31 August, 2010

Ask Mayhem: The First Person Fight

I got several good questions after my open invitation, but this one is tough enough that it's all I can answer this week:

Dear Mr. Mayhem: How should a fight scene differ in pace and focus if told from the POV of someone in the fight vs. someone only watching? -- Jessica

Fantastic question. The easy and most general answer is that the pacing of the fight doesn't change, but the perception of the fight and therefore the way it goes on the page does. It's a bit difficult for your narrator to remember who jabbed and who feinted when he's dealing with this at the same time:

Fig. 1 : Do I have your attention?

Readers will recall a previous post on how to pace a fight: the basics are to understand that a fight has a rhythm, like music. A good writer will vary the rhythm of the fight and control fast and slow parts to evoke the feelings he wants in the reader's mind.

This is a tough question for me as a fight choreographer, because in that line of work all fights are in third person: the point of view of the audience. So when I approach it as a choreographer turned writer my natural inclination is to think of the whole fight in third and then put myself in the position of my first person narrator. This is where things get interesting.

We all know the basics of Point of View (POV): first person shows us everything that the narrator sees and feels, and only that. Whether writing in first person present or past, this means that something as rawly primal as a fight should have a feel of immediacy. If the narrator is recounting the story of his fight with dispassion, you may as well be writing in third with a change of pronoun.

So in that immediate first, the author has to consider what parts of the action the character will miss because he has other things going on. You can't do this:

Bob hit me in the back of the head with the tire iron, and right away I couldn't see anything but bright flashes. All I heard was the ringing in my ears. Then he pulled out a six inch kitchen knife and started honing it on the steel.
Right? Our narrator can't tell you what's happening after a significant injury. Everything he sees and hears comes through the filter of more immediate sensations. For example, you might have him describe the first blow he receives, but after that he might only know that he's being rocked around like a rag doll.

He's also going to lose track of the fight if he gets enraged, scared, exhilarated, shocked, et cetera -- all sorts of things could happen that interfere with his ability to observe what's happening. 

And this is what might cause a problem for pacing. I think that any good fight uses slow and quick actions, like music, to create a feeling that tells the story. With a first person narrator the actions can blur, and he may also be unreliable due to his own perceptions and prejudices. I suppose if I could offer one piece of advice here, it's to treat that 'blur' as just another rhythm for the story.

So, here's the fight again from the original post on pacing. Like I said, my approach would be to plot out the fight as an omniscient choreographer and then work out how the narrator tells it.

Bob's fist just grazed Alex's temple. He swung again as Alex stepped back, this time landing a hook just under his ribs. He struck again, but this time Alex intercepted his fist with a large unbound manuscript.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," said Alex, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked the manuscript out of Alex's hands. The cloud of papers masked his next kick, straight into Alex's solar plexus. Alex doubled over, wheezing.

"You... you animal," Alex said. "I never numbered the pages!" He sprang up, fingers clawing for Bob's throat--but Bob dodged aside and kicked Alex's ankle out from under him. His face hit the ground like a flipped pancake and the pages of his manuscript settled over him in a pile of 8 1/2 by 11 inch futility.

And now from Alex's POV in first person:

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur, and a rough bony something grazed my temple--Bob's fist. I couldn't get away before he punched me square in the side. It was all I could do to get the manuscript in front of my face before he clobbered me.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," I said, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked, and I was lost in cloud of 8 1/2 by 11 inch dreams. My dreams! His foot shot out through the flying pages and caught me right in the gut. White phosphorous stars exploded behind my eyes, and I sucked in air like I'd just run a marathon.

"You... you animal," I managed to choke out. "I never numbered the pages!" I dove for his throat, and that's almost the last thing I remember. He dodged out of the way and the next thing I knew I was flat on my face. The pages of my manuscript settled down on me as I closed my eyes. It was just like falling asleep in a snowstorm of futility.

That was fun--looking forward to more good questions!

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