Creating Fight Scenes and Battles
Creating Fight Scenes and Battles
by Marilynn Byerly
Love and battle scenes have far more in common than most of us realize. Both are the hardest moments in our novels to create convincingly, require that all the senses be used to create them, and the motivation and outcome are vitally important to the plot. I won’t belabor the commonality, but keep it in mind as you write your own fight scenes.
Plotting the Fight Scene
The fight scene should be put into the plot not only to liven up the action but also to move the plot forward. Figure out what is at stake for the viewpoint character and the other characters. Make the possible results of the fight, beyond dying, as dangerous as getting killed.
You also need to answer two questions before you begin:
1. What do you want to say about your viewpoint character and other characters?
The fight should offer at least one or two pieces of the viewpoint character’s emotional puzzle to the reader. It should also say something about the other fighter or fighters.
2. What are the special abilities of the fighters?
List the special abilities of the viewpoint character; then give his opponent a skill or weapon that is equal to or slightly better than his. Equal powers make interesting contests. Your hero’s special abilities or skills should have been set up long before this fight scene.
Mapping Out the Fight
With these things in mind, you can map out the coming fight. Remember that the hero must barely survive each kind of attack, and he must start running out of options. Especially in the final showdown, the hero must be forced to go beyond his abilities and must face some element of his ultimate fear. He must do what he considers unthinkable or impossible to win.
In an unpublished novel, I had a hero who must face a were-dragon. This was the climatic fight between the two characters, winner take everything. The hero, who wants to die because his future will be a living hell, must survive for the sake of the woman he loves because her life is at stake as well.
I wanted him to face his weakness and fear of living as well as his own tendency to care more about himself than anyone else. Since this is the climax of the novel, I wanted the fight to extend over several chapters, and I didn’t want it to be boring and repetitive.
First, I thought about the weapons of a dragon—claws, teeth, fire, size, and wings. Considering the dragon’s many weapons and ways to fight, I realized that I could divide the fight into three acts:
The first act is ground-fought and must involve fire. The dragon will also use his human intelligence and voice as an emotional weapon. The hero is tentative in his skill, and he’s distanced himself from fights before ;so his weapon is a lance. He has a magical shield and armor which will help against the flame, but he can’t survive the flame for long, and the dragon is creating a conflagration with the vegetation. The hero’s uncertainty is also used against him by the dragon with his taunts until the hero acknowledges his feelings for his lover, and this allows her to bring magical rain.
In the second act, the dragon has lost his fire because of the heavy downpour which has soaked the terrain as well as dousing his flame so he takes flight, and the two battle.
I thought about flying warfare and the different ways a dragon can use his weapons in flight. I decided that the dragon would strafe the hero by using his claws to attack, and his wind in flight would be so strong the hero could barely stand to face it. The dragon would also use his weight to knock the hero down.
After the initial fighting where the dragon uses these methods of attack, he manages to get the hero’s shield which he’s used against the claws, and proceeds to shred him at each pass and exhaust him because of the heavy wind created by his wings.
Barely staying on his feet because of exhaustion and blood loss, the hero finally retaliates by using the lance like a spear and throws it into the dragon’s underbelly.
In the third act, the dragon can no longer fly because of damaged wings from the lance; so he and the hero are forced to face each other in close quarters with no retreat. The hero uses a sword.
The hero now knows his own heart and has discovered his courage. He will no longer give up the fight. The dragon has discovered that he can die in this fight, and he’s afraid for the first time, but he’s forced to stay because the two are locked in a mythic pattern from which neither can escape.
Since the battle is close quarters, I thought about the dragon’s different weapons, and the hero’s battle plan. The hero must get close enough to stab into the dragon’s heart, but the dragon uses his long neck, his size, and his speed to stay safe. The hero finally creates a distraction to shift the dragon’s attention and stabs him.
