Writing Fighting

I originally posted this on my blog, The Gist, several months back, but I thought it might be of interest to you Ecstatic Days readers, too, and I wanted to chip in over here while I could.

For a week or so, I plugged the “ask me anything” feature on my tumblelog, hoping to get some fodder for blog posts. The last question to come in was this one: “Any tips on writing fight scenes in fiction?”

Tips I don’t know, but I have some personal tastes that I try to serve when I write action. The thing about my answer, though, is that it depends greatly on just what I’m trying to accomplish with the fight scene. Ideally, a writer has several voices or styles at her disposal when it comes to writing action, so that a single writer can offer up this:

She stabbed. Blood rushed out. A scream.

or this:

She lashed out with her sword in both hands, the blade finding flesh, finding blood. He answered the blow with a gurgled cry.

or this:

She swung her sword in a wide arc, telegraphing one move, but halted her swing midway and leaned into a surprise thrust. The brutish maneuver pushed through his elegant, stale defense. Her sword-point pierced tunic and skin and sent him reeling back. He cried out in equal parts pain and surprise and tumbled onto his rump and palms.

When it comes to the language of a fight, I think clarity is probably key (confusion being one of the cardinal sins of storytelling). After clarity comes rhythm and detail, which make a fight readable and tangible. Each of those elements is a spectrum, though, and how far you turn each dial is an authorial judgment call.

Clarity’s essential for simply getting through a fight scene without losing the reader, but you get to choose what the text is clear about. Is it the precise action undertaken? Is it the experience of striking or being struck? Is it the stakes of the fight and how they’re drawing close or slipping away?

Consider this passage…

Her swing, parried. Her thrust, deflected. Her guard, weakening. The tip of her sword waggled as her muscles grew weary. His every attack ground her further down.

…versus this one…

Her moves were exquisite performances of the Telegratze style — controlled little swings punctuated by twisting jabs. Her grip on the sword was delicate, light. Her wrist was the joint where the sword extended from her arm, her every move natural, almost casual. She talked with her hands and had something dangerous to say.

Cheesy, sure, but stay with me. One of those is more concerned with the experience of the combatant, the other is trying to convey more about the character of the combatant than the actions of the fight itself.

The first uses rhythm to get the sense of back-and-forth action, the second uses calmer, withdrawn language to step back and appreciate form. The first is worried about whether or not the fight will be won, while the second can hardly be bothered — it’s focus is on style. This has the additional effect of diffusing the stakes of the fight; we’re concerned more with watching form than tracking the approach of victory or defeat.

That choice of focus helps tell the reader what the fight is about.

Unless, of course, you use that focus to set up a nasty twist, perhaps by following that last example with something that contrasts it, like a dose of vicious violence (still in that florid style):

He responded with a brash example of Hugrutzu form, chopping at her like she was wood for the pile. He smashed her jab aside. He nicked her blade. He cracked her cupped handguard. He hewed her hand at the wrist. A curl of blood formed a gruesome letter S on the floor around her feet.

We’re still in that detached voice, still concerned with describing how these characters fight more than each individual blow, but the blows are implied in there. I tried to get a simple rhythm going to support that feeling of brutish, repetitive strikes, and I added in the detail of the bloody S to underline that previous attack — to make it feel real and verify that something bad had just happened. Still, simple language, trying to keep the reader’s attention on the actions rather than the description of the action.

Just to do it, here’s an alternate end to that fight, using different language to favor a different combatant:

He swung overhand, once and again, with obvious Hugrutzu-style attacks, as if he were chopping at wood. But she was too quick. Her weight shifting from foot to foot, she dodged this way and that, her sword-point always up, her every move ending in an exemplary pose. She ducked a chop and sliced across his underarm. She stepped outside his reach, then lunged for his belly. She spun to one side, stalled her own move with a flex of her legs, and spun back, passing her sword over his axe to pierce him, overhand, between the collarbones. As he died, she bowed.

All of this doesn’t even use line-breaks to control pacing, and they’re a vital tool, too, especially when tracking multiple combatants and streamlining action. I chose not to break up that passage because I didn’t want it to feel segmented. If I was going for a more chaotic struggle, though, I might:

Standish grabbed his own blade midway at met Donovan’s strike with the flat of his sword.

Donovan dragged his blade back to a high guard. Swung again.

Standish leaned back, let Donovan follow that swing forward. Grabbed Donovan’s crossbar, put a leg in front of Donovan’s foot, and pulled.

Standish heaved Donovan, struggling, flipping him over Standish’s steadied leg. Slammed him to the ground on his back.

Standish hoisted his sword  and plunged the blade toward Donovan’s breastplate. A telltale metal sound: the blade glancing away. The tip wedged between floorboards. “Fuck!”

