Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A sock on the jaw

Fights are tricky in fiction. When you have your hero deal with a problem using cunning, the reader can see you're playing fair. As long as his clever ruse impresses them, they'll accept that it would catch out the bad guy too. But when fists start flying, the writer can just pull victory out of a hat: "They punched each other and it looked like Billy would lose. But then he won!"

You can write the scene so as to pump up adrenaline and engage the reader that way, but you can't disguise that it's entirely at your whim who wins and who loses. To some extent it's possible to emulate the satisfying inevitability of a clever ruse with a fight's "moral rightness". Deep down, we still believe that fortune favours the brave and that the plucky underdog deserves victory just because the odds were against him. But I don't like that; it's not convincing the reader your outcome is right, it's just talking them into looking the other way.

So if you are writing a fight scene, your best bet is to make sure that the scene is about something more than just the fight itself. Reichenbach, Moria, the climax of Rocky, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift duking it out at the end of Red River - those scenes are all about more than who wins.

Creative writing enthusiast and urban fantasist Mireyah Wolfe is currently running a Fight Scene Blogfest. Although this is nothing to do with Mirabilis, it falls within our occasional discussion of the writing process. And indeed, we do have fights in Mirabilis - knock down, drag out slugfests where people may get killed - but I can't show any of those to you yet because of spoilers. So instead, here is a fight scene from the Fabled Lands novel The Lost Prince. Most of the book was written by Jamie Thomson, based on the gamebook series I wrote with him, but I helped out by writing this scene, in which we and the hero start to glimpse that he may not be the eternal klutz he always thought he was:


Sir Grazenor’s sword was half out of its scabbard with a noise like a grindstone throwing sparks, and Varren read fear in the downturned mouths of the four bandits. They had probably hoped to catch a rich merchant or fat priest coming down this road, but not an armoured knight of the realm. But the bandit leader, a man with a mottled face and darkly ringed eyes, kept his nerve. Varren saw the flash of a tinderbox in his hand. A moment later, he ran in close with a lighted firecracker and threw it at the ground below Voltiger’s hooves.

TOK! TAK! The firecracker popped loudly, its sharp retorts echoing off the brick walls of the bridge. Pungent gunpowder smoke laced the air.

Startled, Vortiger reared up, lashing out with his iron-shod hooves. Used to the din and chaos of battle, the old warhorse was not going to be panicked into fleeing by just noise and smoke.

Apparently the bandit leader expected as much. Instead of flinching back, as most men would, he ducked right under the scything hooves and sliced his sword through the saddle strap. As Vortiger reared, Sir Grazenor went flying from the saddle – right over the side of the bridge.

“My lord!” shouted Varren in horror.

But there was nothing he could do to help Sir Grazenor. He had enough worries of his own. His inexperienced horse was wheeling around. Unlike the doughty Vortiger, it had no intention of hanging around while the firecracker jolted and bounced on the road like a giant angry hornet.

Varren realized he had better dismount before the horse bolted with him on it. He pulled one foot out of the stirrup and swung it over his horse’s back just as one of the bandits ran in aiming a blow of his club at Varren’s head. At the same time, the horse swerved around. Varren’s foot swung in a wide circle and caught the bandit right across the mouth. Varren winced. That had to hurt. The bandit swayed and went down like a sack of flour.

The horse, confused by the noise, turned right around and charged along the bridge towards the other bandits. Varren, with one foot still caught in the stirrup, was carried along backwards. His horse barged past Vortiger, who now stood stolidly in the middle of the bridge waiting for the command of his master. Varren had to twist around to avoid being squashed between his own horse and Vortiger. He grabbed for something to hold onto and found himself clutching one of the arrows from Sir Grazenor’s saddlebag.

As his horse reached the bandits, Varren tugged his other foot out of the stirrup, dropped to the ground, and was flung by the momentum of the charge straight towards the nearest bandit.

He saw the man’s yellow-toothed grin. Smelt his bad breath. Sensed the axe-blow aimed at his vitals. But then the yellow grin turned to a look of dismay.

“Oh,” said the bandit. He sounded disappointed.

Varren looked down. By accident, he’d driven the point of the arrow into the man’s neck. The bandit dropped his axe, turned and staggered off to fall into the long grass by the side of the road.

“Deal with this brat!” snarled the dark-eyed leader to his remaining comrade. “I’ll finish off the old knight.” He pushed through the hedge beside the road and started down the river bank to where Sir Grazenor lay.

