Shooting The Devil: Strategy, Tactics, and Tips For Crafting Compelling Combat in Your Novel

I’ve had this post in the wings for a while, trying to “strategerize” how best to communicate the message. Guest post? Breaking it up into smaller bits? New website? I figured it was worth getting something out there for now, and I may revisit the content in different forms later. This is primarily written for two audiences: those interested in the writing craft, and some techniques to add to your toolbox, and for those interested in how I approach my own writing and character/scene development. I do this imperfectly, but continue to practice in the hope of getting better and better over time.

I’m kidding about the devil, but I did punch a classmate in college. We took boxing lessons as midshipmen and sparred with one another the first day of class. One moment we were best friends; by the next, bitter enemies. Our 60 seconds of ring time was more than a bout for passing grades: it was an epic struggle against perceived evils like empty peanut butter jars left in the pantry. Midshipman memories…

As a writer, you need to capture the emotional swings and weightiness of such moments through your wordcraft. How will you pull the reader along with a compelling and believable episode of combat? Sometimes a fight is necessary to move the story forward. Maybe it’s the only way to move the story forward; few fantasy fans will suffer a story without good swordplay and sorcery. Fight scenes cross a wide spectrum from bar brawls to infantry squads taking out terrorists; military campaigns of thousands to the struggles of nations.

Let’s assume you read in your genre and know the tropes and obligatory scenes. Your author inspirations are one great example of how to craft a good fight scene. What did you like? Certain words? Emotions? Points of view? You probably have a place to start from and ideas already formed that you want to explore.

In this article, I’ll provide a strategy as well as several organizing tactics and writing tips to help you hone your combat craft, take things to the next level, and draw your readers into scenes they’ll never forget. If you are looking for more resources, check out these past guests of the Creative Penn: a mixed-martial arts perspective with Jarred Loh and combining martial arts and writing with Alan Baxter.

First, you need a strategy

Many aviators use altitude to describe their viewpoints. At the 50,000 foot level, you probably have a broad overview of your story, its plot, the character arcs, and theme. This is your strategy for getting from point A, that compelling inciting incident, to point Z, the stunning conclusion, through some tortuous path in between. If we drop down further, say to the 10,000 foot level, we can still have a strategy for individual chapters or scenes. One useful strategic framework for writing a fight scene is the Five W’s.

The Five W’s

This is a framework I learned in the military. It continues to serve me as a writer in many ways. If you don’t know where to start, you know you can always begin with the Five W’s. What are the Five W’s?

1. Who
2. What (and by association, “How”)
3. When
4. Where
5. Why

(Sadly, “How” does not begin with a W, otherwise we’d have the much more easily remembered “Six W’s”)

You probably already have a method for framing your story (let’s assume it’s a novel). Maybe it’s Foolscaping, or Snowflaking, or just a good old outline in your favorite journal. Consider the Five W’s another tool in your planning toolbox, and particularly well suited as a lens to look at your fight scenes through. You can do this in an Evernote, in Scrivener under your research files, your journal, or a blank piece of paper.

  1. Who is involved? Individuals or units or nations. Which of your characters need to be involved? Which do not?
  2. What is at stake? People don’t fight because everything’s hunky dory. They fight for something. You, the author, must understand why everyone is involved, even if it’s because they are collateral damage from a fight not their own. How will it begin?  Is it a surprise, or is it expected? Premeditated or reaction?
  3. When does it happen? You have an idea of where the scene occurs in the overall scheme of the book (you did Foolscap, right?), but you also need to think through how long the scene takes. This matters for several reasons. First, how much writing do you need to do? If you intend on detailing a dozen actors over the course of a night in Iraq, that might be an entire book in itself. You may want to unravel the emotions behind a recently divorced drunk banker who throws a wild punch at the local bar, laying out his best mate. You’re turning five seconds into a chapter. Second, what else is happening? In the bar scene, maybe the commercial turns over on the television. In the former, you may have changes in lighting, location, weather to keep organized. Did the trains run on time? The guard change over? You’ll need to keep track of these temporal elements through the scene so the reader is not confused.
  4. Where will it occur? – We’ll discuss a couple of tools later on for keeping track of location, but you should have some idea of where the scene takes place. At a bar, in the White House, across an entire city, or simply a street corner? Engineers use the terms “closed system” versus “open system.” Does the entire scene take place in a single location (like a throne room), bound by four walls and clear constraints, or is it a flowing car chase turned gun battle than lingers through the streets of Rome? Your reader needs cues to help them understand the possible changes in scenery through the context of the fight.
  5. Why is it happening?: Beginning and end – What is the polarity change you need to happen? How will this scene (or collection of scenes) move the story forward? How will your characters change?

