Writing Fight Scenes: Word Choice

NOTE: You can now buy the revised and expanded version of this blog series as an ebook, in both epub and mobi formats.

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

One of these days, I will actually finish this series of posts. 🙂 Today, we come one step closer to that goal!

Fight scenes, oddly enough, have certain technical challenges in common with sex scenes. Namely, both of them are primarily concerned with describing physical movement, and in the course of so doing, they have to refer to certain objects and actions again and again and again and again. And if you try to get too creative in the avoidance of repetition, you very rapidly slide down into the abyss of purple prose.

So how do you get around this?

Well, step one is to know what your available words are, and make sure you use them appropriately. In order of increasing specificity, you might call the thing your character is holding a weapon, a blade, a sword, a rapier, a Pappenheimer . . . once you hit that last one, you’ve almost certainly gotten too specific, unless there are so many rapiers bouncing around the scene that you really need to distinguish one of that particular style from all the others. Or you can get metaphorical — but that gets dangerous, very fast. If you talk about him using “his tool” . . . yeah.

Objects aren’t the only hurdle; motions can be equally tricky. Attack, stab, slice, cut, chop, thrust (again, careful with that one!), lunge, counter, block, parry, dodge, evade, retreat. A few more technical terms are generally familiar enough to pass; riposte, for example, isn’t too opaque, or disengage — that one can be understood in a general sense even if the specific meaning of the word gets lost. Raymond Feist made a good use of actual jargon in one of his Midkemia books; upon being asked why another character was wounded, one of his protagonists said “he tried a beat and counter-thrust when he should have parried in six.” It’s a fleeting enough line, and in a humorous enough context, that it doesn’t matter whether you know what “parrying in six” means; you still get the point. But in general, you want to stay away from that level of technicality.

So what do you say in its place?

I mentioned back at the beginning of this series that you can write a perfectly good fight scene even if you don’t know much about fighting, by focusing on things other than the actual movement: the character’s physical and mental state, for example. That’s one answer here. But there’s also a middle ground between specific movements and a generality that leaves the actual motions completely unclear.

The middle ground lies in talking about the significance and the effect of the movements. Instead of saying your rapier fighter disengaged and attacked in four, you can say she saw an opening in her enemy’s defense and exploited it. Instead of saying she stabbed her opponent, say she snaked around his wrist to bloody his arm. Forcing him back, smashing aside his defense, retreating desperately, etc — the point is to make sure your reader understands what the actions mean.

If you find yourself getting caught in a morass of repeated words, step back and ask yourself whether you can shift your focus and get more variety that way. It’s the proverbial forest/trees dichotomy: although there are times when it will benefit your story to get into the nuts and bolts of each movement, the flow will often work better if you keep your eye (and your reader’s) on the larger picture. Not only does it make things clearer for your reader, it helps you avoid the tedious Tab A Tab B Create Slot C mechanics of “he attacked, she blocked, she stabbed him.”

And then you’re safe from purple prose. 🙂

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