"And Now, A Fight"

Ever since I started Curveball I've been writing a lot of combat. A lot more than I'd like, actually (I prefer writing dialog over pretty much everything else, and man do I hate describing things), but doing it so much forced me to think a lot about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I thought examining that process might be useful to the world at large (even if the world at large ultimately decides that process isn't for them) so I posted it on the Pen and Cape Society website.

It's a bit on the long side (about 4700 words!) but it's not really a simple subject--and even at 4.7K it doesn't get into anything to any great depth.

Anyway, on the off-chance anyone here might find it useful:

And Now a Fight: Writing Combat in Fiction

All very good info and well presented. Good stuff, uber.

My perspective is that combat is, at its best, a problem solving exercise. That's where superpowers and magic and mad science really spice it up and turn it into something different, provided I'm paying enough attention. Sometimes that problem is that so-and-so wants to cave your face in and all you've got is a pen-knife. But sometimes it's that you've got to get from A to B and Mr. C is standing in the middle, and he's got strengths and weaknesses and somehow you've got to make it happen, or the story ends, or the story takes a darker turn.

The readers can then be interested in both the action and the invention - the way the protagonist finds their way through the crisis. The bonus of this is that sometimes the character can develop or grow in the course of figuring out what they're willing to do or how they're willing or able to stretch their talents. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, every part of the story has to either move the story forward or shed light on the character. A fight scene can be neither, the song and dance number in the middle of the story, before things can resume, but it can be both, too.

Thanks Wildbow. I touched very briefly on the problem solving aspect (nailgun and cement tape) but I didn't dwell on it too long... there was just too much I was trying to cover. But you're right, combat in a story can be distilled down to a problem solving arc with very immediate consequences and the stakes turned up to eleven.

And now that you mention Vonnegut, he's probably the reason I divided my "combat types" the way I did.

I think that Wildbow definitely nails it with the idea of "at its best, a problem solving exercise". To this day, the Weaver/Alexandria "fight" resolution from Worm is, in my opinion, one of the very best combat sequences in webfiction I've read, because it became exactly that: Beating power with being clever.

'The Darker Side of Paradise' does good character establishment and building through gunplay, and helps us as readers understand the brutally life-or-death stakes that professionals with guns are facing.

Without thinking of it that way, I've tried to ensure that each significant fight in From Winter's Ashes is a problem-solving exercise or a character-revealer. There's an early curb-stomp battle with a few throwaway undead mooks, that exists mostly to illustrate that the team functions considerably better in the field than they did in an earlier training exercise. Then, of course, subsequent battles unveil plot reveals, and set up rules for them to be twisted, if not broken.

The bottom line is that a fight scene, in and of itself, is boring. That's what a lot of new writers get wrong when they're starting a serial. Especially in the opening chapters, I'd argue that a fight requires two things to be significant. 1. stakes personal to the main character and 2. an impact dependent upon how the fight plays out. What I mean is that if your MC works for a Powerful Organization and gets in a skirmish over something irrelevant to the main plot, the fight is largely pointless. It can be an opportunity to explore the world, but when the readers KNOWS the MC isn't going to die the first chapter and also knows that the world won't be a worse place for having lost the fight, the fight becomes a waste of time. Readers feel it, even if they can't spell out why it feels bland.

For what it's worth, I posted a kind of reply to Chris' article. It's less an argument than a statement of what I'm thinking of while I'm writing combat. I don't promise it will be as good.


Ack! PCS website is down!

PCS is up for me

It came back for me. I guess it was local.

Vaguely interesting revelation I've now had, so might as well share it. I read both articles, and it was midway through Jim's that something clicked for me... the reason I don't write combat. Namely because I really don't know enough about it. I have bombs to defuse, ranged magical attacks, the use of mental or seduction powers, and people getting thrown into dungeons, but I'm REALLY hard pressed to think of a time ANYTHING came down to hand-to-hand. That is, anything that lasted longer than a punch to the head and done. (It's a little funny when I think of how physical a character Carrie can be, except her efforts are usually to keep people at arm's length -- where I can deal with them!)

This is probably why I would struggle in a more superhero-genre work; as I said in the "Antagonist" thread, I tend to veer away from man-vs-man. Looking at the terrain more than the people themselves. But that's why articles like this are useful to people like me, for those times when I may need to branch out. So yeah, good stuff!

