Writing Martial Arts, Part 3: MA in Prose

Welcome to Part 3 of our series on Writing Martial Arts in fiction. This part deals with the nitty gritty: how to incorporate martial arts action into your prose.

First, let me refer back to a point that we made in Part 1. Short fights are the most realistic. Imagine, for a moment, a fight scene from a movie you’ve seen recently. Think about the way the characters get hit. How many punches like that could you take? Unless you are writing about Captain America, your character just can’t get hit that many times and keep going.

There is a delicate balance between keeping it real and making it awesome. Keeping these things in mind will help, when you consider the blows your character takes:

  • Location. Getting struck in the shoulder versus the throat.
  • Weapon. Getting punched feels different than getting elbowed.
  • Force. How hard did that hit land?

Now, as you get started writing your fight scenes, we recommend first working on the choreography. Think of this like preparing to film the scene. Sit down and visualize how the fight plays out. For our books, this is usually Sam’s job. He writes out short notes for me, just highlights of what happens. This helps me see the flow of the fight/battle. This also highlights the cool/iconic moves, so I can build to them.

Fight scenes flow differently than other scenes. The key is brevity. Shorter sentences and paragraphs help give the reader a sense of urgency and speed. Set the scene before you begin the action, so that once the fight starts, you can write only the combat, without having to stop for long descriptions.

I also recommend that you limit dialogue and character thoughts. A friendly duel might be a little different, but in any combat more serious than that, people are not going to stop to chat. There might be some that fits, but for the most part, people in a fight are going to be fixated solely on winning/staying alive.

Mix up the flow of your descriptions. Alternate between sweeping descriptions and specific moves. Your reader will not be engaged by a long, technical explanations. This was one of my beginning mistakes in our first drafts! I wanted readers to be able to visualize exactly what was happening in the fights, so I described each and every move. But my awesome, realistic fight scenes were…boring!

But they’ll also get tired of “they fought back and forth” generalizations pretty quickly. You need specific combat moves to give the rest of your descriptions context. Think of these moments as a spark. These moves can be iconic and memorable! Then your readers’ imagination will fill in the rest through your more sweeping descriptions.

As fights progress, injuries occur. Wounds can affect the combat in minor to very drastic ways. A scratch can distract. A cut above the eye can drip blood into the eyes. Dislocation can make weapons difficult or impossible to wield. Torn muscles or ligaments are equally disabling. Any open wound of size can eventually bleed out. You need to include these in your development of the choreography as well in the prose.

Lastly, remember emotion. This is not the same as thought, and you need to be careful not to delay action. But anyone who is in a fight, whether in sport or as a matter of life and death, will have to deal with adrenaline. There will be fear. The degree of skill that your character has in relation to his opponent will have some relation to the degree of emotion he experiences. But there is a physical reaction that happens, regardless of training. If you are getting hit, your body will respond. Your ability to work through those emotions is dependent on your training. In order to realistically depict a fight, you need to show the effect on the brain, as well as the body.

Thank you for joining us for this series! We hope that it has been informative. For more examples of how we like to write fight scenes, check out our books! =)

 

Writing Martial Arts, Part 2: Philosophies

One of the things that I have learned about being pregnant is that nothing happens quite as you expect. For instance, this post, which was supposed to come out two weeks ago, got delayed due to some scary moments with the baby, a car accident, and plain old preggie-brain.

So, at last we come to Part 2: Martial Arts Philosophies! If you haven’t yet read Part 1, check it out here.

When it comes to the philosophies of martial arts, the first thing that you need to understand is that martial arts are a way of life. True martial artists–particularly true masters–dedicate their lives to the study of their art. It surpasses the physical skills. As my master so often tells me, a true martial artist develops her mind, body and spirit into one great whole.

When you are approaching martial arts in your writing, you must develop the philosophy of your character(s). Without these foundations, your martial art (and your character) will feel incomplete and shallow. To that end, I would encourage you to ask the following questions.

1) What are the tenets of my character’s martial art?

Tenets are the core beliefs of a given philosophy, or in this case, martial art. For instance, the Five Tenets of Taekwondo are Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control and Indomitable Spirit. Though there may be small differences in different areas (I’ve seen Respect plugged in), most Taekwondo schools teach these tenets. Most have them displayed prominently in the dojang. The tenets provide an easy-to-reference guide for what the style believes and practices.

