Folks, I’ve had covid all week and today is my birthday. So I reckon I’m justified in giving y’all / youse a slightly cheaty email – because most of it is made up of text I’ve already written.
And it follows on from last week’s email, about how sex scenes needed to be all about conversation. I said the same, in passing, about fight scenes as well, and a few people wrote back to say, in effect, “All very interesting, oh Pale Lord of the Email, but how do you actually write a fight scene when people take turns to whack each other and make interesting conversation? I don’t get it.”
So here’s an example – from my (extremely realistic) novel, The Dead House. This culminating scene has Fiona spend the night with a monk in a small stone cell. The monk (Anselm) is not a nice guy – he wants Fiona to spend the rest of her life praying in this cell – but their past relationship has always been warm. In the opening bit of dialogue, Anselm essentially tells Fiona that her own spiritual needs have led her to this place and this situation. There’s a part of Fiona which can’t easily disagree.
Anselm is a big, strong, fit man. Fiona is a short and slightly built woman. My fight scenes nearly always start with this kind of disparity so part of my challenge as a novelist is finding a plausible way to flip the odds.
The italics type is the fight scene as I wrote it (slightly edited for clarity). My comments on that scene are in bold.
In a very gentle voice, Anselm adds, ‘And what happened in there, in our church tonight: can you really tell me that you did not feel the Spirit of the Lord moving within you?’
I don’t answer.
‘You chose us. It was you who chose us.’
I bow my head.
‘Forgive me, brother.’
‘You are already forgiven.’
This material feels – and is – at least partly authentic, a spiritual and loving moment between the two of them. Yes, as we’ll see, Fiona is also thinking strategically, but she’s both things – strategic and moved. It’s a moment of loving union.
We move to the glass and pray again.
Four o’clock and Anselm yawns.
My own relationship with sleep is so impaired, so strange already, that a night spent awake hardly signifies. But Anselm is different. His monkish body-clock is all askew. Kneeling all night when he should be asleep, and these hours of prayer are hard on any bones, old or young. This isn’t the first time he’s yawned, but it’s the biggest so far.
I yawn too. Ampliflying that contagion of tiredness.
The first whisper the reader has that Fiona’s been thinking strategically all along – she was captured many pages back.
‘Excuse me, brother, I need to use the chamberpot.’
And do. I’ve been drinking water half the night and have a whole bladderful of urine to release.
More insight into how her past behaviour has been strategic. As readers, we’re getting a prickle of excitement – but also wondering how much of the past few pages has been a true insight into Fiona, and how much was a deliberate sham. That also means we’re at the point of reconsidering the Fiona/Anselm relationship. Perhaps we’ve not been reading that right at all?
I squat over the little pot and pee, as noisily as I can.
Use the sound to cover me, as I empty the little ewer of water out over the floor.
Use the sound to cover me, as I take two handfuls of finely powdered lime [there for making mortar].
A natural product. Beautiful when used right, and one that does all those good things to do with letting old buildings breathe, that sort of thing.
But also caustic. Fiercely, dangerously caustic.
When wet, lime is one of the most strongly alkali substances available outside a chemist’s laboratory. One that will react, and react strongly, to moisture of any sort. The cornea of the eye, for example. The soft linings of the nose and mouth.
Stepping up behind Anselm, I give him one handful of lime in his eyes, the other over his airways.
Such a violent act in the context! Here’s a man she’s prayed happily with and she’s squashing a ‘dangerously caustic’ powder into his cornea, the soft linings of the nose and mouth.
This is what I mean by ‘conversation’ in a fight. We know that Fiona’s spiritual moment with Anselm was at least partly real. But here’s the other part: utter fury and refusal to comply. This is the moment when Anselm realises he hasn’t understood all of Fiona at all.
All of a sudden, the relationship shakes into a new phase.
He gasps in pain and surprise and the gasp allows me to shove a whole big handful into his open gob.
He’s in pain. He’s surprised. That’s an emotional response – a new turn in the conversation. How does Fiona respond? With more violence: her response to his awakening.
There’s no treatment for caustic burns, except plenty of fresh water and I’ve just emptied all the water we have.
Stepping quickly back as Anselm roars and flails, I snatch up the chamberpot. Smash the thing over his saintly little head. Which stuns him, if only a little, and makes more of him wet. I take the bag of lime and pour it, throw it, scatter it over him.
He’s a man powdered and, beneath the powder, burning.
My fight scenes need to explain how a small woman can defeat a big man, so I’m careful here. He ‘roars and flails’, indicating that he still has a ton of strength and power. It’s also a moment when the reader realises how Fiona has been planning this thing the entire night. She’s played a long game to get to this exact point.