The other bandit gave Varren a wary look. He had just seen the boy lay out two battle-hardened men. On the other hand, Varren had no weapon while the bandit had a sword. The thought gave him courage. With a wild cry, he ran forward and swung his blade in a wide chopping arc towards Varren’s throat.

Varren ducked and felt the wind as the sword went over his head. The blow sent the bandit stumbling off-balance. He leaned forward just as Varren straightened up. There was a sickening crack as Varren’s head cannoned into the man’s chin.

The bandit, with blood pouring from his mouth, dropped his sword and staggered into the dazed Varren. As he fell to the ground, his weight knocked Varren right back over the edge of the bridge.

Varren was falling. He had the sickening sense that he was going to land and crush his skull on the sharp flints of the dried-up river bed. Flopping in midair, however, he had the good luck to land on his feet.

Still half-stunned by the blow to his head, it took him a split-second to realize that he was standing right over the body of his master, while the bandit leader came running down the river bank, howling like a demon, sword swinging wildly. There was murder in the deep-set eyes.

Sixth sense made Varren look up. Something bright was tumbling in the sunlight towards him. He put up his hand and it closed around the hilt of a sword – the one the other bandit had dropped on the parapet of the bridge.

Not expecting the weight of the sword, Varren swung it down in a swift, strong arc. The bandit leader, taken by surprise, barely had time to raise his own sword in a parry. The force of Varren’s blow knocked it from his hand.

Varren pushed the point of the blade against the bandit’s chest. He was as astonished as the other man to hear himself say, in a remarkably calm voice, “Surrender.”

“In the name of the nineteen devils, who are you?” growled the bandit. “The High King’s great-grandson?”

A groan from Sir Grazenor caught Varren’s attention, and the bandit immediately seized his chance to get away. He scrambled back up the bank calling to his dazed colleagues.

Varren knelt beside Sir Grazenor. The old man lay motionless in a few inches of water. It was impossible to say how badly he was injured, encased as he was in armour, but Varren had already noticed the hard rocks dotting the sand of the river bed.

Sir Grazenor groaned again. His eyes stayed shut.

“My lord, lie still…”

Varren felt around the knight’s unarmoured head and neck. No injury there, at least. He looked up to the parapet. It was a good fifteen feet. Easily enough to break a man’s back.

Just then, something moved in a bush beside the river. Varren was instantly on his feet, sword in hand.

Had one of the bandits crept back to ambush him? If so, they had made a big mistake. The fight had happened so quickly that Varren had simply been surprised by all that happened. But now, seeing his lord badly hurt, his blood was up. He moved towards the bush with sword raised, feeling a black knot of anger rise in his throat.

The bush rustled again. Varren leapt forward and drove his sword in a lunge. It chopped through leaves and twigs and he felt the tip bury itself in the soft earth of the river bank.

The bush gave a cry of outrage: “Oo EE-i-ot!”

It wasn’t any language Varren recognized, but it sounded human. He stuck his hand into the bush and felt around.


Varren was so startled that he took three steps back, tripped over a branch, and sat down in the stream.

The bush shook and a figure kicked and wriggled out into the open. Varren saw that the stranger was gagged. That explained the odd noises. The stranger’s arms were tied by a rope wound right around them. The gag hooked on a twig, and the stranger furiously used the twig to pull it off.

“You idiot!” she said the moment the gag was loose.

“What did I do?” said Varren defensively.

She pointed her chin at his sword. “You could have had my eye out with that.”

Varren got to his feet. “Who are you? And what were you doing in that bush?”

She tilted her head on one side and squinted at him with a look of undisguised scorn. Varren saw she was a girl of about his own age. Her sharp features were set off by a wide clever mouth, large nose, and clear eyes the colour of the sky before a thunderstorm. She wore a blue silk shirt, of fine quality but torn by the brambles, and grey leather boots and leggings. Her wavy corn-coloured hair was tangled with leaves and twigs and, although having been bundled into a bush probably had a lot to do with that, Varren figured it was the sort of hair that was permanently unruly anyway.

He realized that her gaze was getting more scornful by the second. “Well?” she said. “Are you going to cut me free?”

He scrambled to his feet. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“Questions, plural,” she said. “Well, it should be pretty obvious that I’m one of the bandits that attacked you. As a cunning ploy, I cut my own purse, tied myself up, stuck a gag in my mouth, and jumped headfirst into a hedge.”

