EN GUARD! TIPS FOR WRITING COMBAT
Creating good combat scenes can be one of the bigger challenges when writing- especially when writing fantasy. After all, how many of us have actually gone toe-to-toe with a three-headed serpent with only a sword and shield in hand to protect ourselves? Almost all fantasy readers expect some kind of battle scene in the course of the story, and rightly so. The unfortunate truth is that, be it sword or sorcery, if there are holes in the scene that defy logic, your credibility could be run through as quickly as your character.
Let us review a few aspects together that may be worthy of consideration:
First, different weapons and armor have different purposes
and should be used realistically, even in a fantasy world. I recently read a story in which a middle-aged man was lopping off the heads of his foes with a rapier sword. While this would certainly look cool in Hollywood (the all-time worst source for combat reference), it is simply impossible. If in doubt, study the weapon and look at its construction for hints on how it was intended to be used. A rapier is thin and light with a very sharp point and was meant primarily for thrusting
. A broadsword has an extra-long handle for two hands and features a broad blade ideal for chopping
limbs or taking down horses, but is too heavy to duel with. Meanwhile the Japanese katana is somewhere in the middle- lighter and thin and can be held with two hands. These are extremely sharp so as to slice
cleanly through an opponent. Thrusting, chopping, and slicing are all very different. And while we are talking about katanas, let’s take a detour and dispel the myth right now: yes, the blades were folded hundreds of times for added strength, but despite popular belief, they do
break, and quite easily if misused. Hitting one against a tree or stepping on it with your foot could snap it...like twig. Ah, that feels better. Moving on…
Whether it is piercing, chopping, or slicing, weapons have specific purposes and it follows that armor is no different. Looking at the broadsword example, knights needed to defend themselves against these powerhouses and thus wore heavy, thick, metal armor that sometimes weighed hundreds of pounds. They could hardly see or move, but boy were they protected. This stands in stark contrast to the Japanese samurai, who wore lighter armor constructed mostly of bamboo which is ideal for protecting against a razor-sharp blade being dragged across the torso and for moving quickly. But taking a thrust or the chop of an axe? Not so much.
Each and every weapon and armor type has strengths and weaknesses and there is not one type that fits the bill all the time. As my own martial arts instructor says, “There are no free rides”.
It would be wise when writing combat to take these components into consideration, especially the fact that all of these elements derive from the environment the character inhabits. Again with the examples above, it makes sense that mountainous medieval Europe, rich in ore, would develop heavy weapons and armor while forested and flat feudal Japan would take to lighter, wood-based gear. When choosing the weapons your characters will use or staging a fight scene, do the homework required to make it shine with authenticity!
So how does one write an action scene?
That’s a tough question because everyone will have different levels of understanding and interest. I could personally read the technicalities of an intricate fight scene all day long, but I know that when my wife comes to such a scene, she gets confused and zones out, losing interest even though she is engaged in the characters. It is a tough line to walk, but the trick is to find that balance while of course, considering your target audience. If your own training or imagination is allowed to run wild, you may muddle the reader with too many details but at the same time, being too generic and vague is boring. Consider this:
Leave the details to the imagination of the reader.
If I were trying
to write something terrifying in a book, my mind would conjure up spiders because spiders creep me out. However, the effect would be lost on someone that owns a pet tarantula. Thus it is always better to hint
at the terror, give powerful but general descriptions so that the reader is free to imagine their personal worst nightmare instead of mine. Fight scenes act the same way. Describe the general details with dynamic verbs, focusing on the interesting aspects of the fight and the feelings of the characters instead of detailing specific motions or techniques. Note the difference:
“Zack swung his sword toward the soldier’s head, which he parried with a cross-block, recoiling with a thrust to Zack’s stomach. Another swipe came soon after toward an opening near Zack’s arm but his quick reflexes swiped it aside just in time, allowing him to return another blow to the soldier’s neck, ending the conflict.”
“Zack swung his sword toward the soldier’s head as he charged forward. Together they danced around the stony room, exchanging desperate blows where they could. Zack’s quick reflexes soon got the upper hand and a surge of relief flowed through him as he connected a blow to the soldier’s neck, ending the conflict.”
The first passage was too loaded with specific details, making the reader work to follow while the second kept a quick pace and allowed the reader to fill in the gaps (‘danced around the stony room’) with their own colorful and heroic images. This brings me to one final point I would like to mention:
Make each fight about the characters.
The most exciting, well-written battle scene of all time would be pointless if we didn’t care about the characters involved. Combat is extremely dangerous, even
for the good guys. Although on some level you must preserve the protagonists so that the story can continue, they should always be affected, physically or emotionally, by each and every battle they are involved in. Don’t be afraid to have a beloved character lose a hand or an eye, get knocked out, or even die. If you consistently portray the realism of danger in battle, the reader will get anxious and emotionally involved each time a sword is drawn and just like a real conflict, will be worried one of their friends may fall at any moment.
Writing combat scenes can be an uphill battle, but it can also be extremely rewarding to both create and read. Research your weaponry and armor. Let the reader imagine their own version of the fight. Focus on character and keep the pace quick and you’ll be well on your way to victory.
What fight scenes have you read that stayed with you and why? What are some of your tips for writing combat? Sound off in the comments below and until next time, keep that pen moving!!