This piece originally appeared in the BFS ‘Prism’ Publication back in 2011 but I haven’t changed my approach since then. I’m reposting it here following a good thread on the subject on Facebook today…
How I write a fight
The last thing you need when you’ve ramped up the tension and the combatants are facing each other across a narrow space is no clue how to proceed. I mean, it’s horrible having your characters shrugging at each other, scratching their arses and looking up at you from the page with raised eyebrows, awaiting orders.
What follows, dear friends, is a summary of the way I approach large or small scale fights involving swords and magic. And if it helps just one of you even one iota, I shall deem my work to be done…
Gather yourself together
There’s plenty of stuff you need before you dive headlong into the fight. Some of it is critical to your scene, some better classed as ‘good to keep in mind’ but all of it is useful, honest.
Nuts and bolts
There’s big picture stuff you need to know. The circumstances of the fight – whether it’s a chance encounter, an ambush, a battlefield set piece etc. will inform your characters’ states of mind as they enter combat. Include the relative skill levels of your combatants and you have a base from which to start. Personally, I always start off knowing who enters combat, who lives, who dies and who wins but always with the caveat that the outcome I plan might not be the one I get.
Make sure you know how the fight will advance story, character or both. For me, this is key because if your fight does neither, it should not be written.
Character in battle
You really have to hang on to your characters in a fight. It’s easy to lose who they are and it’s one way your scene can come across false. Not only that, a fight can be a defining moment of advancement or regression for a character. Hero, coward, saviour and sacrifice are just a few outcomes up for grabs.
Be aware of your characters’ physical attributes and skills with blade, bow or spell. Make sure they remain consistent in their fighting style – an experienced fighter will never try unpractised moves. Mind you, a frightened novice might well try something new out of desperation. Get inside the head of every character, feel how they feel as they see what they see then react accordingly.
Point of view
This is the subject of much debate though for me it’s simple. Fight scenes are chaotic enough (or they should be) without including the POV of every Tom, Dick and Harry carrying a weapon. In a small skirmish, one POV is plenty and you can allow that character to glance left and right, take a pace back to take stock and all that to give your readers context.
In a battle with thousands on each side, I favour a dual POV to give both overall context and close-up action. Your readers have to be able to feel the blade in a soldier’s hands, taste the fear and understand the confusion at the front of a mass battle. Indeed, you might want to keep a single POV to engender confusion – it might benefit your book to have your protagonists knowing nothing about the course of the battle they’re fighting.
I feel strongly that you cannot afford to do an overview POV for an entire large battle or you are just writing a study text. I also feel that providing context in a mass battle is important but the timing of these asides is critical to the pace of the battle and the tension of the scene.
Probably the very last thing you want is for your readers to mutter to themselves ‘Oh, come on.’ in the middle of your fight scene. So you have to be careful to retain credibility. Just a few things to consider here (though the list is actually endless…)
- Farm boy never kills veteran warrior except by pure chance (like if the veteran falls over his shoelace and stabs himself in the leg with his own blade).
- A dagger cannot sever a leg, know your weapons.
- You cannot fight with a two-handed blade in a five foot corridor.
- You cannot fight with long swords two abreast in a five foot corridor.
- If you cast a fire spell down a confined space, expect some backwash.
- An armoured soldier cannot suddenly become a kung fu master.
- And so on…
Weapons and tactics
I’ve hinted at it above but you need to know a little about the weapons you’re planning to employ and the common tactics of skirmish and battle. If you’re adding spells to the mix, you’ll have to infer effects but looking at medieval and Roman artillery tactics can help. A few examples for you:
- Cavalry works with infantry in very specific ways if you are to avoid self-inflicted disaster.
- The Roman gladius is a stabbing weapon and Roman infantry attacked in close form because their basic tactic of ‘open shield, stab out, close shield’ allowed them to pack their ranks. That, plus the deployment of a phalanx and the effect of well-drilled cavalry was at the heart of their domination of the battlefield.
- The Roman infantry shield is a curved rectangle designed to deflect arrows and weapon strikes as well as to form a solid barrier with other shields. Shields are viable weapons too – getting a good crack in the face from a shield will put you down.
- A typical long sword would have a blade around three feet in length. Add the length of the wielder’s arms and you get an idea of the excellent reach the weapon has. Unfortunately you also get an idea of the amount of space needed to use one without hacking bits off your comrades left, right and behind…
- It is my contention that in worlds where spells are used on the battlefield, full plate armour would not have been developed. Lighter armour allows the soldier to run from spell impact as opposed to being pot roasted or fast frozen etc.
