Knowing When to Fight

Ruminations

Silas, the protagonist of Earth Thirst, is a career soldier. He’s fought in many, many wars, going all the way back to the granddaddy of all conflicts–the Trojan War. He’s been in his share of scraps, dust-ups, brawls, riots, melees, and Stupid Shit That Goes Down Out Back By The Dumpsters. His first (and favorite) weapon was the kopis, the long knife used by the Greeks. He is familiar with the Roman gladius, the Norse arming sword, the Crusader’s longsword, the Mamluk’s sabre, the Zweihänder, the rapier, the epee, the cutlass, the bayonet, the Bowie knife, the tactical knife, the machete, and the Ginsu knife. The firearm list is even longer. As you can imagine, writing fight sequences for him can get technically complicated.

I used to love writing fight sequences because they required little dialogue or plot. They were all about action–moving pieces around on a board. In the last few years, though, I’ve been involved in a project that takes its fight sequences very seriously (the three volume historical adventure novel, The Mongoliad). One fight sequence in that project took us four months, three drafts, and a half-dozen expert consultants to get right. We shot a lot of choreography video for a fight that lasts about a minute and a half. Most of that video is our experts going into the weeds on their various martial arts to illuminate subtle intricacies of the techniques. Hours of video. Hours of work. The fight lasts less than two minutes.

It’s easy to get fight sequences wrong. In more than one hotel room, I’ve pushed furniture around to make enough so that I can step through the physical movements of a fight sequence. I’m not doing yoga. I’m trying to replicate the body mechanics of How Not To Get Hit By A Longsword. I had been vetting sword fights for about a year and a half when it came time to write Earth Thirst, and I was really tired of fight sequences.

But here’s Silas, and as tired as I am, he’s infinitely more tired of fighting. At the very least, it would be a rare fight that would interest him enough to warrant mentioning in his narrative. They were like brushing your teeth, eating lunch, or trying to remember where you put your car keys last night: the banal details of your life that no one cares to read about. And there is an efficiency here, as well. Like all repetitive actions that bore you, you learn to finish them very quickly.

Suddenly, the fight sequences in Earth Thirst became intriguing puzzles. How could I finish them as quickly as possible? What was the most brutally efficient method?

Which is how I ended up with Silas and Phoebe taking on a several carloads of mercenaries with just a couple of handguns and a scooter . . .

[This post originally ran on The Night Bazaar on December 10th, 2012.]