even as your character learns them. Then when it comes time to actually cross swords for real, you can choose for yourself how much to bring up the rules and how much simply to imply them.

Don’t worry too much about what those rules are going to be. Again, I’m helping with that in later entries.

Is armor going to work or not? Will armor even exist? Will weapons even exist? The implications of all these questions for your fight scenes are obvious enough I probably don’t need to explore them. What I do need to explore is that in life or death scenarios, humans quickly abandon things that don’t work. So, if armor in your world does nothing to protect its wearers, you should carefully consider whether you really want to include it or not.

Since I mention it: does your world include non-humans? Their psychology, stature, and resources should clearly affect the way they fight in a way that differs them from humans.

Do full-scale wars happen in your world? Every battle should obey the rules you’re setting up elsewhere.

Here’s an especially vital point to consider. We have a mindset in writing–which, to be fair, exists for good reason in most cases–that the main characters need to be integral to the plot. And this is obviously true, but in writing violence and war featuring the main characters, we too often fall into the trap of preventing anything from happening which isn’t completely defined by them. And, well, that’s not how combat works. In forcing duels, skirmishes, battles and wars to focus so exclusively on the main characters, we undermine the overall conflict.

We lose the opportunity for other battles that effect the meticulous campaign plans of the protagonist, for rumors of great enemy champions to affect their own forces morale, to tell the story of protagonists who do everything right yet see the war lost because of mistakes elsewhere on their side. That sense of helpless, frustrated competence is a huge part of Earth warfare, and a way of advancing your characters and the plot which is almost never utilized.

So, following from that: are you going to let characters outside the main cast influence fights as much as or more than the main cast? If no, you better have some damned solid reasoning for your decision. Fully understand why you’re confining things this way.

What’s the average time-to-kill in your world? This will tie into everything from technology to your magic system–if you have one. In Earth history, time-to-kill is widely variable from one fight and time period to another. There are accounts of 1900s street brawls in which both combatants wounded each other dozens of times with knives and swords, but countless accounts about trained swordsmen killing or being killed within three movements. Once you decide on this, stick to it. Pick an upper range for duels between evenly-matched combatants, and make sure everything else stays well below that length.

Here’s a question to help you avoid the really common problem of “lone godlike warrior people who are just better because I said so”: how large is a given martial arts tradition? If it involves more than a few hundred people who are all in the same school, you’re going to see wide variation in quality. Consider every factor that pressures you to improve as a writer–competition from others, the need to be sure you’re good enough to keep yourself supported and to gain followers, a matter of pure artistic principle.

Now, consider every factor that holds you back: being unable to focus solely on your writing because it’s not a steady source of income, doubt about your work’s quality, the subjectivity of what quality writing actually is, bad advice from people you trust, good advice that hurts too badly for you to accept it at first, whether you’re eating enough, whether you’re sleeping enough… writing is lower stakes than (historical!) martial arts and still brings in all these factors.

On the flip side, I’m not saying you can’t have a lone godlike warrior people. My writing has one of the most egregious examples of such groups; you’ll meet them eventually. But you need to take into account everything I just mentioned, and everything besides that would help or hamper these warriors, and worldbuild deeply enough that those ridiculous power levels are justified.

On that note: what’s your universe’s overall limit for fighting/destructive ability? This may be more of a soft limit with some characters rising a bit above it, but you need to have it there. Decide from the start where you’re going to set that limit, and under no circumstances pull a Toriyama by having characters repeatedly push the envelope in ever-goofier ways.

Once you’ve set that, decide how the world and characters in this particular story compare with that true limit. Their world may have its own, much lower threshold–that’s fine. A large part of an effective power progression is using all your most dramatic stuff to set the ceiling, and then carefully writing your way up to meet that ceiling from somewhere more reasonable. Remember also that “IT’S BIG” is a really basic way of describing something. It just about functions, but that’s such a basic human way of expressing something’s power. As a writer, you want something vastly more interesting than just “HIS NUMBERS ARE SO HUGE!”

We’re coming up on around 3,000 words, and amply enough examples for you to fill in the gaps yourself. You’ll have to do that, because you’re never really going to be able to use my advice if you don’t learn to move beyond rote rules. Despite all I’ve gone over, this is by no means an authoritative list. I’ve tried my best to lay out a lot of the most urgent considerations, but there are just too many worldbuilding elements, age-range or genre considerations, and differences in writing style for me to catch everything.

This’ll do for now. From here on in, we finally get to all that nice, juicy, specific advice!

(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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