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?