Writing Fight Scenes: Sentence Structure

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.]

Step up one level from the nouns and verbs you’re going to be using over and over and overandoverandover again in your fight scenes, and it’s time to consider how you’re going to string them together into sentences.

There are two main schools of thought on this, and I’m going to give you the one I disagree with first.

The first school of thought says your fight scene should have a lot of short sentences, which will read quickly and help create the sense of excitement you want in your scene.

I understand where this is coming from. It’s the same principle that argues in favor of short scenes and short chapters, if the story you’re writing is supposed to be fast-paced and thrilling. On the scene and chapter levels, I think there’s some truth to that; the frequent breaks allow you to build in frequent cliffhangers, which will propel your reader onward through the story. On the sentence level, however, I believe this advice is dead wrong.

Punctuation, at least in the western world, developed out of the marks Greek orators put into their texts to tell themselves where to pause. Commas indicate a brief pause; periods — also called “full stops” — indicate a longer one. When you write in short sentences, you’re stopping your reader dead every line or so. How well does this flow?

Penthesilea charged at her enemy. She raised her sword. She chopped down at his head. He dodged. His sword cut along her side. She cried out in pain. Then she shoved him back with her shield. He stumbled and she ran him through.

That kind of prose makes me feel like I’m being jerked forward and back, forward and back. (Also, it makes me feel like a third grader: See Penthesilea. See Penthesilea stab. Stab, Penthesilea, stab!)

True, I exaggerated the shortness of the sentences; few writers are going to be that terse in their phrasing. But don’t worry — I’ll exaggerate just as much in a moment, when I illustrate the second school of thought.

This one says that, since the action of a fight often flows rapidly, it’s better to write long, flowing sentences. If periods are full stops, then use fewer of them, and more commas or semicolons. Maybe even let your sentences become borderline ungrammatical. Example:

Penthisilea charged at her enemy, sword raised, then chopped down at his head, but he dodged and his sword cut along her side, making her cry out in pain; she shoved him back with her shield, and then he stumbled and she ran him through.

That’s overkill, of course. But of the two extremes, I prefer the latter, which does a better job of conveying the headlong rush of a fight.

Naturally, the fight won’t always be a headlong rush. When the characters are taking their time, sizing one another up, venturing a test strike here and there, that’s a good time for shorter sentences. When the fight gets faster or more chaotic, though, the prose should reflect that.

This scales up to paragraphs, too. Put in breaks where there is a break in the struggle, or where something shifts in the flow of the fight. Injury, a change in tactics, one character learning something, the direction of motion altering. When the action cascades, though, keep it all in the same paragraph, to avoid the brief interruption of that line break and indentation.

Speaking of cascading . . . that will be the next post, when we talk about which parts of the fight should get the most attention.

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/576377.html. Comment here or there.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Sentence Structure”

  1. leatherdykeuk

    You make very good points. Thanks.

  2. tooth_and_claw

    I think the best fight scenes need to utilize both. Where a character gets jarred, short, abrupt sentences will help convey that, but the flow is important too. I think of it like a gorgeous martial arts fight– bursts of acrobatic, flowing fury, punctuated by someone actually *landing* a blow and hitting the mat.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, sure. As I said, sometimes the shorter sentence is what you want. I just disagree with the idea that they’re “faster” — I think the reverse is true, when they’re lined up next to one another.

      • tooth_and_claw

        So you did! Herp, this is what I get for reading and replying before 10 AM.
        Commas definitely imply faster movement, though as someone who has trouble slowing down to read something properly, too much of them and I’m lost in a whirlwind. Which can be precisely the effect intended.

        • Marie Brennan

          Yeah, that’s why I’m okay with the sentences sometimes becoming mildly ungrammatical. There are places where that kind of breakdown can be appropriate, because you want to disorient your reader just a hair.

          I’d use that very sparingly, though. Don’t want people to think you can’t string together an English sentence. 😉

  3. Marie Brennan

    There’s a reason I gave the protagonists different genders in my example. 🙂

    • tooth_and_claw

      What do you suggest in a same-pronoun combat? I’ve been bashing my head against this lately. i hate using names over, and over, and over, but descriptors get messy and purple really fast.

      • Marie Brennan

        It’s hard to answer that in general terms, other than to say, choose your angle and focus to minimize the extent to which you’re juxtaposing the two, and therefore dealing with the problem. If you’re comfortable with providing an excerpt, I could try to make more specific suggestions.

        But in general, yeah, it is a pain. No simple way around it.

  4. marycatelli

    The odd thing I’ve found is that periods lose impact when you use fewer of them. Long, flowing sentences flow into each other even though there are fewer endings.

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