It won't see publication on the site for another 2 months or so, but I just got finished writing a chapter of From Winter's Ashes with Keith that really drives home the occasional failures of problem-solving. A bunch of the local town Big Damn Heroes try to take on a very large undead thing, and quickly establish that all the clever and terrifying ways they've worked out to kill people really don't do much against very large undead thing.

Fights with skeletons, too, explore the need for the 'puzzle' of how to structurally smash a skeleton in a meaningful way that reduces or eliminates its ability to injure you. A lot of focus on smashing joints, especially the pelvis. Lots of analysis on how undead are terrible on defense and great on offense, etc.

Ultimately, we all try to write the violence that we find interesting, and hope that others find it interesting and insightful alongside us.

Your last line resonates strongly with my own experiences Patrick. In a couple chapters of the Solstice War I got it into my head that I had to write a hand to hand scene, that it would be cool and different. I've found my interest and experience in that is very minimal, aside from people stabbing each other with bayonets sometimes. I'm way more into ranged gun fights and deploying heavy weaponry and the force projection of large, organized military formations. I don't think I do too badly writing hand to hand -- but I keep that kind of thing very sparing. If I do it too often I feel like you'd probably be able to tell I don't quite have the same level of investment in it as I do the gun stuff.

I'm not sure why I feel driven to include it at all sometimes.

Lots of great points, in both articles and in the responses. I personally know zilch about hand to hand combat (and pretty much any other kind), so when my stories lead me into fight territory, I have to rely on research and on interrogating friends to discover any experts hidden in my midst. It's very helpful to hear all your different takes on writing combat.

At the risk of spinning off onto a tangent (although uber mentioned sex scenes in his post so I'm declaring myself at least marginally on topic), I recall reading an article once which likened writing an interesting sex scene to writing an interesting fight scene--even though both parties are on the same page physically in the case of the sex scene, there should still be something in the scene that moves the plot forward and/or reveals character. I'm thinking that's probably just a good rule of thumb for any scene.

Also, I have to confess that uber's discussion of how the songs in a musical don't have to stop the story but instead can be an integral part of the story immediately made me think of the musical episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Wheedon gave an extra little twist to the concept of songs being part of the story.

I tend to make a certain connection to wrestling, mainly as far as trying to have good booking and good psychology. Wrestling psychology is something they have to work at in wrestling, and it's basically about two individuals trying to fight with a certain strategy in mind while reacting realistically to what's done to them and what they do.

It goes back to remembering the little details, both in continuity and in terms of getting the full sensory experience. If a normal human punches another normal human in the face, their hand is going to be hurting. There's going to be pain for them, maybe even something messed up in their own knuckles. Maybe they hit the other person's teeth and now they've been skinned by someone who staggers back with a lip bloodied by more than their own blood. Or maybe someone takes a bad hit to the side of their knee and then twists it further in the fight. They better be limping.

Really, for me, the odds aren't always that important in leading into the fight scene, but that's more do to with psychology as well. It's a minor problem, but one that fits in story because my character is pretty much always in a war mindset when he gets into a fight. He doesn't fight to knock an enemy out or to get enough distance to escape; he is trying to kill someone. Most people have to have a really good reason to try and kill someone else in a fight. He has to have a really good reason not to try and kill someone.

The part where I play the odds has more to do with an overarching setup in the conflict between characters in which fights are important but not the absolute key to winning.

That said, if you're going to have fights, you'll have to include them. Maybe you can cut something like a minor scuffle with a mugger or a few street goons, but it's pretty hard to justify cutting a skirmish with a nemesis. In the case of a protagonist willing to kill, that becomes somewhat simpler. Fighting to kill is oftentimes quicker than fighting to disable or demoralize.

Ironically, for those comparing fighting to sex scenes, there's actually an interview with Jake the Snake, a master of wrestling psychology, where he explicitly compares it to the act of having sex. To paraphrase: you don't start off with the one big shot, you take them on an emotional rollercoaster with up times, down times, level times, and then you explode it at the end.

My problem with that is that you have to do all that in a lot less time than a wrestling match, since most fights aren't the dragged-out affairs you see in movies or wrestling.

I will say, though, that while it can be very tempting to throw in interesting wrestling moves in a setting where characters with enhanced strength could actually use them without the aid of the opponent, it's also darn hard to describe some of them. Caused me all kinds of hell trying to create a written description of a front-flip piledriver (aka the Destroyer) without calling it that.

