Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Flying Fists and Frying Pans - The Martial Art of Writing

Shanghai Steam is an anthology of stories that mixes the genres of Steampunk and Wuxia. Wuxia translates literally to “martial hero” and comes from a genre of Chinese fiction that has its roots in Chinese culture for more than two thousand years. Modern Wuxia’s popularity has seen it expanding from fiction on a page into films, opera, video games and more. In Shanghai Steam, an anthology of nineteen stories, the authors have melded the genres of Wuxia with Steampunk and the term ‘martial hero’ is an apt label for a number of the protagonists in their stories.

Action can be an important part of a Wuxia story and a challenge for authors. Conveying movement, speed, the rush of adrenaline, and sometimes the desperation of defending a life can require some finesse with detail in a story.

We asked a number of the authors from Shanghai Steam to explain their process and challenges in writing action in their stories. Here’s what they had to say -

Steampunk and Wuxia have a few key similarities, in my mind.  They both exist in a fun place that's just a little bit beyond what's real.  One of the appealing things about nineteenth-century technology is that you can get your head around it, see the moving parts, and imagine being able to repair or even improve it.  Similarly, most of us can kick and punch, if not as well as Bruce Lee.  The key to writing wuxia action scenes for me was the same as the key to creating steampunk technology.  I went looking for that sweet spot, not so far beyond reality that it feels preposterous, but not so mundane that it's dull.  My Kung-Fu heroes, like my steam-powered machines, need to do things that are *almost* possible, fairly plausible but sufficiently far out that they're cool.

This isn't science fiction, the stuffy and rigorous literature of ideas, bolstered and constrained by meticulous research.  This isn't fantasy, the absurd and impossible literature of things that could never be.  This is steampunk and wuxia, the endlessly fascinating literature of the world that almost was, a world just a tiny step beyond our own.

~Brent Nichols, author of "Ming Jie and the Coffee Maker of Doom" in Shanghai Steam.

One of the most fun aspects of kung fu, whether you're watching it on screen or reading it on paper (analog or digital), is the wide range of in-genre tricks you get to use. Your fighters aren't just fighting; they're fighting while standing on a wall at a 90-degree angle to the ground. They fight ghosts. They have haunted swords. When they're drunk their fighting gets even better. You don't even need to explain it with special technology or magic. It's kung fu. 'Nuff said.

Where does Steampunk fit into this picture? The original call for stories for the Shanghai Steam anthology mentioned terra cotta warriors powered by steam -- a perfect example of kung fu augmented by Steampunk technology. When I mentioned the anthology concept to a friend, she thought immediately of women in long Victorian-style skirts and corsets aiming roundhouse karate kicks at each other's heads, ideally while on top of a steam-powered train seconds away from diving into the darkness of a mountainside railroad tunnel. (This was a few days after I'd made my submission. I remember thinking: "Damn. That's better than what I wrote.")

I don't have extensive firsthand experience with martial arts, so my instinct as a writer was to stay away from long, technical descriptions of kicks and jabs between characters in one-on-one kung fu combat. Instead, I was attracted to the idea of a kung fu hero drawing on forces that come from within, such as a master's training or deep spiritual strength. As my hero evolved as a character, he struck me as being from a cultural age that was pre-steampunk in spite of his times (Shanghai in the late 1870s). I couldn't see him using Steampunk-style weapons and remaining true to his ideals. Steam technology deserved a central place in the story, though. It became the enemy. That contrast ended up defining the kind of kung fu action
I could write.

I can't think of a better way to prepare to write kung fu action than to watch it done well in film. It gets mentioned so often that it's almost a cliche, but you could do a lot worse than to watch the fight scenes in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and come up with some good, vivid descriptions. Drunken fighting, the kind you see in films like “Come Drink with Me” and the “Drunken Master” series, is also a visual lesson in grace and skill. (Trust me; it just looks easy and sloppy. It's genius.) Study it. Find the surprising metaphors that show it in words. Watch where the cameras are positioned at the key moments of the fight, and let us as readers see the fight from a similar angle and speed. On the page, we don't need every move of a fight scene spelled out, but we want time to digest the most vivid and surprising moments.

~Julia A. Rosenthal, author of "A Hero Faces the Celestial Empire; A Death by Fire is Avenged by Water" in Shanghai Steam.

Action sequences are primarily visual, kung fu fights especially so (particularly compared to the Schwarzenegger-style punch-and-throw style of the 80s). My attempts to give a literal blow-by-blow of a kung fu battle have always resulted in sensory overload and confusion to the reader (and sometimes myself). To get around this problem, I've tried to focus on what's crucial in each fight. In a movie, they'd be the strikes that inspire the combatants to shake their heads, stare meaningfully, and re-evaluate the situation and their place in it. It means rather than describing each movement and motion, I gloss over the mad flurry of activity with only a few sentences and give more detail to the dramatic moments.

~Shen Braun, author of "Mistress of the Pearl Dragon" in Shanghai Steam.

The martial scene of my story, “Fire in the Sky” was a lesson in and of itself. I wanted to encompass the two things that I enjoy most about kung fu films within my story. One of my favorite kung fu movies is Wing Chun starring Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen. Both actors know how to deliver exciting fight scenes with humor mixed in. When the plot lead us to the inevitable confrontation between my protagonist and the men standing between him and his goal I wanted to find a place that would offer the most opportunity for action and fun.

