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Monthly Archives: March 2009

Nancy Hightower over at her blog asked her readers about their definitions of  urban fantasy. Since SuD  fits the genre I decided to reprint my answer(s) here.

Urban fantasy (I prefer the term contemporary fantasy) is  a fantasy themed story (magic, monsters, quests, etc.) in a contemporary setting. BTW, a lot of the non-fluff Mall/Valley Girl YA stuff falls into this category. All Urban fantasy that I have read (and I’m writing right now) has several of the following elements:

1)World in the Shadows: Magic and monsters co-exists with technology but it resides in the dark places, such as alleyways, basements, backrooms, abandoned buildings.

2)Hidden in Plain Sight: This world co-exist with ours but either because it’s denizens (or the government or some other organization) work hard to hide it or we are blinded by our disbelief it is hard to see it for what it is.

3) The Hero Has a Gift: From the simple gift of Sight (the  ability to see the Shadow World) to wielding reality altering powers, he or she has the POWER. BTW, the POWER happens to be the source of all of the MCs problems. Hey vamp princess, not so sexy now with that stake stuck between your…well you know….eveil twins! 😀

4)The Setting: Urban really means “contemporary”, guns, computers, the police, modern communications. Chicago’s only listed Wizard packs a staff and a .38 caliber.

5)Black & White with a lot of Grey in between: You have your Good guys, your Bad guys and your Innocents. Except that the Good guys bend and break the rules, the Bad guys are not entirely nihilistic and the Innocent, how Innocent is the Hooker with the Heart of Gold, really? It is also a grimy environment and most of the dirt is moral.

6)Whatever the season Red is always in style: And by Red I mean blood, gore, and the like. Border-line horror story, except that the MC gets to kick back even harder.

7) Language and Sex: These are the elements that separate Urban Fantasy from their creepy crawly YA counterparts. People use the word fuck (shit too, as in “Ah shit!” or “Holy Shit!” or “The Shit Hit the Fan!”) a lot, and they mean it. Strip bars, prostitution, and a good roll in the hay (or three) with the local Vampire Prince are not out of the question.

That’s all I can come up with right now.

OK we tackled the general forms of fight scene description, now it is time to see the a fight scene from the point of the fighters. It is very important to understand who the opponents are, their training/experience and capabilities.  A fight between two characters looks very different if one is a trained martial artist and the other one hasn’t thrown a punch in his life.

So lets look at the typical match ups in fiction:

  1. Henchmen/Minions vs. Hero: Redshirts, stormtroopers,goons, mooks, etc. face down mighty hero. A single swing of his sword will bring them down by the score. Nothing says “I GOT THE POWER” like mowing down twenty or thirty of these before breakfast. Let the Battle Royal begin!
  2. Stalker vs. Victim: The Stalker is a hunter by trade, be he a serial killer, a supernatural horror or an assassin. He is good at capturing, maiming and killing. She (most of the time is a she) is a hapless bystander whose life hangs by a thread.
  3. The Warriors: These kids knows how to fight. Put up your dukes!
  4. The Hero vs. The Big Boss: Whether a recurring villain or the hero’s target in the climatic battle at the end of the book, the Big Boss is the ultimate (and many times the only) threat.

The first one (Minion vs. Hero) is pretty easy although it can be tricky. Its very easy to fall into Superman vs. Bank Robbers scenario where the bad guys. Unless your setting up the scene for another type of confrontation, like the introduction of super villain avoid this iteration of the scenario. Your reader is going to read that and go “Oh, he is super…great” and then put the book down.

Best way to do it using the Stormtrooper rule: the minions go down easy, but once in awhile they score a flesh wound. A reminder that while the opposition is crappy, they can get lucky and really hurt the hero.  That injects enough tension into the scene while still showcasing how much of a bad ass your MC really is. Speed is crucial. For that reason the Killing Blow or Snapshots techniques work better here.

In the Stalker vs. Victim scenario the attacker has all the advantages. Here tension is key. The stalker is usually a criminal with a well practiced method of attack (ambush is the preferred method) or a supernatural horror impervious to most attacks. The Victim (usually young and female) is not trained in combat and its clearly outmatched by the attacker. Many time the victims act like minions in that they fall easily to the Stalker attacks.

This scenario puts emphasis on the fear of the victim. Her emotions are paramount in creating and maintaining the high level of tension critical to this scenario. Only by a clever ploy, herculean effort or rescue by a third party can the Victim survive this encounter. The Blow by Blow method may work best, in as much as you space the action to build the suspense.

A fight between Warriors features at least two opponents that are evenly matched. They need not be exact duplicates. In fact, the tension comes from highlighting their differences in strength, agility, speed, accuracy, and weapons. It is easy to fall into the Blow by Blow description of these battles  but what makes these fights interesting is who their strengths and weakness compliment each other.

