No Danger in a Double-Swoopy-Overhand-Neckchop Unless I Care

I get to read a lot of fight scenes.  I often see stories that open with a fight scene. But for me, I routinely see two things in fight scenes that kill my readerly interest as utterly as a head-severing blow from Conan’s greatsword.

The first: I don’t think readers can ever picture the physical moves of the fight as clearly as the author does.  It’s very difficult to describe physical action that’s happening in specific spatial places in a way that the reader can get such 3D spatialness from the prose.  Sometimes you can use fighting jargon to describe a stance or move, but if the reader doesn’t know that term, that doesn’t work either. All that ineffective description just ends up bogging down the pace.

What’s more, I don’t think it’s necessary that the reader be able to picture the moves in a fight. The general feel of the fight is far more important to me.  Is it elegant, with quick moves, like Wesley and Inigo in The Princess Bride?  Is it short and brutish, like Robin and the Sheriff at the end of Robin and Marion?  It is epic and terrifying, like Eowyn and the Nazgûl? Bestselling D&D author R.A. Salvatore considers the surroundings: is it taking place in a ring, on a rocky hillside, or in a tight cave?  Capture the vibe, and that will hook me far deeper.

The second: I don’t think most writers realize that in a fight scene the danger, and therefore the narrative tension, doesn’t come from the adversary, or the weapons, or the moves.  It comes from the character.  A character who I already care about (that’s why opening with a fight scene rarely hooks me).  Then showing me how this fight threatens that character’s internals.

No, not their internal organs, Conan; their emotions.  Their hopes and dreams; what they want and what they care about.  I think all real fights have that–people get into fights because something emotionally important to them is at stake.

If a fight scene captures the vibe and makes me feel the character’s emotional stakes, then I get the danger.  En guarde!

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3 Responses to “No Danger in a Double-Swoopy-Overhand-Neckchop Unless I Care”

  1. Rebecca Stefoff Says:

    Timely words, Scott. I’m just now (1) rereading some of the Amber books, and thinking about why some of the fight scenes are more gripping for me than others, and (2) revising a story of my own that has a fight scene. Not to mention planning to see that new movie about Ronon–er, Drogo–er, Conan.

  2. Maggie Della Rocca Says:

    I find battle or fight scene extremely difficult to write because I don’t enjoy reading them. I generally find them to go on too long to the point of tedium, leaving me skimming them. Which only makes it harder to learn. I am on my 2nd read of Feast For Crows (having just read the first 3 Martin books for the 3rd time, all in prep for book 5) and feel that he writes some of the better battle scenes I’ve come across. Do you have any recommendations that illustrate your points?

  3. scott Says:

    Er, Conan–yes, Rebecca. :)

    And yes, Maggie, most fight scenes bore me too–all that attempting to describe the moves.

    Rereading Amber or GRRM: I’ve just started my GRRM reread myself and so haven’t gotten to any fights yet. I remember the climactic fight in “The Hedge Knight”, which very much was based in character–the commoner protag feeling out of his element against royal knights, and actually drawing on his background during that fight.

    (BTW, I think fight scenes and battle scenes are different. Battle scenes are covering a big field of simultaneous happenings. I think the challenge there is to maintain the impact that it’s having on one person, while still conveying the overall. I’m likewise curious to see how GRRM’s battles feel to me upon reread. R. Scott Bakker’s battles I recall being interesting.)

    I also highly recommend Mike Ashley’s novella that ran in BCS two years ago: “To Kiss the Granite Choir.” It has lots of swordfighting. I think it’s more rooted in the culture and the character’s overriding goal, but it also has great emotions of the moment, as the character faces tall odds. And the writing is awesome, which always helps. :)