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Combat. How do you handle it?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Chaingun Samurai, Oct 17, 2019.

  1. Chaingun Samurai

    Chaingun Samurai Dreamer

    In almost any book of the fantasy or sci-fi genre, there's gonna be a fight. It's pretty much inevitable.
    But how much is too much?
    And what I mean by that is, when does the descriptive go from thrilling to ponderous?
    Do you describe it blow by blow?
    Do you glaze over it vaguely?
    Or do you do a little of both, depending on the scene and the characters involved?
  2. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I realized many years ago that I actually don't care for fight scenes. I think I was watching the third Lord of the Rings movie and was fast forwarding through most of the big battle scenes, and I soon found myself flipping over pages with big battle scenes in several books.
    Fighting is boring. I really don't care about people twirling swords and hacking at faceless minions left and right, or hammering away at the big villain for pages. Because effectively nothing happens. The best parts about almost all scenes are the moments that escalate into a fight, and the moments where the protagonists have to deal with the aftermath of who got killed and injured. In a great number of fight scenes, the stuff in the middle is just padding.
    Occasionally there are good action scenes. Those are scenes in which the characters actually encounter obstacles that are relevant to the plot and have to find ways to overcome them. Every fight scene needs to be a story, it can't just be a choreography.
  3. chrispenycate

    chrispenycate Sage

    Individual combat, or extremely small numbers, I simply live behind the eyes and reflexes of one, chosen fighter (probably one who survives, but that's not essential - except for him/her). with dozens or hundreds, I've never managed an all-enveloping experience - you'll need someone else's technique. And for thousands, you're forced to take a step back from the battle and include the environs, geography, weather, the psycology - it's well nigh impossible to transmit the information from the leader's POV unless he's standing on a hill top half a mile away, with confused reports failing to clarify the situation, and the chaos filtered through distance,
    Obviously, the technology of the hostility is going to give a difference in information transfer - land warfare with cavalry has not the same limitations as space warfare, or air warfare with airships or dragons, or naval disagreements. But essentially it is the characters, heroes or poltroons, berserkers or schemers - not that many readers will have stood up to attackers with a pole-arm, but everyone's been afraid, or jubilant at some point in their life, and that the narrator can invoke.
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Fight scenes are hard. They don't come as easily in writing as they do in visuals. As an experiment to demonstrate that, I googled the script for a memorable fight scene. This is how the hallway fight scene is described in an "unofficial" script for the Daredevil episode "Cut Man." Matt, or Daredevil, takes down a ton of mobsters barehanded in a single three-minute camera shot that people have described as groundbreaking choreography.

    Uhh, you'd never know it from the written description.

    I'm sure some of us could describe the scene better than that. But I mean, could any of us really do the scene justice in writing? I will bet money against it. But give it a try, here's the original - try watching at x2 playback speed.

    That doesn't mean we need to forfeit on action scenes. But we need a different model for how we write them. How much descriptive action is too much? How many fast-forward phrases, like "He fought them off," are appropriate and how many are just dodging the scene? How much do we balance chaos versus clarity and how do we make "he threw a seventh punch" somehow relevant for the character's development?

    Personally I consider action scenes to be one of my strong points as a writer. And I think most of the advice people give about dealing with actions scenes is aimed to push them down because they're often written so badly. And as I think the Daredevil scene points out, there's a point to that advice.

    But don't take it too far.

    Action scenes are something that writing does poorly but fantasy does well. You have to figure out the challenges in using these scenes or pull back from one of the big strengths of the genre we're writing in.

    I've been reviewing a couple of my own action scenes. I'll see if I can put together better thoughts on it if I get the chance.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2019
    blondie.k likes this.
  5. RoseScript

    RoseScript Dreamer

    I'm no expert on writing fight scenes, but I am a reader of many books with action scenes. Personally, I prefer reading scenes with more showing then telling. So explaining to readers how it's happening is wonderful, but making them overly detailed takes away from the story.
    When your battle scenes are about a 1V1 battle, I want to know what happens, although if it's a huge fight, It would just be more interesting to include only the vital parts.

    I also strongly agree with this. ^
    The before and after are so climatic, and important, you get to see much more about the characters themselves.
  6. Ban

    Ban Sir Laserface Article Team

    I like my fights to have either a very long build-up, or barely any build-up at all, and once the fight has started, I want it to be over quickly.

