Fight Write

Some thoughts on writing fight scenes

My novel, War of the Unbound, is an action fantasy in an African-inspired setting. So there are a couple of fights here and there. I love a good fight scene and a bad one makes me cringe – especially if I’m the one who wrote it. Here are some things I learned while writing the book.

There are two parts of a fight scene: the actions and the words.

The action is the mechanics of the fight, from the details of each punch thrown and techniques of the combatants to bigger arcs of upper-hand and reversals. For this I research the combat styles by watching whatever fights and demonstrations I can find online. I think about the characters’ training, skills, weapons and their bodies, and how those would interact. Then I consider the space they’re fighting in. I draw out floor plans and move the pieces around. Are there levels to exploit, or cover, or improvised weapons at hand? The choreography brings together all these elements into movement that tells a story. Do I want the hero to kick ass or almost die? Do they win by grit, cunning or luck? If they win at all. The fight needs reversals, and rise and release of tension. If the reader can tell who will win and how then the fight is boring.

All of this action needs to be expressed – scraped off the notes and doodles and shaped into prose. The first priority is clarity, then rhythm. I usually overwrite the first draft often by more than triple the word count I need. The aim is to have the bodies and their actions in the space absolutely clear. Then I start cutting to create rhythm. Writers control the time it takes to see a drop of sweat fall or a bone splinter under a strike. Or things can happen in a blur and panic of movement. Does the rhythm serve the points of tension in the story of the fight? Slow to build, fast to release is a good guideline.

A great fight scene comes down to tension. If it’s not believable, tension is lost. If it’s predictable, tension is lost. If it’s confusing, tension is lost. Pull your scene tight as a bow string and it’ll fly like an arrow and hit just as hard.

To be a beta reader of War of the Unbound, drop me a line at

San Francisco days, San Francisco Nights

GDC Jon at the IGF Awards 2019

This is me at the GDC award show in San Francisco, part of a team nominated for Best Narrative at the Independent Games Festival. How I came to be there is a story that goes back a few years and involves friendship, honesty and dick jokes. Evan Greenwood and Richard Pieterse had a weird and super fun game featuring squishy penises with little butt-holes that they called Genital Jousting. I’m not sure why they decided to put in a story (probably a joke or a punk whim) but they did and decided they needed a writer. They got me.

After that the mission and the team got bigger. Robbie Fraser joined the core. But it wasn’t getting bigger that made Genital Jousting something to be proud of… It was how much deeper it went. It was a process of challenging ourselves and our ideas of masculinity and what it means to have a dick. The meetings with Ev, Richard and Robbie where we discussed and shared were sometimes close to therapy… These three men have taught me a lot. About games, but really about being an empathetic and reflective person. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s what Genital Jousting is about, and I think that’s what life is about.

We didn’t win the IGF award. But we still won.

Good Wine

Every time I handed a wine bottle down to him there would be a soft clink of metal on glass. His wedding ring. I was elbow deep in the hall cupboard, helping my father to unpack a lifetime of dinner parties from the shelves. My lifetime specifically, as we had lived in this house since before I could walk.

I pulled bottle off the rack, wiped off the crusted years of dust with a damp cloth, and passed them down to my father to sort into boxes. ‘Spoiled’ – the corks flecked with mold. ‘Good’ – wine that would presumably find a new cupboard in my parents’ new house in Cape Town. ‘Jonathan’ – wine of dubious merit but probably fit for consumption. Wine meant for me to take. On many of the bottles there’s a label written in my father’s well practiced hand, a name and a date – the wine’s provenance as it pertained to my family: who gave it to them, and when. He has always been a note taker, a recorder of data. He has charted decades of rainfall and temperature on our little farm. He records daily life not in journals but in letters, most sent to my sister who lives abroad. An orderly mind that projects order on his world. “James, 1998” – my father reads aloud. Does this summon the memory of that night? He nods to himself and files the bottle. ‘Good’.

11×11: Three Complaining

March was a bit of a win and bit of a loss, but overall I’m leaning to calling it a success.

The month started off a bit crazy at Alexander Upstairs and got progressively more crazy as it went on. In addition to the regular work I got a number of design jobs for people’s National Arts Festival productions. Then there was the BASA/British Council fellowship, which included workshops and a conference in Joburg where I spoke on a panel and pitched for funding.

All of which is to say I have many excuses and they’re not completely unreasonable. Sort of the point of an excuse isn’t it? But I don’t buy them either. I don’t buy that me taking on more than I can handle is a reason not do the thing that I promised myself. Being there for other people is important. So is being there for yourself. Finding the balance is the most important.