This can be as easy or complex as you need it to be. It can be chicken scratch in a sidebar with one-word answers. Using the Snowflake method, you could build out your Five W list into the whole scene. As long as it helps you keep the scene straight in your mind and allows you to verify it works in the story, then you’ve succeeded.

Now that you have a basic framework for this fight, let’s look at a couple of tactics to help you keep all the moving parts organized, aligned, and working for you.

Tactics: Your Tools in the Toolbox

Below 10,000 feet we’re now talking about tactics. These are tools in your writing toolbox that help you execute your work. We’ve developed a strategy for our fight, and now we need tools to keep that framework in mind as we develop the scene. How can we do that?

Readers of the Creative Penn are probably familiar with many of the tools available in various software packages like Scrivener or services like Evernote. While these are excellent for capturing notes, images, ideas, and other research, and they can be optimized to organize those elements, your fight scene can benefit from these three additional tools:

Tactic #1: A Fight Map

My whiteboard for mapping out scenes. Here you can see details on time between locations and the settings for Exiles of Heaven’s final battle scene

My favorite planning tool for a fight scene is a map. I take a small white board and use symbols to visually plan how the scene will unfold. This was immensely important in my last novel, Exiles of Heaven, where I had a battle that sprawled across a medieval village, a castle, the lake front where my protagonists crashed ashore, and a demon army emerging from a sorcery-powered gateway to Hell. Without a map for context I would have lost track of where certain elements were in relation to one another (i.e., the gate and castle are east of the beachhead). A whiteboard also provides you a means to quickly change elements as you adjust the scene; you can easily replace the black knight with the rose-gowned damsel with a stroke of your marker. It’s easy to do this step first before you touch your laptop. Substitute similar tools like pen and legal pad, your kid’s coloring paper, or even a touch-screen drawing program to suit you.

Tactic #2: Army Men

Yes, I mean those little plastic figures available in any grocery store around the world, including Djibouti, Africa. You could substitute your favorite toy doll, or shredded wheat, or pencils, or rocks, or whatever. The point is: use simulacrums of your major players and walk through the event. I have a set of little plastic knights that live aboard their block-construction long ship docked next to my desk. Scene are quickly mapped out through acting empowered by the play of my youth. This may sound childish, but the modern military uses methods like this every day. Go to any Army outpost and you’ll likely find a sandboard built by creative sergeants that visually represents the surrounding environs in scaled detail. Platoons will plan their patrols and actions by moving rocks around the board with a god’s eye view of the field. They are called “Rock Drills” for a reason, even though the acronym of “Rehearsal of Concept” doesn’t include the K.

Tactic #3: A Character Audit
The more active characters you incorporate in a fight the more this tool will become necessary. If the scene is simply your hero and villain, mano i mano, the reader will not likely lose track. If you are crafting the final confrontation between your Demented Dozen and their arch nemeses, it’s easy to start writing the scene and forget who’s doing what, where, and how they resolve themselves. Your reader will pick up on the valiant knight who enters the melee but never has anything said of him until the very end when he’s committed some brilliant deed, saving the day, but you gave no details. A character audit is simply a quality assurance check on your scene. Create a list of who starts the scene and what you think happens to each of them. Then when you finish, go back to that list and check the boxes: did you really tell enough for that character’s story? Did you account for their movement from beginning to end? Did you account for injuries or deaths? Do they still have the same things they started with, or has that changed? Fans of turned-based role playing video games will be familiar with the end-of-combat update on rewards won, health and magic lost, and experience gained; this is the same idea. For example, you may keep a table like this:

Your New Character: The War of ______

The elements of the fight become their own characters in many aspects and you should treat them as such. The bullet, the gun, the sword, the fist of fury – these are all objects which will require more detailed descriptions of their actions. On the television the viewer simply watches the action happen and follows these animated but impersonal objects do their work. As an author you must tell your reader what is happening and provide closure for events you start. If the hero fires his gun, then you must explain what happens to the bullet. If the evil demon swings a fiery sword, then you must tell us who or what he strikes…or if he doesn’t. If it’s an end-of-chapter cliffhanger, then you must provide resolution at some point in the story or your reader will never forgive you.