When he opens his mouth, it’s white and void inside. The same thing with his eyes. It looks like they’re closed, but they’re not. They’re open. Just white and grey and staring.
He tries to clean the lime away with his robe, his hands, but he’s like a fish trying to wash away the river. Whether he’s permanently blind, I don’t know, but he’s functionally sightless.
He thrashes around. Cries out, I think, saying ‘Sister! Sister!’, but his mouth is full of a powder that burns and his roar is the roar of a beast.
He’s sort of defeated now, isn’t he? I mean, Fiona still needs to deal with the power of those thrashing arms, but the odds are now heavily on Fiona winning this one. That means, the reader can now consider Anselm as a victim. His mouth is ‘white and void’. He’s basically blind, a fish trying to wash away the river. And he’s saying ‘Sister, sister’ – how the monks referred to Fiona – which is hardly the most aggressive possible response. He’s trying to call on that old relationship, trying to summon its memory to deflect Fiona from her current course. That’s yet another emotional turn in the fight. A plea, a cry for mercy.
I stay clear of his arms, ducking and weaving as I have to, but I don’t actually think he’s trying to hurt me. To restrain me, yes, but not actually to hurt me.
And again, this shifts our emotional understanding again. He cries ‘sister’, and seeks to restrain, but not hurt, her. This man was going to do great harm to Fiona, but there’s a true godliness, or something like it, there as well. Once again, the fight makes us ever so slightly adjust our emotional calculations. Yes, he is a bad man, but no, the praying wasn’t all nonsense either. There was and is something holy here as well.
Choose the fight you want, not the one they want. If you can’t win, don’t start.
Any time before now, those monks would have had the fight they expected—and that Brother sadist Thomas wanted. Right now, I’ve got the fight I want, and one that takes place when and where and how I want.
A strong, blind man whose instincts are for gentleness versus a petite, but seeing woman who has her entire life hanging on the outcome.
Fiona finally places all her cards on the table. “Hi reader, you thought I was just going along with these horrible monkish plans, right? But of course, I wasn’t. I’m always smarter than you and I’m always thinking ahead. You want to know what happens next? Right? Simple: I win.”
I wait until Anselm is a little off-balance—skidding on china and urine—and kick hard at his only standing leg. He starts to fall.
As he goes down, I grab his head and throw it downwards against the stone. It bounces horribly, but just once.
He starts to move, just a little. Not in combat mode now. Not even restraint mode. More am-I-still-alive mode. I put in a few more considered, disabling kicks and stamps, then leave it.
That brother ain’t gonna bother this little sister no more.
And that’s the sentence that tells the reader, yep, we’re done.
Except that … well, the fight is done, but isn’t there some closure needed to the relationship? We’d thought these guys had one kind of relationship. Now our thinking on that score has changed rather abruptly. But at the moment, we don’t quite have a nice place to settle.
I step up onto the bed. I can’t reach the gap in the ceiling like that, but my little glass prayer-niche gives me a foothold and—clumsily, clumsily—I scrabble up to the roof and through it. [the only way out of this, unfinished, cell.]
Anselm is dragging himself upright, or sort of upright. But he’s not trying to stand, he’s trying to kneel. My kicks were scientific enough that he’s going to have problems with his ribs, knee and testicles, but he somehow accomplishes a kind of lopsided lean up against the wall.
His burned hands search for and find the little palm cross. The bit of glass through which a pair of seeing eyes would find the altar.
He’s seeking to pray: final confirmation that Anselm’s piety wasn’t all horse-poo. Perhaps his piety was even the bigger part of things. Perhaps the bad-monk thing was just piety taken too far. But this closing snapshot gives us a somewhat kind and tender image of this complicated man.
I leave him at it.
A basic clip-together tower scaffold provided support for the monks as they built the roof. There are stones still here. Some mortar left overnight with a square of plastic keeping it moist. I add a few more stones to the roof. My stonework is of the very crudest sort—Anselm would hate it—but it doesn’t have to hold for long. There’s still a gap here, but not one that a man could climb through.
That is: she effectively imprisons him, at least for as long as it takes to summon the cops.
‘So long, Brother,’ I call down. ‘You were always nice to the pigs. I’ll remember that.’
And this is the closure we needed: an acknowledgement from Fiona that she recognises there was a good man in with the bad. This is her talking without strategy or duplicity now, because she doesn’t need them. We move, in effect, from the fake-union of the opening prayer sequence to this truer kind of friendship-voice here.
That’s it. There’s dialogue before and after the fight, but nothing during it, apart from Anselm’s ‘Sister, Sister’, which doesn’t really count. Yet I hope the fight itself conveys the shifts in emotion and relationship that are similar to the beats you’d find in a really important bit of dialogue.
That’s it from me. Cough, cough.