Alright, dear Author, let’s talk about fighting in books:
Fighting in novels is something that can garner any range of reactions from readers, from “I love fight scenes, they’re the most thrilling parts of the book! The emotional highs and lows of combat reflected in the hearts and conflicts of the characters is the highest echelon of drama and excitement!” all the way down to “I skip them- they’re boring.” Pretty large gap of feelings, right? We can chalk this up largely to the fact that fight scenes are among the least studied pieces of fiction writing.
Plenty will authors see articles about how write with imagery, show don’t tell, dialogue, back story, even romance scenes, but when is the last time you’ve run across an article about writing fighting? A while? Great, this is why I wrote this. Now, it’s true there are articles on this topic, but in comparison to the other subjects? Pshaw, this isn’t discussed enough- but enough lazing about in a neutral stance.
We’ll split this post into four primary sections, which are:
Draw your sword, pistol, laser rifle, or magic wand, Author- time to fight!
First on our list is risk. No, not the board game; we’re talking about what the character has to lose or gain from getting into the fight. This is a given for most authors, but this isn’t always the case. There’s always those scenes you find in fiction in which the protagonist has no need to fight, but does.
Is your protagonist a pacifist? Does he prefer not fighting to the death like most human beings? Then please, don’t make him turn around to an angry bartender and shoot him in the face. The risk that they’re going into needs to be tied to their character, and when this is broken, it is a break in character. Know the person you’re writing, and if they generally back away from fights, you’re going to need a damn good reason for why he’s asking to bite the scythe this time. Staying true to the character counts, especially if you want your Reader getting invested into the people you create.
In the Quick: Make sure the reason for fighting or not fighting is good enough and something the character in question would do.
Alright, now your uppity fencer protagonist named… Edward, I guess, has gotten into a scrap with an enemy of his merchant guild who we’ll call… Jacob. Pretty cool, right? Maybe. It depends on how you craft the flow of the scene.
Tell me, Author, which of these techniques would keep the reader engaged and on board with the happenings of the story?
Tech One (T1): Full, technical description
Edward and Jacob draw their rapiers. Edward thrusts forward and so does Jacob. The two push against each other a moment, and then Edward leaps back. He delivers a quick, precise straight jab that Jacob dodges. Jacob delivers a quick, precise straight jab that Edward dodges. Edward goes closer and thrusts with a perfectly-aimed, but slow frontal strike. Jacob counters by holding his sword sideways, pushing the thrust out of his face as he wraps around for his own thrust. Edward leaps back.
Tech Two (T2): Dynamic, flowery description
Edward hops, skips, and bounds at his foe, his fiery eyes hot enough to burn anyone that gets in his way. In the blink of an eye, Jacob smashes the rapier from Edward’s hand, his resolve as solid as volcanic rock. Edward, his training proving true, leaps up and grasps his handle just as he crashes down and makes sparks with Jacob. Their eyes meet, and so do their blades.
Tech Three (T3): A mix
Edward thrusts at Jacob, who dodges by a hair. Jacob jabs forward with steady, slow strikes, each into Edward’s angled guard. They fence for a few seconds, and then Jacob delivers a shadowed kick to Edward’s side, sending him to the floor with a bony “thump”. On the ground, Edward pushes away just in time to avoid Jacob’s thrust.
The answer? There isn’t one. Sorry, Author, but different people prefer different styles of writing and description, but a mix of the two extremes is usually the most appealing. People want action they can feel in reality, but they don’t want it to drag. People also want action they can feel in the world of the book, but they don’t want it to get so flowery that it becomes hard to understand. A good rule of thumb is to decide what kind of promise the book “promises” and then deliver on that. Is the story over the top? Over the top fights. Is the story lengthy and descriptive? Lengthy fights. Just make sure to keep your fights realistic to the world, unique from each other, and revealing of the character. Remember, any action your characters engage in can become the dialogue, let them show the reader how they react to a life-threatening situation. On top of all that I’d like to add a quote from a fellow article on fight scenes.
“Think of it this way: violence is dialogue. Make your fights into a conversation spoken with actions in which the real conflict is happening in the hearts of the characters and in which the reader themselves are helping to tell the story.” – Chuck Sambuchino, 5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Fight Scenes.
A couple more things to consider:
-Play with different lengths for your scenes, let people read them- what do they think?
-Consider giving your main characters different weapons to fight with throughout the book, would their personality in the fight change in any way?
-Maybe have a character wounded, how would they fight differently?
In the quick: Know your reader, know yourself, experiment and practice.
Great, so your character’s gotten into a fight or two and they’re on their way to “defeating the villain” or whatever else they’re trying to accomplish- But what will this accomplish?!
Real talk though, did your protagonist just beat down a pack of wolves without injury, and then move on? Let’s get real. Fight scenes that don’t progress the plot of your story are more like… more like… b-bite scenes! Ha! Because they bite, get it?
