I hate fight scenes!

For the last lifetime I have been trying to sort out the chaotic mess of a book that will be the basis of a series. It will follow on from The Green Woman, which is already written, polished and quite presentable. Angel Haven was going to be a single book, but like Topsy, it grew. The first job was to sort it out, split it, and make two books out of it. Easier said than done. I split it okay, and sorted out the first part. I even expanded the first part to make a reasonable YA length novel (63k). The second part though, is much harder.
The first volume sets the scene, the atmosphere, the new characters, the threat, the new baddies, the things that are going pear-shaped in paradise. In the second volume we get to the conflict. When your antagonists are Goths, conflict means fighting. And I hate writing fighting.

Goths
Goths

A writer whose skills in writing fight scenes I much admire is David Gemmell. He makes it sounds easy, all those uppercuts and nifty leg work. Swordplay has never seemed so effortless. Much as I would like to emulate him, I have a basic problem. Before we get to the ‘play’ part, we have to deal with the ‘sword’ bit. Fantasy novels are full of swords. Swords and bows and arrows. And horses. I tried to get rid of them, but in a rather makeshift utopia that scorns violence, there aren’t going to be too many surface-to-air missiles, or nuclear submarines to deal with the rampaging Goths. When you’re fighting characters out of Beowulf, you inevitably end up using good old swords, and bows and arrows. In a ‘green’ community nobody is going to reinvent the internal combustion engine, so you also end up using faithful old Dobbin.

Dobbin
Dobbin

So we have swords, bows and arrows, and horses, none of which I have any experience of whatsoever. Nor do I have any experience leading troops in the field. In order not to look foolish I am leaving a lot of the actual fighting to the imagination. While wriggling out of describing how you decapitate a Goth with a homemade sword riding a Dobbin, I am also wondering how many other writers get themselves into similar difficulties. Fight scenes are difficult to do well. How many times have I read the long drawn out ‘action’ scene of a sword swinging down with such descriptive, long-winded prose that a blind, three-legged sloth would have had time to avoid it? Or the other extreme where the skinny kid with a penknife nips into a breach in Goliath’s defence and bingo! Goliath’s dead.

Am I the only one to loathe and detest writing fight scenes? Does anybody else long to be able to sneak into their pre-industrial world an honest to goodness Kalashnikov to rub out the enemy at the pull of a trigger, or a nice, uncomplicated nuclear missile? Is there anybody who actually enjoys writing about sword fighting? David Gemmell obviously did.

Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

23 thoughts on “I hate fight scenes!”

  1. Hahaha, I have to say I’m with you on writing fight scenes! I love love love reading them (when they’re well done), but as fabulous as I can imagine it in my head, I have a hard time getting it all written down. Something I’ve done is a lot of research on weaponry and the like, just to make sure that I never turn a phrase incorrectly or have my characters do something that a real swordfighter (or martial artist, etc.) would never do. Sometimes I think that if the police ever had to look at my Google search history, they’d wonder why I googled “how long to die of a punctured lung” and things like that… 😉

    1. I felt like that when I was researching the process of decomposition in a hermetically sealed environment. Would a corpse smell, to be precise. Fighting, particularly sword fighting is a real pain to write. I don’t much like reading fight scenes either, unless they are quick and believable. Long fight scenes are so tedious!

  2. No, I don’t enjoy fight scenes either, but it’s not always necessary to describe the swordplay in detail, especially during a battle, when skill isn’t going to make a lot of difference. If you can do that (like Gemmell) fine, but the fight should always, first and foremost, be about the character’s emotional reaction to what’s going on. And, unless they’re an expert swordsbeing (avoiding being sexist or specieist) the fighter’s tactics in the heat of the fight are likely to be something along the lines of “Must stick pointy end in him before he sticks pointy end in me.”

    Of course, the easiest way to defeat Goths is to play cheerful music and cut them down while they run screaming.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that one. Failing nerve gas I could try a gramophone. Wind up of course. You’re right about the need to get away from the mechanics and into the emotions. Clunking swords about is just plain tedious, much more interesting to describe the fear, elation or whatever. After all, it’s much like a football match (to the uninitiated) it’s the result that matters not the tedium of the fouls and off-sides.

  3. I feel your pain. While I did ride and work with dobbins for many years and even was involved in fencing (epee and foil) in college, there is a huge difference between riding and fencing recreationally and being in a “real” fight on or off horseback. And aside from some board and video games with a militaristic bent, my experience with the military or with moving armies around is nil.

    I’ve been reading up on different techniques for getting this kind of action onto the page, as well as making a point of re-reading some scenes that worked for me in my old favorite books and seeking out authors who are regarded as handling combat well. A few bits of good advice I’ve come across are:

    1. Remember who you are writing for. If you are writing fantasy that is not strongly militaristic, chances are your target reader will not be someone who reads fantasy primarily for the combat scenes. Your typical readers may, in fact, be bored if you spend too much time on it.

    2. Remember your point of view. If you write in limited third or first, then everything that happens in the battle or fight needs to be through the senses of your pov character.

    3. Go deep. Emotionally intense action scenes are not the place for lots of filters and elaborate explanations or backstory etc. Your character will be very terse and in the moment, so the narrative should reflect this.

    4. Don’t feel like you have to describe every move in painstaking detail (and now he parted his knees 45 degrees in preparation for the ancient booradian scissors attack which he was famous for at the academy 😛 )

    5. Keep it short. Probably a page to page an a half tops (unless you’re describing a longer battle, in which case, you’ll likely have things you summarize as well). Real life fights tend to be over within a few minutes, and sometimes they can be over in a matter of seconds.

