Writing Fight Scenes: Point of View

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

So, I’ve blathered on at length about how to imagine a fight scene for a story: who’s fighting, and why, and where, and with what, and how they’re doing it, and so on.

How do you get that onto the page?

Point of view seems a useful place to begin this discussion. It’s generally already been decided by the time you get to the scene; if the whole book has been in third person limited from the protagonist’s perspective, you’re unlikely to hop to first just for the fight. (You could do it, as some kind of avant-garde trick — but 99.9% of the time, you won’t.) So, what are you working with: first, second (unlikely), or third? Third limited or omniscient? If limited, then whose third are we in?

For a story with only one pov, again, that’s probably already been decided. But if you have multiple viewpoint characters, and more than one of them is present for the fight, you have a choice to make.

In modern fiction, the general rule of thumb is to go with whoever’s involved, rather than an onlooker. (If multiple combatants have had pov before, you likely pick whoever the reader is supposed to be rooting for.) After all, that person has the most at stake, right? Sometimes yes — and sometimes no. Sure, their life may be at stake, but that isn’t always the most interesting thing going on. An observer can be just as invested in the outcome of the fight, and in more complex ways. In Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, the first-person perspective, keeping the reader always in Phedre’s head, means that all of Joscelin’s battles are seen from the outside — but that leaves room for Phedre to be thinking about all the consequences, and not just the weapons currently attempting to spit her.

Writing from inside the fight gives you immediacy. Writing from outside it gives you context.

The same thing happens on the spectrum from first person, through third limited, to third omniscient. In first person as it’s usually deployed, there’s very little room for context during the clash itself; short of being a superhero or some other kind of more-than-human being (or a story that’s obviously tongue-in-cheek), you really can’t multitask while fighting. There is no room in the prose for exposition, or even much description, beyond the immediate concerns of movement.. (First person clearly framed as a retrospective account, on the other hand, can screw with that a bit.) Third person limited opens up the focus a bit more, but should still closely track the attention of the pov character; if that person in the fight, then the fight is where their attention will be.

A lot of first and third-limited fight scenes frankly provide too much detail. They go into blow-by-blow descriptions, well beyond what the viewpoint character would actually be tracking. I once had a really good sparring day in karate, and managed to beat one of the (teenaged) black belts in the class; I could not tell you how I did it if you paid me. There were no brilliant tactical tricks, no planning. By the time I recognized an opening in his defense, my fist had already filled it. If you wait for your conscious brain to catch up, you’ll be too late. (This is why you do so many drills, when you study a martial art: so that your muscles will know what to do and when to do it, without needing approval from your higher thought processes.)

Too much detail can be okay; it’s a narrative convention, right up there with dialogue =/= real speech. But immediacy is one of the things a close-in pov has to offer: the sweaty, half-panicked, act-before-you-think excitement of a fight. Don’t squander that without reason. Not only does it liven up the scene, it can help you skate past gaps in your technical expertise. An experienced fighter could be moving on instinct, while a larger strategy takes shape in her mind; an inexperienced one can be drowning in the emotional response of the moment. Neither approach requires you to know a stop-thrust from a hole in your head. (Or the other guy’s head.)

By contrast, writing from a pov outside the fight, or an omniscient perspective (which is admittedly rare these days), lets you choose your level of technical detail rather freely, and gives you a lot more room to comment on the fight. My favorite example here is one I mentioned at the beginning of this series: a duel in Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novel The Game of Kings. As I said then, the book is amazing, and this scene is one of my two favorite bits; I don’t want to spoil it. But I can give the general outline.

The fight is between Lymond (the protagonist) and one other man, with a crowd observing. The pov, as I said, is omniscient; it most often comments from the perspective of the crowd en masse, but perches from time to time on the shoulder of a couple of specific men watching, and in a few places gives the opinion of Lymond’s opponent. (It never, at any point, gives Lymond’s thoughts or feelings. This is one of the odder tricks of the story: I’d have to re-read to be sure, but I’m fairly certain the narrative doesn’t move into his head until the fifth book of the series. It definitely doesn’t happen anywhere in this, the first book.)

