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This post expands on a recent Writing Excuses podcast on fight scenes. This is my take on the subject which I think deserves a bit more attention than just fifteen minutes (although the guys did a good job within their time limit).

I broke down my “answer” (for a lack of a better term) into two post. The first deals with how to approach fighting scenes. Fighting scenes are essentially descriptions of actions and will tend to reflect your style of description. Somebody who prefers laundry list types of descriptions (“she had blond hair, blue eyes, a red shirt, short skirt…ect.) may do a blow by blow narration of the fight scene, while writers (like me) who are highlighters (descriptions focusing on key elements, a minimalist approach) my choose a hard hits/killing blow approach (I explain these terms below).

Here are the different styles from the more concrete to the most abstract:

  1. Blow by Blow: Have ever heard a baseball game or a boxing match narrated over the radio? That is a blow by blow description. Since you are not seen the action, the sportscaster has to fill you in on all the relevant details. Works great on radio, but sucks on page. Why? Because it tends to slow down the action and focuses to much on the minutia of a fight. The worse offender of this is Michael Stackpole in his Battletech novels. Great political action, shitty combat scenes. Although he is trying to convey the tabletop feel of the source material (Battletech tabletop/RPG) it kills the momentum of the fight scene. Avoid this whenever you can.
  2. Hard Hits/Killing Blow: My preferred type of fight scene description.  Instead of describing every dodge, shot or swing you concentrate on those actions that have the most dramatic impact, such as the killing blow. Very useful when the Hero/MC is fighting Minions/Henchman (more on them in Part 2) or showing the killing blow that finishes off the villain. Its like watching a boxing match instead of listening to it. Your mind ignores most of the punches but it registers particular hard hits and of course the final knockout. This method gives the right amount of detail without slowing down the action.
  3. Snapshots: The snapshots technique is great when you want to show the chaotic nature of large battles. Remember the two scenes in Saving Private Ryan where the Tom Hanks character zones out and the camera cuts from one close up to the next? A wounded soldier dragging his arm, another taking a shot to the head, a third one cowering behind a wall.  These snapshots give you a sense of the action within the maelstrom of battle while at the same time showing how wild and chaotic war really is. Great for mass battles (5 or more combatants).
  4. The Battle Map: This is the most abstract of all the fight scene description methods. Like the name implies, the action is described from a distance, as if seen on a battle map. The character could be standing on a hill, watching down from an airplane or remotely by some electronic means. This method concentrates on tactics and strategies of mass formations: ambushes, charges, flanking, maneuvers, etc. Think LotR or 300. This approach shows combat on a grand scale. But if you want to focus on the actions of individuals, you will have to shift to one of the other methods mentioned above.

While I share the podcasters distaste for the Blow by Blow, it should not be dismissed out of hand.  In fact a climatic battle scene (popular in fantasy and military sci-fi) can include all of these methods. You kick off the scene with the Battle Map, showing the reader the big picture composed of army formations, terrain and the like. As battle is joined you switch to Snapshots of the battle. A sword thrust here, a horse brought down there, several men felled by arrows somewhere else. Then as you focus on the MC you do a bit of Hard Hits/Killing Blow action to show how much of a bad ass he really is. Then he meets his opposite number and you dip (don’t go into the deep end, you will drown) into the Blow-by-Blow, showing how evenly match they are. Then you pull back from Blow-by-Blow and cycle through all the way back to the Battle Map as the situation turns and you show the fight aftermath.

Well I hope this helps. Next is Part 2, The Combatants.

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4 Comments

  1. That’s a good break down.

    I’ve never had to tackle writing huge fight scenes, but can appreciate their difficulty. In high fantasy novels, sometimes my eyes start glazing over. When I can stay *in* all that action, I know the author has done a hell of a job.

  2. Considering how much of SuD is composed of fight scenes, if I don’t get them right it sort of kills the whole thing. I do like them, and some authors are great at (R.A. Salvatore for one), but not everyone is.

  3. Ralfast,

    You’ll do fine. Remember, the good thing about writing is we get to do as many revisions as necessary. It’s not like acting live on stage… 🙂

  4. I also have to add that you did like my work and it is shock full of fight sequences so I must be doing something right!

    😀


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] still showcasing how much of a bad ass your MC really is. Speed is crucial. For that reason the Killing Blow or Snapshots techniques work better […]

  2. By Fight Scene BlogFest « Sturm und Drang on 26 Jan 2010 at 2:33 am

    […] to write and post a fight scene of reasonable length as part of the BlogFest. Since I written about fight scenes before, I thought I give it a […]

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