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This is my entry for the February’s Fight Scene BlogFest.

Enjoy!

——–

The afternoon sun beat down on Hadrian’s exposed skin. The harsh light glinted of the naked steel of his sword. The roar of the crowd washed over him. He was their favorite, their champion. He ignored it all by counting the clanks as the portcullis rose before him. Each metallic bank of the hidden wheels counting down to the engagement. Each one bringing him closer to the fight.

Clank

“If you want her, you will have to buy her,” said the jealous lover.

Clank

“Five hundred talents at least, my boy.  Enough to make your dreams come true,” exclaimed his manager.

Clank

“Yes, I will leave with you, where ever you want to go my love. Beyond the mountains where the summer’s are cool and the winter’s quite,” said the woman he loved.

Clank

“Not this time. This time you will meet your match. My beast will feast on your bones,” exclaimed the exultant rival.

Clank

“Make it a fight for the ages, and your debt to me will be repaid in full,” said the petulant Duke.

Clank

All the reasons why he was here. One way or another this would be his last fight. Hadrian walked into the arena. He felt the sand between the toes of his sandals. The Duke sat high above him across the oval, surrounded by guards and war wizards. His girth a product of his opulence. He kept the bread and gave his people circuses instead.

And for the last ten years, Hadrian was the main attraction.

No wind blew this summer day. The red main of horse hair on top of the gladiator’s round helm lay limp.  Droplets of sweat came down his arms racing down highways of nicks, muscle and cuts. He reached the center of the arena and bowed to the Duke. The fat man smiled back and raised his hand in salute. The motion quieted the crowed. The Duke stood from his bejeweled chair. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and pleasure to present to you the Champion of our glorious city, Hadrian the Unconquered!”

The crowd exploded in wild adulation. Hadrian raised his arms, punching the air with steel sword and bronze shield.  “In this most glorious of days, the day our our city’s birth, Hadrian has consented to face his most dangerous foe. A great beast of the North, a Lyndwyrm!”

A hush descended upon the crowd. Once slaves battled beasts but gladiators fought other men. The Church tried to outlaw the games but they only managed to “reform” them. Gladiators rarely fought to the death and fighting animals was rare. Fighting such a dangerous beast could very well mean Hadrian’s death, and they did not want to see that. Not their beloved champion. But Hadrian bowed once again to the Duke and when he raised his head he gave the crowd a wide smile a smile that hid the fear that consumed his thoughts. Faint cries of “No” turned to screams of adulation.

The Duke smiled in turn. “Let the match begin!”

A panel slid open on the arena floor. A gigantic worm slithered from within the bowels of the arena with lighting speed. It’s beaked head raised to the heavens. It gave a ear splitting screech. Hadrian stared his at the dun colored, slime covered opponent.  “Not the brightest idea you ever had,” he said at loud.

The beast turned down toward Hadrian. It’s beak like maw split open, spitting twin streams of viscous liquid that met in mid air. The gladiator raised his shield in time to block the attack, but saw in horror as the sun came though the wholes left by the corrosive spittle.  He dropped the disintegrating shield just in time to see the wyrm descend upon him. He rolled to his left. The razor beak snapped in the air, spraying sand everywhere.

Hadrian stood with a kick stand, just to be battered by the powerful stroke of the wyrm head. The strike sent him flying against the masonry wall of the arena.  Hadrian shook his head, trying to clear his clouded vision before the wyrm’s beak snapped him in two. He danced around the wyrm, using his size to stay under the wyrm body. But his attacks had little effect. The combination of the slime and the beast thick hide turned body piercing stabs into glancing blows.  He drew thick, putrid smelling blood where the sand clung to the underside, neutralizing the ooze. Yet each strike only made the lyndwyrm angrier. Hadrian ducked and weaved careful not to slip in the trail of slime left by the wyrm. He ran until he reach the wall beneath the Duke’s seat. The wyrm charged him. At the last second Hadrian moved out of the way. The stadium shook with the impact. The beast reared it’s head, then spit anew. A pair of war wizards gesticulated wildly over a burning brazier. Columns of fire intercepted the acid raining down on the crowd.  A guard stepped forward, crossbow in hand. The Duke glanced at him. The guard stepped back but kept the crossbow at the ready.

Hadrian traced the slime path way back to the wooden door from which the wyrm entered the arena.  Once he felt wood underneath his feet, he angled his sword to catch the sunlight. The reflection shone on the wyrm’s black eyes. Enraged it dove down on Hadria. He rolled to his right. The worm struck the door, destroying it in a shower of splinters. It thrashed in sheer desperation. Hadrian crouched nearby waiting his chance. As the beast liberated it’s head, Hadrian slashed at the exposed eye. The dark eyeball exploded on contact with Hadrian blade.  The beak missed Hadrian’s head by mere inches.  Hadrian moved back and forth, taunting the creature by darting away at the edge of its damaged vision. It came down, again and again until Hadrian saw his opening. On the last attack, he rolled on his back and the jumped, holding his sword in an overhead two handed strike. This time the blade sunk deep into the wyrm’s head. The creature tried to pry his tormentor by shaking its head from side to side. Hadrian held on as much as he could. Then he slid down on the wyrm’s back.  He landed with a thud on the ground, covered in blood, sand and slime. He turned in time to see the lyndwyrm collapse in a heap a feet away.