In Wing Chun, the title character works in a tofu shop and she’s equally adept fighting with swords and spears as she is using a tray of tofu or a sack of soybeans. For my protagonist, Feng, he takes advantage of anything he can get his hands on and it was my main concern to make sure that the choreography of the fight made sense. So armed with a picture collage of a number of items from the scene it was a matter of writing and then clarifying the movement on the page.

The scene was both the most fun and the most nerve fraying to write and still makes me smile.

~Ray Dean, author of "Fire in the Sky" in Shanghai Steam.

To be honest, the fight scene I wrote in the story isn't exactly kung-fu (and I certainly didn't intend it to be) and isn't particularly action-y either. It was a pretty simple scene where it's intended that readers would be able to guess the outcome. I wanted it to have, as a baseline, the slow, exaggerated motions of a Chinese opera fight scene. It's really more tai chi than kung fu, and the emotions that inform that scene have the same rhythm as well. I live in Hong Kong and there are people practicing tai chi everywhere so it really wasn't difficult seeing the scene in my head.

~Crystal Koo, author of “The Master and the Guest” in Shanghai Steam.

My story, "The Ability of Lightness", really doesn't contain kung fu. It has a little t'ai chi, a little steam, and the big dreams of two little boys. I have written other stories which contain martial arts in one form or another, but I have some martial arts & weapons training, and some dance/choreography training, so it's a matter of keeping it quick, simple, and deadly. All fight/action scenes should contain short sentences, strong verbs, and very few adverbs. (Wang's ramrod punch caught tiny Cho in the chest. Ribs snapped and Cho flew back into the railing. The pain was unbelievable. He felt like he'd been run through with a spear. He couldn't breath, he couldn't even see past the tears. Even as Wang's killing kick came at his head, all Cho could do was roll back over the railing and pray he landed in deep water.) Even the paragraphs should be short and punchy, like the action itself.

I suppose the first step to writing any fight scene is understanding what the weapons can do in reality, whether the weapon is a sword, a crossbow, a gun, or the human body. Once the limitations are known, work within those limitations or find a way to break them (using magic, steam, etc.) and go in a different direction. The best advice I can give to any writer working on fight scenes is to actually handle the weapons involved. Never shot a hand gun? Go to a gun range and feel the kick, do the reloading process, try to hit the target. Writing about swords? Try holding a real, heavy, steel sword in front of you for three minutes. Feel the weight drag your arm down. It's not like the movies. Shoot a bow, fire a crossbow, throw a stick/spear and see what kind of distance you can get. And play video games, especially Wii. Try Wii Resort's sword fighting game and see how exhausted you are after swinging just a remote for three hard minutes. I know one writer who played laser tag with her friends in order to understand the mindset of stalking, hiding, and shooting another person. Wii Boxing & Tai Chi are good exercise and a way to understand blocks, punches, motions, etc. If you're a pacifist and can't imagine doing hands-on research, then your fight scenes (kung fu, gunfights, sword-on-sword battles) won't ring true. Do the research. And have some fun.

~Tim Reynolds, author of "The Ability of Lightness" in Shanghai Steam.

Kung Fu is more than fighting skill. It also encompasses mental discipline and the cultivation of inner peace. I've dabbled in a few martial arts, and read about the philosophy that goes along with it. Of course I also love a good action flick, but when writing about Kung Fu, I enjoy incorporating thoughts of the martial artist's feelings and how she maintains control of both her body and the world around her. A good place to start is Tai Chi, which focuses on the calmness, discipline and physical form needed to achieve higher levels in martial art.

~Jennifer Rahn, author of "Song of My Heart" in Shanghai Steam.

Here’s my advice on how to start a fight and finish one--at least on the page.  First of all, the physical confrontation a writer depicts should advance the plot and/or display character.  Short complete action sentences give the impression of things happening fast.  Show only the most critical movements, unless the fight is brief.

When my mind first conceived "Moon-Flame Woman," my knowledge about Chinese martial arts was slimmer than a top fashion model’s waistline.  I'd observed a Tai Chi class.  That was it.  I had taken ballet classes for ten years, however, and understood the concentration necessary to perfect body movement and balance.  I found some YouTube videos about beginning and advanced Baguachang.  “Walking the circle” reminded me of performing a warm-up dance exercise.

I've always liked to stay close to my point-of-view characters.  Surely in combat, my moon-flame woman would remain aware of her most critical steps and those of her opponent.  If I stayed inside her head as I wrote, the reader would picture her--and understand her motives and fears--even as I did.  Thus I let my main character, Cho Ting-Lam, impart the action scene she experienced.

~Laurel Anne Hill, author of "Moon-Flame Woman" in Shanghai Steam.

We’d like to know what action related challenges other writers have faced in crafting their stories. How did they make it work?

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for hosting this "Shanghai Steam" blog, Sean. I enjoyed learning how other authors in the anthology approached the writing of fight scenes. (From Laurel Anne Hill, author of "Moon-Flame Woman")