Story of Japan

Japanese History and Research for a Historical Novel

Genesis of a fight scene

One of the most difficult parts of writing a book is making sure that everything is expressed well. There are all sorts of rules – avoid passive verbs, limit the number of adverbs, vary sentence length – but what they all boil down to is “make your writing clear, and help the reader understand what is happening.”

This is particularly difficult when dealing with fight scenes. There are a lot of people who will tell authors that they skip past the fight scenes and just jump to the end to see who survives. For some authors, the takeaway from that is that they can do a crappy job on their fight scenes.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately for my sanity) I happen to enjoy reading action scenes. My favorite authors have really amazing fights. They absolutely riveted me when I was a teenager, and I carry that same feeling over to my old age. So, I am not prepared to just wing the fight scenes and hope that they turn out ok.

For example, I am working on a scene where Yoshi, our hero, is ambushed by some people who do not have his best interests in mind. My first attempt at the scene went like this.

As the bit tore into his mouth, my horse reared and turned to the left. I heard a hissing sound and felt four heavy impacts through his body. The poor animal went mad. I was caught completely by surprise as he convulsively reared and bucked, completely out of control. The violent motion threw me from the saddle. As I landed on my left side, I struck a stone in the roadway with a sharp crack followed by blinding stab of pain. At least one broken rib, maybe two, I thought, assessing the damage.

I rolled over on my right side and tried to see what was happening.

My horse was lying on his side in the middle of the track. Blood foamed and bubbled at his mouth, and his cries of pain sounded eerily like human screams of agony. His legs jerked spasmodically as he entered his death throes. I spotted the cause of his distress — four arrows closely clustered in the left side of his chest, just inside the front leg.

A stab of fear burned through the alcoholic fog in my brain, instantly sobering me. From the arrow’s position, I could tell he had been struck when he reared, but, if he had stayed on all four feet, the arrows would have hit me in the chest, instead. The shots had come from the left side of the road. My instinctive attempt to avoid my dream woman had saved my life.

I couldn’t see across the road without lifting my head. My naginata had fallen off the saddle and come to rest only a short distance from me. Grabbing it in one hand and dragging it behind me, I crawled into the stand of trees. It seemed prudent to put some distance between me and whoever was shooting arrows at unsuspecting riders.

Moving as quickly as I could on my belly, I got a tree with a particularly thick trunk. Keeping the bulk of the tree between me and the road, I struggled to sit upright, bracing my back against the tree for support.

I had been running purely on instinct up to that point. Everything I did — grabbing my weapon, moving to cover, keeping out of sight — was the result of years of training and experience of dozens of conflicts. Dealing with the situation had demanded every bit of my attention. Sitting against the tree, I had my first opportunity to think about my situation, and it suddenly struck me, Someone’s trying to kill me. I repeated it. “Someone’s trying to kill me.” When I said it out loud like that, it seemed ludicrous. This is crazy. No one is trying to kill me, it is just some kind of misunderstanding. Still, I would be careful. No point in dying before I straightened things out.

I peeked out from behind the tree. There was a berm in the middle of a field running parallel to the road across from the trees where I was hiding. I saw four figures with yumi in their hands and arrows in quarrels on their backs. Two figures jumped up from behind the berm and ran out to the now still carcass of my mount. After a brief search, one of them yelled, “There’s no one here!”
A man stood up next to the archers. He yelled, “Idiots! He must have gone into the trees.” Turning to the archers, he ordered, “Go out and cut him off. Don’t let him leave the woods.” The four men put their bows on their back and disappeared behind the berm. A short while later, four horses came out onto the road. They galloped off in the direction I had been heading. Although they disappeared, I could still hear the horses. It sounded like they circled back around to the other side of the woods.

A dozen or so men rose from where they had been lying behind the berm. They moved to join there two fellows in the road. The man who ordered the archers to cut me off started shouting instructions to the rest. “Form up at the horse, then make a line and sweep the woods. Triple share of the reward for the one who brings me the Imperial Inspector’s head!”

I was worried. This is no misunderstanding, these men are out here to kill me. I needed to come up with a plan, but my thoughts were running in circles. STOP! Think! I told myself. I stifled the developing panic and turned my thoughts to more constructive channels.
The woods. They were my only chance. The full moon was low on the horizon, and its light cast long twisted shadows that were so black it was impossible to see into them without careful visual inspection. Also, the area between the trees had pretty heavy ground cover. Anyone searching would have to spend a lot of time poking at the grass and bushes to discover whether anyone was hiding there.

If I kept to the shadows, no one in the line should see me, and I should be able to stay ahead of them, at least until I passed through the woods and came into sight of the mounted archers. I needed to put more distance between me and the searchers. With enough separation, I could maybe climb a tree to hide. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. I stood up.

The agonizing pain that burned through my left side caused me to stumble to my knees. It took all my self-control to keep from shouting in distress. There was no help for it, I couldn’t move in my current condition. I needed to do something about my ribs. I glanced nervously behind me where the men were forming up on the road.

The leader was trying to organize them into a proper search line. Even through the fog of pain, something about his voice caught my attention. I had to listen for a bit to recognize it, but this man had no business being out in the back of beyond leading ruffians in ambushes in the dark. His accent and speech patterns marked him as a member of the upper classes, and the authority in his voice and the casual way he snapped out orders told me that he was an experienced military commander. He would have been more at home as the general of an army than as the leader of a gang of bandits.

