Battles and fights form massive parts of many fantasy stories. And what makes them so memorable is the author’s ability to clearly convey the chaos. Writing fight scenes and battles is, therefore, an important part of fantasy writing.
So I decided to draw upon all of my experience and understanding of warfare to put together this comprehensive guide on how to write fight scenes.
The Pitfalls of Writing Fight Scenes
So often and so easily the telling of fight scenes can go violently wrong. Readers become lost in the melee, and in their frustration will turn that book of yours into a deadly weapon itself.
What I’ve learned about writing fight scenes and battles has come from Brandon Sanderson. And funnily enough, a reviewer recently likened the battle scenes in Pariah’s Lament to Sanderson’s. So something must have stuck.
Sanderson’s approach is based on three core principles: clarity, balancing blow by blow descriptions and prioritising showing instead of telling. Below we’ll take a look at each one before taking a look at how to write big battles and one vs one fights.
Select A Section
- Principle 1 – Clarity
- Principle 2 – Balancing The Blows
- Principle 3 – Showing Instead Of Telling
- How To Write Large Battle Scenes
- How To Write One Vs One Scenes
- More Guides On Writing Fight Scenes
Of the three this is perhaps the most important. If the reader can’t follow what’s going on, it’s not possible for them to enjoy it, unless they’re partial to chaos.
Conveying the action in clear terms serves the story best. Battles are fast, frantic and unpredictable, involving thousands of people, all trying to kill one another by tooth or nail. With so much going on, it needs to be easy enough to follow.
And to achieve clarity we need to look at the way in which the story is told. Using shorter and medium-length sentences seems to work best. It complements the swift nature of battle. Allows you to build pace and tension. And you deliver information in short and easy to understand chunks. And trust me that’s what you need when you have lots of imagery to paint.
Other things you can do to achieve clarity include being specific with descriptions and ditching the vagaries, and mapping out the battle before you write it.
This last point is particularly useful, especially in large scale battles. We’ll come to this in more detail below as we delve further into how to write fight scenes.
Sanderson is of the view that long streams of blow by blow description can become tedious for readers.
‘He swung his sword from left to right, raking the tip across his foe’s shield. He brought back his blade quickly to parry a counterattack, then launched one of his own, which cut the air.’
It generally goes on and on like this. And as you can imagine, it gets a bit boring by the third or fourth paragraph.
Now there are exceptions to this, which we’ll discuss below, but the attentive amongst you will have noticed this section title referred to balance.
And herein lies the key. Blow by blow is not boring if used in a balanced way. By that I mean a few paragraphs here and there, interspersed with other exposition, dialogue or internal thoughts. The key is to keep the story progressing. Don’t get lost in moments.
So if you find yourself racking up pages of blow by blow, ask yourself what can you cut out. And be brutal, just like your battle. It may be tough to say goodbye to that awesome sword move but your readers may thank you for it.
In this instance, less is more is the rule to lean toward.
Showing instead of telling is something that gets bandied about a lot in the writing world.
In short, it refers to a preference of storytelling in which the action is shown to the reader rather than simply told to them.
Telling – the sword felt heavy in his hand
Showing – his arm ached with the weight of the sword in his hand
The showing version here is longer but more immersive for the reader. It draws them deeper into the story, allowing them to almost be in the scene, to feel what it’s like.
So when writing battle scenes, this method of storytelling can really help engross the reader in the action. Think about the 5 senses and how you can use them to your advantage.
If you find yourself using the word ‘felt’, it could be a signal to introduce some showing instead of telling.
But telling does have its place. Sometimes battles rage on for days and even weeks—particularly sieges. So from a fiction-writing point of view, it may not be possible to convey every little detail.
That’s where telling can come in handy, allowing you to pass hours and days in a mere few words.
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So how do we apply these three guiding principles to fantasy writing?
Well, depending on the type of battle you want to feature, you may find that some apply more than others.
