Action Writing Secrets of Wuxia Novels

16Mar12

Wuxia Action Timing

or,

Why Gu Long’s Writing Technique Shakes the Martial World

This fight class will be swift and ruthless, when you’re done reading you’ll all be experts.

All I want u to know about Wuxia right now is that it’s Chinese fiction featuring badasses in combat. I’ve been interested in it since I watched the Legend of the Condor Hero show in anime club in college.

Then I found about Wuxiapedia and spent many delighted hours poring over plot twists in translation. I’m still convinced that wuxia writers, because of their need to show amazing martial arts credibly, have developed/discovered some of the best ways of writing action scenes.

Gu Long is my favorite wuxia writer because of his stories’ mysterious twists and snappy dialogue, & because you don’t need to know a shit-ton of Chinese history to understand what’s going on (unlike, say,  with Jin Yong.)

Gu Long, wuxia mastermind

That’s why I’ve been waiting for a long time to write a post about my favorite Gu Long novel, Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword, which you can find in fan translation here.

What’s this novel about? Wiki excerpt:

Duoqing Jianke Wuqing Jian (多情劍客無情劍; literally: Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword) is the first novel in the series, first published in 1968. It details the adventures of Li Xunhuan and his friend A’fei.

Li Xunhuan rises to prominence as a pugilist in the jianghu for the expert use of his signature weapon, the Little Li Flying Dagger. He is in love with Lin Shiyin but decides to give up on her to repay his sworn brother Long Xiaoyun’s kindness towards him. Long Xiaoyun marries Lin Shiyin eventually.

Li Xunhuan retires from the jianghu for the next ten years after being hurt emotionally. When he comes out of his reclusive life ten years later, he meets A’fei and befriends him. Both of them are drawn into the mysterious Case of the Plum Flower Bandit and Li Xunhuan is wrongly accused of being the bandit. He clears his name eventually. Meanwhile, he is also drawn into the complex feuds between Lin Xian’er, Shangguan Jinhong and Long Xiaoyun.

Because wuxia is relatively unknown to english-speaking audiences, I’ll include the intro so you can get a sense for what kind of style we’re dealing with here

Excerpt from chapter 1, “Flying Dagger vs Quick Sword” (Tense & verb problems are due to the UNPAID fan translator, so ignore ’em unless you can provide a superior translation!):

The cold wind act as a knife, using the ground as the cutting board, and people as fish meat.

The snowstorm extends for thousands of miles, making everything seem like bright white silver.

In this cold winter snowstorm, a horse carriage came from the north. Its wheels shattered the snow on the ground, but cannot shatter loneliness in the world.

Li Xun Huan yawned, trying to stretch his legs. The inside of the carriage might be quite comfortable, but this trip is just way too long, too lonely.

He feels not only exhausted, but also irritated. He feels that loneliness is the biggest annoyance in his life, yet loneliness frequently accompanies him.

A person’s life is usually filled with contradictions. No one can do anything about this.

Li Xun Huan sighed and took out a wine bottle. As he’s drinking the wine, he also begins to cough. His continuous coughing made his pale face appear very sick, as if fire from Hell is burning his flesh and soul.

The wine bottle is empty now, so he grabbed a little dagger and start to carve a wooden human figure. The dagger is thin and sharp, his hand is long and powerful.

The figure is that of a woman, so beautiful and warm under his masterful carving, looking so full of life.

He not only gave her a striking look, but also gave her life and soul, only because his life and soul is already quietly disappearing under the tip of the dagger.

He’s no longer young.

Wrinkles filled the corners of his eyes, every wrinkle filled with all the joy and sadness in his life. Only his eyes are young.

This is a strange pair of eyes, a shade of green, similar to the Spring wind blowing on the Willow leaves, warm and flexible. Or similar to the sea water under the Summer sun’s light, filled with energy.

Maybe it’s only because of this pair of eyes that allowed him to live till today.

As you can imagine, Li Xun Huan knows kung fu, and what’s more, he’s rated at a top level in the martial world thanks to his signature move, “Little Li’s Flying Dagger.” 

Today we’re looking at the moment when that extraordinary attack makes an appearance. Context: Zhu Ge Lei, bad guy of the moment (soon to be replaced by 100+ others) is about to attack the wild youngster Ah Fei.

