Creating Convincing Combat
Creating a good fight scene is one of the most challenging aspects of the writer's craft. Here are techniques on how to give your readers the thrill they expect from a fight:
1. Give each fighter a compelling purpose and raise the stakes as high as possible. A heroine fighting for her life is more exciting than a heroine fighting for her purse, and a heroine fighting for her children's lives is more exciting still. If she fights for her purse, raise the stakes by making that purse important: it contains not only money, but the jackpot-winning lottery ticket, only photo of her abducted baby daughter, or evidence that her husband is innocent of the murder of which he stands accused. For her opponent, a street urchin, the stakes are also high: the money in the purse will buy food for his starving baby sister, or gang members are assessing his performance to decide whether to accept him.
2. Stack the odds against your protagonist: the more difficult the fight is for him, the more exciting it is for the reader. Give the opponent better weapons, greater strength, and other advantages.
3. Use a location which is either unusual (a wine cellar, a cowshed, an artist's studio) or dangerous (a rope bridge across a ravine, a sinking ship). [more on this below]
4. Use deep point of view: let the reader experience the fight the way the PoV character experiences it. Keep to the PoV's vision (only what's immediately before him) and convey his emotions (fury, fear, hope, triumph).
5. Hearing, more than the other senses, creates excitement, so describe noises, especially the sounds of weapons (pinging bullets, hissing arrows, clanking swords).
6. Create fast pace by using short paragraphs, short sentences and short words.
7. Verbs, more than other words, convey excitement: hack, slash, pierce, stab, race, jump, leap, drive, spin, punch, kick. Choose vivid verbs, and build your sentences around them.
8. Avoid blow-by-blow accounts: these soon get boring. Instead, show only the first few moves, as well as the decisive final ones, and for everything in between, focus on the direction of the fight ('Fired with new courage, she kicked and punched.' 'He drove her closer and closer to the cliff').
9. In a long fight scene, let something unexpected happen (the hero loses his weapon and is forced to fight on with his bare hands, the hero's girlfriend comes to his aid, the villain's henchmen join the fight, the bridge collapses, building bursts into flames). This event should change the fight, but it should not decide it.
10. If your protagonist has a special skill - e.g. she's good at acrobatics, at oil painting or at basketball - let her use this skill in a surprising way in the fight.
11. Create a 'black moment' when all seems lost. Then the protagonist recalls his purpose, rallies his courage, and fights on to win.
12. If the protagonist wins the fight, it must be from his own efforts, not because of a stroke of luck, divine intervention or outside interference. Other people may help, but they must not decide the outcome.
The writer's secret weapon: location
To make a fight scene interesting, place it in an unusual venue. What's the quirkiest possible location in your novel?
How about a sauna, a laundrette, a playground, a morgue, a potter's workshop, a lady's boudoir, a cow shed, a minaret, a sculpture gallery, a stalactite cave, a theatre's prop store room, a sewage tunnel or a wine cellar?
What features are there that the fighters can jump on, leap across, climb up, swing from, duck under? What items can they topple or toss? The more creatively you use the space, the more entertaining the scene becomes.
Staircases work well because the fighters can stand on the steps, they can run or leap, they can stumble, fall or tumble, and maybe slide down the banister. They can also use the stairs to move from one location to another, which is useful in prolonged entertaining scenes. To make your fight scene stand out, make the stairs unusual in some way. Perhaps they've been freshly washed and are still slippery, or maybe they are so dilapidated that some boards are missing.
In a long fight scene, the fight can move right across the terrain. This adds variety. Try to arrange it so the climax of the fight happens in the most dangerous place - at the edge of the cliff, at the top of the tower, on the narrow crumbling wall.
The terrain also helps to make your fight scene realistic. As soon as you mention what kind of ground the combatants are fighting on, the scene gains authentic flavour. What's the ground like: Persian rugs? Concrete? Lawn? Uneven planks of splintered wood? Hard, firm, soft, squishy, muddy, wet, slippery, wobbling, cluttered, sloping? I suggest mentioning the ground twice: once to show how it feels underfoot, and once to show how it affects the fight. Perhaps your heroine slips on the wet asphalt, or stumbles across the edge of a rug.
To keep your fight scene plausible, consider how large the space is. How much room do the combatants have to fight? How high is the ceiling? What obstacles restrict the space?
For example: The hero is a warrior, used to swinging his sword in a high arc. Now he must fight indoors, where the ceiling is too low to raise the sword overhead. How will he cope?
Most staircases are too narrow for big sword swings, which can add interesting difficulties. In medieval castles, spiral staircases were almost always built so they favoured right-handed defenders. The person coming down had room to swing the sword-arm, while the person coming up had not. This makes an interesting challenge for the hero fighting his way up, or for a left-handed defender.
Spatial restrictions make the fight scene authentic, plausible and interesting.
Show the location before the fight
During the fast action of the fight, there's no room for describing the setting. This can be confusing for the reader. To help the reader understand the location, show it in advance. If the plot allows it, place an earlier scene in the same venue. Alternatively, let your point-of-view character check out the terrain immediately before the fight starts.
Rayne Hall has published more than forty books under different pen names with different publishers in different genres, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Recent books include Storm Dancer (dark epic fantasy novel), 13 British Horror Stories, Six Scary Tales Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5(creepy horror stories), Thirty Scary Tales, Six Historical Tales Vol. 1 and 2 (short stories), Six Quirky Tales (humorous fantasy stories), The Colour of Dishonour: Stories from the Storm Dancer World, Writing Fight Scenes, The World-Loss Diet, Writing About Villains, Writing About Magic and Writing Scary Scenes (practical guides for authors).
She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing. Currently, she edits the Ten Tales series of multi-author short story anthologies: Bites: Ten Tales of Vampires, Haunted: Ten Tales of Ghosts, Scared: Ten Tales of Horror, Cutlass: Ten Tales of Pirates, Beltane: Ten Tales of Witchcraft, Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies, Seers: Ten Tales of Clairvoyance and more.
Wow! As someone who has been trained in over 25 different fighting arts, I take my hat off to Rayne. Her tips are right on the nail. Thank you, Rayne, for sharing your expertise with us today.
And there's more! Rayne has collected many more practical tips for writers in a series of books also available on Amazon. This is the one about Writing Fight Scenes:
Eric @ www.ericjgates.com