Fight Breakdown: K.B. Wagers
 
  

This month, we get a fight-scene breakdown from the K.B. Wagers, author of The Indranan War trilogy—my most favorite storyline of the year. Her space opera tale of a princess-turned-gunrunner sank tenterhooks into me for two reasons: the protagonist is in her forties, and acts age-appropriate.

My Darlings, I've often passed up a book folks have recommended because the "older protagonist" still sounded like a college student. This is not an issue in The Indranan War.

Wagers gives her protagonists a voice, a set of concerns, and a worldview that is not contrived, but true to age and experience. Grief isn't a new experience for her characters; it is instead an experience deepened and enriched by past grief. Violence isn't an unthinking reaction to a challenge; it is instead a choice made with the understanding of its consequences. Page by page, chapter by chapter, the emotional realism grows and expands, hollowing out the reader's hope while also filling the void of hopelessness.

Read.

These.

Books.

So I've taken the first 300 words from the first novel of Wagers' trilogy, Behind the Throne. The third will be released November 14. If you like the opening 300 words of the first book of the trilogy, order the second and third now. Truly. I mean it. Trust me.

I've pre-ordered precisely zero books in the past. I pre-ordered this one. It's that good, and that true.

So here are those opening words of the trilogy, offered without comment, before you reach the breakdown below:

Hail. Get up.

The voice cut through the nausea, sounding too much like my father. I suppose it made sense in some twisted way. If I were dead, it wasn't completely illogical to be hearing the voice of a man who'd been shot in front of me twenty-one years ago.

The bitter tang of blood filled my mouth and nose when I inhaled, rusted iron and the awful smell of death. The stale air of a carrion house screamed of the violence that had taken place in my cargo bay, violence I couldn't remember through the pounding of my head.

Hail, get up now.

Whoever's voice was in my head, it was enough to make me move, or at least try to. I scrambled to my feet, pain stealing what grace the gods had gifted me. My boots—gorgeous red-black Holycon IVs I'd borrowed from a dead raider six months prior—slipped on the blood-slick metal. I went down hard, cracking my already abused face on the deck, and the world grayed out for a moment.

More pain flared when I tried to flop over onto my back and failed. All right. So—not dead. Because even now at my most cynical, I didn't believe for an instant the gods let you still feel pain after you died. It just didn't seem proper.

"Look at this mess."

This voice was outside my head, which made it infinitely more dangerous. I froze facedown in what smelled like someone else's guts.

Judging by the events filtering back into my brain, I suspected the guts belonged to my navigator.  A vague memory of trying to strangle her with her own intestines flashed before my eyes. Memz had been a tough bitch. She'd landed a few good punches before I'd given up and broken her neck.

Three hundred words.  That's all it took Wagers to hook me for good and for always!

Now let's break that down, line by line, to see why this is such a fabulous example of excellent storytelling in the context of violence.

Hail. Get up.

The voice cut through the nausea, sounding too much like my father. I suppose it made sense in some twisted way.

There's a huge amount of information packed into those three sentences. The first lets us know the viewpoint character's name, and tells us the character is not only on the ground or floor, but in danger because of that location. You don't have to get up when you're nauseated unless something is coming after you.

If I were dead, it wasn't completely illogical to be hearing the voice of a man who'd been shot in front of me twenty-one years ago.

Now we know the character is injured badly enough to consider themself dead. That's bad, yes? Add in the character witnessed a father's violent murder (hmm... as opposed to a non-violent murder, come to think of it...) ups the stakes right way. And that incident happened twenty-one years ago—giving us a preliminary marker of the character's age as upwards of at least twenty-five or thirty. A vivid recalling indeed, and one that instantly demands we see Hail in a parallel situation. On the other hand, the fact Hail can put a specific period of time between the past and the present lets us know Hail has enough presence of mind, even terribly injured and on the verge of throwing up, to calculate and/or recall the passage of time.

The bitter tang of blood filled my mouth and nose when I inhaled, rusted iron and the awful smell of death. The stale air of a carrion house screamed of the violence that had taken place in my cargo bay, violence I couldn't remember through the pounding of my head.

So there has to be a damned lot of blood for that smell to be so overwhelmingly noticeable. Lots of blood. "Bitter tang" is a great way to describe it, especially when combined with "stale" and "carrion." In my experience, fresh blood, and blood confined to one person's wound, doesn't always take on that horrible stench unless it's spread out and allowed to sit for a bit. (Gut wounds are an exception, but we'll get to that in a bit.) It doesn't take long, y'see, for the scent of blood to go from sharp copper to harsh rot, but enough to let the reader know there has been at least a small passage of time between the violence and Hail's moment of consciousness.

