And Now, a Fight: Writing Combat in Fiction

Submitted by C B Wright on

Note: this article is a repost. It originally appeared, and still exists, as a post on the Pen and Cape Society Website. I'm reposting it here mostly for my own benefit.

When I was in college majoring in Theater one of my professors had a thing about musicals—he didn’t like them. He was very clear on why he didn’t like them: “the story is going along and all of a sudden everything stops, and someone sings for a while, and then the story starts again, until it stops again, because somebody sings again.”

I’m paraphrasing—that was a little more than twenty years ago—but I got the gist of it right.

I understood his basic objection, but I didn’t agree that it was a problem with musicals per se—it was a problem with some musicals, to be sure, but there were plenty of musicals where the songs were actually part of the story. In some, the song is what the hero uses to seduce the heroine (or the other way around, but usually it’s the hero seducing the heroine). In some, the song is the equivalent of a Shakespearean monologue, where the singer starts out undecided and by the end of the song has worked through and decided upon a course of action. In one of my favorite sequences—the song “We Got Trouble” from The Music Man—the song is the con. “Professor” Hill starts out singing the song, going on and on about the danger the town is in, how the youth are turning into hoodlums, and how the ONLY THING THAT CAN SAVE THE TOWN IS TO BUY A MARCHING BAND and by the end of the song the town is up in arms and they’re singing with him. It is, in its own way, a song of seduction. It’s also a very efficient way of communicating to the audience that “Professor” Hill is an excellent, glib, fast-talking, quick-witted con man. And it acts as very convenient shorthand for a con that, if it were being portrayed realistically, would have taken at the very least weeks to set up before he got the town to buy in.

My professor didn’t like musicals because he saw the musical numbers as scenes that interrupted the story. When I think of a musical I like, however, the songs actually serve the story by underscoring an important piece of characterization or by moving the story forward in some way.

In that respect, combat in fiction is a lot like a song in a musical. It can be over-the-top, it can be tear-jerking, it can be dramatic, it can be funny. But what it absolutely has to be is something that serves the story in some way. If it doesn’t, it does to the reader exactly what musicals did to my professor: it stops the story in its tracks. It becomes something a reader has to struggle against or suffer through in order to move on to the next bit. Essentially the fight in a story becomes a fight for the reader to continue reading the story.

That’s not what anyone wants. When we write a fight scene, we want the reader to enjoy it. So how can you make combat work for the story, instead of against it?

Disclaimer

I’m going to talk about writing combat, and as I do I’m going to sound very opinionated and sure of myself. Don’t let it fool you: I have no grounds to be a Self-Appointed Authority on Writing Good Combat. The only way to judge whether I know what I’m doing is to read what I’ve done and decide for yourself whether you think it works.

What I’m describing is a Platonic ideal: the “perfect” end-state I’m always trying to move toward. There are times when I think I’ve moved closer to it, and plenty of times when I think I’ve fallen short.

Also, I’m not a great believer in Universal Writing Truths. Things that work for one writer won’t work at all for another, and if your style and voice is markedly different from mine, there’s every chance that the stuff I’m talking about here simply won’t work for you. Take everything with a grain of salt, question everything, discard anything that doesn’t work. If that means “discard everything,” then discard everything, do it without shame or hesitation, and never look back.

With that out of the way…

Meta-Combat: Combat as Story

Each time I start writing a new issue of Curveball I have to ask myself “what is it I’m trying to do here?” This usually morphs into “what is it I want the reader to come away with when they finish the story?” which is usually a more important question to ask, since it’s more directly useful to the reader. Being able to answer that question doesn’t guarantee that I’ll actually pull it off, but it does give me something to shoot for, and writing with a goal in mind helps focus on what details to include and what to leave out.

Think of combat as a mini-story within your story—a violent story, obviously—and decide what the point of that story is. What is it you want the reader to come with when the combat ends? “I want the reader to say ‘DUDE THAT WAS AWESOME!’” is of course a legitimate reaction, but you want to be a little more specific than that: why do you want the reader to think it was awesome? What is it that pushes the combat story over the top?

