Thursday, October 19, 2006

Writing Combat part the third - Willing Suspension of Disbelief

In any work of fiction you must bring your reader with you. You must convince them to believe in the reality of the unreal parts of your story, the term most commonly used for this is the "willing suspension of disbelief." If your audience doesn't believe in your story, you've lost them.

Speculative fiction has a double charge against it on this front in that it is both unreal in the particulars of your characters' stories (i.e. fiction), and in the setting (the world of the fantastic). So the spec fic reader has to work doubly hard to suspend their disbelief, which means the spec fic writer has to work doubly hard to earn that suspension.

Because of this, the spec fic writer has to be even more careful with details than the general fiction writer and ground the non-fantastical and fictional details very firmly in reality. Understanding and writing believable combat is very much a part of that since combat is so often an important aspect of the literature of the fantastic. So is making sure that your fantastical details are internally consistent. And getting your science right. And those latter aspects of world building are the next thing I want to talk about, though it'll have to wait a day or two.

Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms?


Douglas Hulick said...

"Understanding and writing believable combat is very much a part of that since combat is so often an important aspect of the literature of the fantastic."

In general, I agree with you, Kelly....


I have read authors who obviously knew very little about the mechanics of combat, and yet still were able to write believable combat scenes and/or relay the prowess involved in a high-end sword fight quite well. The trick was, they obviously knew their weakness heading into the scene.

Rather than include descriptions of actions or exchanges, the authors focused on the more general aspects of the fight. They conveyed the feel of things, or emotional reactions, or the impressions of the character watching or fighting, or used selective omission, and so on. Now, this is no easy task, and it was some damn fancy footwork on the writers' part, but they pulled it off primarily because they didn't try to write the fight scene like a traditional fight scene.

Overall, I would argue that it's a good idea to know something about how a fight would actually work if you are going to write it. However, I also know that reaching this level of understanding is not an option for everyone. I don't want people walking away thinking, "If I don't know anything about combat, I shouldn't write combat scenes at all. Now what?" (Not what you said, Kelly, I know, but I can see the leaps of assumption down the road.)

It is possible to write a fight scene that gives the reader a good sense of what is happening without their actually having to see the swords "in motion." The closest cinematic parallel I can think of off the top of my head would be seeing the fight as shadows on a wall, rather than the fighters themselves. If done right, this isn't cheating - it's creative. :)

That's not to say it's easy, but it's better than mucking it up and the hearing from people like you and me. :)

Erik Buchanan said...

Also, sometimes the most effective writing about combat contains very little in the way of mechanics.

Tolkien served in the trenches in World War One , but if you read the Battle of Helm's deep, there's not a lot of blow-by-blow description.

(Incidently, did you know that the trench fighting in WW1 is believed to have made use of all the types of weapons used in history up to that point?)

Now, being a weapons junkie myself, I like a bit of blow-by-blow, but I know that sometimes you can do without it.

But if you are going to do it, Kelly is quite right. You have to know your stuff. Otherwise, it comes across as boring, bad and wanky.

Kelly McCullough said...

Doug, Erik, good points. I agree that you can't let not knowing exactly what you're doing stop you from writing something. In fact "write what you know" is one of my pet peeve axioms as a I talk about here. Everything is a trade off in terms of what your audience will and won't believe. But it's a trade off that should be made with eyes wide open.