Fortunately, the quality of his men weren’t up the skill of their commander. He had to direct them again and again to get them to form up into a line, finally placing each man individually into position and then threatening them if they increased or decreased the interval separating them from their fellow searchers.

During this time he spent getting his men in order, I was taking care of my ribs. I tore my underrobe into three strips of cloth, each about twice as wide as my hand. Tying them together into one long strip, I wrapped that five times around my chest as tightly as I could. As I knotted it tight, the pain was so intense that I had to stuff my outer robe into my mouth and bite down on it to muffle my involuntary cries of pain.

I donned my outer robe and stood up again. My chest still pained me, but the sharp agony was not debilitating and I could move. Unfortunately, I bound my chest so tightly that I could barely breathe.

1264 words, and all that has happened is that Yoshi has managed to crawl into the woods. One person read this and said, “I’m bored, make something happen!” So, I spent some time trying to rework things. This is what I came up with.

Spooked by the sudden appearance of the woman, my horse reared and twisted to the left. I heard a ssssss sound and felt two heavy impacts through his body. The poor animal went mad. I was caught totally by surprise as he convulsively reared and bucked, completely out of control. The violent motion threw me from the saddle. Instinctively, I tucked myself in and rolled as I hit the ground, instantly getting back on my feet.

I spotted a flicker of motion behind a berm to right of the road. Three indistinct figures stood behind the barrier. Keeping low to avoid being seen, I snatched my naginata from where it had fallen, dashed into the woods, and hid myself behind a large tree.
I peered around the trunk.

My horse was lying on his side in the middle of the track. Blood foamed and bubbled at his mouth, and his cries of pain sounded eerily like human screams of agony. His legs jerked spasmodically as he entered his death throes. I spotted the cause of his distress — two arrows a finger’s width apart, buried to the fletching in the left side of his chest, just inside the left front leg.
A stab of fear burned through the alcoholic fog in my brain, instantly sobering me. From the arrow’s position, he’d been struck when he reared. If he had stayed on the ground, the arrows would have hit me in the side. The sudden appearance of my dream woman had saved my life.

I had been running purely on instinct up to that point. Everything I did — grabbing my weapon, moving to cover, keeping out of sight — was the result of years of training and experience of dozens of conflicts. Dealing with the situation had demanded every bit of my attention. Sitting against the tree, I had my first opportunity to think about my situation, and it suddenly struck me, Someone’s trying to kill me. I repeated it. “Someone’s trying to kill me.” When I said it out loud like that, it seemed ludicrous. This is crazy. No one is trying to kill me, it is just some kind of misunderstanding. Still, I would be careful. No point in dying before I straightened things out.

I had a better view of the three figures at the berm. Two of men held yumi, and were reaching into their quivers to replace the arrows they fired into my horse. The third man looked around. He roared, “Where is he? He can’t have gone far. Find him!” At his call, another dozen men rose from behind the berm and stepped out into the road.

I had to distract them. They didn’t know where I was yet, so I grabbed several stones and threw them into the woods in a direction away from me. The sounded like someone crashing through the forest at a dead run. When the leader heard the noise, he and his men moved to follow, leaving behind the two archers to keep watch on the road.

Traveling away from the group of men, I considered my situation. I needed to take out the archers. They were watching their fellows as they crashed through the undergrowth trying to drive me out in the open. I cut across the road and came in behind them, keeping low and moving quietly so as not to alert them to my presence. When I got close enough, I carefully got my feet under me, changed my naginata to my left hand and silently slid the kodachi from my belt with my right.

I was directly behind the men. They were still absorbed in watching the activities of their fellows through the trees. Thrusting vigorously with both weapons simultaneously, the blades of the naginata and kodachi buried themselves to the hilt in the archers’ backs.

One made a sort of strangled sound and collapsed to the ground. The other, more hardy than his fellow, managed to turn around, tearing the kodachi out of my hand. He tried to fit the arrow in his hand to his yumi, but it wouldn’t stay. He tried again, but before he got it in place, he ran out of energy and collapsed to his knees. With a soft groan, he toppled over on his left side and died.

I retrieved my weapons from the bodies and wiped the blades off on their robes, then sheathed the kodachi. I quickly checked the men in the woods, but no one noticed anything amiss.
I wanted out of here and had no intention of trying to fight my way through a dozen or more ruffians. Standing on the berm, I saw a group of horses tethered in the middle of the field next to a small irrigation canal, out of sight of the road. If I could get one of the horses, I could ride away and they would never catch me.

The leader had made a rookie mistake in leaving his horses unattended. I intended to take advantage of his oversight.

Crouching down again to minimize the chance I would be seen from the forest, I made my way back to the horses. Choosing one, I quietly undid the traces of my ride-to-be and started walking him out of the press of the other animals.

As it turned out, the leader had not made a rookie mistake. A powerful arm went around my throat and almost jerked my head off as it tightened around my neck, cutting off all my air and lifting my feet off the ground. It so surprised me that I dropped my naginata.

937 words, or about 3/4 of the length of the first selection, and already, Yoshi has killed two men and been surprised and started to be strangled by a third.

I’m still struggling to finish the encounter, but it appears that at least my readers won’t go to sleep in the middle of it.

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