There are a lot of ways to think about that, but I like to divide the combat into two categories: is it primarily plot-driven—in other words, does it move the story forward by allowing the protagonist (or antagonist) to achieve a goal that causes the plot to advance—or is it primarily character-driven—in other words, does the combat reveal something significant about a character in a way that deepens the reader’s understanding of what makes the character tick?

Combat as Plot

A combat scene that focuses on something plot-driven will be working toward a specific ending: the bad guy manages to press the red button just before he dies, or the good guys manage to stop him (or he manages to press the red button, but just before he dies he realizes, to his horror, that the other hero has cut the wire leading from the red button to the doodad. End scene.)

Combat-as-plot is relatively straightforward—it’s just like every other obstacle in your story. The protagonists need to do something, there’s something in their way (probably other characters ready and willing to fight them) and they need to do something that solves the problem. It could be something simple and direct (BANG thump) or something complicated and direct (LOTS OF BACKFLIPS THEN A HEADKICK WHILE THROWING NINJA STARS thump) or something clever (ASSUME I CAME UP WITH SOMETHING CLEVER AND WROTE IT HERE thump) but by the end the heroes have either solved the problem (yay, we win!) or made the problem worse (crap, we lost) or some point in between (well we stopped them from kidnapping the heiress but the villain got away, and also he stole our car).

Combat as Character

A combat scene that focuses on character will highlight something about the character the reader may not have known before. My favorite example of this is a fight in the movie Cool Hand Luke between Luke and Dragline (another inmate in the prison). Luke is clearly outmatched in this fight—the guy he’s up against is a bruiser—and he’s knocked down pretty quickly. But he gets back up. And then he’s knocked back down. And then he gets back up. And then he’s knocked back down. And the point of the fight isn’t that Luke is going to come up from behind and pull out a win at the last minute—it’s that he isn’t going to give up. And the fight winds up actually telling us something about both characters: Luke is obviously going to keep fighting until he physically can’t get up any more, and eventually Dragline decides he isn’t going to let it go that far. He stops the fight.

It’s a great scene, and it reveals something about Luke’s character that’s pretty important to understanding how the rest of the movie plays out.

I had Cool Hand Luke in mind when I wrote part of Issue 24. I have a character who’s superpower is essentially “doesn’t die” (though the power doesn’t necessarily keep protect him from harm, or from feeling pain) and he’s put up against a foe where the only way he can see to defeat it is to put him in a position where he feels pain over and over and over again. At that point in the writing process I was actually pretty pissed off, because the issue was behind schedule and MUCH longer than I wanted, but I cheered up immensely because I got to write my very own Cool Hand Luke scene.

(DISCLAIMER: My “Cool Hand Luke Scene” is not as awesome as the actual scene from Cool Hand Luke. You should see Cool Hand Luke.)

The kind of trait you want to highlight will determine what kind of combat you show. If the character is stubborn and never gives up, your combat might be an incredibly punishing experience, and rather one-sided like that scene from Cool Hand Luke. If you want to show that your character is incredibly adaptable and able to think fast on his feet, you might stage it more like a fight scene in a Jackie Chan movie, where the character uses anything and everything he or she can find as a makeshift weapon.

You’re still telling a story with your fight, but the takeaway from the story won’t be “he pressed the red button.” It’ll be “hm, the protagonist is very adaptable in a pinch” and also perhaps “don’t ever try to lock the protagonist in a closet with a nailgun and ceramic tape.”

Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

It’s important to be clear on the odds—specifically, who is favored to win the fight—before writing the scene. If the reader expects the hero to win and he does, there’s no surprise. If the reader expects the hero to lose and he wins, there can be a pretty solid payoff. If the reader expects the hero to win and he loses, that can be a great plot twist that leaves the reader floored and scrambling to turn the page. But in each case you have to set the scene in a way where the reader buys the premise (“this is going to be an easy fight”) and then buys resolution (“holy crap, the villain wiped the floor with that guy.”)

