My triumphant return commences today. I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long, but between my husband’s health and my health we had the snot kicked out of us the last week. The good news is my husband is recovering, and I’m just waiting for the weather to break so I can return to my normal activities.
A friend recently messaged me about writing a combat scene. She had three good guys and three bad guys all involved in a melee and was struggling with figuring out how to make it make sense. Writing a large combat scene is challenging, and writers often stumble with combat in general, so I thought it prudent to address the issue.
Let’s start with the basics of writing combat, shall we? This is a cross-genre reality, by the way. It doesn’t matter if your characters are using swords, fists, firearms, or futuristic laser weapons, these will apply.
1) Do not give a blow-by-blow.
I don’t need to know every single movement to understand what’s going on. Unless there’s a theatrical reason to show a specific aspect of a motion, don’t detail it. I’ll show you what I mean:
Jon lifted his hand, pulling it to his side and setting his weight before driving it into Paul’s face, stopping before he over-straightened his elbow so he didn’t hurt the joint.
Jon punched Paul in the face.
The difference between the two should be apparent. The first would work in, perhaps, a training scenario where the character is really analyzing every movement he’s making to study it. In that moment, the reader is focused on all those little details along with Jon. They’re part of the flow of narrative. In a real combat situation, however, we don’t stop to think about all those things. We just punch our enemy in the face. You can specify the location of the hit (the nose, the mouth, the gut, whatever) if it’s important, but don’t over-complicate each action. If you do it will lead to a thirty-second fight going on for fifteen pages, and the readers will have fallen asleep by then.
As a martial artist, I can tell you it’s tempting to give a full, rich description of every blow, but as a reader I know they won’t care about that unless you’re reaching a very specific segment of the population who enjoys that kind of thing. If those folks are your demographic then all the more power to you. In the real world (unlike the world of theatrical combat and cinema), fights are usually over in about thirty seconds for close quarters combat (knife, sword, open hand). And thirty seconds is actually a pretty long fight. Firearms confrontations can last longer with the addition of cover and movement, but at that point the emphasis is less on the shooting than it is on the hunting and tactics.
2) Focus on one set of combatants at a time.
Imagine you’re watching a wide-angle shot of field combat with no one as the “main character”. You just sit up in the clouds, watching a group skirmish. It’s chaotic, it’s hard to follow, and unless you’ve got the camera focused on a specific set of combatants you aren’t going to see a whole lot other than the general gist of the conflict. Much like with dialogue, if you have too many characters acting at once it becomes chaotic fast. If you have three good guys fighting three bad guys, and two sets of fighters are not the driving factors of the story—have them as background. You can comment that they are, in fact, fighting. You can even say when one of them wins or loses if it’s important. However, keep the camera on the main character(s). Whichever fight is the most important should be what’s on screen.
When you’re in a full melee, you can narrate things happening around the main character—and you should—but don’t lose your focus. To take an example from cinema, the photo below illustrates what I’m getting at. The medium is different, of course, but we should be doing the literary equivalent of this:
As you can see from this still shot of “The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies”, Bard (the man without the helmet whose face we see) is in the middle of a melee with a whole host of terrible, faceless orcs all dressed in almost the same armor. Visually, they did this to make sure he (the main character of this shot) stands out. You can have action happening all around the main character and their conflict, but their personal struggle should take center stage. We can see that there is other combat happening around and behind him, but he is the one our eyes are drawn to.
3) Do at least a cursory study of whatever art you’re portraying.
Yes, watching YouTube videos at 3am counts as cursory study. I cannot tell you how irksome it is to read a book where it is clear the author has never even held (or seen outside of cinematic use) the weapon their character is using. People forget to count the number of bullets their character’s gun carries until a crucial moment where they pull the trigger and click ! (As a side note, semi-automatics don’t do that!) While I by no means expect anyone to study and grow proficient in an art before writing about it, I recommend at least watching enough videos or reading enough information that you know these few things. If you have weapon-specific questions regarding firearms, swords, or open hand please feel free to drop me a line through a comment or send me an email. I’ll be happy to talk to you about it until you don’t want to hear about it anymore!
These quick studies are surprisingly important. Say I’m writing a medieval story, and I have no idea how crossbows work (as most people don’t), I might not realize that the crossbow heralded the end of the plate mail period because it rendered plate mail useless. Crossbows (which required far less training than a long bow) could kill a man wearing full plate armor from a long distance away. They were hated weapons because they revolutionized the playing field and gave an unwashed peasant the same killing power (or more) than a Lord. If you have a world where crossbow bolts are bouncing off plate mail, you’ll give every historian who knows the reality of that tidbit a twitch. I have similar reactions to unrealistic portrayal of most combat. It’s not personal, but when you know what it’s supposed to be, you have to try very, very hard to suspend your disbelief when someone is using it improperly.
4) Make sure you address the characters’ emotions during combat.
While, yes, your characters are swinging swords or firing pistols or what have you, those aren’t the only things happening in a fight. Their emotions are probably all over the place (unless they’re trained killers—then note that!) and their adrenaline is pumping. Chances are their hands might be shaking with the adrenaline rush, or they’ve got tunnel vision. You don’t need to spend a great deal of time on these things, but tossing them in here and there makes sense. It evokes feelings. In cinema we can see a character’s hands shake, their facial expressions, hear the tremor in their voice, but in literature we need to show those things to the reader. It’s an important part of a fight, so don’t forget it!
5) Keep your setting straight.
Wasn’t that table on the other side of the room? Wait, I don’t remember there being stairs here! Writers sometimes jumble up settings during a fight for the purpose of drama. Make sure you keep them consistent and mention important set pieces before they come into play. If your character is going to be thrown through a plate glass window make sure the reader knows there is one before the big moment because otherwise it will, to them, be a magically-appearing set piece, and those are a huge faux-pas.
What one of my editors at Insomnia Publishing, Joshua Quivey, suggests to authors is that they do a quick sketch of the environment. You can do this in any program resembling MS Paint or even on graph paper if you aren’t artistically inclined. For us nerds out t here, we’ll recognize it like a D&D map of the dungeon with the author knowing what goblins and kobolds lie around the next corner and the readers (adventurers!) creep along, hoping their torches stay lit and that the chest in the corner isn’t a mimic.