Key points: Real martial arts training takes a long time. Also, weapons weigh a lot! When characters get injured, deal with the injuries. Balance showy fighting with realism. Focus on what the fight means, not the step-by-step actions. How does the character feel? What reaction do you want to elicit from the reader?
[Mary] Season eight, episode 43.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, realistic melee fighting with Wesley Chu.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we have Wesley Chu. Do you like to go by Wes or Wesley?
[Wesley] I'll go by anything, actually. Wesley is good.
[Brandon] Wesley. So, anything, tell us a little bit about your book.
[Wesley] The name of my book is The Lives of Tao. It's about... A modern-day science fiction, it's about an alien who inhabits a middle-aged loser and convinces him to fight in a Civil War over humanity's evolution.
[Brandon] Okay. So, that sounds awesome. That's great. And you are a martial artist. What's your martial arts background?
[Wesley] I spent many years training in Wu Shu and my combat sport was actually tai chi. So I used to kick box in tai chi. My specialty is the rope dart. Does anybody know what that means? It's like Scorpion in Mortal Kombat.
[Wesley] He throws a spear and pulls it back.
[Brandon] That's a real thing?
[Wesley] That's a real thing. Actually the guy who invented... Who did the movement for that game...
[Brandon] The motion capture dude?
[Wesley] Motion capture... Daniel Pesino. He was actually my first teacher. He was Scorpion.
[Howard] So, wait, you learned...
[Wesley] He was Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage.
[Howard] You learned rope dart fighting from Scorpion?
[Wesley] I learned rope dart fighting from Scorpion. One of my best friends is Kung Lao. The guy who threw the hat.
[Jordo] Oh, no way.
[Wesley] He's a Filipino guy, by the way.
[Brandon] Wow. You just blew producer Jordo's mind. Okay. So what we're going to talk about...
[Mary] One other thing that he hasn't mentioned yet is that he has also worked as a stuntman.
[Brandon] Oh, sweet.
[Wesley] Did a little bit of work. It's mostly like I'm gang banger number five, flunky number four. I get my ass kicked a lot is basically what happens, you know.
[Howard] You know what's funny. You're here, kind of bouncing and happy, and the amount of injury that you've potentially avoided is enormous. Last week, we had Scott Lynch on and he's just all, "Oh, my back." I don't know what he did, slept on the floor or something...
[Howard] For those not benefiting from the video, Scott is still here in the audience.
[Brandon] He's pointing at Howard with the wrong finger. I don't understand. That's not how you do it. That's not how you do it.
[Wesley] He's got a really cushy day job.
[Mary] It's okay. He won't be able to chase you down.
[Brandon] Okay. Back on topic. Were we ever on topic in the first place? I want to theme this podcast about talking regarding the things that writers do wrong that really kick a mart... True martial artist out of their books. Where they say, "That's just awful." I want you to just say... A few pointers. Things that when you're reading... That would never happen in a million years. What's wrong with you?
[Wesley] Okay. I'm going to start with two points. I think the first point that just pisses me off is the length of time it takes to train. Did you ever see that movie Wanted where the guy goes from like a regular shmoo to a master assassin in like three months? That pisses me off because when I first started training with my tai chi guy... He's a real old-school, carry buckets in your hand kind of guy. I spent two weeks walking around in a circle. Literally, because we were learning something called [bok lao?] which is like eight diagram boxes and you walk in circles. So I spent two weeks walking in a circle, and then I spent the next two weeks walking a circle the other way. So my first month was literally walking in a circle. I fuck with you not. It was ridiculous.
[Mary] This is how puppetry training goes, too.
[Wesley] You do repetition over and over again. So it takes many, many years to get decent. One of the big problems I had with Wheel of Time, besides [book 629?], was...
[Wesley] So, the Heron mark sword. Where did Rand get that?
[Brandon] So... What... Just keep in mind that he's actually a reincarnated imm... Guy that's over 400 years old.
[Howard] But... In fairness, though, if that didn't come across in the text for Wesley...