This month my writing was a short play for Anthology, opening on Tuesday the 7th (this evening). It’s called Bullet Points and is a classic con story: two characters manipulating each other with layers of tricky deception. The dialogue is full of detours as they chase down the quirky reasoning and get distracted by little things. They’re not very good cons. Or are they?

I also added a lot of new material and substantially rewrote parts of Every Beautiful Thing, my January play. A lot of writing got done in March; enough that I could call it 3 down, not enough that I feel like I deserve a high five.


  • Regularity breeds creativity. Don’t try to squeeze all the juice in snatched moments and odd places; that’s notebook time.
  • Rewriting is an art unto itself, fear and respect it.

11 x 11

There’s a pleasure in symmetry, a pleasure in pattern. Rituals and habits are reassuring. Looking at 11 x 11 with its palindrome promise, makes me think it doesn’t stand for anything out of the ordinary. It can’t represent anything challenging or impossible. Can it?

As a matter of fact it can. 11 x 11 is a project I’m embarking on, a gauntlet I’m throwing down against my common sense. It stands for something a bit ridiculous in its audacity: a promise to write eleven plays in eleven months. One play every month from January to November.

This year I’m not producing any shows. I’ve produced eight shows in the last five years (four of which I wrote) and it is time for a break – time to rethink my strategy. What better way to do that than to rewire how I think about writing? If you’re like me you’ve got a folder of ideas and bits of scenes lying around, maybe a couple of promises to write the script of an idea that your table of drunk friends came up with. If you’re like me you’ve got the material, you just sat on it.

11 x 11 is about quantity, not quality. None of these plays needs to ever be produced. The goal is not the stack of pages but the experience and the practice. What does it take to be prolific? How will my process change? What will I learn from this?

The rules are simple. I have to finish a play by the end of every month. It should be about an hour (or more) so if it’s a one hander then over 20 pages, and if it’s dialogue over 30 pages. So I’ll be writing between 220 and 350 pages.

Best of all? I’ve already started and have 8 pages to go to meet my target by the 31st. This is possible and I am going to do it.

What Makes a Good Story

These are points I put down, observations about the fiction I find the most compelling. When I analyse my work, I look for these and try to make sure that what I want out of a story is what I put in to my own.

  • Interesting characters placed in situations that test their limitations and weaknesses
  • A coherent and expansive world
  • High stakes for the protagonist
  • Diverse and consistent manners of speech
  • Characters undergoing change or development
  • Pacing that balances action and contemplation, advancement and expansion, humor and seriousness
  • Solid symbolic underpinning
  • The setting is integral to the plot
  • Contrasting points of view
  • Plot is edited on the principles of similarity and contrast
  • An ending that is surprising but inevitable
  • The parts tie into the whole
  • The forces of antagonism are deeper than the action so that the outcome affects the principles of life (the classic irresistible force meeting the immovable object)
  • Clarity of action and idea
  • The thesis and anti-thesis are both compellingly explored

Breaking Blocks

Writer’s Block and a Writer’s Workout

Too often I can’t write. I stare at the screen. I stare at my keyboard. I stare at my sandwich. I decide I need to clip my fingernails, vacuum the carpet, and bake a complicated supper I only have one ingredient for.

Writer’s block is the single biggest reason I don’t often think of myself as a writer. If I was really a writer, surely writing would be easier? But I’ve fought this battle before, quite a number of times. People who know me well can tell when I’m in a slump because I stare at nothing, get up and wander around and open the fridge without taking anything out. Also I look depressed. I am. But it’s the flip side of the beautiful moment when you are on a roll, when the words just flow. And not just any words – submerged themes surface and become clear, motivations and solutions to plot problems are as obvious and imminent as the end of this sentence.

But I’m not preaching that writer’s block should just be accepted, I think it’s a time for you to grow by trying different things. Writer’s block can be the hesitation when I’m about to finish a sentence with a cliché or it can be the days spent reading while a character hangs over the chasm between point A and B. The most basic thing writer’s block teaches you is humility. Writing isn’t easy. Yet of all the arts it’s the one that people take up with the least preparation. Writer’s block is the cramp you get because you didn’t stretch before you hit the mat, the canvas you wasted because you didn’t do any pre-sketches.

This is how I deal with writer’s block when it happens and before it happens. Most of these things are obvious and I probably got them from any of the hundreds of books, articles and blogs on writing I’ve read. I know they work because I’ve been doing this for a decade and I’ve spent most of that time not writing. That I can work consistently now is not a result of a change in my timetable, it’s because I prepare before I write.

