CHARGE! The perils of writing fight scenes

Confession: at heart, I’m awfully bloody minded.  I love writing action and fight scenes.  After all, violence is a deep-rooted component of the human animal.  Culture just can’t beat it out of us and, instead, has itself become permeated with justifications for violent behavior (from the galling – things like FGM – to the “acceptable” – like American football).

Unfortunately, crafting compelling action scenes — especially battles — is one of my writing weaknesses.  In doing research to address this shortcoming, I’ve come across several good sources.  Being someone who likes to share her toys, I’ll pass what I’ve found on to you.

First, Marie Brennan has started a series of blog entries on writing fight scenes over on LJ – and from what I’ve read so far, they are going to be awesome.  One thing she points out is the importance of bringing story and character development into your fight scenes.  The unfolding and outcome of fights drives plot.  How someone fights, what they will and won’t do, reveals a lot about their character.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never really thought about it quite this way–although in hindsight it seems perfectly obvious that character development should be central to any fight scene.  Also, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here…after all, we’ve all read novels where we skip the action scenes because “nothing happens” — meaning they neither advance the plot nor illuminate the characters.

Another issue I struggle with is developing the strategy aspects of larger battles.  My writing group rightly pointed out that some of the big battles in the first draft of my novel had a sort of “line up and charge” flavor to them.  I don’t have a military background to draw upon (nor do I know anyone who does), so I’ve had to turn to research.  For this, I’ve found a variety of sources really useful.

I started in the obvious place and read Sun Tzu’s the Art of War.  A series of maxims and advice (asserted by Sun Tzu and elaborated upon/interpreted by historic Chinese military types) the Art of War takes a Taoist approach to strategy–basically applying knowledge to deal with disharmony.  This was useful because it made me think outside the individual battle scene I was trying to write and look at the larger picture, asking myself:  is this battle really necessary or wise?  Will fighting and winning or losing it show my protagonist to be skilled, inexperienced, rash, measured, merciful, or foolish?

In a way, the ideas in the Art of War are all about character.  The kind of military leader you are is revealed through the ways knowledge is acquired (through strategic assessment of your opponent, the terrain, the weather, and so forth) and applied (through careful planning).  There are also, of course, a lot of useful insights about the best use of tactics like retreats, ambushes, sieges, and so forth.

A member of my reading group (thanks, Eric!) also suggested Rome: Total War as a source of inspiration about battle strategy and combat (and there are many iterations of this game, including more recent ones).  To avid gamers, this is going to seem obvious, but for me it was a bit of a revelation:  exposure to the visual (and directorial) elements of a battle on your computer screen is AWESOME.  It’s also helpful from a writing point of view in that it improves your birds-eye view understanding of troop placement and movement, use of terrain, and how different sorts of strategies play themselves out under different conditions.  Through trial and error, you can find out which strategies are stupid and which are genius.  Plus, now I have a fun new procrastination tool in my arsenal 😉

There will always be elements of fight scenes (be they one-on-one tussles or huge battles) that are hard to recreate just through research.  The smells and sights, the chaos, the sensation of fear or adrenaline (or, probably, both)–I’ll never understand those first-hand unless I pick a fight with someone, which is about as likely as me walking on the moon.  But still, just using the few tools discussed in this post, my action writing has improved ten-fold.

Of course, as always, I welcome advice or suggestions from you all.  What are your tips for researching and writing fight scenes?

5 thoughts on “CHARGE! The perils of writing fight scenes

  1. EF Kelley

    Glad it was of use. 🙂

    Sun Tzu is a difficult read for a practical lesson on warfare. It’s the basis of all modern military thinking, but Clausewitz brought a lot of it into focus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Clausewitz His book is ‘On War’. It’s not as archaic as ‘Art of War’, so we can comprehend it much easier.

    Another solid warfare simulator is Mount & Blade: Warband. http://www.taleworlds.com/ These are much smaller actions than Rome with a max of about 100 people. It lets you see what the front lines are like. And you can see just how quickly you can get overwhelmed. There’s no tutorial to speak of though, so the learning curve is super steep. It’s on my laptop though, so I can give a demonstration next time we’re in the same area.

    Thanks for the links to Marie Brennan. I’ll go give those a read right now. 🙂

  2. Matt Hughes

    I think it takes a special talent to write ‘large’ battle scenes and make them interesting. It can be done but outside of having a very compelling interest in the outcome (i.e. final book of the series and it all comes down to this), it kind of hinges on the commander and our interest in that character.

    For me, the more personal ‘squad’ level battles are far, far more interesting. And more realistic. Historically, the best stories have been told on a personal level (i.e. Audie Murphy or the 101st Easy Company ala Band of Brothers).

    As for recreating the elements of the fight scene, I highly suggest taking a self defense or martial arts course if you haven’t already. Preferably one that does light or full contact sparring. It will completely change how you write fight scenes.

    I’ve been doing a ‘mutt’ of martial arts (TKD, Muy Thai, Jujitsu, Krav Maga, Sambo, etc) and I use that in my scenes. I know what works and doesn’t, how it feels to get hit or knocked out (I don’t recommend it by the way), how to fight dirty, etc. All very, very useful.

    Back when I was writing fantasy, getting my hands on an authentic broadsword similar to what my character used resulted in many changes.

    Matt Stover, Richard Morgan, and Steven Kent do pretty good battle scenes when it comes to a more personal level. Stover is my personal god of One-on-One fights and he quotes the Art of War with Caine.

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Matt!

      Yes, I definitely agree about the “large” battle scenes – plus, if you’re using any POV other than 3rd person omniscient, it’s a cheat to try and describe a battle on that scale anyway. The trouble I was having was devising a proper battle strategy for the protag to employ AND then relate what’s happening on the ground from her limited POV.

      I have taken some martial arts – boxing and karate. I know what it feels like when *I* get hit. But I’m a total wuss 🙂 My protagonist is a hardened warrior.

      I’ve been meaning to read Stover ever since VP, when so many were recommending him. Love Richard Morgan, though!

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