This one can be especially tricky in superhero fiction, where the characters can shoot beams of fire contain the heat of a billion suns at each other while reciting monologues about the nature of good and evil. It tends to stack the cards in the superhero’s favor, unless you’ve managed to introduce villains (or other environmental elements) that even the odds. But you don’t always have to even the odds. There’s nothing wrong with including a Curb Stomp Battle in your story. You need to decide whether the fight is evenly matched, and if it isn’t, you need to decide whether the fight is tilted in favor or against the protagonists. If it’s an “easy fight” for the protagonists, you need to decide why it needs to be shown at all.

Something like:

Taking out the perimeter guard was no big deal. Once she broke into the building, things got tricky.”

That might be more effective than giving a blow-by-blow of a fight the protagonist doesn’t really need to put much effort into. In fact, if the focus of the story is supposed to be what happens after she breaks into the building, spending time on getting there could be counter-productive.

On the other hand, you can do some really interesting character-building stuff in an uneven fight. Does the protagonist take extra pains not to permanently injure the hired thugs, even though it makes the fight more complicated? Does the protagonist take things too far, continuing to hurt the thugs even after it’s obvious the fight is over? Both reveal things about the character.

Imagine this scene:

A man is fighting ferociously, fighting with an almost animal savagery, tearing through his opponents despite everything they throw at them. As the fight escalates, his opponents realize they’re not just fighting, they’re fighting for their lives, and as it escalates further it becomes clear they’re going to lose. And then, all at once, he just… stops. No one knows why. Then, somewhere not far off, they hear the terrified sobbing of a child who happened to stumble upon the melee. The child’s sobbing gets louder, and the savage fighter turns and runs away.

That’s a clearly one-sided fight, and on it’s own it’s a curb stomp battle that could be used to show how vicious the attacker is. But add in the swerve of this apparently animalistic combatant being driven away by the sound of child crying, and you get something else. Does the attacker have a soft spot for children? Did the attacker experience a trauma involving children? The fight is now character development and plot development, because it gives the story another place it can go.

Staging the Fight

I just spent 2,000 words going over the “meta” part of writing a combat scene—determining why it’s going to be in your story, and what it’s going to accomplish. That’s important, but even after you get that figured out you still have to write the scene. If you’re anything like me, this is the depressing part, because it becomes a balancing act between giving the reader enough information about what’s going on to make it interesting, engaging, even exciting, and not giving the reader so much information that it’ll bog the reader down and make the mind wander.

Here are some thoughts about actually writing the scene.

Rolling for Initiative”

The first time I ever tried to write a fight scene on a large scale, one of the people who read it commented “the main problem with this scene is that I could hear someone saying ‘OK, roll for initiative’ before you described each action.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the reference, my friend was talking about the way combat worked in Dungeons & Dragons. In old school D&D, initiative determined not which character went first, but which side went first. So if you won initiative, everyone in your party got to attack, then the goblins, then you rolled for initiative, then maybe the goblins went first, then your party did, and so forth, and so on.

And my friend was right. In the scene, I described what every single person on Team A did, then what every single person on Team B did, then what every single person on Team A did, then what every single person on Team B did, and so on. It was an efficient way of keeping track of all the participants in the fight, but it gave the impression that everyone was taking turns, which isn’t how fighting really works. In an actual fight, nobody is patiently waiting their turn to get in a punch, shot, kick, whatever. Everyone is doing everything at pretty much the same time. There might be someone lying in wait or holding back for the opportune moment, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Of course you can’t write everything happening at the same time. Writing is linear. But you can get the effect of everything happening at once by weaving all your character actions together. A good way to do this is to figure out how you want the fight to play out first, then worry about making it all happen at the same time.

