How to Write a Fight Scene, Even if You Don’t Know Shit About Fighting — Part 2: Double Duty and Mistakes
Welcome back to my aptly named mini-series, in which I discuss how I approach fight scenes despite my lack of concrete knowledge of swordfighting (not that you shouldn’t research at all, but there are ways to get away with some basic know-how!).
Part 1 served as an introduction, and Part 3 will have a concrete example to analyse, but I wanted to dig in a little deeper on what, besides fighting, goes into a fight scene!
Making your scenes work double duty
Action-packed sequences are cool, no one denies that. It can be a great way to change the rhythm of your story. But while that’s all well and good, if you’re not doing more with your fight scene, you’re essentially wasting space. Good writing often works double time, I find, and this is just as true of fight scenes as anything else.
So what can your fight scene do, in addition to entertain? It can characterize. It should, in fact. I touched on it last post, but this is a gold opportunity for you to demonstrate key elements of your characters. They’re under pressure, a lot is at stake, and fight scenes can show who they are at their core. For some, battle is a thrill, a duty, a regular things. Others have never held a sword, hit another person, or dodged fire blasts. How your character behaves in battle is a great indicator of their overall personality.
Panic vs calm. Whether or not a character panics in the middle of a battle is a mark of his character, or of his current mental state. Sure, discipline and battle-worthiness will help someone keep it together, but when a bloody fight follows a strong emotional blow, sometimes it’s just too much to handle. Conversely, cowardly characters can find hidden strength within themselves, an unexpected calm. Think of what your character’s calm (or lack of) during a fight says about it, and what you can demonstrate through it.
Creativity and resourcefulness. Some people always seem to have a new trick up their sleeves, while others need time to come up with creative plans. What’s your character like? Would they improvise in the middle of a fight, or do they fall into known patterns? How quickly do they adapt to their environment? How can you illustrate that during the battle?
Brain vs Brawn and other elements of strategy. In a similar vein, the way your character typically approach a fight unveils a lot about them. Do they try to outsmart opponents, or do they trust their physical prowess to see them through? Do they charge headlong, to strike hard and fast, or do they bid their time and hope to outlast their opponent? Do they even know what their best strategy is? Newbies won’t know how to start and can make mistake. Veterans have learned their strengths and weaknesses and how to best approach a challenge.
Those help paint in large brushes, but you should think of the details too. What’s their weapon? Is it good for large power swipes or quick stab and dodge? Do they parry? Is that even an option? You don’t have to describe every single exchange of blows, but you want a concrete idea of what’s going on, and of how your character’s style interacts with his opponent’s.
So you want to use all these elements to build your fight scenes, but also to tell us about your character. Bring in fresh information, or cast old one into a new light!
Characterizing the world. This one is more complex and will require more research, but as with anything else, your setting should affect your fight scene to some extent. Different regions of the world have different fighting styles, and weapons created to match. They have peculiar armour design, and often they also have traditions and cultural beliefs about fights. Characters bring those into a battle and they should be reflected, too.
If you have magic that is used in battle, this is also a good moment to show how. Know your mechanics. Know the magic’s limits, its capabilities. Allow it to shine through the fight.
Technical Mistakes to Avoid
Watch your POV. Not every fight scene is a duel, and when a lot is happening at once, it’s very tempting to zoom out and describe the scene as a whole, almost bird’s eye view. And I mean, you could! But before you do it, consider what your book’s POV is. Breaking third person limited and first person can be very jarring, and it’s rarely worth it. If you’ve always narrated from inside your character’s head, be very wary of stepping out like that. You’ll be adding a distance that likely doesn’t serve your story and tension well.
There are ways to get the appropriate information to your readers without zooming out. Even intense fights have short moment of breaks where both fighters step back from each other and your character can steal a glance around. External events can impact your fight, and thus you get to describe them as they crash the party. Other characters can communicate, by yelling above the chaos or stepping into peripheral vision to sign. Find ways to slip it in. These often act as beats during the fight, a way to keep readers grounded in the larger events.
The Multiplying Hands Phenomena. Count your limbs. Seriously. Even if you have a hard time imagining actual movements and sequences, make sure you don’t mention one hand doing x, another doing y, and then a third doing z at the same time! It happens more often than you’d think. If you’re going into a more detailed maneuver, it might be worth it to mimic it, either alone or with a friend who won’t judge you for silly fight antics.
Keep track of everyone’s location. Action and fight scenes with multiple characters tend to have them teleport around a lot. One moment they’re at the bottom of a staircase holding back the forces of evil, and the next they’re on the balcony one floor up blocking a hit that’d otherwise be fatal to their One True Love. Meanwhile I’m scowling at greedy authors who want all the drama but haven’t done the homework to deserve it. If your characters move across the battlefield, make sure they had the time and means to do so, and that you didn’t describe an army in-between before.* This can get hard! Any help you need to visualize is good. I often break out my good old erasable DnD mat, which has squares and on which I can move figurine or draw lines of movements. It’ll feel silly, but it’s worth it.
*I don’t mean calculate the details. “Feasible” is more than enough, even if it stretches the limits a little. This is a story after all! Do allow yourself some creative leeway, just be careful that it doesn’t seem impossible.
So that’s it for today! I’m going to dig around in my fight scenes for one that illustrates a lot of it and isn’t full of huge spoilers. 🙂 See you next for Part 3!