A good fight scene is difficult to write. For those of you struggling with this hallmark of the fantasy tradition (and Forgotten Realms novels in particular), I’ve sorted fight scene writers into three basic types, explored their symptoms, come up with diagnoses, and written up some advice that should help you cure your sword-swinging blues in no time.
Type: The Passivist
The Symptoms: Fight scenes scare you. There are so many people involved, and so many weapons, and you don’t know how to keep track of everyone, or what everyone is doing, and there’s so much pressure to make your fight scenes awesome but yours won’t be awesome, and in some books, the last battle takes up multiple chapters, and in some trilogies, the last battle takes up a whole book, and you are really the least aggressive, most nonviolent person you know, and you’ve never really understood the appeal of fight scenes (you tend to skip them in books), but you really need a fight scene because your character is not the least aggressive, most nonviolent person in the world, and because it fits the plot, and, and, and … You’re hyperventilating just thinking about it.
So when you write fight scenes, you have fantastic access to your character’s emotions. Unfortunately, you also end up writing “he swung his sword” an awful lot. And you still don’t get what people find cool about fight scenes.
Diagnosis: While emotions and character are the most important aspects of a fight scene, if your character’s fighting is repetitive or lacks description, the fight scene will read as though you don’t really care, and if you don’t really care, why should the reader? You need to find what it is you love when it comes to fight scenes, and then channel it.
Cure: A little research will go a long way for the Passivist. Watch some movies that are known for gorgeous fight choreography until you find something you like. In a fight scene, the way a character fights is really an extension of their emotions—it’s another way for characters to express themselves, much like dialogue.
What kind of weapon would your character wield, and why? Do they like to keep their distance, or get in close? Are they all aggression, or do they wait for their opponent to attack, and then counter them? Do they fight by the book, honorably, or are they street-taught, using the environment and whatever advantages they can get? Why do they fight? Is it for survival, for power, for fun, or to defend someone? What lines won’t they cross when fighting? Do they fight like the wind, fleet and darting, or like the earth, solid and immovable?
Fighting is simply another aspect of character, and as soon as you start thinking of it like that, writing a fight scene will be as easy (or as hard!) as writing dialogue!
Type: The Choreographer
The Symptoms: You, as an author, practice tae kwon do, Muay Thai, Kali, bat’leth fighting, or some other martial art. You have a passion for the martial arts, and it shines through in your writing, as you present some of the coolest moves you have ever seen, lovingly detailing each and every strike is so that not only could your fight scenes stand in for choreography, they could also teach a clever reader martial arts. In order to showcase the entire battle, your characters often pause to catch their breath and look around the rest of the battlefield, to see how their friends and enemies are doing. Readers will be sure to see the fight exactly as it occurs in your head, once they parse and apply all of your carefully considered descriptions.
Diagnosis: This is actually a case of micromanaging the reader’s experience. Even though you love the martial arts, and care a lot that you are able to show your reader exactly how awesome the fight scene really is, it helps to remember that the exact angle of the kick (in degrees) doesn’t actually help the reader get a clearer picture, and that stopping to see what every other character is doing really slows down the pace of the fight. Think of the difference of watching a turn-based strategy game, versus watching a movie. Which fight scene is a better experience? Remember, fight scenes are all about the breathless, fast pace. By bogging it down with the precision required to perform actual martial arts moves and the exact actions of every character involved, you take away from the reader’s experience.
Cure: Focus in on one character and stay in that character’s head. Then, paint the fight moves in broad, colorful strokes, using details like carefully set gems—sparingly, and to make a point. That way, they have more of an impact. Metaphors are particularly helpful here for conveying large amounts of sensory input in a very small amount of space. One of the benefits of staying in one character’s head is that you get to focus more on the character’s emotional experience of the fight. Use the moves your character does to display character—the level of brutality, duplicity, honesty, desperation, fear, or aggressiveness a character has—and then compliment them with character thoughts, reactions, and emotions.
Type: The Expert
The Symptoms: Much like the Choreographer, you practice some form of martial arts as well—likely one with specific terms and words in a different language, like fencing, karate, or jiu jitsu. In fact, you may have once been a Choreographer, before, in an attempt to shorten your fight scenes, you turned into the Expert. You have a deep and abiding respect for the martial arts and for those who practice it, and want to take advantage of your experience when writing. So you name-drop using all the proper terminology—words only an experienced martial artist would know. And so you carefully craft exquisite, exceedingly clever works of martial Art that only another practitioner could truly appreciate. And so the reader is sure to acknowledge that you know what you are talking about when it comes to fighting, and respect both you and your character’s abilities.
Diagnosis: Though on the surface, it seems similar to the Choreographer, the Expert is actually a case of telling rather than showing. You may be right that readers who also practice martial arts will be tickled to feel like insiders when they read your fight scenes, but that means you are alienating the majority of your readers. Remember, a fight scene should be sensory candy. While your fight scenes are no doubt fast-paced to one who speaks the language of martial arts, by littering it with technical terms, your reader is slowed to a crawl as they try to figure out what is going on, or worse, skip it—and the fight scene—entirely.
Cure: Remember the joy and wonder you felt when you watched that first fight scene in a movie? The one that got you interested in learning martial arts in the first place, before you knew an Ogoshi from a Kata Guruma? Try to capture that in your fight scenes. Show us why martial arts is cool. You can certainly make sure your fights make sense, and even make sure they are clever on a martial arts level, but if they can’t be easily described in a visual manner, I’d skip them. And remember, the emotion is more important than the blow-by-blow technical aspects of a fight—you want to focus on why your character is fighting, and what emotions they are feeling more than the actual moves.