At the heart of good fiction is conflict, and the most obvious form of conflict is the armed variety — mano a mano, steel to steel, to death or to glory. As an author of historical fantasy and sword-and-sorcery, I write a lot of fight scenes. The best illuminate character, evoke emotional responses, and move the plot forward; the worst drag my narrative down like a weight around a drowning man’s neck. Really bad scenes, which I try to avoid, can cost me readers.
So, how do I write the good scenes? Good question. Before I begin, a caveat: this is what works for me. This may not help you in the slightest; worse, it may come across as utter bollocks. Such is the nature of writing advice — you find what works for you and the rest be damned.
I arrive at my best fight scenes through a mix of spur-of-the-moment inspiration and obsessive planning. The former cannot be quantified. It just happens, usually in the heat of the writing moment. A thought crops up, something resonates, a memory of something read bubbles to the surface and . . . BOOM! Art happens. The planning, however . . . the planning and execution of a good fight scene can be distilled into ten tips.
Tip #1: Know your genre.
Know the conventions of the genre you’re writing in. Physical conflict is handled differently in cozy mysteries than it is in blood-and-thunder historical epics. Ms. Marple is no Richard Sharpe, and vice versa. Knowing the genre is how you gauge what readers will expect. So read widely in your genre; annotate those writers who impress you with their violent scenes. Look at why they work — the language, the pacing, the imagery. Make notes and keep those notes handy.
Tip #2: Know your characters.
Characters react to violence differently. I have two characters in my upcoming book which exemplify this. One comes from a culture steeped in violence; he’s good at it and revels in it. The other is the opposite. At one point in the story, their roles are reversed. The violent character must remain passive while the passive character must step to the fore and deal out violence to save them both. That juxtaposition made for a good fight scene. So, know your story people. Conan of Cimmeria, Frodo Baggins, and Raistlin Majere all react differently to violence.
Tip #3: Know your world.
A fight in a setting charged with magic or super-science will be much different than in a world like our own. If your characters can punch through steel or marshal the forces of darkness into a lance, their fight will have a different tone, a different tenor. It will affect the stakes if your character has been dipped in the River Styx and is generally immune to blade and blow. Thus, if your world allows for an Achilles or a Hulk, the purpose of the fight will be different than living or dying — it won’t be so much about base human survival. Remember: there is no drama if your character cannot be hurt.
Tip #4: Do your research.
Familiarize yourself with the equipment. Don’t know how much a battle-ready sword weighs, or how it’s balanced? Find someone who does and ask them. Better yet, see if you can hold the weapon in question. Same goes with armor, shields, helmets. Read first-hand accounts of people who fought in such equipment. Make notes on vision, hearing, where the armor rubs, the sounds that come from two bodies straining to end the others life. Make a TON of notes, but only include what’s relevant to the character in your scene. In fact, where writing as a whole is concerned, it’s always best to know far more as the author than what you’ll ever use in your narrative.
Tip #5: Set your stakes.
Before you ever sit down to write your fight scene, you should know the stakes, what’s at risk, and the outcome. Why does the fight occur? Who benefits? Who has the most to lose? What does it mean for my protagonist? My antagonist? How does it further my plot? No fight should ever exist in a vacuum, or simply for its own sake. Always use the stakes of the fight to advance your story. Here’s a very well-known example: in the Iliad, Patroclus’ fight and loss to Hector led to Achilles’ return to the war, his rage rekindled; who benefited? In the short-term, the Trojans, but ultimately the Greeks, who rode the coattails of Achilles’ grief to victory.
Tip #6: Choreograph the fight.
Even if you’re not going into great detail in your narrative, as the author you still need to know the fight in great detail. Methods vary from writer to writer. For myself, I’ll either act it out and make notes, use miniature figures to sketch it out, or ask friends to act it out for me. Since I know the outcome, the stakes, my world and my characters, and have a sense of the physics of the scene, seeing it done in slow motion by friends helps solidify some of the particulars. “Character A could move there because he’d be in reach of character B’s sword, and have his back to him” or “I can’t strike like that and then block an incoming blade in time” or “If I move like that, I won’t be able to see character B coming at me”. Some of this I can now do in my head, but I have been known to borrow a moment of my wife’s time so I might put the hilt of a seax in her hand with the admonition, “try to hit me like this!”
Tip #7: Write.
There comes a time when all the pre-planning and thinking must be put to use. A time to sit, butt-in-chair, and put fingers to keyboard. That time is now. Write out your scene. Go ahead, I’ll work on mine while we wait . . .
And suddenly, the wolves surged together. Étaín looked on, transfixed; she expected to see Hrolf’s head bouncing over to land at her feet, but the old Dane matched Grimnir stroke for stroke. Sword rasped on seax. Breath whuffed. Feet stamped. Whirl and parry, strike and lunge. It was like watching two dancers who were masters of their art.
Tip #8: Use language like music.
You know how, in the movies, a really good action sequence is made better by the music? I mean, could you imagine the car chase in The Bourne Identity without Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready, Steady, Go”? Yeah, me neither. Language is the writer’s stock in trade, but it’s also the means by which you control the pacing of a fight scene. Active verbs, short sentences, fragments — these can give the reader the impression of rapid movement. Longer or more densely-worded sentences can stretch out this impression, create a lull in the reader’s mind. Like music, use the language to help guide the reader into the heart of the scene.
Tip #9: Are you going to talk or fight?
A pet-peeve of mine: dialogue in the middle of a fight. Long, grand soliloquies on the nature of violence or the inevitable consequence of killing one’s enemy might make for good writing, but during a fight they’re the most annoying things I come across. Either get it out of your system before the blades start to whicker or wait till they’re done. But in the middle of the fight? That’s just a dick move, man . . .
Tip #10: Think big.
These tips can easily be used for a fight between two or three characters. But, they also apply to a fight with thousands on each side. The scale doesn’t really matter, you see. Stick to the basic ideas presented here: know your genre, characters, and setting; do your research and set your stakes. The choreography will be much more grand (I use markers and maps to plot out large scale battles), but you will ultimately write it just the same — though large set-piece battles work best if you show the whole at first, then narrow your focus to a couple of characters.
If you want to learn how to write fight scenes like a master, you really need to read and absorb the works of writers like Bernard Cornwell, Tim Willocks, Christian Cameron, Ben Kane, and Giles Kristian. Go back to the old masters, too, and study the fight scenes penned by Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber or Poul Anderson. You can’t go wrong, there.