Be careful though: it’s easy to become lost writing pages of “The fist did this, then his fist…” and lose your reader’s attention. We need to know what happens, but we really want to know about the emotions, effort, and feelings of the characters involved.

Tips to Hone Your Craft

The strategy and tactics provided above will help you with your novel, but maybe you want to go further and hone your craft? I found these two tips to be excellent ways of practicing my craft. They have also served as useful tools in the toolbox when I’m crafting a good fight sequence and need to get my choreography right before I start writing.

Tip #1: Practice your craft: Writing Out a Movie Fight Scene
How would you describe the fast-paced sparring between Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix? How about the din of combat as the Allies came ashore at Omaha or Sword Beach during Operation Overlord in Saving Private Ryan? Try this exercise to practice your craft. You’ll need a media player and either a device to record your voice or some other means of capturing your thoughts.

  1. Find of your favorite movie fight scene,
  2. Put it in slow motion on the player (less than 1x playback, preferably as slow as possible) and,
  3. Dictate the action. Even at slow speed, you probably won’t be able to type or write fast enough to keep up. Try using a dictation app or software package like Dragon and capture your verbal interpretation.
  4. When the scene is complete, read through how you described it or listen to the replay.

The purpose of this exercise is to hone your combat-related wordsmithing. While the entirety of your spoken script is unusable (you do care about copyright, right?), you can certainly consider using certain elements in your own writing. No one can legitimately claim copyright over an unnamed sword’s backslash through the generic villain’s incompetent defense.

Tip #2: Practice your craft: Swing a Stick and Fight

Movies with great fight scenes have a secret weapon: trainers and choreographers. You can do the same. Go big or go little, but go do something. Here are a few ideas to help seed your inspiration garden:

  1. Hit up a firing range. Buy a sword. Make a sword. Take a martial arts class. Try to get as close to the real thing as you can. The details you bring from reality will show through. It’s much harder swinging real steel than a wooden dowel. How will the puny squire wield his master’s blade? A real .44 kicks unless you brace yourself. How will your petite female detective handle that?
  2. Practice a sequence of movements to find the tricks and challenges. Spar against a willing partner or a tree or the poster of your favorite movie character on your bedroom wall. How will you describe that fatal blow? What about the wild, all-or-nothing swing? For those writing about fights with swords and knives, a particular challenge is changing the direction of attack. How will the knight go from swinging his sword to stabbing his foe? It takes time and intention to change a sword’s direction. The same is true for handguns: it takes time to draw, unsafe, cock, aim, and fire a pistol if you aren’t prepared.
  3. Film yourself. Then replay the action and critique what you see. Once you like how the movement appears, use your dictation skills to translate your action into words for your story.

Fight For Your Readers

Writing a great fight scene is hard work. Hollywood has a leg up on us: using visual elements, they can make magic happen in a timeframe vastly different than your novel. They don’t need words to describe the brilliant hues of that violet cloak or the flashing lightning of a sword strike. That’s what the graphic design department gets paid for. However they are also constrained to two dimensions and the director’s allowance of time for the scene.

Make no mistake: your reader is just as discerning reading your scenes as they are binge watching the latest thriller series.

They will call you out if a bullet pulls magical G’s to spin around corners and take out the Kevlar-wearing villain if it was clearly impossible (unless you are writing about magic bullets that hook through curves with sentient intention, in which case, you are probably fine.)

They will also stay up turning pages through the dark watches of the night, blankets pulled overhead, eyes skimming ahead to find out if the desperate charge of knights broke the siege lines and rescued the pouting princess and her cats.

Your readers will do this as long as you put in the hard work to write compelling fight scenes. We know you have it inside you. Use these tools in your author toolbox, hone your craft, and you’ll knock them out, literally.

How do you organize complex scenes? Share your tips and join the conversation in the comments below.

Want to read some great fight scenes and get drawn up into the war between Heaven and Hell? Knights and demons collide in my latest series, and you can get Ascent of the Fallen here!


Photo Credits:

Craft at Canva

Whiteboard by Travis Chapman

Army Men

Knights of Dufferin Park

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