    There's a time and place for beautiful choreography, which can be very well done in Epic SFF for example, but for my own work (horror, noir... food travelogues) I want fights to feel real. In practice that means snappy, brutal, clumsy and oftentimes one-sided scenes. I describe these short exchanges blow by blow, with a healthy mixture of my usual poetic embellishments.
  7. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    I’m of the opinion that fight scenes are a lot like chase scenes in movies: they grow long in the tooth pretty quick. But, much depends on the support system around it. So, the annoying answer I would give is that I write as long as i feel they need to be, and not longer, heh heh.
  8. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Minstrel

    A big factor is going more than just into a play by play. You still need to build the tension in the combat. Make it visceral, so you can feel the sweat getting into your eyes. You may not need a lot of detail with each movement, or get overly specific, as long as the reader is drawn into it. Some writers do this pretty well. Things like wounds, bleeding, fatigue, desperation, fear. I guess it helps having seen a lot first hand between competing in MMA and being a Marine combat vet. I tend to think from my owns experiences to draw on. The big this is it needs to be edited to keep interesting and well paced, with tension building and releasing. Or else it just becomes a boring description of what is happening.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I don't handle combat in any general sense because there are just too many ways in which fighting can happen. It can be a shoving match, a bar fight, ambush, set-piece battle between armies, duel, it goes on and on. Each sort of engagement has its own dynamics, but one constant is the character. The scene isn't about tactics or techniques, it's about the character whose scene it is. I have two models that are always in my mind when it comes to fights: Tolstoy and Hammett.

    In War and Peace Tolstoy does a wonderful job of laying out the strategy, the positions of the armies, and thoughts of the generals. But when it comes to the fighting, we get Andre and Pierre. Tolstoy takes us down into the confusion, the sudden shifts of tempo, the moments of bravery and bewilderment. I've never encountered a more intimate portrayal, though a few of Ambrose Bierce's short stories come close.

    Then there's Dashiel Hammett's work, especially The Glass Key and Red Harvest. Brutally violent without being gory. He manages this by (again) bringing us close to the character, and lingering not on punch and counterpunch so much as on the character's reactions to the moment. It's brilliantly underwritten.

    This is an area where the advice about read, read, read becomes useful because it's specific. Find some combat scenes that move you. Multiple authors, because they'll handle it differently. Then study those scenes. How much dialogue? How do they describe blow by blow? What else are they doing? What work is each sentence doing? Also, what is the author going for? It might be the horror of combat, it might be to describe heroism or cowardice, it might be to show how arbitrary are events on the battlefield. It's not like every combat scene is trying to accomplish the same thing.

    Oh dang, I almost forgot another great one. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer. That opening scene on the beach is seared into my memory, but also one of the last scenes, with the lieutenant.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  10. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Yeah, I can see where reading others would help with this specifically. War and Peace is an excellent choice because of the variety of ways Tolstoy handled it... at least as far as my brain recalls... It’s been a while.

    What I shoot for is a blend of blow-by-blow combat immersed in the emotion of the moment. Straight up “Ho, Haha, Guard, Turn, Perry, Dodge, Spin, Ha, Thrust!” works best for Daffy Duck, heh heh.

    Man, that’s one of my favorite cartoons ever... with his buck and a quarter staff.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2019
  11. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

    My rule of thumb:

    one second

    two seconds

    three seconds


    After three seconds. barring something unusual, a serious fight will be done with - one combatant or the other will be dead, hurting real bad, or running like blazes. My writing reflects this: a few blows, parries, and dodges, and the fight is done with.

    Second rule of thumb is to use short declarative sentences in writing fight scenes - skip the long descriptions and speeches, that just gets in the way of the action.

    Third rule of thumb is the fight has to serve the story. Too much fighting gets boring after awhile. (this is one of my bigger gripes with a lot of fantasy novels)

    Last, combat is damn tough on the body. Somebody who's been in a lot of scrapes is going to be hurting in a lot of places. Even if they still retail all their limbs and digits, well that still leaves lingering effects from concussions, broken bones, and muscle damage. (another gripe about many stories these days - characters take incredible amounts of damage in a fight, and are hale and hearty and ready for another battle three weeks later - if that.)
    Svrtnsse likes this.
  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Reality doesn’t actually bear out the timing. Fights can be damned near instant, or they can go on a long time. Like everything, it depends. I’ve witnessed a quality street fight (mostly unarmed, one broken bottle) that went a couple minutes before its conclusion, and that was serious shit. The blow by blow would’ve been impressive if I wasn’t worried about my own health at the time, LOL. TKD style fighter versus more a boxer/brawler. While not to the death, it was to the major pain. Real fights with real death make combatants slow things down and study their enemy in many cases. Historical rapier accounts demonstrate this. Viking one on one, same. You start throwing in heavy armor and skilled fighters? It can take a while to kill someone.
  13. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    For my fight scenes it depends on who is involved and the significance of the outcome. If it's main characters vs underlings I only go into details of blows and parries if there is an significant outcome that changes the path of the story. When the main characters are against the main villains I write the start of the interaction, some of the strikes to give a sense of how long the fight is taking and all the moves that lead directly to injury or defeat.
  14. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I mean, MMA matches go for three rounds at five minutes each. Historical boxing matches used to go much, much longer. The idea that a "realistic" action scene needs to be quick really presumes a one-on-one situation with deadly weapons and no armor or concealment. In warfare the action could go on for hours or even days. It's my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong) that there are accounts of two knights in full armor fighting each other for an hour.

    That's assuming strict realism, which isn't always necessary, and before we add magic.

    I don't buy this idea that action needs to be quick, at all. I view this habit among other writers as an opening for somebody to come in and wow everybody by doing written action better, instead of skipping through it or glossing over the details. Good action scenes are only hard because nobody wants to try them.
    Aldarion likes this.

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