fight scenes

“Battles are like people. No two are exactly alike.” (Ad-libed from Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Before They Are Hanged’.)

As a known Joe Abercrombie convert, I should preface this by saying that he is much, much better at fight scenes than I am.

I started this blog partly to show the progress on my novels, then partly to discuss writing theory and craft. Lately I’ve been working on revisions (59% done), and there’s not much to tell there that’s not a private discussion with my test-readers. And what I have been learning about writing at this time… it seems to make so much sense that I have to wonder if I really have any right to lecture anyone on plot theory, or style, or character development, or anything related. The longer I teach college, the less qualified I seem to be. So far from ignoring the book or the blog, I’m really hard at work. At this point, I’m still on track to be looking for agents come November when I’ll start my next book idea for NaNoWriMo (also: I’m really excited about this).

Back to fight scenes.

The more I read and write them, the more they seem to have a lot of character. That character comes almost directly from the limitations of the participants. What can the character see? What exactly is going on from his perspective? What can they do about it? (Oh, really? You think that they can pull that off?) It’s easy to get caught up in where the character ought to be at the end of the fight, but not the play and direction of the battle itself. The desire to get the character on the other side of the room when they’re not set up right can be overwhelming.

In an effort to organize my thoughts on this, I figured I’d go point by point.

1. Long sentences and description of any sort slow down the action. If you want a fight that’s fast paced, you’re going to have to cut down on the commas, nix the adjectives, and accept short actions and play-by-play writing.

2. A fighting character can not keep track of everything going on around them, and can be confused easily themselves, especially when it comes to taking their own wounds. This is something that Joe Abercrombie does that makes his fights so realistic– he’ll stick in short fragment of description instead of saying that the character was knocked onto their back. If the character doesn’t know what the heck is going on, why should the reader (if you’re writing in first or third POV)?

3. A fighter doesn’t think about reacting any more than you think about how to type. Personally, any time I start thinking about where the keys are located on my keyboard, my work gets riddled with typos. A practiced fighter has their moves locked into muscle memory. They react. They do not think actively about every stroke. There may be yelling. They may not realize it at the time.

4. People are very fragile. People are incredibly tough. (Don’t you love it when writing comes in paradoxes?) Real fights have real consequences. Scars can be more than decoration. Bad knees, limited flexibility, poor balance, all of these things can come out of a victorious battle. A good punch to the side of the ear can snap a man’s neck. Others can survive bullets through the head. A six foot fall on one’s neck can be just as deadly as being crushed by a maul, but miraculously men have survived falling from planes with faulty parachutes.

5. Fighting two men is not twice as hard as fighting one. If you’ve got two men on you, kill one very, very fast, and preferably not while standing between them. Three is even worse. Four and up? From personal experience with martial arts, three on one can’t be added to. There’s just no room to slide in. This of course varies with the weapon and type of combat.

6. Take your time with combat. Develop it, give it a ‘face’, a feeling, an environment. Change your language choice to reflect the sort of mood you want to create.

7. Be true to the point of view. Don’t show things that shouldn’t be seen. Not every stroke needs to be accounted for, and it will feel still and too crisp if tried. Even an omniscient POV focuses on the major actions.

These are my initial thoughts, anyway. Feel free to add anything that I’ve missed, as always.

5 thoughts on “fight scenes

  1. See, I completely disagree with “take your time”. I think fight scenes should be swift, brutal, and over within a paragraph or two at most.

    Fight scenes on the page are nowhere near as exciting as on screen. And if you’re not using the conflict for a greater purpose, then they’re just filler, and very skip-worthy.

    • I mean, take your time writing them. Sometimes a paragraph can do it. *shrug* But I’ve also read some really thrilling fight scenes that can take a page or two, or even longer. Abercrombie and Martin both do very, very good combat pieces.

  2. Great article. You’ve got great points. After reading this, two things came to mind.

    I think that before writing a fight scene, it’s always good to see how concentrated it can be. I’d rather read about a necessary duel than about an epic battle that screams of overkill. I think a lot of battles are easier to write and easier to read if they’re simpler.

    I also think that fight scenes should start out small and grow on their ow, just as any good story begins with an incident that grows into a catastrophe. Merrilee’s comment got me thinking about how quickly a fight scene should be written. I totally agree – having it over with ASAP is critical, but there’s no problem if it grows into a chapter-long fight on its own. It’s all about working off of something small and letting it build on its own (or end right then and there on its own).

    Again, great article!

    • Should a battle really make sense, though? I’m sure who ever is doing the fighting would prefer simpler, too.

      Perhaps instead of thinking of a two-person fight and a battle as being related, we should separate them. One has an element of order, of action and reaction. The other really just descends into chaos, where once the action starts it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Of course, this is coming from someone who’s best experience of violence has come from sports (which I’m bad at) and martial arts (which I’m also bad at, but aggression can disguise that point among the inexperienced).

      After your comment I went and looked up what Abercrombie wrote about the topic– a conversation between two characters about battle that really changed my perspective on the matter. “Before They Are Hanged”, page 165-167. If you’re ever in a library or a book store and happen to remember, go read those pages.

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