Donovan rolled away, found his feet, went back to the high guard.

Standish pried his sword free, came up with a low guard.

Both exhaled and attacked.

It’s a little chaotic, by design. (Still, I’d tighten it on a second draft.) The point, here, being that it doesn’t matter exactly which legs are where. It matters that Standish gets Donovan on his back. The exact mechanics of the flip can be sussed out or imagined by the reader to the extent that his imagination requires — the blanks are intentionally left blank for him.

This is just an hour’s idle musing on the subject. I haven’t talked about staging or mapping at all here, and I’ve barely touched on visual cues versus sensations. I didn’t even tell you how wary I get around descriptions of pain (so often too grandiose or stale, those pangs and stings).

Whole books could be written about this, and have been. The best books on the subject, though, aren’t writing guides but novels. See how other writers tackle the issue. Study what they choose to show and what they leave out. Examine the number of words they spend lopping off heads. Consider how they balance visuals against sensations. Glean.

Curious to see what other sorts of tips were out there, I put the question to my Twitter followers and Facebook friends and got a slew of great (and somewhat overlapping) responses back:

@filamena: [I] try to avoid ‘compound actions.’ “He lifted his sword and swung at her while shifting his weight to avoid her return blow.”

Mer_Blackwood: Writing action: Reread. If you can’t visualize what happened from your description, you can bet the reader won’t.

jachilli: A one-sentence paragraph is okay, and helps control pacing and flow.

Starshadw: Guns. Explosions. Blood. Short sentences, to make the reader read faster.

Starshadw: You can replace guns and explosions with blades and beheadings, if that’s more to your taste.

Narenfel: Heightened senses (smell/sound), lowered external awareness. The “I” bubble contracts.

jefftidball: Reduce sentence length and complexity (compared to other scenes) to make the reading experience similar to the viewing experience.

rrhodeswriter: Keep it moving. Avoid excess description, esp. of the more improbable parts. See it in your head and track how long things take.

ChuckWendig: With action, I like short sentences and tight paragraphs and hard words.

mforbeck: Shoot first. Ask questions later.

mforbeck: Seriously, choreograph it in your head or on paper so it’s understandable, like a great film fight. And make the stakes clear.

barsoomcore: read more Robert E. Howard, Elmore Leonard, and Steven Brust.

gmskarka: Look to Robert E. Howard and Ian Fleming for examples of pacing.

falconesse: Don’t be afraid to kick your heroes’ asses.

Dan Hindmarch: When in doubt, see Ellroy, James. Or Leonard, Elmore. (And when somebody gets around to naming their boy Elmore Ellroy, he’s gonna be a hell of a writer too.)

Joseph M McDermott: Action scenes can be studied and mastered via reading sex scenes, and vice versa. They share a similar physicality, similar mechanical concerns, and a heightened emotional state that needs be communicated minus the funny (unless funny is the stated goal…).

This question also brought to mind a couple of other posts on the subject of action and language:

Writer of page and screen, John August, wrote a great post with a nice long excerpt from Michael Mann’s script for Heat, which is good reading for anyone trying to tackle a sprawling, unflinching fight scene, whether you’re after prose or stage directions or something else. Mann’s script strips away what doesn’t matter.

I’m also reminded of the different ways combat is described in this Gameplaywright post of mine comparing Tolkien to Brian Wood. I really dig the telling detail of broken rings of mail arcing through the air, highlighted in that post.

If this has been of value to you, do tell. I could write more posts like this one.

Update: To answer the question you didn’t ask, this is all swordplay because I’ve been writing a bit of genre fiction lately, and, more likely, because I just recently saw Reclaiming the Blade, so I have swords stuck in my brain. Yes, in my brain.

6 comments on “Writing Fighting

  1. rosanne says:

    One of the best battle scenes I’ve read is in Maria McCann’s novel, As Meat Loves Salt, when her character takes part in the battle of Naseby in the English Civil War. It focuses on emotions and the character’s subjective experience as much as the action.

  2. Drax says:

    The popular mystery writer John D. Macdonald wrote blistering fight scenes…

  3. Different books call for diff’t kinds of fight scenes. Tho you danced around it a bit, the language you use in a fight scene has a lot to do with the POV you’re writing from, too, and the tone of the book. When I’m writing tight third person POV on an illiterate bounty hunter, it’s more likely going to come out in the “Thrust. Bleed out. Turn. Parry. Thrust.” style. Whereas when I’m writing about somebody with a more classical education who thinks in longer sentences, the fight scenes are going to come out more exact and stylized. Education, background, voice, all play a role.

    So it’s not just about clarity, focus, twist, set up – it’s also a lot about voice, tone, and character.

  4. Marty Stephenson says:

    Robert E. Howard (no matter what you think of his stuff) rocked fight scenes.

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