2) How does the fighting style relate to the philosophy?

the-karate-kid2010tournament

Have you watched the Karate Kid recently? Both the classic and the new movie are good examples; let’s refer to the new one. Obviously Mr. Han has a different fighting style than Master Li. The fighting style relates directly to what these schools believe. Mr. Han, who teaches the mental and spiritual aspects as much as the physical, emphasizes serenity and maturity. Master Li, whose fighting is brutal and merciless, teaches that nothing must stand in the way of victory. “No mercy!” In order to present a realistic martial art, the way your character fights must match what he believes.

3) What mental/spiritual training does my character practice? How does it relate to the physical training?

Meditation is almost intrinsically linked with martial arts. Every class I teach and attend has a period of meditation, where we practice clearing and focusing our minds. This is the most obvious mental training, but there are moments throughout martial arts training where the mental and spiritual are practiced hand-in-hand with the physical.

When my students are breaking boards, it is perfectly obvious to me when they believe that they can be successful, versus when they doubt or don’t believe. When they believe in themselves, they break. When they doubt, they often struggle or fail. Injury often results. It is part of my task to teach them mental control–sometimes, as simple as this belief in self.

As you approach writing your martial art, think through what kind of mental and spiritual training your character practices. Do they meditate? Do they pray? Do they practice ritual breathing? Do they listen to music prior to fighting? Do they write in a journal after fighting, to process their experience? Do they practice visualizations? Do they have a mantra? Choose what works best for your character, and commit to it.

4) What are the foundations of my martial art?

Where did it come from? If you are writing contemporary fiction, you should determine a country of origin for your martial art, fictional or otherwise. Taekwondo comes from Korea. Karate and Ju-jitsu in their traditional forms are from Japan. Kung Fu from China. Muay Thai from Thailand. Arnis and the other Filipino martial arts. These nations have rich histories, which directly influence these martial arts, their philosophies and their fighting styles. Even if you’re making up a martial art, if you are writing in the real world, you still should determine where it has come from, who founded it, what the history is, and how that nation’s history and personality has influenced the martial art.

If you are writing fantastical fiction, you may have less research to do, but you still need to ask yourself these questions. Your martial art, coming from a fictional country, can end up being anything you want. But in order to depict it in a believable fashion, you still need to have these foundations. How has your martial art developed over time? How has the history of your fictional world influenced your martial art? How is your martial art perceived by people in your world, practitioners and outsiders alike? In order for your martial art to feel real, it needs to have a believable and fleshed-out history, even if you never write about it in the prose. Your readers will sense the difference.

5) What does my character believe?

Keep in mind, every martial artist is different. Sam and I have studied different martial arts, and our philosophies are quite different. But even my husband and I, who earned our black belts at the same school, are quite different in several aspects. (Don’t get us talking about guns!) What is essential for you as a writer is to determine what your character believes, and make sure it is in line with what your martial art teaches–or if not, set it up as a source of conflict, either with the masters of that martial art, or within the character himself.

In summary, the belief system of your martial art is just as essential to develop as the fighting style. Martial arts are a whole package, and if you want to write a believable martial art, you need to think through the philosophy, and determine your character’s relationship with it. Readers, whether they are martial artists or not, will connect with this kind of depth.

In Part 3, we will be getting into the nitty-gritty of how to effectively present your martial art in your prose. Look forward to the next part in our series!

Writing Martial Arts, Part 1: MA Basics

One of the topics that we have thoroughly enjoyed speaking on, at LTUE and elsewhere, is how to create and write martial arts in fiction. Being that we are both martial artists ourselves, we have a great deal of personal experience to draw upon for inspiration. This series of posts is designed for both experienced martial artists and those with no exposure at all, but who all desire to write about martial arts in their fiction.

Part 1: Martial Arts Basics

First, you have to accept that no one post, or series of posts, can expose you to everything you need to know. We just can’t cover it all. You MUST research.

Of course, you could just go out and write. But trust me when I tell you, that when reading fiction that contains martial arts, I can tell the difference between a writer with experience and research, and someone just flying off the cuff. As a martial artist, some of the stuff out there makes me cringe. I’m sure that you don’t want to do that to me.

So, where to start?

I’ve heard the recommendation to take a martial arts class, and I’ve heard that recommendation debunked. Here’s a few pros and cons of this approach.

