Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Essay: Keepin' it real

When we think of fantasy fiction, we usually think of action sequences combined with long-range quests... lots of horseback and camping and seeking the MacGuffin or the bad guys or running like hell from evil or something.

Unfortunately, I have to admit some private astonishment that many action scenes are... boring. There is a rhythm and a rhyme to writing good action. I've been fortunate in that my action sequences, particularly fight scenes, usually receive highly positive comments and reviews.

I think part of this is due to my background in competitive martial arts and athletics. All you mommies that want to take sports away from your kids might consider that each experience you deprive him of is one less experience that he will eventually be able to describe.

One thing I've commented on before is that most authors honestly don't have any idea what it's like to be punched, kicked, or hit with something. In Battlefield Earth Johnny is struck in the head by a piece of metal thrown by a psychlo warrior. The object is thrown with enough force to leave fragments of superdense metal embedded in the interior of his skull.

Yet Johnny manages to pull himself to his feet, fight back, and accomplish his mission. I'm sure that I'm not the only concussion survivor to read that scene and think, "Horse Pucky!"

Part of the problem is that author L. Ron Hubbard was much better at creating asinine false religions than he was at understanding the workings of the human body (Really. Alien ghosts make us feel bad, Mr. Cruise. Are you sure it's not your lame-ass movies?)

Human joints only bend in certain directions. This is the secret behind joint manipulation martial arts like Aikido and Jujitsu. No one resists nikyo any more than they expect the Spanish Inquisition.

A human being can only absorb so much damage before experiencing what Dungeons and Dragons referred to as "System shock." This is basically a trauma so massive that it causes the brain to black out in response.

In 1992 I broke my arm. Three months later, two days after getting the cast off, I was in a biking accident and broke it again. The second break did so much damage that I blacked out. In D&D terminology I failed my system shock roll. (Yes, I'm a nerd. Get used to it now because if I could find a damn gaming group here in North Carolina I'd still be playing D&D. If you have a group, send me an email. I'm in Raleigh/Durham.)

These little bits are important to understand when we construct a fight scene. Yes, our heroes are larger than life. Johnny was able to force himself to remain awake and fight back (although somewhat improbably) because he is "da man." He is literally the reason the story was written, and it's possible for us to believe that if the damage he incurred had severed one more brain cell, or if he'd lost three more ounces of blood...

However, we need to consider the alternative view as well. When I read Earth I was less than pleased because it was obvious to me that Hubbard had no idea what he was talking about when it came to massive brain trauma. This is the number one killer of Americans in vehicle and biking accidents and falls. Fractured skulls generally kill you within minutes.

To continue putting this in perspective, I'd like you to realize that three years ago I was substitute teaching in an 8th grade class that was assigned to watch the movie Clash of the Titans. I made an error in timing and shut down the DVD player about ten minutes early. While I was waiting for it to boot up again I fell back on my Bloom's Taxonomy and asked a couple of redirection questions of the class to keep them focused. The second question I asked was, "What have we learned here?"

A very bright young lady in the third row said, "Anyone can be a hero if the gods give you a magic shield, magic sword, magic helmet, flying horse, and a robot owl that knows everything."


I'd like you to keep this in mind when you think about your own fiction. After all, it's very easy to make your heroes superhuman. It's very attractive to load them down with advantages that we don't have. Think about Superman. Nice guy though he is, where's the drama and the suspense in one of his comics? I certainly don't see any. Superman can walk slowly into a jewelry store holdup, ignoring the effects of automatic weapons fire directed at him, grab the bad guys by the neck, and wander just as slowly back outside to the assembled police cars.

In fact, the only thing that stops him is chunks of what must have been the biggest damn planet in the universe, considering that the bad guys manage to find a piece of it in every frickin' episode.

Now think about Daredevil, the "Man Without Fear." Double D (not to be confused with my high school girlfriend), was flippin' blind. Yes, he could hear heartbeats, but the man couldn't see!

In this case, the authors gave a pretty serious handicap to our hero, for all that they compensated him with some other gifts.

