I teach Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and I also subscribe to Poets & Writers magazine. So it was a happy coincidence when I read an article in Poets & Writers in which author JT Bushell compared his personal experience to characters in The Things They Carried (check out the "This is your brain on Fear"). In his article, Bushnell connects how his brain operated during a fire in his apartment and how O'Brien uses that same the amygdala Fight, Flight or Freeze response in his stories about the Vietnam War.
When bullets start flying or when your apartment starts burning, you stop thinking. You just act. So, how can we -- as contemplative writers in a non-bullet and non-inferno situation actually write a realistic fight? How can our writing match what happens in the human brain when tensions are high?
Writers need to consider two different "brains" when writing fight scenes: the Reader's Brain and the Fighter's Brain.
The Reader's Brain
Think of the human brain like a swimmer. Sure, swimmers can hold their breath for a long time, but eventually they need to come up for air. Readers too need this “take a breath” moment while they process what they read. The period (.) gives readers that breath. Each time a reader reaches a period, they pause and, while it’s only a nanosecond pause, they “take a breath” and process the idea in the sentence. They understand, and they continue. During fight scenes, give your readers lots of breaths.
When you have a long sentence, your readers need to absorb all the information at the beginning of the sentence, hold it in their minds and add on all the new information that comes at them through the middle of the sentence, and then, when they reach the end of the sentence, go back to all the information since the beginning of the sentence – and maybe even the sentence before that – and order, prioritize, and synthesize all of it to determine meaning and importance and understanding, which can take a long time and require a lot of brain power (see what I did there?).
When tension rises, our brains shut down and we rely on our amygdala’s Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. In other words, when we fight, we’re not thinking, we’re just doing. Doing anything and everything to survive and escape. Your sentences should reflect that. Tensions rise during fights. We need time to "take a breath". Use lots of periods.
Long Sentence example: As Bob swung the sword, Dave lifted his shield to block the blow, but it struck with a force that knocked him backwards and he stumbled into the chair.
This sentence starts with Bob’s action with a sword, but ends with Dave’s interaction with the chair. Because of longer clauses and phrases, the reader must process several images and actions without that “take a breath” moment. Some actions come to the reader through modifiers and not verbs. Notice how the “that knocked him backwards” is an adjective describing “force” not an action in itself (and “with a force that knocked him backwards” is all an adverb phrase modifying “struck”). With longer sentences, the reader's brain must process extra grammatical elements in order to understand that an adjective phrase is actually communicating an action. This is too much breath-holding.
While it may seem like a longer sentence with more images reads faster and helps the action move faster, it’s actually the opposite. Shorter is better.
Short Sentence Example: Bob swung his sword. Dave lifted his shield and blocked the blow. The force knocked him backwards and he stumbled into the chair.
A critic might claim the above sentences are a little too short, a little too staccato. Maybe, but my intention is to contrast the structures. It’s simply faster and easier to read the shorter sentences with more brain breaths.
The Fighter's Brain
The second element to good fight scenes is actual battle tactics. Because characters are fighting, because they are using only their amygdala, they will always take the easiest and simplest route to the closest short-term solution. When your apartment is burning down, you're not thinking of any long-term plan -- just "Get out now!" If characters in a fight have any other intention than to win or escape, you're "forcing" your character.
Despite what Hollywood might show you, most karate matches last only a few moves – no, not a few minutes, just a few moves. Most gunfights last fewer than 10 shots. Swordsmen will not disarm their opponent with a swift move only to kick the sword back to their opponent so the fencing can continue. And real-life fist fights don’t involve giving your opponent time to take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves.
Never – ever – let your character give away an advantage because you want “drama” in the scene. And, please please please, never have witty banter between opponents. If you’re trying to kill someone, use a weapon instead of a bad pun. Fighting is exhausting. Characters need to use their breath for combat, not for chit-chat.
Like the saying, “Everyone has a plan, but then they get punched in the mouth” your characters in a fight will do anything to win or escape. They won't think of a plan while being punched. They act without thinking. They don't discuss strategy while bullets are flying. They shoot back. Characters can and should kick genitals, pull hair, kill the unarmed, et al. Anything to end the tension.
Worse than poorly structured sentences in a fight scene is a completely unrealistic fight tactic. Use both syntax and tactics to keep your reader engaged and your characters realistic.