Them's Fightin' Words by Teel James Glenn by Teel James Glenn - Read Online



Join professional fight choreographer Teel James Glenn as he takes you on a journey through the process of creating believable and dramatic action scenes in every kind offiction. Using wit and personal experience, he dissects action scenes for the keys to what makes them work. Readers benefit from his combat experience, including eastern martial arts, the physiology and kinetics of weight training and the dramatic story telling from film and stage acting. From fantasy swordfights, barroom brawls, comic combat to martial arts knockabouts, he not only outlines and explains the whys and wherefores of literary violence, he also explores techniques that allow you to create them yourself with a series of fun and easy to do exercises. He takes the mystery out of writing action, but not the excitement!
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781611608151
List price: $3.99
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Them’s Fightin Words


Teel James Glenn


Published by


Whiskey Creek Press

PO Box 51052

Casper, WY 82605-1052

Copyright Ó 2014 by Teel James Glenn

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 (five) years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

Names, characters and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author or the publisher.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-61160-815-1

Cover Artist: Susan Krupp

Editor: Melanie Billings

Printed in the United States of America


This one is for Mr. O’Donnell—the best high school teacher a kid could have. He opened the world of classics to me and took me to far away worlds with the radio of yesteryear club.

And Joan McNulty-Pulver my mentor and editor who guided me to this book and so many others-she will never be forgotten…


I could not do this without my wild Canadian, Giulie and my patron of patrons, Eric….once again…


The book you are holding is not a nuts and bolts structuralist manuscript heavy on verb/adverb/subjunctive type information; I’ll leave that to E.B. White and Mr. Strunk. It is, instead a few thoughts gleaned though my experience in creating action scenes, both for film and stage and for a number of my own stories. It also comes from my observations about the works of a number of authors I have enjoyed and learned from. I don’t purport to have any answers, really, but I do think I know what questions to ask. I hope it will be useful to any who read it, and I look forward to continuing to learn myself.

Table of Contents

Introduction: How come I get to write this book.

Chapter 1: And would you like fries with your violence?

Chapter 2: I guess we can’t all just get along?

Chapter 3: Bruise and Consequence.

Chapter 4: How to Build a Better Beating.

Chapter 5: Autopsy Turvy

Chapter 6: Barbarian Librarian

Chapter 7: On the Backs of Old Envelopes!

Chapter 8: Seeing Red: What the Thark are you talkin’ about?

Chapter 9: Tiptoe on Giant’s Shoulders.

Chapter 10: Wherefore Martial Art Thou?

Chapter 11: Oh that is A Sword in your Pocket!

Chapter 12: Movies with an edge

Chapter 13: Just a little Nippon tuck…

Chapter 14: Chambara of good news: The dozen best Samurai films.

Chapter 15: Fighting with your cloths…no, not your zipper. Costume, Combat and Culture in make believe worlds.

Chapter 16: When Styles Collide!

Chapter 17: Fantasy Fights; Magick and Mayhem!

Afterword: Word Out!

Bibliography and url links

Introduction: How Come I Get to Write This Book?

How this book came to be is a long and twisted tale with almost enough drama for one of the works of fiction I dissect in it.

To begin with, it wasn’t my idea: Margaret Carr gets the credit/blame for that. To be honest, she comes into the story late in the picture, so, not to get ahead of myself I shall begin at the beginning.

Like many who have become authors, I was a sickly child who found sports tiresome or impossible. I learned to read from comic books and so early on action became a basic element of my appreciation of the storytelling process.

I was reading comics and books as a refuge from very early on and though the classics were part of my formative years (Moby Dick, Men of Iron, Ivanhoe, Treasure Island, Scarlet Letter, Dracula, etc.) it was Burroughs, Howard and Lester Dent (aka Kenneth Robeson) that made the biggest impression.

And when I wasn’t reading I was watching Republic Serials.

The old chapter plays were staples of the early ’60s television in New York. In fact, chapter two of the Adventures of Captain Marvel seen at a comic book convention when I was fifteen was one of the milestone moments that set my life’s course.

After seeing Dave Sharpe (doubling for the lead) do the most amazing, physical things I had ever seen, I made up my mind that, sickly or not, I was going to do those amazing things

And I did.

Over the next few years I learned everything I could about stunts and filmmaking, in the process creating a number of super eight mini-epics.

It was a toss-up whether to go to acting or art school; art school won since I was drawing and writing comics by this time as well.

Martial arts were already a big part of my life by this time, and I also became a certified personal trainer (eventually for fourteen years) and merged the ancient eastern knowledge with modern physical sciences. I soon found myself having to explain the kinesthetics of movement clearly and concisely to clients.

