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Jonathan Oliver

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Shadowmarch

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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.

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.

The Buildup

Learn to master suspense, and you’ll have your readers literally squirming to turn the page. This is particularly true with fight scenes. The buildup 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 buildup 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 buildup 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.

Get The Mechanics Right

Orc FightNow we get into the mechanics of the action itself. You’ve done all that work setting the scene and building the suspense, it would be a shame to ruin it now.

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 bestselling 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 short bows. Do as much research as you need to get the details right, and your fight scene will have a more natural, realistic feel.

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.

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.

Demon vs Griffin

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.

Don’t Forget The Language

fantasy-battle-2Finally, 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?

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18 Comments

  1. Some very sound advice here and the whole piece is excellent food for thought for anyone approaching the drafting of fight scenes. Marc has touched correctly on the need to understand where your protagonists are during a fight but I would add a cautionary note about over-choreographing the conflict. By its nature, fighting with swords is chaotic and prey to sudden change. You aren’t writing a dance, you’re writing conflict between people intent on killing each other as quickly as possible. Standing on a slick of blood or treading on a body, missing with a blow, the man next to you getting killed or wounded, the impact of a spell…. so many things affect the course of a fight in a heartbeat.

    My advice in addition to Marc’s would be to write the fight as quickly as possible and see where it takes you. Visualise and write what you see. Get to the end of the conflict and don’t pause to make sure it makes sense. Only go back when you’re finished to clean it up and make sure readers can follow it – oh, and don’t over edit. A fight of any scale will be confused for the protagonists once they are in the thick of it – consider what they’ll be able to see when they’re up close and personal (not a whole lot), and the time they have to react and riposte (almost none). Quick, brutal and bloody. Lovely.

    Good work, Marc and the best of luck with Hive.

  2. Fantastic debut on FF, Marc, and wonderful advice especially for this writer who has skirted around details out of research laziness…

  3. I’ve never managed to write a proper fight scene. I tend to think about the moves as thought I was watching them on film, but I feel like I’m being too clinical in my approach (he moved this way, turned his arm that way and hit him at this angle etc) .

    Thanks foe the advice!

  4. T.K. Toppin says:

    Excellent post Marc. And some great pointers to keep in mind when writing action scenes…something I never tire of in both reading and writing. Thanks!

  5. Ryan says:

    Nicely done, very informative. Gave me a great idea for my current project. Thanks.

  6. Great post. Terrific information and ideas to absorb and keep handy. Thanks.

  7. Terrific post, and it came to me just at the perfect time. I’ve got a fight scene to write this week, and was dreading it. You’ve given me some good ideas to work with. Thanks!

  8. I really appreciate the article. I like the point about adding those little details and about making sure it’s not too difficult for the reader to follow what’s going on.

  9. JD Savage says:

    For a fight scene that makes me turn page after page, Stan Nichols’ Orcs series is about the coolest I’ve encountered. Having the traditional “bad guys” as the protagonists didn’t hurt either!

  10. No problem with any of this, it’s good advice. One small word of caution: “Secondly, being flat on your back is the worst place to be in a fight.” – Now that really depends upon the type of fighting and the fighter. Being flat on your back, in a hand-to-hand scenario is actually better than standing up (you don’t see it much on screen as it really isn’t that cool to show), but in reality if cuts down on available targets you can offer an opponent and makes an attack much more predictable which means easier to counter.

  11. Bets Davies says:

    Don’t do large scale battle. It bores me and it doesn’t fit with my plots and worlds in general. I’m a Keep it simple, stupid, fight scene writer. If multiple people are fighting, the pov character will often have only a partial, haphazard understanding of where everyone else is and what they are doing, since I generally don’t work with seasoned fighters. I also work much more with the suspense–the idea of fighting–versus the actual thing keeps me from repetitive right scenes.

    That’s me. Which doesn’t contradict you. In fact, I’m really impressed with this article and it could do me some good.

    My only thing not in your thing: Gross. This matters most for people not used to battle, but is true of any battle. I feel if you are going to kill people, you have to be honest about it. If you slit a stomach, stinking intestines pouring vile, half digested food, are going to fall out with the blood. When someone dies, everything relaxes, including the bowels, and they shit themselves, adding to the smell. You get the idea. No matter how glorious your character may think battle is, it is anything but. It is crude and disgusting.

    • Marc Davies says:

      Hi Bets

      Agree with your comments. Bear in mind the whole graphic, gross descriptions depend heavily on the audience you are writing for.

      You can have intense fight scenes for young adult audiences, but the graphic detail might not go down too well with a publisher for that audience. This is really a stylistic thing and depends on the kind of book the writer is trying to write.

  12. […] “Writing Fight Scenes” at Fantasy-Faction.com […]

  13. Natlog says:

    I wish you hadn’t done this article white on black, even though it does give a visually dramatic effect. It makes it difficult to print out and is wasteful of ink. Otherwise, it has useful information.

  14. Natlog says:

    Further comment–After reading the article thoroughly and taking notes (not wanting to print it out), I find it excellent. I’m sure I will use the techniques in my own writing. Its visually lovely too, but perhaps you could provide a more printer-friendly version to click on which is black text on white only, no pictures.

  15. Same says:

    “IF IT CAN’T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE, IT CAN’T HAPPEN IN A BOOK!”

    That line of logic is very faulty. You quote on how all fight scenes need to be realistic when that’s not true whatsoever. You need consistancy. With consistancy you can pretty much do whatever you want.

    For example, if I establish to begin with that my special dudes are capable of punching holes through two inch steel girders for some reason, having someone do that frequently wouldn’t damage anything in any likely case. Consistancy also includes detail such as what you said about crossbows in comparison to bows. That matters, but the fact that my special guys can kick-boost around so fast they vanish is irrelevant, so long as I establish it to begin with as something that happens it should fly.

    Also I just love the hell out of over-the-top BS and enjoy writing it. Just depends.

  16. Character motivation is a big thing for me. I hate fight scenes that seem pointless. I need to know what each side is trying to accomplish and whether or not they can see victory up ahead. That’s the worst thing about many martial arts movies (and the Matrix too); I have no sense for the prospects for an end-game blow in a lot of these fights. They just keep going until the writer decides this blow was the one that finally did it or that enemy was the last one out of all those that have been popping up for the last 10 minutes.

  17. KingAskean says:

    I’m late, very late, I would like to say thanks because I’m in a fight scene in my draft and keeping it short and simple is good, very good idea. Thanks

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