Varren didn’t know what to say. As he sawed through the ropes binding her arms, he said sullenly, “Well, I’m Varren from Castle Dromstone and this is – oh, Sir Grazanor!”

Suddenly remembering the old knight, Varren rushed back to where he lay in the stream. Clear water sparkled over the wet pebbles, sifting sand into the knight’s armour. A thin thread of scarlet ran into the shallow stream from a wound Varren couldn’t see.

“My lord - !” cried Varren, kneeling beside him.

The girl had no sooner got free of her bonds than she was rummaging around in the bushes again. She emerged with a round three-stringed guitar.

“Never mind that,” snapped Varren. “Give me a hand here.”

With a shrug, the girl hung the guitar across her back and came to help Varren. They both tugged in vain at Sir Grazenor’s unconscious form.

“We’re not going to shift him in all this armour,” she said, starting to unstrap it.

Varren hesitated, but what else could they do? He helped her remove the heavier plates of Sir Grazenor’s armour.

“Are you his squire, then?” said the girl as they worked.

“Yes,” said Varren, instantly wondering why he’d lied. But he knew the reason. If he told her he was a mere stableboy, she’d be even more disdainfully superior.

“I’m Charyss Willow,” she said. “You might have heard of me. Some people call me Weeping Willow on account of the sad songs I sing. Sad songs are worth more, you see, in these troubled times. Give people a few bars of a song about a son or sweetheart lost in the wars, and they’ll pay for my supper five times over.”

“I’m glad you’re able to make a living out of it,” said Varren acidly, thinking of the starving refugees he’d seen on their way out of the city.

Charyss glared at him. “We can’t all be wealthy gentlefolk and live in a fine castle,” she said. And now Varren wanted to tell her that he really slept on a bed of dry straw at the back of the stables, but it was too late. She thought he was a knight-in-training.

They found that Varren’s horse had run off – along with the donkey Charyss had been riding when the bandits ambushed her. But Sir Grazenor’s faithful warhorse Voltiger still stood in the middle of the bridge, patiently waiting while they retied his saddle strap and lifted the unconscious body of his master across the saddle.

“So, which way were you headed?” asked Charyss.

“Towards Trefoille,” said Varren. He started to lead Vortiger along the road, looking back when he realized Charyss wasn’t following.

“Trefoille’s not exactly the safest of cities these days,” she said. “The citizens refused supplies to General Marlock’s army a few months back. After he dealt with rebels in the north, he came back to lay siege to the place.”

Varren thought for a moment, then turned Vortiger around. “I’d better go back, then. I need to get Sir Grazenor to safety. The message can wait.”

Charyss fell into step beside him “Message?”

“We had a letter to deliver to a nobleman in Trefoille.” Varren glanced around to check the saddlebags and gave a start. “It’s not here!”

He looked around in panic. Maybe the scroll-case had got dislodged in the fight. It might have fallen by the side of the road.

“Is this it?” said Charyss, picking up a black leather tube.

Varren grabbed it from her. “Where did you find it?”

“Just in that clump of grass beside the ditch there. Why? Is that it, or not? It looks like a scroll-case to me…”

“It is,” said Varren in dismay. “But it’s been opened. The letter has gone!”


  1. Really vivid writing, you can actually hear, see and smell the action as you read it.

    I can see why you're so in love with the cinema Dave, it's certainly coming through in this fantastic prose.

  2. Thank you, Peter. On a comics blog it's often hard to find ways to talk about the writing - by which I mean not just the plot but the actual choice of words. The plot is writing too, of course, but it's just like with movies: people tend to look at the scenes and they'll talk about the cinematography and the directing and the acting, but it's easy to forget that it all started with a writer looking at a blank page!

    Creative writing teachers often bang on about the value of rewriting, but I'm in two minds on that. I'll often spend hours fiddling with one page of dialogue, very often only to come full-circle and decide that the first version worked best. And this scene with Varren and Willow was written straight down as you see it here, no revision. My best writing feels like channelling, like it's coming from somewhere else. When I have to work at it, it shows.

    Anyway, that's quite enough about words. Tomorrow: more pictures.

  3. Fun read, and creative. I liked the main character's lack of expertise, and the firecrackers was a nice touch.

  4. Thanks, Livia. Of course, he only *thinks* he has no expertise...