In large battles, for instance—we’re talking Minas Tirith and Helms Deep big—clarity is everything. It’s our jobs to bring order to the chaos.
We can achieve this by doing something I mentioned earlier—mapping it out. So, in true fantasy warlord style, roll out your great sheet of parchment and draw out your battle scene.
Is it going to be open warfare or a siege? Let’s look at the former first.
Note down details of the landscape. Is it flat or hilly? Are there any waterways like streams or rivers? If so, are there bridges? Any rocky outcroppings, dense bushes or long grass. When it comes to war, anything like this can make a difference.
Next, position your warriors with terrain in mind. And play out your battle. Examine the strengths and weaknesses of each side. What counter-attacks could you introduce, like surprise cavalry charges to the flank?
Writing a siege is a little different. With defenders holed up in a castle, it’s up to the attackers to breach the walls.
First, it helps to detail the defensive fortifications in place. Then ask how can they be broken. Determine any weak spots and see how they could be exploited or how they could be heroically defended.
It definitely helps to do your research when it comes to this, especially if you’re struggling. In doing so you gain a deeper understanding of the ebbs and flows of warfare and the factors that can prove decisive. Plus, you’ll come across awesome details to inspire your own stories.
Another great tool you can use to help achieve clarity in the writing of battle scenes is perspectives or points of view.
In times of old, once battle was joined, it was hard for order and control to be maintained by military leaders. That’s why the likes of helmet plumes, coloured tabards and bannerman appear in battles, as well as horns, drums and other instruments—to help maintain order.
If the story is told in a narrow perspective, for instance in the first-person viewpoint or third person limited, it may jar the flow of the story to start discussing how the battle was going on the left flank if that character is battling in the centre.
But it’s important to show the reader the image of the overall battle as it develops. To achieve this we can introduce new perspectives. Bringing forward or introducing secondary characters to primary points of view can allow us to explore different parts of the battle.
And from a writing perspective, this can work wonders structurally, allowing you to create mini cliff hangers as the battle unfolds. A sure-fire way to keep readers hooked. It’s something I used in Pariah’s Lament and one that went down a storm with readers and reviewers.
Before we move on, a word on show v tell in large battles. For me, showing serves a crucial role. Zooming out from intimate fighting, you can truly immerse the reader into the madness around the characters—the blood and gore, wails and howls of man and horse, the stench of blood and sweat and fear. The reader can transport there. Stand amongst the chaos whipping all around them.
By showing more than telling, you can help create that experience for the reader.
And as for blow by blow descriptions, as you may have guessed they play less of a role here. But that’s not to say it’s banished. Blow by blow exposition is necessary for writing all fight scenes. In large scale combat, exciting and dramatic bursts of blow by blow works a treat. Because it’s realistic to what battles were like in medieval warfare. Pages of it, however, might cause frustration.
On we charge with our guide on how to write fight scenes. Now the writing of one vs one fights is a little different to the larger battle scenes we’ve so far discussed.
One vs one fights are much more intimate and less chaotic in terms of what’s going on around the fight.
They can be more intense too, with the stakes of losing truly magnified.
So with less going on around and about, there’s less to describe. This means the need for blow by blow exposition grows.
In these intimate scenes, suspense is high, our knuckles white from clinging to the page. We follow each and every move willingly.
To help achieve that, showing instead of telling plays a useful role, allowing you to illustrate the characters’ feelings of tiredness, fatigue and pain, for instance.
Clarity is important too here, just not as necessary as with larger battle scenes. The last thing you want is for your reader to lose their way at crucial moments. Short and sharp sentences can work well to add to the suspense and create a sense of urgency.
Thank you for checking out this guide on how to write fight scenes. Below, I’ve included some other guides you may find useful.
- A guide to medieval castles and keeps
- Archery and fantasy – a complete guide
- A guide to fantasy armor
- Study a Masters degree in worldbuilding
Thanks for reading this guide on how to write fight scenes.