Writing Fight Scenes
Writing fight scenes is often an important task for a fantasy author. Some writers find they come naturally. Others find them daunting, and can’t think of anything worse. Whichever category you fall into, it’s an important skill to master because audiences love to read them.
Here are some techniques that I’ve learned over the years to improve fight scenes in my own writing. You don’t have to use them every time - in fact there are some circumstances where it would be a mistake - but you should at least bear them in mind.
1. Setting the scene
A fight scene is supposed to be fast and tense, but there is little time once you’re in the thick of it for scene setting or explaining the lay-out of the environment. Every word spent outside of the action can kill the tension. At the same time, a badly described scene can make the fight lack-luster, boring - or worse still - confusing.
Setting the scene before the action begins is a great way of resolving these conflicting tensions. It never ceases to amaze me how putting in the hard yards to describe the environment pays off later on. It allows you to focus on the action when you need to, without sacrificing context and clarity. Good writers will lay the groundwork well in advance of when it is actually needed.
A favorite technique of mine is to have the characters visit the scene prior to the fight, perhaps even in an earlier chapter. Readers won’t remember the layout of furniture in a room or the exact placement of barricades on a field of battle, but they will sure as heck remember that cliff you are about to throw someone over, or the pool of acid your villain is about to fall into.
2. The build up
Learn to master suspense, and you’ll have your readers literally squirming to turn the page. This is particularly true with fight scenes. The build up is the perfect place to lay down what is truly at stake for your characters, to make clear the price of failure.
Don’t underestimate the value of this phase. A good build up will often last longer than the fight itself, and rightly so. Take Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog in the mines of Moria, for example. The actual fight didn’t last long. It was the build up to that moment which made it great - the lore, the menace and the darkness, the chase through the mines, all of it culminating with the breaking of the bridge.
Sometimes there’s not even any action in this phase, because you don’t need it; everything is implied. That nasty, serrated hatchet the goblin is shaking at your character speaks for itself. You can just imagine the damage its rusty edge would do to unprotected flesh, and oh no, your heroine isn’t wearing any armor either. Small details can help differentiate the impending conflict from a run-of-the-mill battle by increasing tension and upping the stakes. It can also be a great opportunity for horror.
3. Get the mechanics right
Unfortunately, nothing is more likely to ruin a carefully constructed fight scene than confusing the reader. Clarity is key here. Your readers will lose interest if they can’t work out where the combatants are standing at a critical moment. Some writers draw maps, and use toy soldiers to move their characters around during each phase of the battle to keep track of where everyone is. After all, if you don’t have a clear picture in your own mind, there’s no way your reader will. I like to make up a list of events that have to occur to get me from the start to the finish. At the end, I go back and make sure they are all covered.
There’s more to it than just character placement, though. The moves and actions of the characters also need to be realistic. I recently read a series by a best selling fantasy author (I won’t say who), whose protagonist constantly somersaulted about the battlefield, springing at opponents from flat on his back and kicking up at them from the ground. I loved the novel despite these issues, but the author lost points with me in the fight scenes. Firstly, the character wasn’t an acrobat, and had no business somersaulting around a battlefield. Secondly, being flat on your back is the worst place to be in a fight. End up there, and you’re dead. Finally, the action just wasn’t realistic.
A reader will forgive these mistakes once. But make them a few times, and you’ll start to lose credibility. Fights, even in a fantasy setting, must follow rules of leverage, force, and weight. The more rigidly you follow them, the more realistic your fights will be.
The same goes for weapons and armor. It might seem obvious that someone wielding a short-sword is going to have a difficult time blocking a swing from a claymore, but too many writers make simple mistakes like this. Heavy crossbows are difficult to reload, and yet we’ve all read novels where they seem to fire as rapidly as bows. Do as much research as you need to get the details right, and your fight scene will have a more natural, realistic feel.
4. Follow character motivations
Punches, kicks, lunges and parries can quickly degenerate into a series of tedious events if the fight is an end in and of itself.
The thing that separates a memorable fight from an average one is character motivation. Most characters don’t pick fights just for the sake of it, and you shouldn’t be wasting your time writing about a random encounter. There must be a reason for the fight, and a good one at that. What do the combatants want? What is at stake? Let the answers to these questions guide the flow of the action.
Let’s go back to our example. If our heroine has an important quest, she might be willing to flee from the goblin rather than risk confrontation. Conversely, if the goblin is the key to an impending disaster she’s probably going to risk everything to kill it. That might make her reckless, or at the very least change the way she fights. Similarly, a character protecting an innocent bystander will have to use different tactics to win.
It doesn’t hurt to remind the reader what the stakes are every now and again.
5. Make it hurt
When you get down to it, fights are nasty business. No one likes to see their favorite heroine killed off, but if she gets away scot-free every time, your fights will quickly lose the element of danger that makes them interesting. The same goes for characters that are essentially invincible.
Actions have consequences. Make your characters pay for their mistakes, and make them fight hard for their victories.
As an aside, wounds and injuries can add an interesting element of additional challenge for characters to overcome. A hardened veteran might find even a lowly goblin more than she bargained for with a broken hand or a concussion from an earlier encounter. Not every fight has to be about who is the strongest, fastest or most skilled. It can be just as interesting when determination, sheer luck or misfortune are the deciding factors.
6. Sentence structure
We’ve all heard that you should write short sentences during action sequences. This is true, but you also run the risk of using too many sentences that look and sound the same if you take this advice literally.
Longer sentences with multiple clauses and short, sharp language that doesn’t stop, but keeps pushing the action forward relentlessly until the reader is gasping for breath and wondering when it will stop – can also be effective. (Now that was a mouthful) They can also give a frantic edge to the action, and put the reader more firmly into the character’s mind.
But don’t forget to mix it up a bit. Changing the shape and length of your sentences can allow you to occasionally surprise the reader and keep them interested. Try to lull them into a comfort zone. Make everything nice and easy for a while, and then – bam! – hit them when they least expect it.
7. Don’t forget the language
Finally, a note of caution: it’s very easy to fall back on adjectives and adverbs to help describe the pace and intensity of the action during a fight scene. Unfortunately, bad writing sticks out in a fight scene more than anywhere else. The appearance of words like ‘suddenly’, or ‘tremendous’ or ‘savage’ is an indication something has gone wrong and you need to look more closely at the language.
Try to find alternative ways to say the same thing. A ‘savage swing’ with a sword might just become a ‘slash’. Rather than having your heroine ‘leap into action so quickly the goblin didn’t see her sword coming until it was too late’, maybe just say that she ‘stepped calmly forward – and stabbed it in the chest.’ Mirroring a change in events with a change in grammar or language makes for a more enjoyable read, and helps to keep the reader interested.
English is endlessly inventive. Experiment with grammar and sentence structure to achieve the results you want.
In closing, studying the techniques and styles of other writers can be a great way to improve your own fight scenes. It’s hard to beat R. A. Salvatore for choreography and mechanics, and Robert Jordan does an excellent job of writing magical battles. Who are your favorites, and why?