Just as everyone thought this sword would penetrate the youngster’s heart, Zhu Ge Lei suddenly give a loud yell, his sword left his hand, stuck on the ceiling.

As the sword still springs back and forth on the ceiling, Zhu Ge Lei’s hands are already grabbing his own throat. But his eyes are on Li Xun Huan, the eyeballs almost popping out.

Li Xun Huan at this moment is no longer carving. Because the dagger he used to carve the figure is no longer in his hand.

Blood trickled from Zhu Ge Lei’s back.

He stared at Li Xun Huan, his throat also giving off a ‘ge ge’ sound. It’s only at this time that people began to understand that Li Xun Huan’s carving dagger made its way to Zhu Ge Lei’s throat.

Yet no one saw how this dagger got to his throat.

Sweat poured down from Zhu Ge Lei, his face full of pain. Suddenly he bit his teeth, and pulled that dagger out of his throat. Then stared at Li Xun Huan, yelling, “I should’ve recognized that it was you!”

Li Xun Huan sighed. “Unfortunately, you only found out now, or you never would’ve attempted to do such a disgraceful act.”

Zhu Ge Lei did not hear these words. He’ll never be able to hear ever again.

Let’s now imagine a kind of artless, step-by-step paraphrase of the core action scene.

1) Zhu Ge Lei was about to thrust his sword into the youngster’s heart.

2 ) All of a sudden, Li Xun Huan stopped carving.

3) He threw the dagger he’d been carving with.

4) The dagger landed in Zhu Ge Lei’s throat.

5) Zhu Ge Lei yelled. His sword flew out of his hand and stuck onto the ceiling.

6) As it swung back and forth, Zhu Ge Lei grabbed his own throat.

7) His eyes were on Li Xun Huan, his eyeballs almost popping out.

8. His throat gave off a ‘ge, ge’ sound.

9.) Li Xun Huan’s throw had been so incredibly fast that it took the other people several seconds to realize what had happened.

What I’ve done here is I’ve reconstructed the fight events from the original paragraph and rewrtten them — in chronological order.

But in the original paragraph, their order is: 1, 5, 6, 7, 2, 8, 9. 

Steps 3 and 4 are omitted; we don’t see the dagger thrown at all!

"Little Li's flying dagger, once released, never misses its target!"

What happened here? Wasn’t the whole point of action scenes to depict things……. happening?

Let’s look at the central bit, even closer now.

As the sword still springs back and forth on the ceiling, Zhu Ge Lei’s hands are already grabbing his own throat. But his eyes are on Li Xun Huan, the eyeballs almost popping out.

Li Xun Huan at this moment is no longer carving. Because the dagger he used to carve the figure is no longer in his hand.

To take it down one more level. Watch how the visual focus shifts:

sword on ceiling —-> ZGL —-> LXH emptyhanded

This action flow actually runs in reverse of the depicted events.

Here’s what actually happened:

LXH throws dagger to ——> ZGL, who loses sword —-> sword hits ceiling

Gu Long’s secret here is to frame the action from the POV of the observers themselves. What they’re seeing and what’s happening aren’t the same; they have to reconstruct the events of the fight from their own limited perceptions, tracing effects back to their causes, always a step behind.

Because Little Li’s Flying Dagger is so goddamn fast, these observers are condemned to always be a few steps behind the action! 😀

Check out 09:05ish for the filmed version of what happened here. But the novel is better…

Because I’ve got a soft spot for Ah Fei, here’s the ending to the chapter….

The youngster also turned to take a look, his face full of wonder, as if he’d never understand why this person would to kill him.

But he only looked for an instant, then walked up to Li Xun Huan. Beneath his wild and savage exterior seems to exist a hint of warmth and smile.

He only said one sentence. “I want to invite you for a drink.”

Join me on Monday at SpecTechnique when we’ll check out another, quite different method of doing action. The text will be J.G. Ballard’s Crash.

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One Response to “Action Writing Secrets of Wuxia Novels”

  1. Although I just barely found this article in 2013, I still find it very appealing. You write really well, very informative. This will definitely help other Wuxia writers.



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