Fight scenes are some of the hardest things to write. I think that there are two main reasons for this. First, we often don’t really know how fights work (How many real brawls or cavalry skirmishes have you been in? Go ahead, count them up), either in general (because we are relatively peaceful people) or in particular (because which of us really knows the details of how a sea battle between the Egyptians and the Carthaginians would go?).
Second, if we do know how a certain kind of fight would work, we find that describing a real fight in writing results in something incredibly boring. You wouldn’t think it, would you? I’ll give you two quick examples. These aren’t in nice flowing prose, but you should get the idea.
Real Western Gun Battle
Gunman #1 *shouts something from his position behind a stand of mesquite which Gunman #2 can’t hear*
Gunman #2: Raaarr! *shoots and misses from his spot in a shallow ditch*
Gunman #1 *shoots twice and misses*
Gunman #2 *gun misfires*
(Wait several minutes while both men frantically reload their guns.)
Gunman #2 *shouts something impolite, successfully shoots mesquite bush*
Gunman #1 *shoots and misses*
(After about three hours of occasional shooting, Gunman #1 realizes that he is running low on ammunition. He begins to creep away from his mesquite bush. Fifteen minutes later, Gunman #2 becomes suspicious of the fact that Gunman #1 isn’t shooting any more. He begins creeping toward the mesquite bush. Ten minutes later, Gunman #2 realizes that Gunman #1 isn’t behind the bush anymore. He now must decide whether Gunman #1 has run off, in which case it is safe to stand up, or whether his opponent has just moved and is waiting for him to stand up so that he can be more easily shot. Meanwhile, Gunman #1 is hiking down an arroyo, looking for his horse, which was spooked by all the shooting.)
Real Medieval Sword Fight
Knight #1 *attacks with sword; attack is blocked*
Knight #2 *steps back*
Knight #1 *attacks, is blocked*
Knight #2 *attacks, blade glances off Knight #1’s armor*
Knight #1 *shoves Knight #2 with shield*
Knight #2 *attacks, too weakly to do damage*
(repeat sequence ad nauseum)
The point is, real fights contain long stretches of repetitive, ineffective, and not very interesting actions. If you are writing a comedy, you may be able to use this circumstance to good effect (read some of Gerald Morris’ Knights’ Tales or Squire’s Tale books), but if not, you will probably not want to write action scenes which reflect the sheer exhausting tedium of most fights.
What are some things you can do to make your fight scenes more interesting?
- Set the action in an interesting and well-described setting, with which your characters can interact during the fight.
- Choose less-standard weapons for some of your fighters. Consider the differences between the ways different weapons are used.
- Give each of your fighters a distinctive fighting style and fighting strategy. What weapon or weapon combination to they prefer? If they fight unarmed, are they boxers, wrestlers, karate masters? Are they aggressive or defensive? Do they prefer to keep enemies at a distance or to get in close? Are they willing to kill an opponent, or not? Once you decide on a fighter’s strategy, let them keep fighting that way even when it’s not the wisest strategy they could use. Fighting can be part of your characters’ character development!
- If a fighter is wounded, it should affect the way that he fights. (I know, this seems obvious.)
- Consider having your character fight multiple opponents. This is usually more interesting.
- If you are writing about a large-scale battle, consider modelling it on a real battle. Some scifi authors transpose old cavalry battles to space, with good effect!
- Learn how real fights work. If you are interested in pre-modern warfare (before one-person guns), find a local Society of Creative Anachronism or Dagorhir chapter to fight with. Civil War Reenactment and other reenactment groups can also be a big help. There is no substitute for actually swinging a broadsword. (Also, it’s fun!) If you are interested in unarmed fighting, try boxing, wrestling, karate, what have you (or make friends with people who fight this way).
- Learn about arms and armor. There are many weapons and styles of fighting which are specific to particular regions and times. Even if you’re writing fantasy set in your own world, real arms and armor can be inspiring. Think through the metallurgy of your world, as this will determine what kinds of metal weapons your characters can make. Some metals won’t hold an edge, for example, or can’t be beaten too thin.