Writing Secrets: Never rush a fight
Fights, or action sequences, which involve many peripheral characters, are difficult to write well. We have a tendency to rush them. We give the results of the clash, rather than carrying us through them step by awful step.
The other mistake we make is to give too general an impression – in an attempt, perhaps, to show the overall melee, the extent of the chaos.
We are left with a fuzzy, rather generic sense of it, which is difficult to visualise or enter into. In any large gathering, we should write small – we often forget that. Don’t try to show only the general disorder. Focus on its component parts, as specifically as you can, and we will infer the larger confusion.
I thought of this recently, reading The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Here’s how she writes a prison-yard fight:
People came running towards the main entrance from all over the yard. The players on their court stopped their game. The ball rolled into the basket but no one was under to claim it. It bounced on its lonesome across an empty court.
Everyone was running towards the turnstiles. Serenity Smith passed through. She had come on the yard alone. Walking tall and proud, a beautiful black woman with long, graceful arms. Laura Lipp and her gardening gang moved towards her, shovels and rakes in their hands.
I heard a shriek. It was the Norse, running toward Serenity. Conan, Reebok, and their crew ran to attack the Norse and the gardeners. People were coming from all directions.
The first person on Serenity was the Norse. The Norse grabbed her and tried to pull her down. She fought back. Conan pushed the Norse down and started monkey-stomping her. Every bit of anger that had ever been in Conan came out of the sole of his boot, which connected over and over to the head and face of the Norse. The Norse’s head started leaking.
Serenity was running to escape Laura Lipp and her horde. Laura Lipp hit Serenity across the back with the flat side of her shovel, knocking her down. Laura fell on Serenity and was scratching her face. That is how some women fight. They can’t help it. It’s instinct. Serenity got up, pushed Laura against a spider table and started punching her. Alarms sounded, the deafening zonk-zonk-zonk that means go prone.
The other gardeners were tugging on Serenity as she punched Laura. Garbage cans were hurled at them. The alarms kept sounding. Everyone fought.
Teardrop got hold of a shovel and was beating Serenity with it like you might beat a rug to get the dust out of it. Slow, heavy thuds, one after the other. Serenity screamed. The alarms zonk-zonked. I had the feeling that maybe the cops were letting this happen. Letting Serenity be hurt or even killed.
Kushner takes us through this sequence one step at a time, pointing out the specifics of each violent act. And yet, we can still, more clearly perhaps, see the dust, the noise, and general pandemonium.
She doesn’t make the mistake of telling us it’s horrific. She doesn’t need to. The way her protagonist describes it is prosaic, as though she’s seen it all before. The very tiredness of this everyday description of violence is awful.
It is inexpressibly sad.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: What great writing does to readers‘