Operating at that distance allows Dunnett to exercise the full range of descriptive options for a fight. She can set the physical scene with meticulous detail, which heightens the tension before the fight begins. She can provide technical details when she wants them, because the observers are all trained swordsmen themselves; she can also show the untrained reader how amazing the duel is, because those swordsmen are all breathless at the sight. She can comment on the tactics and strategy and emotions of the combatants, because we know what one of them is thinking, and one of the observers is very alert to the rise and fall of that aspect. And by leaving Lymond out of the pov picture, she can keep the reader in suspense as to what he’s about to do and why. She can, and does, deploy all these things like a conductor with a symphony, slowing down the tempo at key points, before racing onward to the thrilling conclusion. The omniscient perspective allows her, in short, to revel openly in the craft of the endeavour, both on the page and in the story itself.

It’s a very different kind of scene than the one you would get from a first-person perspective. That’s okay, though; there’s room in fiction for many flavors of awesome. The question is how best to work within the frame you’ve set for yourself. If you’re writing in an immediate kind of first person, now isn’t the time to digress on the bigger picture. If you’re writing in a more distant third, be aware that you’ll have a hard time really conveying the heart-in-mouth experience of being in a fight. Play to the strengths of your frame, and make the best use of them that you can.

As always, feel free to bring up other examples in the comments, including your own work. I like seeing these tricks in action.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Point of View”

  1. la_marquise_de_

    Dunnett was great at fight scenes, wasn’t she? (I love the part-fight, part-chase in Queen’s Play). Steven Brust is another one who writes a good, believable fight, as does Tim Powers, but for me the king of the sword-fight remains Dumas.

  2. diatryma

    Lymond’s thought show up in Pawn, too: “If you were… who you were….” I can’t swear that his thoughts aren’t in earlier books, but I remember that line because it is perfect.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah, okay. I only noticed it for the first time in The Ringed Castle; it isn’t anywhere in TGoK or (I’m pretty sure) QP.

      • elaine_th

        We do get into his head in #2, QUEENS’ PLAY. Not that it is terribly meaningful, for the most part: waking up after the spectacular crash and fire at Tour des Mimes, listening to Conde, O’Connor and d’Enghien in his firt French appearance as Vervassal, and at least one more, anger at the situation he’s gotten himself into with his disguises etc.

        Have you read Dunnett’s second series, HOUSE OF NICCOLO? I swear she does her darndest to downplay a lot of the fight scenes in it. I once tried to analyze why they were so dead. Mainly, IIRC, she wasn’t interested in the fight, but in other things she was doing with the story.

        I’ve heard praise for the fight scenes from Paul Edwin Zimmer in his duology, but I thought he erred on the side of detail: blow by blow is how I remember them. I’m trying to remember any good fight scenes I’ve read recently and not much is coming to mind.

        • Marie Brennan

          Heh. That would be right after the point at which I petered out in my re-read a while back, hence not remembering it. 🙂

          I haven’t read the Niccolo books yet, no, though I want to at some point.

          It’s possible to do a very blow-by-blow fight scene and have it work, if that’s what your audience wants. I’m told Tom Clancy’s novels have what you might consider giant infodumps o’ doom about the technology — but since giant infodumps o’ doom about technology is one of the main things his readers show up for, it isn’t a problem.

  3. houseboatonstyx

    In a totally nother genre (Oz pastiche), ‘start with POV’ was just what I needed to find details for a melee. Elsewhere my emphasis — mini-set-pieces — has been on problem solving: one or more characters considering what to do about some immediate problem. So just now I looked through the melee notes and marked the places where some character does some action that required some thought, and I zoomed into that POV, then gave more wordage to the thought/discussion and alternatives than to the action itself. A relaxed pace — but that’s Oz for you. 😉

    • Marie Brennan

      The pace should definitely fit the story. If the entire piece has been a nice, slow, thoughtful, problem-solving kind of thing, a sudden shift to slam-bang action would be terribly jarring.

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