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Writing Combat In Fantasy – Part One: Top Ten Tips

Writing combat is easy. Writing good combat is harder. Below are ten points–some of them tips, some of them common mistakes–to make sure your fighters are doing/using/hitting what they should be.

1. If you’re an archer, stay out of the melee.

Ambush From The Treeline by LucasGracianoIf you have brains, and want to keep them, stay at range. A lot of range is good, but further down the dungeon corridor will do, if there’s no other option. Also bear in mind a) you can’t shoot through people (well you can, but not in a good way), b) unless you’re Kevin Costner, you can’t use a bow as a quarterstaff and c) while you can stab someone’s eye out with an arrow, you’d better be pretty damn quick to get away with it.

Also–re-enactor bugbear–you don’t ‘fire’ an arrow, unless you set it alight. You shoot or loose it. Yelling FIRE! to a bunch of archers may get some very interesting results.

2. Spears have two ends.

Battle Of Tewkesbury by Danie WareSpears are excellent pokey sticks. Keeping someone on the business end of your spear is a good tactic, and works best if you have a friend or friends who can finish them off while you’re prodding them. (Hence spears work best in groups). If you’re by yourself, however, remember that (unlike the longbow) the spear makes an excellent quarterstaff and whacking someone round the head with the non-pointy end is frequently very effective.

Spears are not, however, terribly useful in a confined space. This goes for polearms in general. I’m sure you know the comedy that can ensue.

3. Axes are nasty.

They’re also unbalanced, top-heavy and require considerable forearm strength to wield effectively – list under ‘not usually used by skinny warriors/anything with pointy ears’. They also, despite popular opinion, don’t throw effectively unless they’re specifically made to do so. All that, and their hooked heads make them an easy disarm for a skilled opponent.

On the plus side, they’re very good for taking apart opposing a) shields b) walls and c) faces.

4. Shields are excellent offensive weapons.

You Captain's Shield by Jozzlyncan punch people with your shieldrim, or with the big metal bit in the middle. (This is also useful for filling with ale, but usually not at the same time). Please remember, however, that larger shields are a) bulky b) heavy and c) hence best used in units. If you want to move light and fast, carry a little one.

Plus, unless you’re sporting the star-bangled banner about your person, I wouldn’t advise using one as a frizbee.

5. Always carry a second weapon.

Seriously, this stuff isn’t rocket science.

6. On average, a woman has less upper body strength than a man (I said average).

Outlaw by Greg-OpalinskiThis is not a sexist comment–this is a fact. She does, however, possess speed and hand-eye co-ordination that are just as good or better–and every bit as much aggression as her male counterpart. Of course, if you’re creating your own reality, you can chuck that straight out the nearest window and write whatever the heck rules you please. And quite right too!

7. Fencing is a sport. Re-enactment is a hobby.

Both teach a great deal–and you’ll learn a lot about good reflexes/reaction. There’s nothing stylised or controlled about a real fight, though–it’s you or them. And they’ll use any damn weapon to take you to pieces, so you’d better get there first! Chuck the rules out the window, use knees, elbows and headbutts – bite their b*lls off, if that what it takes to get the job done. (Failing that, see point 8, below).

8. The best defence is a good offence–if you’re a military strategist.

If it’s just you, and/or if you’re heavily outnumbered, then the best defence is termed the ‘Air Gap Technique’. This describes the action of putting as large an air gap as possible between you and the persons/monsters that are trying tear you a new one. In short? Run like hell. There’s no shame in it.

9. There is such a thing a combat high.

Snow Fight by chosacAdrenaline is a massively powerful drug. When you’re charged, you really can fight through wounds, ‘frame’ speed your opponent, and react to things before you consciously see them. It also, like all drugs, has a karmic price–a come-down, if you like. That’s the point when you remember you’re down to five hit points from a starting total of forty and you’re really, very badly messed up. And that’s when you get the shakes, throw up and can’t walk, quite apart from any sustained injuries.

Maybe that’s why the ‘instant healing’ thing has become such a narrative necessity…

10. Combat is chaotic.

Invasion by ManiakSIf you’re slap-bang in the middle of a melee combat (particularly a large one) then everything is instinct. Even leaving aside the dry ice that’s used in EVERY single television production of a fight scene, it’s hard to tell what’s actually going on. It’s all about flashes of recognition, of colour and reaction. You’ll know your friends by their movements and combat-styles; if you’ve been fighting with them a long time, you’ll move together instinctively, protect each other’s backs. You’ll know your enemies by their colours or attitudes–and your strikes and blocks will be subconscious. With enough adrenaline (see above), you really can block blows before you see them.

Well, you’d better hope you can.

- – -

If you’re writing, live the fight. Understand the weapons and how they’re used, how they really feel in your hands. If you want to write battle as a clinical exercise in tactics, and that’s your style and content–then that’s your choice. But I feel that battle scenes are better when you and your reader can taste blood in your mouths and adrenaline in your bodies and fire in your hearts.

Generals are good for overviews. But grunts get all the fun.

Title image by chosac.

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13 Comments

  1. Ah, spears. I remember reading The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett. A detailed, thorough tutorial was had.

    Guy 1: The spear has two ends: the pointy end and the non-pointy end. The pointy end goes in the other guy.
    Guy 2: Is that it? Isn’t there something more to it?
    Guy 1: There is – don’t get the two confused.

    Probably my favourite Pratchett line ever.

    • Bryan B says:

      Plus the good thing about spears is they’re long enough to keep the other guy at a distance where you can poke him/her before s/he can reach you.

      Turn it around to hit them with the blunt end, and if they’re any good they’ll have closed in and chopped you before you get your blow in.

      • Steve says:

        The thing is you’re not turning it around to hit them with the blunt end and then them closing to chop you up. They’re somehow getting past the pointy end, and so you’re hitting them with the often overlooked shaft, or bringing the blunt end over (or under) in a “crushing” blow as you step back. Do this a couple of times, and the pointy end is between you and them again.

  2. […] Re: How to do a fight scene between two characters? Just picked up this link from Joe Abercrombie on Twitter. His timing is impeccable: Writing Combat In Fantasy: Top Ten Tips | Fantasy Faction […]

  3. Antonis says:

    A personal peeve I have with a lot of fight/battle scenes is that many authors seem to always neglect stamina and fatigue. That doesn’t happen only in books, it happens in movies as well. Swinging a weapon is hard in itself but when that happens under not so optimal conditions and with real opponents, it can become exhausting in a matter of minutes to even the most trained people.

  4. ericthetolle says:

    Also, moral and determination are vitally important. A group that just wants to survive and a group that wants to win at any cost will fight very differently. That’s why one of my favorite battle scenes is the “rabble fight” in Yojimbo. The entire thing is about getting psyched up enough to actually contact the enemy.

  5. […] Writing combat is easy. Writing good combat is harder. Below are ten points–some of them tips, some of them common mistakes–to make sure your fighters are doing/using/hitting what they should be.  […]

  6. Do you have any problem if I translate this articles for my blog?
    Obviously, giving you the proper credit.

  7. I like to think of axes as armor-openers, and I think even the big guys would be better off with a sword versus a quick opponent, but when someone has armor…

    • Steve says:

      When someone has armour and you have a sword you either punch through the joints and gaps, or knock them down by any means and dent in joints and overlapping areas of metal so they lock up. Then you can stab through the eyes or under the helmet with a dagger.

      Axes have a nasty chance to hang up in armour or bodies if you swing too hard. Still effective though.

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