My personal philosophy is, the best thing to do in a fight scene is to describe it in the briefest, most bare-bones way possible. It's not a movie, any unnecessary description just slows the fight down, and the last thing you want is a slow fight. Embellish the emotions, sensations, thoughts, and communication between the combatants, but leave the action largely up to the imagination. For example, if a character throws a punch, there's really no need to describe from which side the punch is coming unless it's relevant to the immediate plot.

Also, as a few people have pointed out, fights are _short_. Someone either gains the advantage and puts their opponent on the ground, alive or dead, or they end up in a bad spot and the only sensible thing to do is back up to a distance where the playing field is level again. That's a good spot where you can work in some dialogue or tactical thinking.

It helps to study the style of fighting you have in mind. I've been practicing historical European martial arts for a few years now, and it's been a real eye-opener about how realistic swordfights really go. I highly recommend this video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10B4oCreJDo ) for anyone who writes or wants to write fantasy, Joey is a fantastic fighter, and it shows you how fast these encounters are. Nasty and brutal yet totally unlike Hollywood's idea of nasty and brutal, or the SCA's. (This is for traditional blossfechten, or unarmoured fighting. For fighting in plate, I recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnqOMbFDEAI . Lots of halfswording because you simply can't cut through plate.)

I won't go into it too deeply, since I could ramble on about my pet interests for hours, but there's resources for everything if you bother to look. Research never hurts. Just say no to sword myths! ;)

Ryan A. Span: > or the SCA's.

Our local Vikings of Avacal fight sword-and-board at a level you'd see in those videos. Watching them fight is an eye-opener. The force the human body can exert, trained, is astonishing, and it really reinforces the "fights are quick" ethos. Two trained sword-fighters are going to decide the fight fast. At the very highest level, the longest fights I've ever seen went on perhaps eight seconds. Most were decided by the first or second swing.

Also, if I can expound on practical melee weapons for one second: Remember that the sword was typically the weapon of nobility. For almost all practical combat purposes, though, the spear was always the first choice. If you want a classic trope deconstructed, the Samurai was expected to learn the spear, the bow, and the sword. The only reason the cultural focus on swords came about was that they were symbols of privilege. In anything that wasn't duels, 90% or more of your fighting was bow and spear.

Armies fought with bow and spear. The sword was an essential tool, but it was never the *main* tool. And why?

Because a skilled spearman against a skilled swordsman puts the advantage very firmly in the hands of the spearman. Longer reach. Stab, dead.

It's unfortunate that swords have crept into such trope-heavy territory, when it was always the spear that was considered the sensible, practical weapon of its age.

And if we're talking about Samurai, don't overestimate the katana. Japan had very little iron to work with and thus had very little armor and less robust swords. Your typical katana was pretty damn fragile, top quality katanas were/are still lacking in effectiveness vs. your typical swords, and katanas in general aren't meant to be used against proper armor.

I've been reading the Iliad. It's surprising graphic, in fact, 90% of it is recounting how one guy threw a spear at another guy, where it hit and how it got through/past their armour/shield, and what part of the victim's insides were now outside as a result of the fatal wound. And how much their father and/or wife would miss them.

There is one caveat on using spears, though. They aren't necessarily the best weapon for one-on-one dueling, especially if stuck at really close quarters like urban combat. That's where a sword is a bit better. Spears were great, but remember that most Western armies tended to emphasize acting as a group, like in the phalanx formation. It's not quite the same as fighting alone.

Of course, doesn't mean the spear was exactly useless one-on-one either... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyaB6KQbksM

Psycho Gecko: You're wrong about that, actually. Spear, staff and other types of polearms (such as the famous Swiss pikemen and halberdiers) are probably the most dangerous weapons of the medieval age and the Renaissance, either in any kind of group or one on one. It was the first choice on the battlefield for almost everyone, including knights, as the lance was really their main weapon. There's plenty of records of judicial duels in the period being fought with polearms. Historical manuals exist for the staff that go into how to take on any number of people. Even in close quarters, like a narrow corridor, a polearm is amazing as long as you've got enough space to thrust it. Without room to manouevre, the only thing the opponent is going to want to do is back away. We have a blanket ban on sparring full-force with staff or polearms because it would kill people regardless of how much padding they wear.

There are ways to deal with polearms, with longsword and other weapons, if you absolutely have to. But even an amazing swordsmaster would just rather not take those odds.

Patrick: Which historical manuals do they study?