Here’s a short example. Let’s say there’s a barfight and you want two groups of people fighting each other. First, come up with a short description of everything that happens in the fight. Don’t bother with description, just list the actions:

A1 steps back and reaches for his gun

B3 leaps forward, raising his sword

B2 takes a swing at A5

A2 tackles B2

A2 and B2 tumble to the floor

B4 throws a bottle at A3

You can make all of those things feel like they’re happening at once by connecting multiple actions in the same sentence.

A1 steps back, reaching for a pistol as B3 leaps forward, brandishing a sword. B2 swings at A5 but is tackled by A2, and they go tumbling to the floor as B4 throws a bottle at A3’s head.

Of course you still have to add proper description but now you have the start of a simultaneous narrative.

Keep Track of Your Miniatures

I’m using a role-playing game motif for this subtitle because it ties in a little with the previous one. If you have a large fight, your biggest other problem is losing track of people. Sometimes you want the protagonist to go up against extreme odds—for example, Captain America against an entire Hydra base. So you create a fight where it’s just the one guy against five, ten, twenty, maybe a hundred opponents, you start writing a really intense and intricate combat scene where he and this other guy trade jabs and look for weaknesses… and a short way in you remember about the other 99 guys! What were they doing? Just standing around watching, like movie ninjas, because honor demands it?

I’m a pantser more than an outliner, but for fights I force myself to be a little more organized. In the manuscript or in a notepad sitting beside it I’ll list all the people participating in the fight, then in the manuscript I’ll sketch out a list of actions the way I described above. Then I’ll check the actions against my list to make sure everyone is accounted for, and when I start combining things and mixing them up I try to make sure that either a) each character is mentioned often enough to make the progression of time feel reasonable, or b) if a character is not mentioned, I make sure there’s a good in story reason for it (i.e., either the character goes down and is out of the action, or the POV changes to a much narrower part of the fight, and everything the character does doesn’t cross into the POV).

Beware Shaky-Cam

“Shaky-Cam” is a camera technique that modern movies have apparently fallen in love with when it comes to filming combat. The idea, I guess, is that combat is VIOLENT and CONFUSING, and in the middle of it all it’s impossible to really tell what’s going on. So during fight scenes they make sure the camera jerks around so the viewer never has a stable point of view to entirely process what’s going on. It’s supposed to make the fight feel chaotic and (I guess) more exciting.

I just find it annoying. I can’t tell what’s going on! I want to know what’s going on—the whole point of allowing someone else to tell you a story is so that you’ll know what’s going on—but Shaky-Cam isn’t built for clear exposition. It’s intended to confuse and disorient you.

A little of that can be cool. I’ve seen scenes where the shaky-cam is brought out to show the concussive effects of bombs going off, and they’ve worked for me. But in those cases, the shaky-cam was used sparingly and it quickly faded back into a more traditional, stable camera style.

There are writing styles that can be seen as analogues of shaky-cam—the idea being to give the reader a jumbled mass of sensation and description in order to create the illusion that not only is everything happening at once. It usually reminds me of an ee cummings poem. A little of this goes a long way—it can work, sometimes, but if you do it too much your reader gets frustrated. The “shaky-cam” method of combat writing requires your reader be willing to do quite a bit more work than usual, and if you ask too much your reader will bolt.

I’m not saying readers want to be spoon fed. I’m saying they want a return on their investment, and if you expect them to invest a lot up front, you’re probably going to lose them.

Establish Your Rhythm

This is a little abstract, and may in fact be the least useful part of this entire piece. Let’s go back to the beginning of the article, where I compare combat in fiction to a song in a musical: if combat is the song, you have to determine what kind of song it is. In a musical you don’t try to sing an upbeat, funny number as if it were a slow, dreamy love song. It doesn’t fit, and it wrecks the scene. Combat scenes serve the story in a similar manner: you have to figure what kind of scene it is in order to get a handle on how to tell it. When you do that, you can establish a rhythm for your scene—a series of action beats that establish the speed of the fight and move it along at the pace you want to set.

