I often see people asking about writing fight scenes, so this week, with axes in hand, I thought we’d battle our way through a quick guide.
There seem to be a few general rules of thumb for writing fight scenes. They are:
Blow by blow is boring;
Clarity is king;
Show v tell.
Let’s look at each in detail.
Blow by blow is boring
“He swung left, then right, dodged a lunging blow from behind, rolled to the right, raised his sword to parry another attack.”
A fight scene should not be a stream of blow after blow until everyone’s dead. Rather, it ought to be a portrayal of a character’s physical and mental state as they experience danger.
In movies seeing every punch and kick, decapitation or shooting is sadistically entertaining. On the page, it’s a different story. It slows down the pace significantly and makes for confusing, hard to follow passages which serve to frustrate the reader and make them skip the scene or stop reading altogether.
That’s not to say you should avoid blow by blow. Used well, it reveals a characters’ skills or flaws. A good balance is to do a little bit of blow by blow, and then a bit of description, or if writing in the first person or third person limited perspectives, some thought or emotional reflection.
An excellent writer of action is James Barclay. His Chronicles of the Raven series is worth checking out. Book two in the trilogy, Noonshade, contains some excellent fight scenes. In book two of The Lord of the Rings, the battle for Helms Deep takes place. Considering how epic the film version is you’d expect it to be a pretty big chapter. In fact, at twenty pages it’s relatively short (the film added a few extra bits), and deals with a large, complicated battle expertly.
Clarity is king
Kudos to anyone who can work out what the hell is going on here.
Battles by their nature are frantic affairs. Lots going on, many people involved. If it’s not clear what’s happening the reader will throw your book against the wall. The reason? Tthey want to know what happens but the words won’t tell them! There are a few things you can do to achieve clarity:
- If you’re writing about a large battle, map it out, particularly if there’s structures, cities or towns involved. In mapping, you do not confuse or contradict yourself, and crucially, you do not confuse your reader. You’ll also have a much clearer picture in mind of what’s going on and where, allowing you to write with a stronger, more confident voice, crucial in scenes of such significance.
- Tone down the use of metaphors and similes. Use simple language. You can lose the reader with florid language in scenes where lots are going on. The reader just wants to see what happens! Battles are exciting for readers; your job is to make sure those pages keep turning.
- Avoid the use of the passive voice. If you’re unsure about this, check out my guide on the active and passive voice here.
- Use short sentences. A short sentence increases the pace, whereas medium and long sentences temper it. It’s hard to get lost in a shorter sentence too, making it nice and easy to follow. If you’d like a good example of short sentences used well, check out Anna Smith Spark’s debut novel The Court of Broken Knives.
- Be specific. Name locations, individuals, weapons. Not only will this enhance the scene, the reader will be drawn deeper into it, allowing them to follow what’s going on and experience the unfolding events.
Show v tell
It’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about fight scenes rather than actually showing them. As a reader, merely being told what happens is boring. We want to experience it.
One of the things that other forms such as film and TV lack are the ability to show the reader how a character is feeling. Battles and wars are chaotic and brutal and those involved experience horrific things which stick with them forever. Explore such things through the thoughts of your characters. Ask questions: how would you feel as you stood on the walls of a keep as thousands of orcs charge toward you? How would it feel to swing a sword and cut through flesh and bone? Perhaps your character is indifferent to death and fear, even thrives on it.
How would it feel to be a rider of Rohan in the moments before charging into the army of Mordor?
There are ways for you to do more showing and less telling:
- Use the five senses. For more on this, you can check out my blog post here.
- Make your character connect with things going on around them, such as helping a comrade who’s about to be gutted, or targeting a specific enemy across the battlefield.
- Make the character use resources around them in interesting ways. Perhaps they use a ballista to disrupt the charge of an onrushing foe. I always think of Legolas and how he used a charging oliphaunt to take out another.
- If you’re writing a large battle scene in which you wish to cover a lot, you could use numerous perspectives to reveal how things are developing across the battlefield. It gives a variety of emotion and perspective too, enriching the tale. I return again to James Barclay, who’s excellent at using perspective in battle.
- The prolific author Brandon Sanderson says to avoid using the word ‘felt.’ I don’t see the big problem with it—a lot of good writers use it—though when used too much it comes across as lazy. Show how it feels rather than just saying it.
- You can use italics for introspective thought. I first came across this in George R.R. Martin’s writing, and a lot of other authors use it too. It’s an excellent way to get closer to a character, and a great way of getting around just telling emotions.
A final few things
It’s easy to get sucked into the ideas we’re familiar with, such as those we see on the screen or read about in the history books. The great thing about writing and crafting your own tales is the unlimited possibilities. You could write about a single battle involving a million people, or the siege of a giant fortress, like in David Gemmell’s Legend. You could even do what this chap did and set sixty thousand medieval warriors onto three hundred Jedi. Think of interesting and different places fights or battles could take place. Let your mind run wild.
Bear in mind the tone you wish to set. Is this fight going to be one of desperation? Anger? Helplessness? This is a very important influence as to how you write the fight, particularly in the emotional reactions of your characters and how it all pans out.
Make a decision as to how lifelike you wish your fighting to be. In medieval times if armed with a sword and shield a soldier held up their shield while swinging wildly over the top or side, all the while bashing forwards to try and push the enemy line back or break it altogether. Gracefulness was cast aside in such bloody warfare. Survival by any means was everything.
Take the time to learn how weapons work. Assume nothing. Visit museums like the Royal Armouries in Leeds, historical sites like castles and keeps, even do a few archery or sword fighting lessons. Quite a few authors do. It’ll give you crucial experience and knowledge, allowing you to write with more depth and conviction.
Battles don’t have to be lifelike, though. It could be like L.O.T.R. where highly competent characters cleave their way through entire armies. Consistency is key.
And since we’re on the topic of L.O.T.R. I thought I’d leave you with a clip from my favourite battle.
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