So I was learning the visual and physical aspects of action and having to find ways to connect them.

But something was still missing.

I was also writing and selling articles and short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. I can say, unequivocally that it takes more discipline to write a novel than get a black belt since I’ve done both.

The end of my second novel had a swordfight in it and even though I had a number of martial arts under my belt, I had never handled a sword. So I took a class in stage combat (an art form I did not even realize existed up until that time) to learn how to handle a sword. The class was called Swashbuckling 101.

Cue the trumpets and heavenly light.

I had found my grail!

Suddenly the visual sense from drawing, the combat reality from the eastern martial arts, the physiology and kinetics from the weight training and the dramatic story telling from my film and stage acting came together in one art.

I became devoted, obsessed with the art. I was privileged to study under a number of great teachers, including Errol Flynn’s last stunt double, and in due time became a fight choreographer myself. By sweat and practice, cut by cut I became versed in the true dynamics of ‘action acting.’

And I began to teach.

Anyone who has ever taught will tell you that, whatever the subject, you truly learn it yourself when you teach. And to teach even a physical subject, you must have the language skills to explain and describe the inner workings of it.

Meanwhile (as they say in the movies), I continued to write. Mostly screenplays and short stories by this time, but even I could see clearly that my ability to visualize action was reflected on the page.

Others noticed as well; I have a nice pile of rejection slips, most of which read something like this didn’t quite work for us, but we loved the action scene…

A nice pile…

Time passed.

I had a kid; I put the writing in a drawer and continued to make a living as a swordsman and actor.

I did over fifty Renaissance Faires, just short of three hundred plays and sixty films as an actor, stuntman and fight choreographer. And taught thousands of students the intricacies of faux fighting, even creating a video series on the Secrets of the Actionmasters.

Eventually I took the writing out of the drawer, cleaned it up and sent it out to a publisher.

And sold a novel.

Then another.

By the end of a year, I had sold four novels and a collection of short stories.

In each case the acceptances came with comments about the vividness of the action.

Finally my first publisher, to whom I will always be grateful, Margaret Carr, and my editor, Joan McNulty-Pulver, said, Why don’t you write a book about fight scenes for writers.

So I did.

Here it is.

Not my idea, more like my destiny.

And fun, I hope.

No pretensions to greatness or immortality, just a few notes on what I’ve been lucky enough to learn along the way.

And a roadmap to what I would like to learn more of.

So Carpe Diem; grab that fish and start swinging…

Teel James Glenn 9/27/12

Chapter 1: And Would You Like Fries With Your Violence?

Since the first storyteller sat around a campfire spinning tales of gods and heroes, it has been a given that a little action makes a mildly interesting story into a real grabber. Put your hero or heroine in physical jeopardy and you can have a winner. Conflict is the key and physical conflict, i.e., a fight, is often the answer.

It is not the only answer, to be sure. Emotional conflict is the essence of real drama, but the line where drama ends and adventure or melodrama begins is an iffy one. If the level of your drama is high, if the characters are convincing and we as a reader care about what happens to them then you can get a frenzy of worry out of us by having a villain try to club our hero. Or shoot him or…you get the idea.

First thing in making choices about action sequences in a manuscript is; why is it there? What purpose? Is it there to move the plot along (and therefore includes some clues or character points), or does it serve as a diversion to the main plot (not a sub plot but a red herring), or is it an emotional catharsis for some character to deal with some larger issue?

Or (and let us be frank this happens) is it filler to get your word count up? This is a legitimate reason; it is a business after all and some decisions are not wholly artistic. Perhaps you need three thousand words to get your word count up. In that case maybe the two man duel becomes a small war.

It doesn’t make you a bad person.

And while a fight/action scene can serve all these reasons at once, it generally will have one of them as a prime reason.

Any writer will want the level of the action to up the level of the drama. Just as you would want the details of the car race or the deep sea diving or whatever story element was needed to tell the story to be accurate and plausible, you want the action to not ‘distract’ from the story but rather support it.

Too often (at least in the film work I have done), the action is the red-headed stepchild of the story, hastily added in or used as a patch between talking head scenes. This cheats the reader and the writer of great opportunity to explore how the characters react in stressful situations, or to inform the readers of some background facts. Where did the character learn to do a certain move, or what about the fighting style of the bad guy triggers a memory from our heroine’s past?

Fights, like dramatic styles, come in a variety of flavors, each suited to the overall tone of the story.

A grim, down and dirty knife fight might be fine for a thriller, but wrong for a romantic comedy. A pie fight in a spy adventure changes the tone from serious to silly faster than you can say ‘tart!’