He calmly walked to the beast, retrieved his sword and raised it defiantly. The crowd went wild. “Hadrian! Hadrian! Hadrian!”

Every bone in his body ached, but he had won. He would miss the adulation and the excitement, but not the fear.

Undefeated.

Unconquered.

And for the first time in ten long years, unchained and unafraid.

——

Well that’s my entry. I hope you like it.

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OK we tackled the general forms of fight scene description, now it is time to see the a fight scene from the point of the fighters. It is very important to understand who the opponents are, their training/experience and capabilities.  A fight between two characters looks very different if one is a trained martial artist and the other one hasn’t thrown a punch in his life.

So lets look at the typical match ups in fiction:

  1. Henchmen/Minions vs. Hero: Redshirts, stormtroopers,goons, mooks, etc. face down mighty hero. A single swing of his sword will bring them down by the score. Nothing says “I GOT THE POWER” like mowing down twenty or thirty of these before breakfast. Let the Battle Royal begin!
  2. Stalker vs. Victim: The Stalker is a hunter by trade, be he a serial killer, a supernatural horror or an assassin. He is good at capturing, maiming and killing. She (most of the time is a she) is a hapless bystander whose life hangs by a thread.
  3. The Warriors: These kids knows how to fight. Put up your dukes!
  4. The Hero vs. The Big Boss: Whether a recurring villain or the hero’s target in the climatic battle at the end of the book, the Big Boss is the ultimate (and many times the only) threat.

The first one (Minion vs. Hero) is pretty easy although it can be tricky. Its very easy to fall into Superman vs. Bank Robbers scenario where the bad guys. Unless your setting up the scene for another type of confrontation, like the introduction of super villain avoid this iteration of the scenario. Your reader is going to read that and go “Oh, he is super…great” and then put the book down.

Best way to do it using the Stormtrooper rule: the minions go down easy, but once in awhile they score a flesh wound. A reminder that while the opposition is crappy, they can get lucky and really hurt the hero.  That injects enough tension into the scene while 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 here.

In the Stalker vs. Victim scenario the attacker has all the advantages. Here tension is key. The stalker is usually a criminal with a well practiced method of attack (ambush is the preferred method) or a supernatural horror impervious to most attacks. The Victim (usually young and female) is not trained in combat and its clearly outmatched by the attacker. Many time the victims act like minions in that they fall easily to the Stalker attacks.

This scenario puts emphasis on the fear of the victim. Her emotions are paramount in creating and maintaining the high level of tension critical to this scenario. Only by a clever ploy, herculean effort or rescue by a third party can the Victim survive this encounter. The Blow by Blow method may work best, in as much as you space the action to build the suspense.

A fight between Warriors features at least two opponents that are evenly matched. They need not be exact duplicates. In fact, the tension comes from highlighting their differences in strength, agility, speed, accuracy, and weapons. It is easy to fall into the Blow by Blow description of these battles  but what makes these fights interesting is who their strengths and weakness compliment each other.

The Hero facing the Big Boss comes in two forms: the introductory appearance and the climatic battle. The first meeting between these two the Hero can be defeated, it can be a draw, the Big Boss is present but does not fight (the Hero fights another Warrior or Minions). Think of the three (of four times) that Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker share the screen in the Star Wars saga. The first time they do not fight, Luke fights of Minions (Stormtropers) and then escapes. He then has a second encounter where he is defeated and finally he overcomes Vader in the climatic battle aboard the Death Star.

The key to this fight is that the Hero is outmatched by the Big Boss strength and/or resources. He must find a way to stop the villain, but he is not ready yet. Through training and defeating of lesser threats he gains the means to confront his nemesis.

In the climatic battle scene if the Hero and the Big Boss have no met before, the Big Boss then appears unbeatable. The Hero must either show greater strength than his enemy or find a clever way of defeating the Big Boss. Not to be confused with the Stalker vs. Victim scenario. The Hero knows how to fight and will be in the very least powerful enough to worry the Big Boss who while he may not want to admit it, knows that he is in trouble.  You can use all the descriptive methods mentioned in Part 1. The key here is that while over matched, the Hero is not defenseless and his attacks will show that.

Of course during the course of the story and even one fight scene you can mix the pairings. A Warrior or Big Boss may have a cadre of Minions at his disposal. A Minion may turn out to be more of a Warrior and of course the Victim can always turn the tables on the Stalker.

Now that you know who your combatants are it is time to see how tactics and terrain influence a battle in Part 3.

Until then…

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.