Writing fight scenes, part 2
Two more thoughts about writing fight scenes.
- Stay in your POV character’s head.
This is always important no matter what you’re writing. In a fight scene, though, it matters a lot whether you’re writing from the point of view of a person who’s never been in a fight before and is terrified and confused, or a person who is used to combat and knows what to expect and watches for their enemy’s tells, or even a robot or other non-human person who observes the entire thing without emotion. The same fight could look very different from different points of view.
Here are a few examples of very different points of view. In Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold, Ethan is a doctor who gets thrust into a combat. He isn’t sure what to do and just reacts.
Ethan staggered to his feet and began running toward them. He hadn’t the least idea what he was going to do when he got there. Except stop them, somehow. That was the only clear imperative. “God the Father,” he moaned, “there had better be a reward in heaven for this sort of thing . . .”
He had the advantage of a shorter angle to cross, against Millisor’s and Rau’s disadvantage of their writhing burden. Ethan found himself standing, legs spread apart, blocking the entrance to the flex tube. Perfectly positioned for a fast draw, barring the minor hitch of being weaponless. Help, he thought. “Stop!” he cried.
To his surprise, they did.
The next example is from the beginning of Beasts and Hunters, book 1 of the Orphaned Gods series, which I’m currently going through and editing. Khai has a lot of experience and fights strategically.
Khai had to take this thing down, for good this time.
Glancing around, he saw three unmelted hunters’ swords, two on their corpses and one lying near the tube where the last hunter had retreated. Three chances, then. That was all he was going to get.
Khai swung into motion, using Lynx’s speed, pushing to his limit until lightning crackled before his eyes. He rolled and grabbed one sword, threw it as a distraction. The monster batted it away, as he’d known it would. The second sword had to be a real threat. He charged with it, and let the acid slap him about the shoulders, stinging, rather than melt the sword. He charged, and swung, and only let himself lose that sword when he was directly above the body of the last armsman.
Then, with the monster looming above him and its net spread wide, he snatched up the final sword and thrust straight at the thing’s throat. He was so close, inside its reach. It couldn’t bring its tendrils of acid around in time. It might catch him, but not until after he’d killed it.
And last, from Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. The POV character, Breq, isn’t human and is therefore able to fight with perfect calculation and speed.
Suddenly sunlight, Athoek’s star small and distant. In my vision Mercy of Kalr displayed a ship, some six thousand kilometers off, the bright, sharp shape of a Sword. I braced myself against Mercy of Kalr’s hull and leveled the Presger gun. Numbers bloomed in my vision—times, estimated positions and orbits. I adjusted my aim. Waited precisely two and a quarter seconds, and fired. Adjusted my aim again, just slightly, and fired three more times in quick succession. Fired ten times more, changing my aim just a bit between each shot. It would take those bullets some two hours to reach that Sword. If they did reach it, if it did not alter its course in some unexpected way when it saw us sail into existence, and then, less than a minute later, disappear again.
- Don’t describe everything in the same amount of detail.
It’s fine to describe a few combat moves in detail—thrust, block, counterthrust, duck. But if you write the whole fight this way it’s going to be dull and repetitive. Describe the most important moments in detail—this will usually include the opening and the finale of a fight—and then find places where you can summarize. “He pressed his advantage until he’d pushed the orc back beneath the arch.” “She used every dodge and trick she knew, and managed to stay alive a few seconds longer.” And so on.
One reason to be sparing in detail is that you want your writing to be punchy and fast, to mirror the speed of the fight itself. Action shouldn’t drag. Also, if you’re sticking closely to your character’s POV, she probably won’t be noticing extraneous details. In a large battle she won’t be paying attention to what’s happening on that hill over there. She might not even notice the color of her opponent’s hair. She will certainly be very aware of the weapon her enemy is using to attack her, the way the mud slides under her feet, the burning in the muscles of her sword arm. People often get tunnel vision while fighting and block out extraneous sensations. Cutting extraneous words can help you give your writing that same feeling of rush.
Here’s an example from The Tembelaka Voyage, by Ruth Lampi, of summary used in a fight scene. What I like here is how we get the impression of how all Kara’s previous fights have gone without even having to see them.
Kara hit the ground hard and lost her breath but not her wits. She rolled, avoiding the next hit. She was recognizing her opponent’s tells better, now. Bulo hadn’t been this hard to fight. He’d been strong and slow, and Kara had knocked him down in a swift and insulting defeat that the Red Ropes judged unfair. She hadn’t even crippled him. They were being babies about this. Perhaps it had been unwise, though, to go on and challenge the lot of them to combat in turns.
The Pao’ulu fighting style used two small, sturdy sticks of bamboo and a whole lot of vicious. It suited Kara. She was having an educational afternoon. Judging from the impressed grins on several faces, she’d been an honorary member already for the last three matches, and now they were just settling the new rankings.
“The match is over,” Aruke panted. “You can stay with us. You will be fourth boy. You can give your friend his news if you can climb the school walls. I get to use the spear gun and boat.”
“What if we finished this match and I beat you?”
“A foreigner can’t be first boy. You are lucky we let you be fourth. No other foreigner gets that honor.”
There’s no one right way to write fight scenes—different authors have different styles and that’s fine. Don’t feel you have to write like an author you admire. Do make sure that your reader can follow what’s going on, that your fight stays in your character’s POV, and that you don’t let it get too wordy. As with most writing, reading it aloud to yourself can help.