So how does it break down—what makes a fight funny, or scary, or grim, or realistic? Anything that makes a dialogue scene any of those: funny, or scary, or grim, or realistic.

The first principle to understand in writing action is that violence hurts.


Even in the improbable Inspector Clouseau films, action has reaction and when people get hit or fall down, they experience real pain at the moment of impact.

In a cartoon comedy like that, they get right back up again, but at the moment of ‘impact,’ they feel the pain like anyone else. That is the key—we can all identify with the pain someone feels when getting bopped on the head or stabbed with a fountain pen; at least for that second of occurrence.

That is our window into the world of the characters—the verisimilitude that makes it all seem real to us. Regardless that the consequence of the violence in a single Three Stooges short would fill a hospital ward and leave the leads severely crippled, we can ignore the aftermath if they do. If, in the moment of the inflicting of the pain, we can identify with them, we will accept the story as ‘real.’ It becomes totally within the confines of our ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’

James Bond would be a cripple if all his wounds were treated realistically in the Ian Fleming books. Fleming however, was clever—he always heaped the most heinous violence on his hero near the end of the book, even letting him pass out with his survival uncertain at the end of From Russia with Love. But Bond was always functional by the next book, albeit with a mention of the new scars or some physiological trauma that had to be worked out.

All this lip service to ‘reality’ allowed the reader to dismiss his doubts while reading the story and stay immersed in the action. In effect, Fleming had ‘trumped’ the reader’s disbelief with a nod to reality.

The same is true of superhero cartoons; Superman is boring if he just shrugs off every mortar shell, so now and again you have him grunt and stumble to help the audience connect with the human part of the demi-god.

So no matter how ‘real’ or ‘comic’ you want the fight to be (in a sliding scale from hardcore realistic to complete cartoon farce, with swashbuckling Three Musketeer type action wavering between the two) you must always find a way to help the reader be part of the action. The reader has to experience the hero/ine’s moment of humanity.

That moment can be when they run out of breath, realize their last bullet is gone, discover the knife wound on their side is serious or suddenly remember that if they don’t vanquish the villain by three o’clock they will be late to pick up the kids from school!

Once you understand that it does hurt, you can calculate the ‘ouch factor’; that is, how much damage and how much recovery time.

Seems a no-brainer, but now that you’ve determined the moment of humanity for your character, you determine just how real you want the fight to be. Remember, The Three Stooges get a saw cut on the head and recover in the next scene, but when Athos is wounded in the shoulder in The Three Musketeers it bothers him for a number of chapters. In between is the level of ‘reality’ for your story.

This is where the flavors come in—how you balance these elements: how real, how much pain, and to what end the action in the scene in the story determines if the fight is farce or frightening.

You can do a serious fight scene with a stuffed panda, or a comedy fight scene with an axe if you deal with the individuals involved in a realistic or farcical fashion. Once you have determined that ouch factor, it is how the people involved react to what is happening to them that you get to your fight’s tone.

There is no distinction as far as how a fight is handled in a fantasy world from how it might be handled for a hardboiled crime story, or a western, in terms of sentence length, cross-cut technique, level of pain (that ouch factor again) or weapons technique. Even if your hero is blue skinned, or furry, or a robot (that can feel pain or experience anxiety at least) they have a vulnerability and an agenda within their world, which is the ‘human’ component that will let your reader connect with them.

The choices extend beyond purpose and tone for a fight; it must also be appropriate to the time, place and character.

I mean, really, Babe Ruth should not be swinging an aluminum baseball bat unless it’s a time travel story and if your 1860s cowboy hero starts throwing jumping roundhouse kicks, he better be named James West!

A certain amount of credibility with your reader is purchased from their imaginations with the preconceptions of what they expect versus what is credible or possible.

Mauser semi-automatic pistols existed in the 1890s, for instance, but do you want your cowboy in the Indian Territories to have one?

If so, the reason better be good enough to steal the focus from the cattle rustling storyline, because it will. Later in the book, I’ve given a rough outline of some of the timelines you might deal with, but always research each weapon or style for each story: I know that when I read a story and something as simple as the wrong style knife is used in the wrong place, it takes me out of the tale.

Now that you’ve decided what is appropriate to the time and place, you have to consider what is appropriate to the character.

A soccer mom will not necessarily be a dead shot with a machine gun or a priest a karate expert, though they might. And that in itself would be a story: ex C.I.A. killer is now a suburban mom, or Father O’Malley trains all the local boys to defend themselves.

How or with what they fight and their attitude to the action are all great means to understand who they are and how they fit into the mosaic of the story’s world.

As to appropriate weapons or fighting styles, that takes a little more work.

If magic is in the air it had better have rules that the audience is aware of or at least