    6. Do a little research about horses, weapons (and the names for their parts) and the military as they apply to your scenes. Also, there are people who have put you tube videos and things up with various kinds of fight scenes. It’s one benefit of living in the age of the internet, at least, and some compensation for all the ways it distracts us from our writing 🙂

    And just try to have fun with it. Beta readers can be invaluable here, especially if you can find one who has experience with writing these kinds of scenes. Just be sure your reader understands the pov you are writing in and understands what your reasons are for including a fight scenes in the story.

    1. Great advice, Erica, worthy of a blog post in its own right. I hadn’t looked at it from the angle of the audience. You are right, of course, that unless you’re writing to entertain the troops, the chances of your readers knowing more about battle techniques than you do are pretty slim. I’ll try to bear in mind that I am writing for the non-initiated and stop worrying about the angle of sword thrusts etc. And keep it emotional rather than technical.

    2. Great advice Erica! A good fight scene is more about emotions than tactics. Battles are a bit more involved, but still center around what a particular character is doing.

      When I get stuck on how a battle should play out, I start by researching weapons and tactics of the era I’m depicting. My research used to consist of plowing through reams of primary secondary sources, now I use Wikipedia and use secondary sources when in doubt.

      Jane, your book setting sounds like late Dark Ages or early medieval, right? There should be plenty on Wikipedia about various medieval battles, gear and tactics.

      From a plot point of view, battles are–somewhat like chess–a series of moves and counter moves on a board. At any given moment there is an attacker and a defender and one side is always reacting to the other side’s moves.

      You could start out by penciling a map with terrain like sand, hills, rivers or forests. Then you place various units and their size: cavilers, archers, infantry, pikemen and horse scouts on it. Then you place your specific characters in one of those units.

      Now you have to get inside the head of your characters. What is their temperament? Do they have the power to order troops around or are they being ordered around? Are they outmatched or over-matched by the enemy? Are they clever, intelligent, dull or slow? Are they more careful or bold?

      The characters will have to decide if they must attack, wait or defend, this will inevitably cause another character on the other side to act, which will force another attack, wait, defend decision. This back-and-forth will usually continue until one or both sides exhaust themselves or a demigod avatar stops the senseless slaughter. (^_^)>

      For example, read the latest chapter on my blog. There is precious little about tactics, just people reacting and working with what they have.

      Feel free to contact me if you need help. Best of luck!

      1. I read your chapter, James, and it’s exactly how action should be written, terse and to the point. I never understand why some writers dwell on the action so much, getting bogged down in description so you’d have time to wipe out half the planet before they’ve finished describing the scenery, or the pounding hooves, the falling axe etc.
        I think I’ve decided how to play it. The protagonists are on one side, bloodthirsty Goths, handy with their war axes and completely fearless. On the other side are inexperienced settlers who don’t even have proper weapons. I’m betting on the emotions being more interesting than the eventual de-limbing, as the settlers and their horses are going to be scared shitless. The Goths are just butchers, no art or skill. The fighting is going to be used as a means of character development, so it won’t be a complete waste of time 🙂

    3. Another resource would be reenactment. Try to find a local reenactment group (preferably of the period you’re interested in, though anything reasonably old will do) and either join it, if you’re feeling brave, or go along to watch and chat to the reenacters about what they’re doing.

      1. When we lived in Picardy there was an annual medieval festival with the inevitable jousting and combats. The jousting was a rather stylised event, but the combats were more ding-dong affairs. There didn’t seem to be much skill, just bonk bonk and re-bonk until one of the combatants gave in.

    4. That’s probably about right – I don’t think there’s ever been that much skill or finesse about actual battle, except in some cases for the discipline of keeping in formation. I used to be involved in Civil War reenactment (English Civil War, that is) fighting in the pike block, which was a bit like a rugby scrum with 16-foot spears. Great fun, though.

      1. I lived in Yorkshire when I was a kid and we used to get the Sealed Knot (or Nut as it was affectionately known) do re-enactments of the Battle of Adwalton Moor. A very minor skirmish but extremely local. And they still had the actual site to do it on. They looked to be having a wonderful time, but the hundreds of spectators eating toffee apples and crisps rather spolit the period effect.

  4. I’ve never been able to write a good fight scene. If I write myself into a corner where I need to, I put it off.

  5. I don’t write much fantasy but in my last piece The Grave I had two “fight scenes” and a rape. I agree with a lot of what has already been said. I didn’t concentrate much on the actual “bodily” movement but rather the thing as a whole, and of course the sprays of blood which are handy and the snivelling of the girl cowering at the door etc. The rape scene was harder I found, it had of course to be absolutely dreadful but I didn’t want too much physical detail, party because I didn’t think it would add much and partly because I think that rape is so terrible that to try to imagine it is almost impossible. The only part I didn’t like and I still cringe when I read it was at the end of the second very violent fight which involved guns yes but also hand to hand and knives and psychological terror, was where the “hero” had to leap up from seeming unconsciousness on the floor to make a final desperate effort to save the girl, see I am cringing now at the thought of it. However, I had people comment that they thought it was well done – just goes to show you. I think it’s true that if you captured your reader’s imagination you can leave much unsaid or hinted at. Good luck with it anyway

  6. I’m sure it helps to be revolted by what you’re writing. Put yourself in the position of the victim and don’t even try to work out what’s going on for the one with the knife. That way madness, or at least nasty voyeurism lies. Makes mental note: have the sofa ready to hide behind when reading The Grave…

  7. jane, I avoid ‘weapon combat’ by running spell-craft battles. They get pretty intense though!

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