Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.
This week’s installment is by Peter Darbyshire (who also writes under the pen name Peter Roman).
My last two posts on this subject dealt with how spending half my life in martial arts has helped me learn the discipline it takes to keep going as a writer, and also the ability to ignore the overwhelming odds of failure. I want to close this series with the artistry in martial arts and in writing action scenes.
Lots of people don’t believe there’s artistry in either one. Thrillers are supposed to be lowbrow because of all the action scenes. (Never mind the fact that in modern marketing terms, you could accurately describe Hamlet as a psychological thriller.) And almost nobody understands how aesthetic terms like “beautiful” or “elegant” could apply to dislocating someone’s shoulder.
It’s true that there are a lot of witless thriller novels out there, and I’ll grant that it even took me, a huge fan of joint locks, a long, long time to understand the elegance in dislocating someone’s wrist, elbow and shoulder in a single throw. But from the beginning, being in the martial arts gave me a new appreciation for what guys like Bruce Lee and Tony Jaa are really doing on the screen, and how different it is from what Matt Damon can do in the Bourne films or what Christian Bale can do as Batman. That appreciation is invaluable in writing good action scenes.
They call it martial art for a reason. Watch the outtakes of a Jackie Chan movie and you’ll understand how concerned he is with timing and flow and rhythm. He burns himself pretty badly shooting the same stunt over and over again in Drunken Master II, all because he’s not satisfied with the rhythm of the earlier takes.
Writing is all about rhythm too. That’s most obvious in poetry, but it applies to fight scenes and car chases as well, where it’s all the more important because so often it goes unnoticed. In fact, if it’s done well, it’s never noticed; you’re just whisked along and the whole scene flows, with no missed beats to break up the action.
Any writing class should tell you that much, but I’m not sure I really understood it until I understood martial art as an art. Too many writers breeze through the action sequences when those ought to be every bit as refined as a character’s emotional reactions.
Colson Whitehead knows artistry as well as anyone writing these days, and he’s got a MacArthur genius grant to show for it. Max Brooks is credited with starting the zombie apocalypse phenomenon, and because of that, not many literary critics want to call him refined. Whitehead has a zombie book too, Zone 1, and as much as I appreciate his other literary talents, I’m afraid he can’t stand up to Brooks when it comes to action.
Zone 1 opens with a soldier getting jumped by a roomful of zombies. The fight scene lasts eight soporific pages, and includes details about the soldier’s third grade teacher, the cityscape outside the window, and the failure of someone’s business venture. Now don’t get me wrong: I like Whitehead. I liked Zone 1. But this is a fight scene to sleep through.
On the other hand, the subtitle of Brooks’s World War Z is An Oral History of the Zombie War. That means you don’t even have to read the book to know the humans survive the war. In fact, just from the title you know that every single point-of-view character in the book must have lived long enough to tell the tale. Otherwise, how could you be reading their stories? Brooks told me all of this right on the cover, even I even opened the book, and yet I found every zombie encounter utterly gripping.
That’s mastery of the art: to tell me the outcome of the battle in advance and still have me sitting on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the page. There really is artistry in writing fight scenes (and also in dislocating somebody’s wrist, elbow, and shoulder in one movement — but I’ll accept that lots of readers will have to take my word for it on that one).