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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.

Writer’s block comes in many forms, none more weird that finding yourself with the strange combination of too many ideas and too little focus. That was my problem going forward with the current WIP. The characters seemed to go places that had nothing to do with the main plot. This situation was made possible by the fact that I chose to write the story using a multiple-person third point of view.

The main benefit of use of this method is that I can paint a wide canvass, loaded with characters that gives the narrative a global scope plus an insight into the villains mind. In fact the story starts with a close third person POV of one of the villains. The main character doesn’t appear on stage until the second chapter.

But after awhile my mind filled with interesting scenes such as a trip to the Himalayas, a fight a top a aerial tramway/gondola lift, and an attack at a guerrilla jungle base. All of them very exiting sequences (except for the last one, it involved fighting a demon that had Mr. Fantastic like powers). All of these scenarios are exciting and fun to write but they do not, did not contribute to story in anyway since they were no segue logical from one scene to the next.

So how do you corral these disparate point of views so that they move the story forward?

  1. You may have multiple characters, but keep in mind who the main and/or principal characters are. He/She or they are the ones tasks with carrying the weight of the narrative. Therefore the bulk of the scenes should be from their POV.
  2. Keep in mind the specific reason for the shift. You may use the shift to show what the villain is thinking or the aftermath of the heroes actions. But remember that those scenes must dovetail into the main narrative and tie in with principal plotline(s).
  3. The transitions should be natural and logical. Don’t leave your reader hanging, finish the scene at an appropriate moment. Again, these scenes must segue into the main body of the narrative. Think in terms of action-reaction or exposition through “showing”.
  4. Any scene where the MC is not present should always push the action forward in one way or another. I had one large chapter with several characters narrating their experiences in recent wars. But at the end these flashbacks served to explain (hopefully by “showing” and not “telling”) the events at the very end of the chapter and push the plot toward a new location.

Apply these rules ruthlessly and you will see your kitty cats fall in line. Sure they will hiss and scratch, but in the end they will behave. Mine did!

P.S. Of  course if that doesn’t work, a pack of puppies will get the job done!