Writing Fight Scenes: Maps

[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]

After a delay of much longer duration than expected, I finally have for you a follow-up post on the topic of where to set the combat, which will function as our segue into craft-related aspects of writing fight scenes.

If the layout and contents of the environment are important to the scene — as they should be — then you need to have a very clear grasp on their relative positions. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll communicate that information effectively to the reader, but believe me: if you don’t have that clear grasp, your odds of communicating the necessary information go way down.

To that end, I suggest making a map.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. Mine, in fact, are hideous. Let me show you, with three examples from Warrior (the novel formerly known as Doppelganger):

The top one is for the scene I mentioned in a previous post, the face-off between Mirage and the four Thornbloods who jump her in the common room of an inn. The letters identify the combatants, in their opening positions; M is Mirage, X are the Thornbloods. The exterior door is in the bottom wall; upper left marks the exit to the kitchen, and upper right marks the staircase. The eight things vaguely resembling rectangles are tables. At this late remove, I can’t say for sure, but I think the scribble above the arrow coming off that lower right X represents the wet patch of floor and bucket of soapy water Mirage kicks over later in the fight.

With the second map, I got fancier; I blame the fact that I wrote the related scene right after getting back from an archaeological field school, and I had topography on the brain. This is a chase scene, where Mirage et al. get ambushed by a group of Cousins, and all those little cuneiform marks are me telling myself in which direction the slopes are angled when the horses go charging off the road. I think the bit in the upper right corner is me doing a cross-sectional view of that bend in the road. Not a fight, per se, but as physical action it has many of the same practical requirements.

The third map is the house in which Miryo is imprisoned, and I created it to plan Mirage’s assault. Again, we have a cross-sectional view, this time so I can keep track of where Mirage is climbing; then there are two floor plans, with an M for Miryo and C’s for a pair of Cousins.

As you can see, these are purely utilitarian. They primarily exist to mark boundaries and obstacles — walls, slopes, large pieces of furniture — and keep them from accidentally wandering off to the other side of the combat space because you got turned around as to which way your character was headed. The less specific you are about the movement of a fight, the less necessary a map tends to be; if your scene is primarily about the viewpoint character’s psychological reaction to violence, you may not need to remember whether the staircase was to the right or the left as she came in the door. But the more you bring spatial details into play, the more it helps to keep a record of them.

These particular maps are remarkably light in arrows; I thought I remembered the first one having a lot more. (Possibly there was another version, not in my box o’ papers from that book.) If a fight moves widely around the combat space or has multiple participants, I will frequently scribble arrows all over the page, to keep track of where everybody is — it’s really helpful to do the map itself in pen, and the arrows in pencil, so you can erase them at will. Thanks to my stage combat background, sometimes I’ll designate the sides as downstage, stage left, etc, and then jot down shorthand notes to myself about the action in the fight: “M runs DS, knocks #3’s blade wide SR, steps in, breaks elbow.” Whatever. The point is to do something that will help me keep track of positions and movement, so I can visualize it well enough to then relay the necessary info to the reader. Otherwise, I’ll come back to read the scene the next day and have no idea how it looked in my head. And if I can’t re-create that, the odds of the reader doing so are pretty small.

All right, there’s that hurdle done with. Hopefully I’ll finish the rest of the posts in a more timely fashion. From here on out, it’ll be more specifics of craft rather than broad considerations, though we’ll definitely be referring back to those as we go.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Maps”

  1. rachelmanija

    I agree, maps are very helpful, especially when there are more than two combatants involved.

    Even better than maps are maps plus figurines. I made a bunch of clay figurines for me and Sherwood to block out fights and other complicated scenes with, but one could just as easily buy a bunch of toy soldiers, RPG figurines, or anime figurines, and assign them characters and/or paint them.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve never used figs myself, but yes, I can see that being handy. (So long as you keep them all on the same scale! A Lego man facing off against a six-inch anime figurine would not be appropriate for most stories.)

      • rachelmanija

        That’s one reason why I made ours myself. 😉

        The other factor is that Sherwood and I are collaborating, and that ensures that we’re both visualizing the same thing.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, if you’re collaborating, this stuff must be vital. (Unless one person is in charge of writing the fights, and the other one doesn’t touch them.)

  2. la_marquise_de_

    I don’t map, but the marquis and I have been known to get out the RPG figures and floor-plans to plan such things out. And block out moves in the garden, too.

  3. Anonymous

    Maps can be helpful… and also inadequate. Here’s something that too many “combat choreographers” (at all scales) forget: sightlines.

    One of the best examples of this is the battle at Helm’s Deep, as depicted in both the book and in Peter Jackson’s film. Due to the way the gate was contructed (in both the book and the film), nobody in the citadel had a sightline — or communication with someone who did have a sightline — of the Uruk-Hai rush up the ramp. And yet the response from inside was to quite precise positioning, without taking any time for an extraordinarily risky reconnaissance, report back, and formation of plan.


    OK, there’s going to be some cinematic compression of “unimportant” stuff, but that’s not unimportant… particularly in light of some of the other details that were retained.

    On a smaller scale, one of the (many) reasons that I despise martial-arts films is that they seldom pay attention to what the protagonist(s) (and, too often, antagonists) can see or hear in the course of a fight. There’s one awful scene in a [name withheld to protect the reputation of the director and actor] in which a fighter gets impaled by a spear thrown from a balcony… that apparently hit its target by going through a stone pillar that blocked both the spear and the thrower’s sightline. A pre-fight map might have prevented that problem (although given who the director was, maybe not).

    Remember, if you can’t see it, you almost certainly won’t react to it, let alone be able to target it for a distance attack or move toward it for close combat.

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