1.)    Keep a journal

Don’t worry about being profound; don’t even worry about being accurate. Just write every day about what has happened to you, about what you did. It gets you in the habit of writing even when you have no projects on the go, or you can’t stand the thought of being creative. I always carry around an A5 notebook; a day is usually 2 pages and takes me less than 15 minutes. I do it while I wait for food to cook. In Cape Town, if you’re punctual you’re in the minority with me – but that’s fine. In those ten or fifteen minutes spent waiting every day I have all the time I need to keep my journal up to date. Beyond its help with your writing, keeping a journal will be the best investment you ever made. Don’t lose all those memories and experiences. I only started 2 years ago and I kick myself I didn’t start sooner.

2.)    Build good habits, vary them

This is just good advice for everyone who wants to be productive and creative. The key is not to start with your dream timetable. You wouldn’t make a resolution to do a hundred pushups everyday and start there, would you? No, if your goal is to be writing for 5 hours every day, or 3000 words, or ten pages, then you set your short term goal at half an hour, 500 words or half a page. Make it stick, and then build it up. So you’ve got your goals, now fit them into your timetable.  So simple! It’s like… wow. The catch is to make the schedule flexible enough that you can try new things out. I like to write in different places, not just on my home PC. I often write in coffee shops, galleries, parks – places that offer a change of scenery and thus a different perspective. A favourite of mine is the Natural History Museum. Also try to figure out what time is your best time for writing, not in terms of convenience but in terms of your energy, your creativity. Now take risk and try a different time. The results can be surprising.

3.)    Free write: Use the Cards

OK, here are some resources for you. You’re going to need a pack of cards to use them. This is the core of my writing work out. Deal yourself 3 cards, one for each of the tables.

Now start writing about these. I like to remember the TheatreSports™ adage: “When you get a horror, start with two grannies knitting.” Meaning, don’t start with a character holding a shoe, standing in a cupboard, talking about loss. Actually, you can. Do it. It sounds like it could be great. I keep writing for at least an hour for this exercise. If the scene gets stale, if you start slowing down, then start over with 3 new cards (you don’t have to start the clock again). These scenes aren’t important. They don’t have to connect to anything. They don’t even have to be any good or make sense. They are lifting writing weights so your endurance and clarity get stronger.

4.)    Read about Writing, Write about Reading

I assume you’re already reading prose, poetry, scripts and news reports. (If you’re not why exactly do you write?) Read books about writing too. Most of them are crap – only good enough to be short articles on a blog. But there’s always something useful, some tip, an exercise or a quote that makes it worthwhile. Frequently they have recommended reading lists at the back that point you to better, wiser gurus. I’d recommend Story by Robert McKee, 3 Uses of the Knife by David Mamet, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and On Writing by Stephen King.

Keep track of what you read and what you learn. Like a quote? Write it down. Summarise, review and preserve what you read. Memory is fallible, that’s why writing was invented.

5.)    Try different styles

With your wide reading you should be exposing yourself to different genres and eras. And not just fiction – read reports, academic treatises and biographies. Try text books and encyclopaedias. Dip into letters and poetry. Right now I’m going through H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain and the tone and sweep of the prose is fascinating. Try writing something in one of these styles.

A project I’ve been working on the background for quite a while is a science fiction novel. It requires a lot of notes to track the invented cultures, histories and geography. Instead of keeping these as bits and pieces I’ve been writing ‘academic’ articles and fragments of journals and letters. It works for me because I’m a geek and a big fan of Borges. But try it out next time you’re doing a plot summary or a character sketch. It’s all about finding a voice.

6.)    Skip ahead

Sometimes I can’t get characters from point A to point B. The plot seems to make sense but there’s a gap of action that sinks my best efforts. Mostly it’s because I don’t know enough about where the story is, geographically, or I haven’t spent enough time with the characters. It can be tempting to solve every problem as it comes up while you’re writing but the most important thing is momentum. The first 30 minutes of writing are the hardest, stick to it though and you’ll see the reward when you really get in the groove. Stopping to google a map of the city or the history of the cardigan is not going solve the greatest concern, the story.

7.)    Never be afraid of starting over

Last year I had a hard drive crash and my back up failed in a series of unlikely events. I lost 90% of 3 years of writing. But it might as well have not existed. Nobody is poorer for its loss. In fact, I may be better. I think that this world tells us that work that produces nothing tangible is wasted; I think that’s wrong. Whenever we have to start over we’re never really starting from scratch, even if we have no words or materials. If you continue to build something up on unsound foundations your finished product will be unsound, that is real wasted effort. Stopping half way and then starting over to create your best work takes patience and effort, but I believe it is the only worthwhile way to create art. I was forced to look at the foundations of my work, the hardcopy notes I first made of the stories. I had to ask myself in each case what was worth rebuilding, and why.