Authors are often asked this question, and I have yet to form a conclusive answer.
To put it simply: Compulsion.
There are universes constantly exploding inside of my brain, vibrant worlds pushing against my bones and demanding release. Scenes play out on loop in my head, characters live and breathe through my eyes. They must be heard, they must be sculpted into something tangible.
Conversations of people both named and unnamed echo within my imagination. They evoke feelings that I have difficulties expressing to others. I want to share them with my readers, help them see what I see. And maybe get a glimmer of insight as to who I am.
There may not be meaning in the words I form, not conscious meaning anyway. I write what comes out. And it builds and builds. Sticky webs of interaction and intrigue. Relationships form and tear apart. The universe shifts as generations pass, forming new order for those yet to come.
I like to imagine myself as a keeper of lore, akin to the story tellers of the past who entertained with the tales preserved through eons. Each time a legend is spoken, something changes, a small detail that shifts the perspective of the future.
Everyday I sift through my vast collection of scraps and half-plots, wondering when I will have the chance to give them all the attention they demand. Perhaps one day, the well of inspiration will dry up, and my racing fingers can stop the toil. But that day is far out of my reach.
Like most who know about the artform, I was introduced to improv comedy from the famed TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Despite many of the references going over my young head at the time it first aired, I still found myself bursting at the seams with laughter at the off-the-cuff antics of the performers.
In high school, I was fortunate enough to participate in an improv club, where we not only played games, but also took field trips to performances and studied techniques from professionals.
While I was goofing off in a cloud of gawky adolescence, I was ignorant to the fact that improv was not only teaching me how to think on my feet, but also how to tell stories. And one day it clicked that the beauty of improv, as well as the core of storytelling, is all about engagement. Whether you are performing or observing in the audience, improv is a hands-on experience, much like the worlds you build in your narrative and the relationship you have with your readers.
It was only later in adulthood that I realized I was inadvertently applying these skills in my D&D gaming sessions. It started simple enough with my character creation (and giving my GMs headaches with grotesquely detailed backstories), then evolving further when I started DMing myself. Eventually, it got to the point where I chucked the rulebooks out the window and ran completely diceless campaigns.
After making this connection, I was able to apply my knowledge to large scale writing projects and develop the eyesight to become my own content editor. (NOTE: Don’t depend entirely on your own skills for content editing if you can help it. I am saying I was able to recognize enough to save work for someone else).
These skills not only helped with the writing aspect, but also the business side of being a “Competent Author™.” Elevator pitches, networking and relationships, public speaking etc. All of this can be improved upon with a flight from the seat of the pants.
But performance, no matter how small the audience, is much easier said than done, especially if you have anxiety. With practice and a few quick, short-worded sentences tucked in your belt, you can excuse yourself from overwhelming situations:
“Hey, this was a great conversation, but I really need to be elsewhere right now.”
“Thanks for chatting! I’m headed to another appointment, but maybe we can continue later?”
Whether it’s true or not, it’s great to have some pre-fabricated exits. However, I am speaking through my personal experience, and not everyone can find this helpful.
If you want to start off with playing improv games, try it out with a few close friends just to get a feel of the mechanics. The more you practice in a safe environment, the easier it may become for you. Remember, your replies will NOT sound polished. In fact, they will be clumsy and awkward until you learn what bits of your personal conversation filter can be shut off at will.
And that’s okay! Improv is not supposed to be polished, it’s supposed to be messy and random. A lot of the most noteworthy moments can come from spouting off the first thing that comes to mind (in both good and bad contexts). Just like editing a draft, polish comes later with time and practice.
A good first-time game is called “One Word,” where participants take turns telling a story one word at a time. Put a little flair on it by adding a theme or setting to help keep everyone focused. Make a space adventure and tell the story of a first alien encounter. Perhaps an opposing kingdom is beating down the gates to your castle, what happens next?
A quick google search of “Improv Comedy Games” will bring you a slew of options, but here’s a pair of sites with great examples to get you started:
Many games can be tailored to fiction, adding genre spins to suit whichever you want to practice. Focus on setting and character creation, or even use the Question Game (make a conversation only using questions) to practice your dialogue development.
Introduce exercises in your next writing group meetings or convention mixers as an icebreaker. But please be mindful of those with social anxiety and be respectful to members not participating! Improv requires a certain level of trust, and some may not feel comfortable for whatever reason they may or may not feel like sharing. Do not take it personally if you get rejected but be sure to leave the door open for those who want to try.
And on that note, another vital skill learned through improv is the ability to read the room. Improv is not just about spouting off the first thing that comes to your head. It’s also about learning the dynamics and knowledge base of the participants as well as the audience.
