Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Big Fight Scene, pt 1 - Why Fight?

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For many stories, fight scenes are some of the most exciting parts for many readers.  Even a romance can have a swashbuckling sword duel, or a spy novel a tense martial arts fight.  The sea novels of Patrick O'Brian are amazing character studies containing exquisite plotting and historical narrative, but when the cannons roar, its even more engaging.

But when it comes to actually writing a combat scene, it can be intimidating for many writers.  Few of us have ever been in actual combat of any real kind.  Some of us have never fought in our lives.  And none of us have been in a real armored medieval swordfight or blaster battle in a starship.  To one degree or another almost everyone is guessing and inventing when it comes to fighting.

For those who have been in combat, sometimes it isn't any better.  Real combat is not like in the movies, it is over very quickly and its hard to see or know what is going on.  Like old Bruce Lee movies, the action is so close and frenetic you can't really tell what is happening.  So your experiences will carry a weight of familiarity and detail that others cannot know, but it might still be a bit unclear how to put them on paper.

First, though its important to consider what your fight scene is trying to accomplish.  Why do you even have a fight scene in your story?  Is it there simply because you feel compelled to by the genre, is it there because you think the narrative needs jazzing up?  Do you have a fight scene just to deal with a conflict in a violent way?

What I'm trying to say is that your combat should fit and flow with the story the same way as every other aspect.  It shouldn't be shoehorned in just to fit some checklist of required elements for a genre or because someone on twitter insisted.  Combat, like romance, is optional if useful.  Whether you include a fight in your book or not is up to the story and your capacity of a writer.  If you can pull it off well and it fits the tale being told, then there ought to be combat.  If not, then there ought not be.

The truth is, like all elements of writing fiction, combat is there to serve the story, it is in your book not as a way to make things exciting, but to move the plot along, develop the characters, and tell the story.  Combat is just another method of telling your tale, not a means in and of its self.

As a writer you shouldn't treat the fight scene as a separate, distinct part of your book.  It should be just as much a part of the story as the description of the scenery or the background of your protagonist.  

This is a bad place for walkies
One way to do so is to have the fight serve another end.  Instead of being a fight to have a fight, make the fight a way of developing a character, resolving a conflict, creating a conflict, revealing things about a character, or several - even all - of the above.

The fight should do more than be a physical conflict, it can tell a little tale by its self.  It has been said by many that you learn more about someone in a fight or when challenged than you can any other way: how they respond to difficulty, how they treat their opponent, and so on.  Use that to your advantage as a writer.  Perhaps that quiet, tight-lipped character reveals things through their actions that they never would by speaking.  Their honor and dignity, their bloodlust, their fury, their cold blooded, reptilian skill, all of it can tell readers something about that character.

And what is going on other than the fight is a useful tool as well.  How do the others nearby, watching the combat, react?  What is going on in the rest of the world as this fight happens?  Is it in a meadow, do the birds flee in terror, do the trees move in the wind?  Is it getting late and casting shadows over the scene?  What's going on?  By answering these kind of questions you can not only give the world greater depth, but place the fight into your world rather than having it play out separately.

What goes through your character's head means a lot as well.  This can be a very useful tool, if it fits your narrative.  Your character might look like the steely-eyed fearless hero, but what does he feel inside, not showing?  How does hurting another human being make them feel?  How does taking lives affect them?

And why are they fighting, that will be played out in their minds as well.  The desperation, hope, misery, sadness, regret, fury, and other feelings can be shown in expression, thought, and action.  By doing this, you are moving your story along instead of pausing to get a fight into the book at regular intervals.

You can even reveal things about your world and the setting in combat.  In a historical book, the style and technique of combat can be identified and its history hinted at or touched on briefly:
Cardnet parried with his maine-gauche, confident in his Florentine training.  It had taken him years in the Venice school to master his technique and the fear rising in Don Cabrizi's expression was welcome confirmation of that skill.  The rapier and off hand style had its detractors but Cardnet felt sure this fight was his.
It had been hard work lugging the Canis Ordnance B-52 Blaster Cannon up that hill but when the Ravenous Bug Bladder Beast of Trall charged, Sergeant Bricktop was glad he had the old "blockbuster" at hand.
For centuries, the Dwarves had been known for their skill in forging throughout the nine realms.  And Fjolnir felt the song of triumph rising in him as he swung his njarn-steel axe into the neck of his trollish foe.  They would sing his praises in Valhalla this day.
Shan-Xiu felt the calm spread through his being as he focused his chi.  His breathing was even and controlled, just as Master Wu had taught him.  It was as if a thousand years of the T'ian Xe school teaching was passing through his soul as he readied himself for his opponent.
Every girl loves a guy with a big gun
Nobody wants to read a long treatise on swordfighting or a technical readout of a particular weapon in the middle of a combat scene, but a few lines can give glimpses and drop bits of information for the reader to pick up on about the world.  Where did that weapon come from?  Who taught this man?  Where had he last faced such a foe?  Little details of this sort can be used for more than just a fight.

In short, your combat scene isn't just a combat scene, its a part of a larger whole, and it should be used to serve and develop that whole.  Make sure your fight scene is serving your story, and you can write it with that in mind more than technical perfection or experienced skill.

Because even if you know nothing about fighting with Transducian Vibro-Staves, you know about your characters, your setting, and you can write about their feelings and what is going on around them.  If you can't focus on brilliant action, focus on wonderful storytelling and characterization. And ideally, do both.

Next time I look at combat, it will be about the style of writing combat and how you can approach it as an author.  For now, keep on writing!