uSince I’ve just gutted the middle of Stone because the plot was moving with all the grace of a square-wheeled locomotive chugging over the Rockies, you get a Sunday blog post so I can clear my head before I resume stitching the innards back together.*
So here it is: As I mentioned on Twitter, discussion forums for MMA and other fighting sports are a goldmine of writerly information.
There are bunches of little guides out there on how fantasy writers can realistically and vibrantly portray combat. Information on everything from edged weapons and individual duels to archery and battle formations is fairly easy to find. But not as much hoopla surrounds the aftermath of those fights—the small injuries, the crippling injuries, and the physical/emotional life-long consequences. It’s simple to Google for “broken leg” and come up with a pile of guidance from modern medical sites. But that’s only part of the story.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s a mere sliver of the story.
The fun part—the part that makes plot and character development real—is what happens after the injury is sustained.
Modern medical sites will give you extensive information on trauma, treatments, and expected outcomes. But they are based on modern interventions coupled with assumed accessibility to food, water, shelter, cleanliness, temperature control, and rest. In my stories, it isn’t unusual for some, most, or all of those things to be missing. And that, my darlings, changes everything.
These days, most folks head to the doctor when they or their kids are injured. Bumps on the head, twisted ankles, sprained wrists, possibly broken bones, blistering burns, busted noses—all prompt immediate doctor visits, extensive testing, and scheduled follow-ups with specialists.
But for a number of present-day fighters—especially those who love it but aren’t making a circuit/tournament career out of it— the doctor’s office isn’t the immediate stop. Unless the pain from an injury is debilitating—and sometimes, not even that is enough—some fighters take a ton of convincing and failed self-care before they’ll show up in an emergency room or urgent care center. I’ve gone days with a dislocated elbow and partially torn ligaments. A friend ended up with stress fractures in both feet. A training partner waited out the pain of a dislocated shoulder. And I’ve seen folks finish belt tests with a blown-out knee, or a broken hand, or busted ribs, or a swollen-shut eye.
For a few, it’s a matter of ego, certainly. But in my personal experience fighting and being around fighters for more than a decade, ego is secondary to expectation and experience.
Y’see, fighters expect to get hurt in a fight, they expect to hurt for awhile after the fight, and they’d really rather not be treated as fragile or stupid or both. Experience tells them they can work through most hurts, and many of those hurts can be treated without professional medical intervention.
Why go to the doctor for bruised ribs? Wrap ’em up, take it easy, deal with the pain, watch out for secondary infections, and move on. They’ll be better in a couple months either way. Why rush out to have a sprained wrist checked when you know the answer will be, “Rest it, ice it, elevate it, come see me in a week if it isn’t better?” Yes, there will be times more serious injuries are missed. But most fighters learn to tell the difference between something that hurts badly and something that’s badly hurt.
This is where those discussion forums come in.
Sure, I can look up all sorts of technical information on tissue damage done when a person is strangled, or the recovery prospects for a person with torn quads, or the lasting effects of a concussion, and all of that is useful to me. But understand those medical sources exist to provide information on how best to care for and heal an injury. That's not always the most pressing goal in the story, though. That's... not always what the writer wants, either.
It’s the discussion forums that’ll tell me the experience and consequences of those injuries when limited (or no) medical attention is gained, and what it feels like to keep training and fighting despite those injuries. I learn how different people describe the sensation of being choked out, how the throat felt while eating and drinking over the next few days, how it felt and sounded to speak after the injury, and at what point those symptoms shifted from getting better to better see a doctor.
If you’re not a fighter, or have limited martial arts experience, you’ll also gain a glimpse into a different mindset. Spend a little time, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the “indestructible” youths and the more wise and experienced by the way an injury is described. Dig a bit more, you’ll read a few journeys undertaken by fantastic and powerful fighters who come to terms with injuries that forever change how—and sometimes if—they can continue doing what they love.
For some things, I can call on my personal experience: broken nose, torn tendons, dislocations, foot fractures, bruised ribs… even the experience of giving up a large part of my training due to ongoing physical challenges that can’t be mended. The forums, though, expand knowledge and understanding, and give insight into injuries I’d rather not experience myself. I’ve been choked to gray-out, but I don’t want to discover first-hand what it feels like to have my throat punched, thank you. And I really don’t want to find out how long it takes for one’s ability to breathe and swallow without pain, or what my voice would sound like once scar tissue hardens.
But the knowledge is good for stories we want to stick in the mind and heart of a reader.
So. There’s your writerly tip for the day. I suppose I’ll now resume the revisions that simply shouldn’t be this difficult, yet are somehow even more difficult than difficult. Alas, I’ve vented my frustration on as many characters as I can without killing them off.
I promise I won’t kill them all.
But no one is reaching the end without scars.
*Next time I mention squishing two very long novels into one long-ish novel under the assumption it’ll be easier, just smack me, mmkay? I mean, it had to be done, and the story will be better for it, but there has been nothing “easy” about the squishing process.