Come at me, meow!
Realism* is your best friend when dealing with a fight. We already know realism makes romance and erotica come alive, and it’s the same with a fight. Without realism, the erotica will be limp, the romance will be un-relatable, and the fight will be boring.
*As much realism as you can have when magic and super-speed are involved, but more on that later.
Combat is a physical, visceral thing. Showing, not telling, is key. Spending words on your characters’ thoughts will slow down the action. If you’re getting mugged, do you think your mugger would pause while you reflected on your unfortunate circumstances?
No! He’d take your damn wallet and run!
That level of urgency is important in a fight. Do warriors analyze the situation? Of course, but that analysis is instant. Their experience and ingenuity will be better reflected in your writing by describing what they DO, not what they THINK.
Just as a physicist will be unimpressed if you write bad science, fighters will be unimpressed if you write bad fights. Always ask if you’re not sure!
Here are some quick principles and a practice exercise to help you tighten up flabby fight scenes.
BLOW-BY-BLOW! The best written combat sequences obey the following rules:
- Short, direct sentences. Make them clear and to the point.
- Vivid description. By vivid I mean specific, not florid. “She was hit hard in the face by his elbow,” is awful. “He broke her nose,” is alright. “His elbow slammed into her nose with a sickening crunch,” is better.
- A blow-by-blow account. This is the difference between a good scene and a great scene, and sportscasters have known this for years. Chat with your local dojo’s demo-team instructor, or watch movies choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. They’ll give you good examples of sequence. (Ideally you could sign up for martial arts classes yourself!)
These principles apply equally to gun fights and magical onslaughts. I don’t know much about tank/ship/spaceship combat, so let’s omit vehicles for now. All the same, seeing the essential steps of the dance will give it beauty.
EXERCISE ~ LINKING ACTION AND REACTION
Kill Bill, 2003
Take a short fight scene, slow it down, and practice describing the sequence of strikes. Capture the sequence first, and add details later. I chose THIS RANDOM VIDEO as an example. I’ve named the woman in pink “Kelly,” and her opponent’s new name is “Mary.”
STEP I: Break the moves down to their simplest choreography
Kelly punches Mary.
Kelly looks at her knuckles.
Mary kicks Kelly in the groin.
Mary grabs Kelly‘s hair.
Mary drags Kelly across the floor.
Kelly tries to get up.
Mary throws Kelly into a table.
Check the video again to make sure you didn’t miss anything. They do the same sequence twice.
Now that you have the skeleton of the action, you have a clear view of how each fighter acts and reacts to the other.
STEP II: Relate A’s actions directly to B’s actions.
“You knew this would happen,” Mary said. Kelly smiled, and punched Mary in the eye. Mary’s head snapped back while Kelly looked at her bruised knuckle. Mary took a step forward and kicked Kelly in the groin, which made Kelly drop to her knees. Mary then grabbed Kelly by the ponytail and dragged her across the floor. Kelly kicked and screamed. She tried to get up, but Mary threw her into the table. Mary put a hand to her eye, growled and stomped away.
STEP III: Edit to give it life. Omit unnecessary action, shorten sentences, break up paragraphs and add tiny embellishments for color.
“You knew this would happen,” Mary laughed.
Kelly smirked for half a second, then socked Mary in the eye. Mary’s head snapped back.
The shock didn’t last. Mary lunged, kicking Kelly in the groin. Kelly dropped to her knees. Mary grabbed a chunk of Kelly’s hair and dragged her kicking and screaming across the floor.
Kelly tried to scramble to her feet, but Mary was stronger. Mary slammed Kelly into the table, and Kelly dropped like a sack of rocks.
Clutching her stinging eye, Mary stormed off.
- Short, direct sentences.
- Vivid, specific description.
- A blow-by-blow account.
STEP I: Break the moves down to their simplest choreography.
STEP II: Relate A’s actions directly to B’s actions.
STEP III: Edit to give it life. Omit unnecessary action, shorten sentences, break up paragraphs and add tiny embellishments for style.
- I omitted some of the details I felt slowed down the narrative, including grunting and screaming. The body language was enough.
- I spent more time describing actions that took longer to execute. Your words are like a film reel, dedicate the time only where it agrees with pacing.
- Only use active verbs. “Kelly was punched by Mary” sounds like a crime report. “Mary punched Kelly” sounds like it hurt.
Based on the text, you should be able to re-create the fight. Ask yourself, was the pacing the same? Did you feel the same way reading the text as watching the video? Most importantly, are you creating an authentic fight, or mimicking what’s been done before?
Red Sonja (1985). I love this movie, but standards have gone way up since then. Don’t recycle the same tricks.
This example is very basic. The point is to practice flow and sequence. As your instincts get stronger, steps I and II will merge, and you can get right down to the fun stuff like spurting blood and what it feels like to have bone fragments grinding against each other.
I couldn’t find any good quotes by Joe Abercrombie about writing combat, but R. A. Salvatore nailed it right on the head. In my opinion, those two are the absolute best combat writers in fiction. As someone with over twenty years of martial arts study, working with demonstration teams, stage-fighting and practical application, I’ve learned the value of writing sequences that are both pretty and realistic.
“Writing a fight scene is about mechanics (it’s got to make sense to people who know something about fighting–kind of like the science in a science fiction book has to pass the physicist test!)… Mostly, a good fight scene is about the pacing. I notice that my sentences get shorter, paragraphs become single sentences or even sentence fragments, and characters are too involved in staying alive to muse about the meaning of life.” –R.A. Salvatore
Questions? Critiques? Leave a note.