[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]
One thing you may not know, if all your experience of fights comes from reading books and watching movies: they are short.
The SCA fencing practice I used to attend would sometimes stage melees, where everybody would get divided up into groups and set against each other en masse. One time they arranged two tables with a gap in between, and declared the gap to be a doorway, that one group (consisting of about five people) was defending. The goal of the other group (equal in numbers) was to get past them to the back wall.
From start to finish, how long do you think it took?
Less than twenty seconds.
(And that’s counting the time the attackers spent advancing, before they closed with their opponents.)
Fighting is kind of like being a soccer/football goalie guarding against a penalty kick. Do you leap left or right? There are physical clues that will tell you which way to go, but you have only a fraction of a second in which to spot and analyze them, before you have to choose. Left or right? If you’re good, your odds of choosing correctly are better than 50% . . . but sooner or later, they’ll slip one past you.
Sooner or later, a decisive blow will get past somebody’s defense. And it’s probably going to be sooner.
There are times when you want to replicate this in your story. Near the beginning of The Bourne Identity (film, not book), Jason Bourne takes down a pair of cops in less time than it took me to type this sentence. Because the usual convention of fiction is that combat lasts a long time, the effect of a quick takedown is to say, this guy is really badass. Mind you, in prose, the duration of the actual moment and the length of its description aren’t correlated much at all; you could gloss over a knock-down drag-out match in half a sentence, or spend a whole paragraph detailing the three lightning-fast moves that lay the opponent out. But if you want badass points, make it short. (There’s a non-combat-related bit in The Ringed Castle, one of the later books in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, where she spends maybe two or three sentences telling us that what with one thing and another, a handful of characters got themselves from England to Russia. Her not telling us how they managed that — in the sixteenth century, when that journey was not what you’d call easy — makes them seem 300% more awesome than if she’d spent a chapter on it.)
But it’s a convention of fiction that important, set-piece fights can last a really long time. Fair enough; our purpose is to be dramatic, not realistic. So how do you make a fight scene long, without boring the reader?
The answer lies within!