In Crossed Swords the heroes are given powers and gifts "as of a native of this world." What they are not given is immortality, invulnerability, or even any idea what the hell is in store for them. While Steve can cast spells that turn enemies to stone, and Dave can literally sneak up on sleeping horses and examine their hooves for injury without waking them, every action, even the slightest one, risks injury and even death. David ends up with broken ribs. Steve ends up with a concussion. They each run in absolute mortal terror from the same things that would scare the fur off of us (Like a fifty-foot lizard horking a fireball in your direction.)

The best stories are about people in conflict, fighting to overcome the odds. There is a scene I will never forget from the mini-series V. A lone woman, on crutches in fact, stands with nothing more than a pistol against an alien fighter on a strafing run. Around her are dead and dying. She's a doctor, who refuses to fight, but she picks up the gun and, holding it inexpertly, stands firm while the fighter locks in on her and blaster fire creeps closer.

The tears on her cheeks are not of fear or even sadness, but of anger, and as each round snapcracks out of the gun the recoil seems to set her teeth even further in determination.

I was ten when I saw that mini series, and I have never forgotten that dramatic act of bravery. I hope like hell that if aliens ever invade my planet I'll have the cojones to stand there and empty a magazine at them. One woman, against an interplanetary attack craft piloted by an advanced civilization?

A less obscure example is the end of Star Wars: Episode 1 A New Hope. As Luke begins his final run into the Death Star trench, Wedge (We've talked about Wedge before.) is hit in the forward stabilizer and starts to lose control of his X-Wing. He pulls out, leaving Luke and Biggs Darklighter (Luke's friend from Tattooine, who is barely mentioned in the original movie, but actually has a considerable backstory.) by themselves.

A few seconds later, Vader takes out Biggs and then hits R2D2 on the back of Luke's fighter, leaving him completely alone.

This is drama. This is "man against the world." Luke Skywalker is attacking a space station the size of a small moon, in a tactically poor position (with three enemy fighters on his six) by himself!

His only advantage is a dead guy he knew for about a day and a half telling him to use some wacky-ass mystical power he's never tried to channel.

My favorite author, Terry Pratchett, says, "Million to one chances succeed nine times out of ten." I think, for real action and suspense, you look to your action scene to be something like a ten-sided die. (I told you I play D&D.)

If you roll that die 100 times, in 90% of the rolls your main characters should fail-- and fail badly, with real consequences like death, maiming, or serious loss (of battle, freedom, loved one, etc.) Your action scene is about that one time out of ten when they beat the odds.

By the way, today's blog was written using Dr. Wicked's online "Write or Die." 1402 words in 35 minutes, not too shabby. Check it out!

Write on!


Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. So glad to see I'm not the only one poking fun at Mr. Hubbard :)
    Another thing to touch on, which you briefly did - is the 'reality' of the consequences of loosing. If we don't believe little johnny is truly in danger then we don't care how long it takes Lassie to go get help ... she could be faced with 100 rattlesnakes, a bear and a stretch of quicksand but none of her actions are exciting if we don't believe johnny is really gonna bite it. The reverse is - sometimes authors kill favored characters JUST so their story seems more realistic. I hate that ...

  2. did I go off on a tangent? guess I took that and ran a little - sorry.

  3. I'm not poking fun so much as outright ridiculing him. Anyone dumb enough to believe in a religion in which alien ghosts arrived on this planet in DC-10 airliners needs serious psychological assistance, and that's part of the reason why Hubbard and his Luddites were/are so dead set against the idea of psychologists.

    I got a little of what you're alluding to in the Harry Potter series. At times it seemed that Rowling was just snuffing characters to remind us that there was a war going on. There was no reason to kill Colin Creevey, for example-- he's a minor character we could barely remember. A better character to off would have been Cho Chang. Since Harry had a major crush on her, the impact would have been real and immediate to him. His response would not have been anywhere near as dispassionate as it was when he saw Colin's still form.

    I have a specific character in mind for the end of XS who will not make it, but there's also a definitely apropos reason for it. In fact, I'm planning to write the scene this weekend after the fund raiser my football team is doing.

  4. Hope it goes well - the fundraiser and the death scene.
    One of my MCs bites it too. Originally she was a minor character but she grew in stature - unfortunately, she was always meant to die. I believe it is a 'necessary evil'. I'm wondering what readers on my beta group will think when I eventually post it ... I've never told anyone it's coming 'till now.

  5. It's an interesting thing to contemplate murder.