Creating the Characters’ Physical Actions
For physical battles like sword fights, I picture the fight like it’s a movie. I also get up from the computer and pretend I’m holding a sword, imagine the opponent’s move, and block it, noting my balance, what I’m leaving open, and any possible return blow. I also use the physical location of the hero to vary fighting. The floor may be bloody from his first opponent; so the hero or villain may slip and fail to parry a blow, etc.
I rarely write out blow for blow because I think that’s boring. Instead, I’ll give occasional overviews of what’s happening. For example, the hero is thinking about how his body is learning the rhythm of the fight, or he’s aware of other fighters around him. I try to avoid using technical terms to describe the fight because I’m writing as much for those unfamiliar with swordplay as those who are, but I try to be accurate about how to use the weapon, and I use a sprinkling of correct terminology to make it seem more realistic.
I’ve never fought with a sword, but I’ve held a number in my hand, and I’ve watched others fight with them. I try to remember the weight of the weapon, the sound a fighter makes as he swings the heavy sword, and the sheer weariness of the weight of fighting something or someone above you.
Creating the Emotional Reactions
The viewpoint character’s emotions and senses must be as much at play in the struggle as his body and weapons. I make a special effort to include all the senses in my descriptions. What does he hear? See? Smell? Taste? Feel? How does he react to killing someone? The death of a friend?
Sword Fighting the Correct Way
For more information about sword fighting, there are a number of excellent books, web sites, and movies on the subject. Just be sure you pick the right style of fighting for the right period if you are writing historically. If you know anyone in your local Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA), contact them, and they can probably put you in touch with an expert in whatever weapon or period you choose. If you don’t know anyone in the SCA, visit the science fiction group at the nearest college because many of them are also involved with the SCA. I’m sure there’s also contact information online for most local SCAs.
My advice for creating a fist fight is essentially the same as I offer for a sword fight. Remember, as with sword fighting, fist fighting styles have changed over the centuries. Fighting terms have changed as well. Be sure not to have your Viking warrior “boxing,” for example.
Another common mistake I’ve seen is to have martial arts moves as part of a fight during periods when the combatants would have had no chance to have learned moves that are radically different from Western-style fighting.
Guns and Rifles
I’m far more comfortable with a pistol or rifle than I will ever be with a sword, and I was trained by an expert, but I still take great care to get my information correct when I have a character with a gun in his hand. Whatever you do, don’t casually throw out brand names of guns or styles of guns if you don’t know what you are talking about because you’ll almost always be wrong. For example, a revolver and a semiautomatic are not two synonyms for a pistol. They describe two very different types of gun and refer to the way the bullet is loaded and moves within the gun to the chamber. The revolver was also on the scene many years before the semiautomatic--your cowboy’s gun can’t be a semiautomatic.
Horses and Combat
Having your characters on horseback adds a totally different dimension to the fight. The horse is a living, thinking part of the combat, and it can also be used as a weapon under the right circumstances. The horse and rider are a team, not a human with a means of transportation. If you aren’t a rider, I suggest you avoid horseback fighting because it’s hard to understand a horse’s movement and nature during combat without experience. If the combat is necessary, talk to a horseman and have him check out your scene for accuracy. Keep in mind that most people love horses, and some readers can become really upset if there are horse casualties, and you’ll lose a fan. Wipe out all the adult humans you want, but think twice and thrice before killing a horse, a pet, a cute fantasy dragonette, or a child. be totally alone. Losing his identity as Clark Kent is his greatest emotional fear. What should he do? Which story is stronger and more interesting? I’m sure you’ll say the second one because more than physical danger is involved. Clark/Superman must risk something of great emotional importance to win, and by winning, he will ultimately lose.
Find the main character’s greatest emotional weakness, and hit him there with your plot in the same way as you hit him with his physical weakness.
Love or War?
War is hell, and so is love, but they make one heck of a good story if you get both right.
As a published. award-winning author of paranormal romance, science fiction romance, romantic suspense, science fiction adventure, and fantasy, Marilynn Byerly has had the pleasure of creating vast amounts of mayhem, danger, and fist, gun, and sword fights, but virtue and love always triumph in the end in her works.
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