[Brandon] No, that's kind of an excuse. Yes, it is one of the things that people have pointed out a lot, that in book 2, Rand defeats a master swordsman. At this point, like three months have passed or so, since the beginning when he was an untrained farmboy who'd never held a sword.
[Wesley] Because if you're getting your Heron mark sword... Even one of the previous guys with Heron mark swords, I think his father Tam al'Thor got it in what... He got it...
[Brandon] He went to war. I'm not sure of the exact time.
[Wesley] But getting a Heron mark sword that easily, within like say 2 to 4 years, is like getting your black belt in tae kwon do in like a year. It's just... What's a Heron mark sword worth then, if you're getting it so easily?
[Brandon] Okay. So that was point number one. What else bothers you?
[Wesley] This one is actually very easy to manage, is weapon weight. I think... I don't know how many of you guys played D&D in the past, but you get your encumbrance and you can hold this much weight and you know half that weight is so many bags of gold coins. This person is walking around for like a week with like full chain mail, his sword... He's holding his sword up the entire time, he's got a bag of coins, and that's how he's rolling... He's walking around killing and hacking and carrying bags of coins.
[Brandon] Don't forget the [tentpole?] too.
[Wesley] And the poor horse. The horse is like, "What the hell? Why are you carrying all this stuff?" But in reality, there is a really good reason why you have a sheath. It's because when you hold a sword, they're really heavy. When you like... Right now, for fencing, the typical épée or foil is like less than half a pound. What happens with that is, if a weapon is so light, you can move it around with your wrist. That's how you're supposed to fence these days is with your wrist. But in reality, a sword's like 3 to 5 pounds. Because of the physics of how heavy a sword is, you can't actually swing it with your wrist. You can't even swing it with your arms. You have to swing it with your legs. It's like swinging a baseball bat. So suddenly, the entire physics of how a weapon is used is completely different from what you think it is. So when I see guys... Like Conan's holding his sword out, I'm like... Well, he is Conan.
[Brandon] Yeah, he is Conan.
[Wesley] Yeah, never mind. Anybody besides Conan holding his sword out more than like 10 minutes at a time is lying.
[Brandon] Excellent. That's one... That's exactly the sort of stuff that we wanted to talk about here.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead and do our book of the week. It is your book!
[Wesley] My book? Okay.
[Brandon] Yeah, tell us about your book.
[Wesley] Again. Yes. The Lives of Tao is a modern day science-fiction... I've already said that part. Okay. So what The Lives of Tao does is... I'm kind of tired of the heroes that... Who were trained for it, they were destined to be good heroes. The whole fated or the you were a talented young boy that is now a great hero. So I took a middle-aged guy who was... Who had opportunities to succeed, but never had. He's overweight, he's a loser, he has low self-esteem, very low social skills. Then I had him go through this really rigorous training process to become a spy, a secret agent. So that was him spending... Even now I would say... It took a year in the book, but that's actually really short. But it's about him coming-of-age at a later period in his life where he can make something of himself and kind of... I'm messing this all up... Is how he reborns... He reborns... Remolds how he's made.
[Brandon] Awesome. That is on Audible?
[Howard] Lives of Tao?
[Mary] Lives of Tao and it's narrated by Mikael Nimara... Naramore. Excuse me.
[Brandon] And how can they get it, Howard?
[Howard] Head out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30 day free trial and pick up The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu.
[Brandon] I would assume by reading this book you probably have a lot of interesting martial arts going on and they can get a realistic dose of what it might be like?
[Wesley] I actually was able to... From a stuntman background, you always want to choreograph every single move step-by-step. It's like positioning here, angle there, push here... [Inaudible] take the shot. I used to be able to reenact every single scene in this book.
[Wesley] Until about like three or four years ago, then I realized that I'm not so limber anymore. Then you can't really do that.
[Brandon] You should put them all on YouTube. No, seriously, like that would be the best promotion for this book is YouTube videos of the stunts with you and some stunt people friends.