Like I said, abstract. But think of it this way: say you were going to write a scene similar to the one I described in Cool Hand Luke—where the hero is outmatched, and has no choice other than to take the beating. Is the beating fast and relentless? Is the hero’s only option “curl up into a ball and wait?” You may want to make the scene feel fast and relentless as well, with a focus on the pain growing and overwhelming everything else until finally the hero blacks out. On the other hand, it may be the beating is slow and deliberate (in Cool Hand Luke the point of the scene is that Luke chooses to get back up and take the beating again, and it’s a deliberate choice he makes each time he falls down). In that case, the writing might try to match that pace—perhaps a quick description of a blow sending the protagonist sprawling to the earth, followed up with a villain monologue, or detailed descriptions of the crowd watching, or even just a more detailed description of the protagonist getting up, wiping away some blood, and preparing for the next blow.

All the Other Stuff

This is hardly a comprehensive article on the subject—there are things I haven’t even touched on. I haven’t discussed how to approach physicality when you write a fight—do you want the POV to be right up in everyone’s face, and communicate the jarring pain of a fist smashing into the side of someone’s face, or do you want to stand a back and play up the theatricality of the fight, portraying it more as an intricate and deadly dance? I haven’t discussed how to choose the level of realism you want to capture.

I didn’t even bother trying to deal with realistically portraying firearms—someone already wrote an entire book about that, and you should read it. It’s called Throwing Lead: A Writer’s Guide to Firearms (and the People Who use Them), and it’s a pretty easy read. I’ve found it enormously useful (though I should note that despite having read it, I still screw up guns ALL THE TIME).

There’s a lot of down-in-the-weeds detail you can really sink your teeth into to make combat realistic as well as appropriate to your story. I’m not going to mention any of that stuff, because this article is already almost 4,000 words long and I don’t think either of us has the patience to sit through much more. Even the stuff I’ve gone over is just dipping a toe in the ocean. I could probably write another 4,000 word article just focusing on the idea of “Combat as Plot” if I really had to. But neither of us wants that. The point is, writing a fight scene can be just as gloriously complex as any other part of your novel.

Let’s move on to some final thoughts.

Final Thoughts

First final thought: if you write a fight scene in your book, be aware that no matter how you do it someone is going hate what you did.

I don’t necessarily mean “hate” in an actual, visceral, angry sense (though, you know, this is the Internet we’re talking about, so maybe) but in an EYEROLL-I-HATE-BOOKS-WITH-PIRATES-IN-IT sense. Some people just don’t like fight scenes, just like other people don’t like sex scenes, just like other people don’t like elves. No fight scene you write, no matter how you write it, will please them. They aren’t wrong for not liking your fight scene—preferences are preferences after all—but by the same token you aren’t wrong for writing it. You just need realize you’ll never please everyone.

Second final thought: even among people who do like fight scenes, be aware that someone is going to hate what you did.

That’s because some people only like things a certain way, and there are enough people with enough specific preferences out there that any choice you make will be flagged as “wrong” by someone, somewhere. This is where it gets a little trickier, because these readers belong to part of the potential audience you’re trying to reach. They’re also not wrong (because again, preferences are preferences) but again, see above: the fact that they don’t like it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the choices you made when writing the scene.

Sometimes you have to accept that people will dislike your work, take it on the chin, and move on.

Third final thought: At the end of the day, it all comes down to you and the empty page.

Maybe you use some of the thoughts in this piece to focus on your fight and how it integrates into your story. Maybe you discard all of it, proclaim me a worthless hack, and do whatever you want.

Fourth final thought (and this is the final-final thought): See my disclaimer at the beginning.

I don’t believe in Universal Writer Truths. The only thing you really have to do to succeed is a writer is to get readers to agree with the choices you make, and if you can do that, it doesn’t matter what those choices are. Which is to say: all this talk about organization and analysis and all the rest of it is essentially an attempt to build a tiny life raft on top of a seething whirlpool of chaos—you do it because the life raft increases your chances of not drowning, but there’s nothing stopping you from jumping right in and swimming in the chaos.

You’ll probably drown. But you might not.