But really, fight scenes that don’t develop the story, characters or anything serve next to no story-telling purpose. If someone were badly wounded or killed during the fight, that would be cause for the fight because it develops the drama of the story, but when your mighty knight plows through skeletons like nothing and says not a thing as he walks out of the graveyard, there’s a lot of potential story-crafting wasted.
Of course, this is usually only a problem if your character’s a super good fighter. A problem for many more books however have to do with getting to the end. The fights in a book should naturally escalate, and escalate with the story outside of the fights. Long underline there, so let me unpack that a bit: What do you think would be most enjoyable to the reader amidst your story:
-A quick scuffle training match between two main characters, which escalates gradually into more-and-more deadly and violent fencing matches, leaving the reader on his seat, wondering when one of the fencers will go too far and try to kill the other?
-A huge, no-holds barred fight scene that cripples both fencers before the reader gets the chance to get to know them? They then spend every fight after that poking at each other from their hospital beds.
Now, not saying that a huge opening is always bad (you have to find some way to engage the reader, after all, and action is something people do respond to) but you need to find a way to have the stakes get higher and higher and the accomplishment of the challenge more difficult throughout the story, thus raising tension. You can have huge octane in your opening chapters, but if it’s as high-octane as your ending fight, you can guess that your reader will put down the book thinking “in comparison to the story, the fights towards the end were lame!” you don’t want that. Find a way to make the hair in which the protagonist slips by with thinner and thinner as your story progresses.
Ringing in on this personally, I remember when I was writing “Xtreme Force: Book One” that I had several fights there simply for the sake of having a fight. I thought, “Hmm this is too quiet and the characters are starting to get to know each other, better put in a giant killer spider or something.” What I missed here is that, while it’s perfectly fine to have all these fights, it must be developmental to the characters and story in some way. I’ll do my darnedest to never make the same mistakes again- but the road of the writer is long, arduous, and probably covered in broken glass.
In the quick: Make fights important to the story, not an obstacle the reader wants to get past ASAP.
#4- Character Survivability
Alright, this is usually not a problem, but when it is it is devastating to a story’s immersion and enjoyment values.
Think back, you can probably pick one or two situations out quickly in books, movies, video games, in which you think “That’s not something this character can do.” and then they do it. How does that make you feel?
Chapter twenty: a hero thrown off a cliff, a hundred meters high, he slams into the ground, and he’s okay to walk? No.
Chapter twenty: a spy finally leaving Russia after her long mission gets pulled over by the secret police, she jumps from the car, hits the secret detonator that she actually had the whole book but has been unmentioned up to this point. She then causes her car to explode, propelling her on the burning wreckage all the way to the U.S. Embassy? No.
Chapter twenty: a fake wall weighing two hundred kilos falls into a young lady with pink hair and cat ears that looks suspiciously like the author who has never been to a gym in her life, but this lady receives the emotional strength to magically magically pick it off her? No.
Don’t make your characters posses hysterical amounts of physical stamina, or magic tool boxes, or become surreptitiously strong when they need it most. Of course, if you mentioned this hero has some sort of goddess’ blessing, that’s fine. If this spy is some hyper-reflexive super soldier and her detonator was mentioned from time to time that’s fine. If this young lady has had dangerous environment survival training and works out twice a week at the gym, that’s fine. The problem is this stuff needs to be in the story before it goes live.
Let me throw an idea at you. If you’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun you will be familiar with this. A big thing about efficient and engaging storytelling is describing only the sorts of things that will progress the story in some way. Your characters are strolling through a park? Describe the park’s features by having the characters interact with or talk about them. Do Not have them walking through a park where there’s a marksmanship competition going on.
Readers are human, and humans love making tactical judgement.
If you describe a gun on a mantelpiece in any kind of detail further than “There’s a rifle on the mantelpiece” most readers will start building the expectation that this gun’s going to go off- and that’s okay. What isn’t okay is when we’re twenty chapters in and someone pulls out a rifle that no one in the mansion knew this angry war-veteran had on him- that breaks the immersion and disappoints the reader. You gotta build things up and make it satisfying, rather than disappointing, that the protagonist gets shot by a wonderful, well-described gun. If you ever want to save your character from dying, you need to have something building upon the reader’s previous knowledge of the character to do it. Perhaps add a friendly character a few chapters back, or have them find a weapon of some sort, any ace in the hole which will be used upon what would be their final moment.
You must, at all costs, avoid “Deus Ex Machine” moments, in which a seemingly-cosmic force of randomness takes pity upon the character in danger, and propels them to victory at hyper-speed. There is little more disappointing to the reader, as it tears away the world they were just, moments ago, believing in. How ever you want the final battle to end, you need it to be real for the reader.
In the quick: Know your character’s limits, and write on them.
Alright, we’re done. I hope this little run around in writing fighting will be of great use to you as you have your peppy sorceress battle everything from an ant to a dying god from the seventh floor of Yag’.
Much love and happy writing,