[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]
I’ve said before that you don’t actually have to give a blow-by-blow description of your fight in order to write a good scene, and in fact you often don’t want to. Going into detail slows the action down and risks confusing a reader who can’t visualize the movement very well.
But sometimes, at key moments, it can be good to describe specific moves. The sequence that leads to somebody being killed or disarmed or knocked to the ground can be worth focusing on — a brief snapshot that shows a character’s desperation, competence, etc. So let’s talk for a moment about how you can work that out, even if you don’t have a lot of training.
Warning: it involves looking like a complete weirdo. 🙂
As with the maps, the key is to have a clear understanding of the physical circumstances of the scene. How are the combatants standing? Which foot is forward, how are they holding their weapons, which direction are they moving? If Fighter A blocks in this direction, where is the obvious place for Fighter B to attack next?
You can try to imagine it all in your head, but — speaking as somebody who does really well with spatial visualization, and has actual combat training — that’s damn hard, and it goes better with concrete aids. You can try using action figures or something, but be sure to pick something fully articulated; a stiff-armed figure won’t do you much good. The best, though, is to get some kind of prop to stand in for your weapons (even if it’s just a yardstick or a cardboard tube for a sword), and a friend to be your opponent.
Whatever your setup, now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!
Not actual sparring — not unless you’ve got the proper training and safety gear. (In which case, knock yourself out (in the non-literal sense).) But walk through the movements, slowly, and think about whether they work. If I come at my opponent with an overhand strike, what are her options for blocking, or which way could she move to avoid the blow? Having protected herself, what’s the most open target on me for her to counter-attack? Or is there some way I can continue my strike into a second move before she gets a chance to respond? If I’m trying to achieve a specific effect, like sweeping her foot out from under her (because my story needs her to end up on the ground), what can I do to close the distance between us without getting skewered as I approach?
Don’t forget to think about what your plan would be like at full speed. When you’re going one movement at a time, stopping to think about tactics at each turn, it’s easy to overlook the fact that momentum is also an issue. If your character is swinging a two-handed broadsword full-armed, reversing the direction of the weapon on short notice isn’t a very feasible option, even if her enemy is wide open for it. If she’s just been hit in the stomach and is doubled over to the left, any kind of high attack from the left will first require her to straighten up and turn — and while that’s going on, her opponent will probably be busy doing something else.
Also don’t lose sight of the fundamental considerations: how trained the characters are, what they’re willing to do. It may be true that the easiest and most effective move from a given position would be to kick the other guy in the head, but that doesn’t mean that’s what the character would do.
You’ll need some way to record the moves you come up with, unless (again) you’re really good at holding this sort of thing in your head. If you’re trained at the kind of combat you’re writing about, you’ll probably have terminology for the purpose; otherwise make up whatever will still be clear to you when you come back to your notes in a week or a month. Whether it’s technical jargon or your own personal system, though, it probably won’t be the words you use for it in the actual story. Worry about mechanics now; artistic concerns come later.
Is this easier to do when you know how to fight? Sure. But even if you don’t, miming your way through the key moves can make it concrete enough for you to write about it more vividly, and help you avoid making up a sequence that a reader who is visual and/or combat-trained will find howlingly implausible. You don’t need the whole fight — you probably don’t want the whole fight — but having a few specifics can give the scene more weight, and that’s never a bad thing.