Three Left Feet and Four Arms

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Have you ever read a fight or struggle in a book and had to look over the words three or four times because the physical movements depicted just weren’t possible?  I started a book Tuesday, but I can’t get past the first chapter.  It opens with a young man being chased through the woods.  The bad guy catches him, knocks him down, grabs both his hands AND his hair, and with one hand, binds the struggling young man’s wrists with rope.  Go ahead, try tying something into a knot with just one hand.  We’ll wait.  Hard, wasn’t it?  Now imagine trying to do that while whatever you’re tying is trying to escape you.   The impossibility of this feat bounced me out of the story.  I understand the author was trying to create tension and fear, but she wasn’t careful.  She could have used another beta reader, perhaps.  Or she could have tried blocking the scene.

Blocking is a theater term, and refers to the way actors move and position themselves on stage during performance.  I learned about blocking when I took Drama 201 my first semester of college.  I’d dabbled in theater in high school, although I knew it wasn’t my strength, but I figured it would be an entertaining and somewhat easy elective to try.  The husband and wife team of teachers were artsy and freaky and fun, just what you expect from a drama class.  When the semester ended, I left theater to those better suited and focused on my major.  I never thought I’d use those theatrical skills again.

Silly me.

You see, when I’m writing, I see the scene in my head, like a movie, and I try to write as fast as the movie is playing.  It doesn’t always work, though, and I end up with scenes that are … lacking.  Especially fight scenes.  When I read what I’ve put on paper, I sometimes realize the people in the scene would need three arms, two sets of teeth and about seven legs each in order to accomplish all the moves I’d attributed to them.  Oops.  Trouble is, I can’t always see where I’ve gone wrong.  The first time it happened to me, I remembered that old Drama 201 technique of blocking, and called my husband to the room.  I read the sentences out loud, and slowly we acted out the fight.  Moving through the words physically allowed me to see when I’d gone wrong.   It was a revelation!  Later on, I made my husband and son work out the scenes for me while I watched.  I even convinced my beloved spouse to jump off the roof of our SUV so I could see what it looked like when someone landed and rolled.

So here’s my question for all of you wonderful Magical Words readers…what skill that’s not actually a writing skill have you used to help your writing be clearer, make more sense or just flow?

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13 comments to Three Left Feet and Four Arms

  • Well, sometimes for combat I fall back on what Kenpo knowledge I have. I got a couple belts worth before I ran out of money. I also draw on what I’ve seen on the non-wire-fu martial arts movies, like Jackie Chan/Bruce Lee type stuff. Typically I do act out something in slow motion if I’m not sure it’s going to work. I do it by myself, but imagine opponents, much like practicing moves during Martial arts training. I have a sparring practice session with staves in one of my WIPs and I had to actually act it out first with a staff to make sure it would work. I’m not a master of Martial Arts, but I know enough to know what’s pretty much impossible and what’s plausible. I also know a smattering of Kendo, mostly what my friend showed me and what’s on Star Wars. The non-force fueled/wire-fu stuff. 😉

    I’m also a bit of a Jack of all trades, so I kinda know a little about a lot of junk. Just enough to get by, especially in writing.

  • Misty, I always get a kick of picturing the Toddly One jumping off the SUV. I wish you had taken film!

    As to your post, non-writerly stuff I’ve used over the years would fill a…a book. (snerk) I know. It was bad.

    Medical stuff I’ve used in the lab and seen the ER, OB, pathology (read *morgue*), cooking, herb gardening, belly dancing I’m using in Skinwalker, paddling my AKA Gwen Hunter used in Rapid Descent, film photography, horse stuff from when I owned 4 hourses, history and Bible study for the Rogue Mage books (horse stuff for that too, as well as many other books with horses in them) and on and on.

    IMHO: Everything that makes up a writer’s life is fodder for the creative soul. And then there’s the fun of research!

  • Denise

    Ridden horses and shot various types of guns.

  • Lol, so I’m not the only one who goes through the moves of a fight scene. Only I have no partner which makes it a bit more difficult. But I have the advantage to have taken some lessons in swordfighting with a Norman style bastard sword, and held several other models from the Roman gladius to a bihander. I’ve thrown javelins and shot bows, tried to balance a battle axe and a Viking shield, and made my own flint knife. I’ve worn chain mail and Roman as well as Mediaeval helmets, Roman sandals and a toga; I’ve ridden in a Roman saddle and shot a rifle. I can milk a cow and deliver a calf, make cheese and sausages, and skin a moose. The only thing I’m hopeless with are needles – I can’t sew, do embroidery, or naalbind Roman socks. But I can weave a bit.

  • I forgot riding and fishing, and having slept outside without a tent in the Scottish highlands (I have fond memories of a rather cold but very beautiful, starlit night). Yes, I’m a bit of a Ranger. 🙂

  • Guin

    I call writing action scenes “playing mental Twister.” If character A’s hand is here, then Character B’s hand would need to be there… (Writing sex scenes is similar, oddly enough. Both require keeping track of the position and number of parts. :P)

    I attended the local Citizens Police Academy to bring some knowledge to my writing, and through that fired a gun for the first time (which was very different than I expected). It also led to a renewed interest in forensic tech (CSI, but not lab work), which I’m now studying at the local community college for a RL career switch, but also gives me info for writing.

  • Yes, I have read sex scenes where I wondered if at least one of the partners was an alien with some extra limbs. And in one book a character who had his hands tied behind his back managed to hold the reins of his horse nevertheless. 😀

  • Though I should not grin too broadly; I’ve mananged something like that myself. In one scene, Alastair grasps the back of a chair with both hands – but he had already drawn his sword in the previous paragraph. Since he’s no pirate to carry his sword between his teeth 😉 he must have grown a third hand. The one good thing is that I found that scene before it could do any damage. 🙂

    *kicks plotbunny* There’s enough going on in KINGS AND REBELS already, I don’t need no pirate subplot. Shoo.

  • Yes, I act out my fight scenes by myself all the time, even though my mother told me that doing so would make me go blind….

    I’m a birdwatcher, and anyone who has read my first series knows that I used my bird knowledge extensively in all three books. But I think what I’ve turned to most as a writer is my experience as a parent. All of my books wind up having child characters, and I think I write them pretty well, entirely because of what I’ve learned as a Dad.

  • When I do fight scenes, my writing slows down to the slow motion action of the characters. I’ve played out the scene in my head numerous times, but I’ll write it bit part by bit part, rereading each time to make sure it makes sense. Mostly this done because I really don’t like editing and rewriting, so I take it as slow as I need to in order to get it correct the first time through. Having kids certainly helps with writing child characters, but I also realized that in ‘other worlds’ children get raised quite a bit differently, typically meaning they ‘grow up’ faster, and will be doing more adult things at a younger age, so I find it’s a tough line to walk, because you don’t want readers to being thinking, ‘no child would do or say that,’ while at the same time, being true to the world they are in.

  • Yes, yes, and yes.
    I also have a difficult time with the line between graphic violence and violence that is NOT graphic without being boring… yikes. Because in an Allegory, some violence is rather necessary. 🙂

    Anar Kaluva Tieliyanna!
    Lady Ëarwen

  • David asks:
    “…what skill that’s not actually a writing skill have you used to help your writing be clearer, make more sense or just flow?”

    Being a musician, I get to play with these nifty things — rhythm, metre, phrasing, tremolo, ringing, damping, harmonics, lulls, bursts, crescendos, etc.

  • Unrelated comment here, but there’s a very fun query contest over at super agent Nathan Bransford’d blog. The idea came from your truly, so I get to feel all special and stuff for a day 🙂