The Hero facing the Big Boss comes in two forms: the introductory appearance and the climatic battle. The first meeting between these two the Hero can be defeated, it can be a draw, the Big Boss is present but does not fight (the Hero fights another Warrior or Minions). Think of the three (of four times) that Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker share the screen in the Star Wars saga. The first time they do not fight, Luke fights of Minions (Stormtropers) and then escapes. He then has a second encounter where he is defeated and finally he overcomes Vader in the climatic battle aboard the Death Star.

The key to this fight is that the Hero is outmatched by the Big Boss strength and/or resources. He must find a way to stop the villain, but he is not ready yet. Through training and defeating of lesser threats he gains the means to confront his nemesis.

In the climatic battle scene if the Hero and the Big Boss have no met before, the Big Boss then appears unbeatable. The Hero must either show greater strength than his enemy or find a clever way of defeating the Big Boss. Not to be confused with the Stalker vs. Victim scenario. The Hero knows how to fight and will be in the very least powerful enough to worry the Big Boss who while he may not want to admit it, knows that he is in trouble.  You can use all the descriptive methods mentioned in Part 1. The key here is that while over matched, the Hero is not defenseless and his attacks will show that.

Of course during the course of the story and even one fight scene you can mix the pairings. A Warrior or Big Boss may have a cadre of Minions at his disposal. A Minion may turn out to be more of a Warrior and of course the Victim can always turn the tables on the Stalker.

Now that you know who your combatants are it is time to see how tactics and terrain influence a battle in Part 3.

Until then…

This post expands on a recent Writing Excuses podcast on fight scenes. This is my take on the subject which I think deserves a bit more attention than just fifteen minutes (although the guys did a good job within their time limit).

I broke down my “answer” (for a lack of a better term) into two post. The first deals with how to approach fighting scenes. Fighting scenes are essentially descriptions of actions and will tend to reflect your style of description. Somebody who prefers laundry list types of descriptions (“she had blond hair, blue eyes, a red shirt, short skirt…ect.) may do a blow by blow narration of the fight scene, while writers (like me) who are highlighters (descriptions focusing on key elements, a minimalist approach) my choose a hard hits/killing blow approach (I explain these terms below).

Here are the different styles from the more concrete to the most abstract:

  1. Blow by Blow: Have ever heard a baseball game or a boxing match narrated over the radio? That is a blow by blow description. Since you are not seen the action, the sportscaster has to fill you in on all the relevant details. Works great on radio, but sucks on page. Why? Because it tends to slow down the action and focuses to much on the minutia of a fight. The worse offender of this is Michael Stackpole in his Battletech novels. Great political action, shitty combat scenes. Although he is trying to convey the tabletop feel of the source material (Battletech tabletop/RPG) it kills the momentum of the fight scene. Avoid this whenever you can.
  2. Hard Hits/Killing Blow: My preferred type of fight scene description.  Instead of describing every dodge, shot or swing you concentrate on those actions that have the most dramatic impact, such as the killing blow. Very useful when the Hero/MC is fighting Minions/Henchman (more on them in Part 2) or showing the killing blow that finishes off the villain. Its like watching a boxing match instead of listening to it. Your mind ignores most of the punches but it registers particular hard hits and of course the final knockout. This method gives the right amount of detail without slowing down the action.
  3. Snapshots: The snapshots technique is great when you want to show the chaotic nature of large battles. Remember the two scenes in Saving Private Ryan where the Tom Hanks character zones out and the camera cuts from one close up to the next? A wounded soldier dragging his arm, another taking a shot to the head, a third one cowering behind a wall.  These snapshots give you a sense of the action within the maelstrom of battle while at the same time showing how wild and chaotic war really is. Great for mass battles (5 or more combatants).
  4. The Battle Map: This is the most abstract of all the fight scene description methods. Like the name implies, the action is described from a distance, as if seen on a battle map. The character could be standing on a hill, watching down from an airplane or remotely by some electronic means. This method concentrates on tactics and strategies of mass formations: ambushes, charges, flanking, maneuvers, etc. Think LotR or 300. This approach shows combat on a grand scale. But if you want to focus on the actions of individuals, you will have to shift to one of the other methods mentioned above.

While I share the podcasters distaste for the Blow by Blow, it should not be dismissed out of hand.  In fact a climatic battle scene (popular in fantasy and military sci-fi) can include all of these methods. You kick off the scene with the Battle Map, showing the reader the big picture composed of army formations, terrain and the like. As battle is joined you switch to Snapshots of the battle. A sword thrust here, a horse brought down there, several men felled by arrows somewhere else. Then as you focus on the MC you do a bit of Hard Hits/Killing Blow action to show how much of a bad ass he really is. Then he meets his opposite number and you dip (don’t go into the deep end, you will drown) into the Blow-by-Blow, showing how evenly match they are. Then you pull back from Blow-by-Blow and cycle through all the way back to the Battle Map as the situation turns and you show the fight aftermath.

Well I hope this helps. Next is Part 2, The Combatants.