PROS
Hands-on experience
Meet martial artists who can become a resource
Realistic understanding of how a MA school runs
Hopefully gain some useful skills while you’re there

CONS
Every martial art is different, so studying at one school is very limited exposure
Takes a long time to actually become proficient and/or learn what you need to know for your story
Cost

Here’s my thought: no amount of research can really show you what it’s like to study martial arts. However, you may not need to go through the bruises, the repetition, the nerves, and all else in order to effectively write martial arts. So would I encourage you to take classes? Yes I would, but mostly for PRO #4. I’m a martial arts instructor, and I believe that everyone needs self defense skills. But I can also show you some ways to write martial arts that won’t require you to get a black belt first.

Understand what is actually possible. I saw a Mythbusters episode where they had a “ninja” come and try to catch arrows. Was it possible? Yes–with the right equipment, in the right position, and only once in about 14 tries…and this guy was FAST.

This is where your research comes in. Before you include that super-cool move that you’ve seen on TV a hundred times, find out if it’s something that real people are actually able to do. And then find out if those real people are only the super-skilled-master type, or if not, find out what level of training was required for them to be able to do it. You want to ensure that your character’s abilities match his/her level of training.

Next, study up on some of the different styles of martial arts. You need to understand different styles of fighting, so you can choose one for your character, then accurately represent it in your prose. Is your martial art hard (striking) or soft (deflecting)? Does your character fight with weapons, or open hand? Is your character trained to fight groups, or one-on-one, or both? Does your character fight upright, crouched, on the ground? Does your character prefer to fight at a distance or in close? Most important of all, what is your character’s martial arts’ philosophy? (More on this in Part 2.) In your character’s martial art, what does it take to become a master? What kind of time, dedication and skill does it take to reach “mastery” and where is your character on that journey?

Now, understand this: short fights are the most realistic, particularly one-on-one. When you watch a movie or read in a book that a fight lasted for hours, or days, you are reading nothing but fiction. Skilled martial artists are trained in finishing techniques, or one-hit finishes. Even if you have two masters, there may be a brief exchange of strikes and counters, but it will not be long before someone lands a blow, and most of the time, that blow signals the end of the fight. So in your fiction, you must balance the drama of a drawn-out fight with the realism of the one-hit finish.

Furthermore, keep in mind that no one walks away from a fight unscathed. If you have two competent fighters, there are going to be injuries, some of them devastating. I heard it put very succinctly at LTUE. The winner is the guy who leaves the hospital first. If you have a character who fights without being injured, it’s time to rewrite.

There is a world of resources available for you to begin your martial arts research. Here are just a few of our favorites:

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
Codex Wallerstein or other of the German Renaissance combat manuals
The Art of War by Sun Tzu

In Part 2 we will be covering Martial Arts Philosophies, touching on some of the real-world foundations and how you can build on them for your fiction. Part 2 is available here.

LTUE Reflections

This past weekend, Sam and I had the opportunity to attend and speak at Life, the Universe & Everything, a science fiction and fantasy symposium held annually in Provo, Utah. We went last year and loved it, and we were excited to be able to attend again. LTUE is a three-day event with panels and presentations on all things SF/F, with a definite focus on writing. There are also readings, signings, gaming and dealers rooms, as well as a banquet.

Of the writing conferences that I personally have attended, LTUE is one of my favorites, for several reasons, the foremost being the atmosphere. LTUE is very personal, in a good way. New York Times bestselling authors rub shoulders with aspiring writers, and the focus of the symposium is a shared love of the genres.

I thought I would share a few things that I learned, observed, and pondered while at LTUE, just for funsies.

Brandon Sanderson should not sit on panels.

I attended a couple of panels on which Brandon Sanderson participated on Friday. Here’s the problem. Brandon Sanderson is a NYT bestselling author. He is famous. He is particularly well-loved in this area, because he’s from this area. He’s also verbose and well-spoken on these topics. So when he speaks on a panel, I don’t care who else is on the panel, they are going to be outshone.

Case and point: the first panel that Brandon spoke on (“Prologues and Epilogues”) he was 10 minutes late. And for the first ten minutes of the panel, every time the door opened, at least half of the eyes in the audience swiveled toward the door. The anticipation was obvious–was Brandon Sanderson going to show up? I’m convinced a fair number of that audience didn’t care in the least about prologues and epilogues, they were there to see their favorite author. And at least three-quarters of the audience were there at least partially because of him. So, needless to say, when he finally walked in, there was a palpable sense of relief followed by an immediate charge of excitement.

