Zorro, King Arthur, John McClain, and Crafting Combat

Some green toy soldiers fighting a mock up battle

(This photo isn’t too far from the truth: I had mock-ups of who is where in Exiles of Heaven)

Ascent of the Fallen has a handful of fight scenes, and most of those were reasonably easy to visualize and write. When I got to Exiles of Heaven though, my skills were challenged. It’s hard work to craft a meaningful fight scene. It’s part of my genre and expected by the reader. Heck, I like them myself!

I thought back to movies I love, and books I’ve reread multiple times. The storyteller weaves action into the plot with skill and grace. Too long and the reader’s attention is lost. Too short and why bother? Why is this?

It’s easy to simplify a good fight scene when watching the movies. It’s over in minutes, seconds even. In a book the author must provide the right level of detail, right cues, right dialogue, to make it work. King Arthur can swing his sword, Zorro can crack his whip, John McLain can yell “Yippey ki-yay mother f…..”

Steve Pressfield’s “Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t“, provides an interesting context in Chapter 23. He’s writing about sex scenes in movies, but the fundamental idea applies to such scenes in books as well. Two primary motivations must drive the writer of such scenes. First, the scene must move the story forward. Second, things must be different at the end of the scene. I believe the same applies to a good fight scene.

If a fight scene exists just to add color, but nothing fundamentally changes, then it’s just fluff. Who gives a darn if the hero’s sword is a cold, gray wedge of death, cleaving through evil? He killed hundreds. Why should I care?

If nothing changes, then why did I bother reading the paragraph, page, section, chapter, etc.? Shawn Coyne would ask where the change in pole happens, from positive to negative or vice versa? Is the hero in greater peril? Out of peril? Is hope lost? Or is it finally found?

I’m certainly no expert, and I concede that I’m learning to do this better. I found the following tools and frameworks useful when crafting the last chapters of Exiles of Heaven, a long series of combat scenes that drive the story through a temporary conclusion.

  • Complexity: How complex do I want this scene to be? That may drive the use of different tools. I may be capable of keeping one-on-one combat straight in my head, but start adding more characters and it’s tough.
  • Point of view: How will the fight be told? I write in the first person for most scenes, so the scene needs to reflect what he or she can actually understand. Are they telling the story after the fact? During the fight? How will they describe the role of others?
  • Who’s who in the zoo: My protagonist, Fallondon, leads a company of seven knights, two sergeants, two squires, and a pair of retainers. They fight bandits, armies, cults, and hell itself. Where are they all at? I’ve used army figures (no kidding) and whiteboards to keep track of where folks are. I’ve also used a simple quality assurance check during editing that asks the question, “Did you account for everyone from beginning to end?”
  • Geography: I use hand-drawn sketches and the whiteboard to map out my scenes. Where are fights happening? Who is fighting in each location? Are there features I need to keep in mind when tracking how the fight progresses?
  • Time: This was challenging to manage. Keeping track of a timeline describing an hour over multiple chapters was tough. It helped to have a clear idea of where the scene starts and where it ends, and then frame out where the connecting parts need to occur. This also helped me ensure everyone’s story got told in the right spot.
  • Continuity: Lastly, I used my beats and those 1st edit quality assurance checks to make sure the story remains coherent. Did I get done what I set out to accomplish? Is the story moving forward? Did everyone live, die, get injured, change, or whatever was necessary to achieve the desired results. Also, was there a pole change? Dire straits to redemption, or was it a slam dunk that fell apart? Did I tell that story

Hopefully I continue to get better at writing compelling fight scenes. I think the nerdy engineer inside makes it easy to lean into using tools like these. What tools do you use to keep track of complex projects like this? What fight scenes have you enjoyed reading or watching? Leave your recommendations in the comments below.


Photo credit: Horia Varlan

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