And—wait just a hot second here—this is happening on Hail's cargo deck! The possessive is important. Putting a battle, whether won or lost, on your viewpoint character's territory drives the stakes so much higher.

Hail, get up now.

Whoever's voice was in my head, it was enough to make me move, or at least try to.

I love these two lines, and many who have been in a life-threatening situation will understand. Your brain often talks to you in these situations, not always with you, and it can get quite bossy. Our survival instinct tends to pick an authoritarian tone—a timbre and octave not easily argued with—and Hail's head-voice is pushing toward self-preservation. Just as a good imaginary voice should, in such situations.

I scrambled to my feet, pain stealing what grace the gods had gifted me. My boots—gorgeous red-black Holycon IVs I'd borrowed from a dead raider six months prior—slipped on the blood-slick metal. 

This is my second-favorite set of lines in this section. (We'll get to my mostest favorite in a second.) Yes, from a fight-scene perspective, it's important to know Hail is in pain. This helps confirm the earlier lines about the gravity of the situation. But we also learn physical grace is of importance to Hail. One doesn't consider such things in a life-or-death situation unless they're central to one's self-image. This will indeed be an important character trait later—both in Hail's dealings with family and outside observers—so it's just fabulous Wagers plants the notion here.

And the boots! The fucking BOOTS! The attention here lets us know Hail cares about detail, and style, and color... and cares enough to "borrow" such implied-fine things from the dead. And how would Hail come across a dead raider? Hmm... More character building.

I went down hard, cracking my already abused face on the deck, and the world grayed out for a moment.

More pain flared when I tried to flop over onto my back and failed. All right. So—not dead. Because even now at my most cynical, I didn't believe for an instant the gods let you still feel pain after you died. It just didn't seem proper.

Proper? Proper! What a wonderful way to tie Hail's character more tightly to the notion of grace and the consideration of the boots. The gods Hail considers worthy and powerful aren't focused on right or wrong or peace or violence in the midst of a bloody deal. Those gods are instead preoccupied with what is proper. Do note this observation from Hail doesn't indicate what the gods themselves might value, but what Hail considers valuable to the gods. 

"Look at this mess."

This voice was outside my head, which made it infinitely more dangerous.

And this, my Darlings, is the OH SHIT moment of the opening.

I froze facedown in what smelled like someone else's guts.

This is my absolute favorite line of the opening. One of my favorite lines ever. It seems like a simple line describing an immediate action, but it is rich in characterization. First of all, it takes, well, guts, to lie still with your face in a pile of guts. Guts are filled with bile and internal acid and shit. Do you want to put your face in that? I certainly don't. And I certainly don't want to keep my face in that for however long it might take for an enemy to (hopefully) determine I'm not a threat. But Hail does it, without hesitation.

Best of all, Hail knows from the smell that it's someone else's guts, inferring Hail knows what their own guts smell like. I absolutely love that fact.

Judging by the events filtering back into my brain, I suspected the guts belonged to my navigator.  A vague memory of trying to strangle her with her own intestines flashed before my eyes. Memz had been a tough bitch. She'd landed a few good punches before I'd given up and broken her neck.

This is a beautiful paragraph. It's the second indication something has gone SUPER horribly wrong; not only has there been violence terrible enough to spill copious amounts of blood and guts, not only has that terrible violence taken place on Hail's territory, but the violence seems to have been instigated by people Hail trusted. People Hail respected, as evidenced by the combat-related compliments Hail pays the person who had to suffer a broken neck because she was still fighting while Hail was twisting intestines around her neck. And now we know the facial injuries Hail keeps referencing were likely caused by the strong-and-fighting-to-the-end navigator. As a bonus, we have a decent notion what kind of crew Hail chose to hire.

Remember, too, that past article on fight-writing tactics (or, if you were at Sirens Conference, the Fight Writing Tactics workshop) mentioned how it was more important for a good fight scene to exploit weaknesses than constantly escalate the violence and gore. This opening scene from Wagers is a perfect, stunningly written specimen of that truth. Truly, when your main character recalls strangling an enemy with their own intestines within the first three hundred words, just how much room do you have to escalate gore and violence? Not much. Wagers instead takes the more savvy path of understanding battles are won and lost based one how well you can exploit your opponent's weaknesses and how well your opponents can exploit yours. Wagers forces her characters to think before fighting, and pulls no punches—literal or figurative—if they fail to do so.

These novels by Wagers are my picks for the year, the most wonderful new works I read this year. As I've said elsewhere, if you like what I write, you will absolutely love the storylines Wagers is putting forth. You can find the first book of the series here. If, like me, you're anxiously awaiting the third in her trilogy, you can preorder it now!

And if you haven't started her work, trust me: these novels will grab you so hard, you'll be ready for the third novel within a few days.

As always, comments and questions are welcome!