[Wesley] I'm a little retired because like back in the day, when you're fighting and you're sparring and like you take a punch and you're like, "Oh, yeah. That's a really good hit." Then at one point in your life where you hit a certain point and you get hit in the head and you're like, "Sssss... That's a concussion."
[Brandon] I never hit that first one.
[Howard] I was... I think I was 10 when I figured that out. No. No, no, don't hit me in the head. Don't hit me anywhere.
[Mary] Well, that is actually another place that people go, I think, astray when they're writing is that their characters get injured but they don't deal with the injuries.
[Brandon] This is actually a good segue. I actually want to talk... Wesley, at what point do you as a writer... I mean, if you've done stunt work, I would assume that part of this is movie magic, and the fight scenes go on longer than they realistically should, and there's like you've got that kind of showmanship. As a writer, how much do you strive for that kind of the cinematic fun fights versus the this is brutally realistic and if you get punched in the head, you have a concussion for weeks. It's not just oh, I get knocked out and now I wake up.
[Wesley] Well, let me... There's two points. First, to Mary's question about guys who recover really quick. If you've ever been in a real fight, or even you worked out really hard for a day and you're not used to it, you're done for the next three or four days. So I think it's called the videogame syndrome were Mario gets smashed and the next day, he's like, "Oh, I'm ready to go. Let's go guys!" So that's a common tendency in writing that I think I'm a victim of, too. I like get my main character beat up a lot, and the next day he's like, "I'm ready for more." Then for Brandon's question, cinematic writing, I mean stuff that works for movies and cinema, is the complete opposite for writing. For writing, if I write down every single nuance in a fight scene, it's boring. It really is. When I first started writing, I did that. I wrote every single thing because I'm authentic. But then my wife read it and she was like, "You know, you're just mentally masturbating."
[Wesley] She's right, because in my head, I'm having this intricate fight scene, but in reality, nobody cares. Nobody really cares. I mean when you have a scene for writing, you want to strip it down and turn it... Make it emotional. The impact. The effect of the hit. What's going to happen with the fight? That's what the reader really cares about. Not my hand movements are doing this and you go [inaudible] that nobody cares about that.
[Howard] What's really fascinating for me is that a year ago at GenCon, when we recorded with Shanna Germain and talked about writing romance, and specifically writing sex, she said exactly the same thing. Which was if you described tab a, slot b, it's boring. What you describe is the emotional perception that your point of view character is having with what's going on, and that is what engages the reader.
[Mary] That is the thing also that fiction can do best. That films can't. Which is why if you're learning your storytelling strictly from a visual medium like film and television that it's not going to translate as well into fiction. Into prose fiction. Because it's a different medium.
[Brandon] That's an excellent point. I think Mary's hit it dead on. The thing I want to mention in this, though, is kind of going back to my original slightly leading question, is this idea is there a place for just saying, "Okay, you know what, yes, my character shouldn't be up and fighting the next day, but this makes a better story." I think there is. I think there's an argument for it. In fact, I'll share a little story. There's a series of YouTube videos about a guy who's really up on his history, he knows his stuff. I don't remember what his name is, but he did one on swords and what it sounds like to unsheath a sword. Right? That sound that you're all hearing in your head of a sword unsheathing is actually the sound that an iron rod makes when a spatula is run across it. Because that's how they make the sound for the movie. A guy in after effects adds in that sound because it's what we all expect.
[Not sure] Foley.
[Brandon] The real sound is just kind of a quiet rasp. But you wouldn't be able to hear that on the screen, and it would actually sound faker to you on the screen. Particularly in the early days of movie, it just would have been silence and you would have been like, "Wait a minute, it's silent. This sounds fake." So they started adding these things in, and they become tropes. So I watched this video and I'm like, "Oh, man. We're all doing this horribly wrong. This guy is so on the... So right. I need to change the way I think about everything." I went online to the comment thread, and everyone's like, "Yeah, that's true. But it's movie magic. And we accept..." I'm perfectly willing to accept when I'm in that world that... The actors probably aren't saying a lot of those lines right then. In fact, they're saying the exact perfect lines that someone wrote for them to say. It is not real life, and in certain genres we're okay with this. I started to think, "You know what? This is about the illusion of entertainment." It's... I'm not writing a thesis on accurate representation of medieval life, I'm writing a fun story with characters and... The engaging characters are what we're talking about. It's the same sort of thing. In that case, having your character get up the next day may just be the right choice.