For example, any games involving song titles or movies may leave some players out because they don’t partake in popular media. It is also advisable to stray away from politically charged topics in a new setting until everyone is familiar with each other. It will take some experimentation to determine everyone’s comfort levels, as well as what types of games everyone excels at. Play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately, have fun with improv whether you apply it to your writing or not! It’s a fantastic way to practice interactions and storytelling while enjoying time with others both in and out of the industry. And most importantly, don’t be too serious when playing. It is comedy, after all.
Your characters have just finished sizing each other up, and inevitably, you need to figure out how they will go about beating the ever-living tar out of each other. Below I have illustrated my thought process on how I construct these scenes.
I begin with two timeline points: the start (X and Y are standing in front of each other), then the result (X has Y in a headlock). In between is a multitude of points that bring the scene together, like frames in a zoetrope. The next step would be to draft a play-by-play of how the conflict takes place.
Performed by https://senshistock.deviantart.com & https://jademacalla.deviantart.com
There is an underlying flow inside every combat engagement, and decoding that flow is key to effectively communicating a scene to your readers through narration. Not every graphic detail needs to be drawn out either, just enough to create a chain of action-reaction-action steps until you have reached your result point.
As you draft each point, consider where each limb is at that moment, followed by where they will be at the next step. From there, you can link the actions together to form one fluid sequence.
I tend to work directly in my draft when sketching out the scene, but for those that like more visual organization, you can illustrate these points on a flowchart, or draw out a bird’s eye map of the scene:
A pushes B in the right shoulder -> B steps back and slaps A with left -> A steps inside B -> B pivots around and hugs A’s neck
Once your sequence is drafted, polish it with descriptors to make it sound like sentient beings are fighting, not rock-em-sock-em robots. Don’t get too hung up on left versus right as well, it could clutter the prose, and eyes may glaze over keeping track of what hand slapped what nostril.
An important detail you do want to consider is how a body moves when something smacks it around. A slap versus a punch will yield two different results in skull motion, and require a different length of recovery time. Consider a shove in the shoulder versus a shove to the hips, or other balance points on the human body. For inspiration, get a couple jointed posing models you find in art supply stores and play around with them to get a better sense of range of motion.
Questions to ask yourself:
Are joints locked, or are they limber? How hard was that strike, exactly? How have their feet shifted, what noises did they make? What happens in the background, are there obstructions in the way?
Expression is also an important piece of communication, letting the reader know how the combatants feel about their opposition. Are their jaws clamped? Did their eyes widen as they realized an error in calculation? Are they looking at something in the background, or projecting their attack to their opponent?
You should also decide how much of a disciple of authenticity you want to project on your writing. There is a certain degree of reality that can be foregone for the sake of entertainment. If movies were painstakingly accurate, a lot of people would lose their appreciation (and possibly lunch) for action.
Your worldbuilding can also help smooth out a fight and buffer the suspension of disbelief. Supporting technology/magic you have created might let a character last longer or give them an edge in their fight, if they are an alien race that is stronger/weaker than humans etc.
Ultimately, it is a challenge to be an absolute expert at EVERYTHING, so go easy on yourself and trust in the suspension of disbelief. You can’t please everyone, and someone will be ready to point out how you are wrong in twelve different languages. The sooner you are comfortable with that, the easier writing combat becomes.
Research is also your best friend. Some of my favorite sources:
- Google specific questions like “how long does a choke hold last?” Be prepared to wade through an ocean of conflicting opinions. (Also, spoilers: not very long unless you want to kill, and even then, you’ll be holding on for several minutes.)
- Fighting forums, especially if you are looking for specific disciplines or fight styles.
- YouTube: there are a lot of martial art videos that display specific throws and sparring sessions. Play them on slow speed and analyze the combatants, limb positions, bent joints, where tension and force is held.
- Analyze action films with choreography that display the fight clearly, without a mashup of jumpcuts and overly edited effects. Google for ideas on good films if you are looking for accuracy (The Duellists from 1977 and Act of Valor recommended for a start)
- Find local martial arts schools and ask to observe sparring sessions. Explain your intentions and what you are looking for in terms of research (weapons, unarmed, etc). They may be willing to let you sit in on a session, and even participate in demonstrations (after signing a waiver).
- One practice of import is the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance (HEMA), a group dedicated to the study of medieval combat, both armed and unarmed. Though you might not think it relevant to a SciFi world, a lot of the core mechanics of historical wrestling can be applied to modern fighting.
- You can find their page here: https://www.hemaalliance.com/club-finders/
- The Mass chapter is called the Boston Armizare.