East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Choreographing violence in stories

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I said I was going to take the day off, but in the end I spent a fair part of yesterday afternoon planning and choreographing a big complicated action scene in the next Aculeo & Amunet story.

The hardest part, for me, when writing A&A, is the part about the fights.
Maybe I already mentioned this.

Fact is, I don’t like violence that much, and I’m not very good at describing it in an entertaining way because… well, because I don’t find it entertaining, I guess.
With some exceptions.


And yet, considering my Aculeo & Amunet stories are sword & sorcery, there are to be swords in there somewhere, and someone got to use’em.
And Aculeo, being a soldier, is supposed to be the one trained in the use of swords (Amunet takes care of sorcery – nice and smooth).

Being a Roman, Aculeo uses a gladius.

Now, being a man trained to fight, and being a no-nonsense sort of guy, Aculeo does not do strange flourishes and what not.
He’s businesslike when it comes to fights.
He takes no more pleasure in fighting than I take in describing fights – so he makes it quick.
I want his actions to be economic, effective, but also, possibly, entertaining.
Because of course when writing about a fight, the point is not writing a martial arts handbook, but carrying the story forward and entertaining the readers*.
And here comes the real catch – because to make the scene entertaining for the readers, I have to make it entertaining for me, in the first place.

I normally try to increase the entertainment value of my action scenes by complicating them – by making them less entertaining for the people involved, if you will.
In Bride of the Swamp God, for instance, while it’s painfully clear that Aculeo and Amunet are severely outgunned by their enemies, part of the fun (hopefully!) comes from the way in which the two protagonists interfere and hinder each other until they find a way to work together.

So the environment, the interaction between characters, the snippets of dialogue, the stuff going on while the bad guy tries to beat the living daylights out of poor Aculeo, all this becomes much more important than the actual blow-by-blow thing.
And it’s more fun.


Designing my fight scenes like this means I normally have to choreograph my fights – sketching a map, taking all bystanders into account, and then visualizing the sequence of events.
It’s a lot less fun than you might think.
The fun part, to me, once the whole chaotic sequence of punches, thrusts, pratfalls and lost weapons and sudden reversals and what else is running through my mind like a finely-tuned Jackie Chan movie…
… The fun, part, I said, is deciding what the reader is going to see.
The montage, if you will.
Or, turning the thing the other way around, what I’m going to leave out.
And the idea is to leave out everything that’s not necessary, and it’s not fun.
The tricky part is deciding what.

Having two point-of-view characters offers quite a lot of opportunities – and if I normally write combats from Aculeo’s point of view, in a somewhat dry, straightforward, simplistic way, sometimes shifting to Amunet for a few paragraphs is quite useful.
She has a different perception of the events, of course, and quite a different attitude, a different psychology – and a different biochemical response to violence.
She can add depth, and color.
It takes some trial-and-error.

Once the story is ready, I am lucky enough to have beta readers that actually have combat experience, weapons experts of the non-creepy variety, and they often point out inconsistencies, blunders and implausibilities.
I follow their advice 75% of the time – because sometimes plausibility and all that are less important than the story.

In the end, one of the points I’m not making in my stories and yet is there all right is, weapons and violence do not solve problems.
Often it is wiser to run, it is more efficient to discuss differences, and it is more expedient just figuring out a way to slice their throats silently.
Hmmm… ok, ignore the last one.


* And I’d really like to recommend Rayne Hall’s slim but three-times-excellent Writing Fight Scenes as a one-stop instructional handbook for writers.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

One thought on “Choreographing violence in stories

  1. Pingback: Spreadsheets and action | Karavansara

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