There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Tackling Fight Scenes January 19, 2013

Filed under: Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 7:00 am
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If you’re writing epic fantasy, odds are at some point your protagonist is going to have to fight. Whether they’re a sword wielding battle-scarred pro, or an inexperienced newcomer terrified of conflict – there are a few universal rules that can help.

1. Stakes

If your character is going to risk life and liberty there had better be a good reason for it. The greater the stakes, the more the character is going to risk. So although Bilbo may lament the loss of his handkerchief at the beginning of The Hobbit he is hardly going to face down a trio of trolls to save it. However if the lives of 13 others are at stake, and his survival outside the Shire depends on their release, he’s more likely to risk his life to save them.

Your character’s goal is never the fight itself. The fight is always a vehicle to achieving something else. (Freedom, recovering something, obtaining information, saving someone).

2. Tension

There should be moments when it looks like your protagonist has failed. There’s nothing worse in a fight scene than your hero walking it. The guards are dispatched without much effort, the key to the cell door is easy to find, and a fast horse waiting by the door whips them safely off into the night.

It’s always easy to up the ante – just think of what could go wrong and let that play out.

The guards are able to raise an alarm. The stronghold is holding a tournament so it’s not just everyday guards, but champion fighters now swarming the halls. The person being rescued isn’t there.  When they are located the only key to their cell was attached to the belt of the guard the hero just pushed out the window. A portcullis is lowered trapping them inside. And when they manage to fight their way to the wall – they see the horse and companions waiting outside have been grabbed too.

But because you’re clever, your hero finds an ingenious way to escape and free the companions at the same time.

When your protagonist escapes by the narrowest of margins, your reader will hopefully feel relief rather than disbelief.

3. Plausibility

It doesn’t matter how physically amazing your hero is, there is no way one person can defeat a whole army in hand-to-hand conflict. Know your characters skills and design a fight sequence that will work for them. In The Lord of the Rings the hobbits manage to avoid many fight scenes because they are small enough to crawl off unnoticed. However when Sam defeats Shelob he uses his small stature and her greater size to his advantage.

4. Focus on the Action

I love the dictionary definition of action:

The state or process of doing something.

Not planning, thinking, or talking about what’s going to happen. The actual doing.

Fight scenes are cause and effect. Someone throws a punch, you either get hit or you dodge it. If you get hit, you rally as fast as you can (even if you are wobbly or winded). If you dodge, you need to counter in some form. Your characters don’t have time to over think, so don’t do it when you’re writing either.

That’s not to say a fight scene is just a blow-by-blow account either, just that the character’s main focus is in the moment. They can feel despair as their face hits the dirt, because in that moment all they can see is the holy grail (the goal) slipping away from them. Just remember the opponent wants to end this fight fast too, so keep it moving.

5. Pace

Write fast. Use short sentences. Employ explosively active verbs; thrust, tackle, smash, mash, pummel, hammer, crush…

6. Recovery

Make sure the character feels the impact afterwards. Fighting always takes its toll – whether it’s in the form of injuries sustained, or counting the emotional cost of achieving the goal.

Fights are as unique as the opponents, and ultimately as the writer you are in control of the circumstances and the environment. The key is to get inside the head of your character and play to their strengths.

 By Raewyn Hewitt

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8 Responses to “Tackling Fight Scenes”

  1. kathils Says:

    I have to watch myself with #4. I sometimes have my characters going through an internal monologue in the midst of a fight. Sure, because you would have time to do that, right? Duh. Thanks to my Betas for beating that out of me. Great points.

    • Thanks. We’ve all done it! I personally think the fight scene from the Princess Bride has a lot to answer for – I’m always wanting to throw in witty reparte…

      • kathils Says:

        And I think it depends on the tone of your piece as well. A lighter piece could have the combatants chatting it up during a duel. For some of the more serious pieces, he who chatters turns to tatters. (Okay, I just made that up, I’ll admit, but it is kind of catchy.)

  2. You know what I’m struggling with? I’m struggling with action scenes that take a lot of words, yet you want it to feel breathless. I think I need to read some and try to crack that nut. Thanks for this write up.

    • I think they’re an art form that I’m still learning to master too. Writing fast tends to help me get some of that breathless feel. Because like the character you have to go on instinct.

  3. I’ve got some fight scenes I’m still trying to revise, so this post is really helpful! I’ll definitely be bookmarking it 🙂

  4. Susan F Says:

    Great points! #1 is really crucial, I think, and perhaps the easiest to overlook (my characters are fighting with sharp objects–isn’t that stakes enough??), and I love a good explosive verb. 😀


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