Also, no offense to Brandon…he likes to talk. I’m sure he’d admit that to you without hesitation. Pitting his love of talking with the audience’s desire to hear from him (certainly more than they wanted to hear from the other authors on the panel), and his fellow panelists are at a severe disadvantage.

Couple that with the fact that on this particular panel there were no other authors of anywhere close to the experience level/publishing record that Brandon has…

Summary: Brandon Sanderson (and other authors with similar levels of popularity) should give solo presentations. Or sit on panels with authors of similar rank.

90 minute writing sessions

I attended a panel entitled “Recharging your creative battery” from which I hoped to glean some useful tips. Unfortunately, there was a fair bit of “fluff.”

Pause. Let me clarify something.

I’ve attended quite a few writing conferences, and after you’ve been to a couple of them, you start to hear a lot of repeat information. While much of the information is helpful (at least, the first time around) there is still a certain amount of trite, overused writing advice that gets passed on at every writing conference ever. It would be these platitudes which I refer to as “fluff.”

Onward.

The one helpful suggestion that I gleaned from “Recharging…” was based off some research from Europe which indicated that people work best in 90 minute cycles. The idea is, work for a solid 90 minutes, then take a break–go for a run, watch a TV episode, etc–then go back to work. The break in between cycles actually increases productivity, so you are able to accomplish more than you would have if you had worked straight for the entire period.

I really liked this suggestion, and intend to try it and see if it increases my writing productivity.

Meeting cool people

One of my most favorite parts of LTUE is meeting cool people. I love it when people come up after a panel to continue asking questions, or pursue further conversation about the topic that we’ve presented on. It also was fun to talk to readers (and future readers!) at the book signing on Friday night. I love talking with people–fellow authors, aspiring writers, and readers–about our books, about martial arts, about writing, or really about whatever comes up. It’s awesome.

Constructing Languages “When Apostrophes Just Don’t Cut It”

That was the title of a panel that I attended, which, to be honest, turned into something of a disappointment for me. First of all, Orson Scott Card was supposed to be the panel, but didn’t show. Alas. But the panel itself was not what I had hoped. The panelists focused mostly on how to adapt languages such as Spanish or Russian for use in writing, and focused very little on actually constructing a fictional language, which is what I had expected from this panel, especially at LTUE, a science fiction and fantasy symposium.

I’m hoping that I can talk Sam into writing a post on constructing languages, as it’s something that he has experience with and a passion for! (I couldn’t help but think, during the panel, that Sam should have been on it!)

Geeky realities

Most of the people who I interacted with at LTUE were normal, wonderful people. However, there were definitely some…interesting folks there as well. (As is to be expected!) Costumes, hats, and…unique outfits were seen here and there. There was also a certain number of individuals that seemed to lack in the personal hygiene department. Maybe I was just oversensitive because I’m pregnant, but it seemed that the more popular sessions (aka the full sessions, where it got rather warm) were rather fragrant.

That said, I cannot deny the fun that comes from gathering with fellow fans of science fiction and fantasy. Geekdom unite!

More to come

Sam and I sat on three panels this year, and those in addition to several panels that we attended have sparked thoughts for several future blog posts, where we can address the topics in more depth. We look forward to sharing them with you!

Life, the Universe & Everything

We are excited to be appearing again this year at Life, the Universe & Everything. This science fiction & fantasy symposium is one of our favorite events of the year. If you are a SF/F fan or aspiring writer and you’ll be in the Provo area next weekend, you should definitely come check it out. Some of our favorite authors will be there, including Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, and others. We will be on several panels, including one on how to make up martial arts, how to write action sequences, and co-authoring do’s and don’ts. We will also be participating in the mass book signing on Friday evening, where you’ll be able to purchase or bring copies of our books to be signed.

Hope to see you there!

Holiday eBook Giveaway!

In the spirit of the holidays, we are giving a gift to all our Facebook fans: a free eBook copy of The Tale of Telsharu!

Simply visit our Facebook page, The Tales of the Seventh Empire (‘like’ the page while you’re there!) to get the download code and instructions. Hurry, though, the giveaway only lasts until Friday the 13th!

Feel free to spread the holiday cheer, this gift is for one and all!

Orem Book Signing

Join us this Wednesday, December 4th from 7:30-8:30pm at the Orem Public Library for a book signing and release party for The Scourge of Narak. We are excited to share Book Two with you! A limited number of copies of both The Tale of Telsharu and The Scourge of Narak will be available for sale; you can also bring your own copies to be signed. We look forward to seeing you there!