- Mages, can be used very effectively to dump ‘artillery’ spells behind the enemy front lines. But they are vulnerable and would be targeted making their positioning on the field absolutely critical.
Getting it on paper
OK, so you’ve got all your background sorted out and you know what you want from your scene and who the protagonists are. So how do you get it on paper so it reads real and just as you want it to? God, I don’t know. Just do what feels right to you.
Only kidding…. there are a few key things to bear in mind.
Chaos not choreography
Plotting every move your combatants make before you get drafting will create a dance, not a fight. You need to bear in mind right from the outset that sword fighting is ugly and brutal and bears no relation to any Errol Flynn movie. It is fast and it is chaotic and should therefore defy all your efforts at choreography. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan but the best thing about a plan is that it gives you a path from which to deviate almost every step of the way.
No sugar coating
Fighting with weapons, magic, fists and feet is incredibly brutal and has hideous results. I mean think, just think, what would happen if someone swung a sharpened bit of metal really hard into your side? It would cut straight through to your spine and dump your entrails all over the floor. Or what would happen if someone hit you with a spell that increased your skin temperature by a thousand degrees? Brief unimaginable pain and then ashes.
Dear god the stink of fear and blood and shit in a fight to the death must be over-powering. No wonder only the strong and brave do it. Every step they take in a fight is through the blood and bits and bodies of the dead. Sometimes those dead are friends they’ve witnessed being slaughtered. Every block they make merely delays their own deaths. The noise of struggle is terrifying and so very close. No TV screen between them and the intimacy of people desperate to live and equally desperate to kill. Every nick of flesh is a howling agony. And every solid blow crushes bone, severs limb, slices artery and vital organ. Don’t sugar-coat it because it diminishes the acts of incredibly courageous people.
War is visceral and horrific, but within it, you need to reflect the impact of such violence on individuals. Don’t forget that even the most battle-hardened warrior is prey to emotions that might undo him or her. Morale and confidence are hugely fragile.
Visualise, write and don’t stop ’til it’s over
This is really important to me when I’m drafting a fight. For me it engenders chaos and pace and confusion. So I put my head down, visualise the scene and plough into the writing, shutting off all other things. Never mind spelling errors, awful grammar and naff sentence construction; you can fix all that later. See that ‘No sugar coating’ section above? I wrote that without pause and it is the paciest part of this article. That’s what I’m talking about.
… is crucial, clearly. Don’t bother with fluff when the fight starts. Your characters will be unaware of the furnishings or the landscape when trying not to die. Mix up your sentence lengths. There is a school of thought that short sentences mean pace and excitement but that is true only up to a point beyond which they become an irritating staccato. You still need the words to flow. Too many full stops is like a fussy football ref wrecking a match. Remember that most sword duels are going to be very short. Take the big face-off in Gemmell’s ‘Legend’ between Druss and Nogusha. It’s over in less than a page. Lesser struggles can easily be done in a couple of strikes of sword and pen.
There’s evidence to suggest that readers read fights far more quickly (25%, or so I’ve heard) than dialogue and description. This is great because it means they inject their own pace into your words. But you must remember to pause for breath in a lengthy fight to let your readers do the same.
Other hints and tips (words of infinite wisdom, naturally)
1. Name your protagonists regularly during conflict for extra clarity. Too much of the ‘He’ and ‘She’ can lose your reader.
2. Make it colourful – sparks, speed, smells and noise. Too many fights scenes are apparently played out in silence.
3. Bear in mind all that can go wrong. A broken weapon; loss of balance; sudden injury; slipping on blood or mud; the death of a comrade; friendly fire; failing courage. The list is long indeed. And if your fights are going too smoothly, have your hero fall over and see what happens.
4. Not all hero deaths need be Hollywood style. The temptation to have all your stars die in spectacular fashion is almost overwhelming. Darrick, one of The Raven, was a consummate rider and swordsman. I’d written him dying as he saved others, getting his body in the way of a blade. After a chat with my editor who used that ‘Hollywood’ line, Darrick actually died when a building fell on him. Not glorious, not heroic (though it was in the middle of a chase scene) but the shock value was equally powerful if my inbox was anything to go by.
5. Show no mercy. Professional soldiers and mages want to kill their enemies as quickly as possible. They do not seek to wound and they will not leave an enemy alive when a quick brain-melt or dagger to the heart will finish him. That’s just common sense.
6. This applies to the whole of your book but do read it aloud to yourself to make sure it makes sense. If you trip over words or stumble over phrases and sentences, be assured that they need changing.
A very brief conclusion
Napoleon said: ‘No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.’
Neither should your fight plan.