[Mary] Yes. I agree with that, that the idea that... If it serves the story and moves the thing forward, you go with it. The one thing that I want people to think about, though, when they're looking at my character has been badly injured is that a lot of times that gives you an opportunity for a lot of interesting complications and conflict than you would if the character remained uninjured. That it's a missed opportunity. On the other hand, from theater, I know that there have been times when I have been badly injured on stage with a live microphone and an audience and I just kept going as if it didn't happen. So it is true that sometimes these guys probably would just get up and be like, "All right. I'm just gonna... Everything's a little wonky, but adrenaline does a lot."
[Wesley] Well, I mean... And also, to put it in perspective, a lot of our characters who are fighting wars or who live this kind of life are probably kind of used to it. So for us, personally, I used to do that, but not at a professional level where I'm going through this day and day out. I'm just doing it for fun. So maybe some of these guys can handle this kind of physical abuse.
[Brandon] Right. I think I'm not getting at this one specific... I just am raising the issue for our readers. For instance, I am now going to... When I unsheath a sword, I'm going to describe it the right way. I went and unsheathed my swords that I've got at home, and each of them, I'm like, "All right. This is what it sounds like." I've got to make sure... I don't know if I've done it wrong before, but in the future, I'm going to make sure. Because this isn't going to destroy the illusion for the reader, this is going to help the illusion for a reader as opposed to a movie. But I'm sure there are things like the sword, such as the one I think of most is making the fight scenes last longer than they really should. Realistic fighting is fast and brutal and you're done. Sometimes that's the right thing to do in a book, but sometimes... You want to have time for some witty jibes back and forth and things like this and it makes a better story. So I guess I'm saying, listeners, think about that balance between realism and cinematic storytelling... Well, cinematic's the wrong term, but narrative storytelling that you want to use.
[Wesley] Right. I mean, if you ever see real swordplay, like these two masters go at it. They're standing there for a while, kind of gauging each other, they're kind of like eyeballing what each other does and... Boom! It's done. Somebody's dead.
[Brandon] Yup. Yup.
[Wesley] If you ever see like real traditional swordplay, it's two guys holding their swords out... They're never swinging because you want to keep your weapon in front of you. They're sliding back and forth... Foom! Done. Somebody's dead. It's actually kind of boring.
[Brandon] Right. Or if there is a shield, they raise their shield and coming in swinging as fast as they can. It's really kind of interesting. Real martial arts fighting usually ends up on the floor with someone in a headlock getting punched. That doesn't look real cool on the screen or on the page, but that's what happens. Am I right? That's...
[Wesley] Ends up on the ground, usually.
[Howard] One of the... I would argue that this balance between cinematic and realistic is struck by the reaction that you elicit from the reader. If what you've done knocks the reader out of the story, consistently knocks all of your readers out of the story, you've done it wrong. If it knocks all of the professionally trained martial artists out of the story, you're probably still okay unless they come for you.
[Howard] That Brandon, I'm gonna get him for that.
[Brandon] All right. Let's bring it out with a writing prompt.
[Wesley] Good. We're going to do a fantasy this time. I want you to write a scene in any world where a pirate can beat a ninja.
[Brandon] All right.
[Audience] Does it have to be a ninja?
[Brandon] It has to be a ninja. He just said.
[Wesley] If you ever get a chance, look at The Deadliest Warrior. They actually have a pirate beating a ninja, and it pisses me off. I'd like to just... Gah!
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses. Now go write.