As a writer of fiction, you will likely find, at some point, that your novel will contain a fight scene. Some genres naturally contain more violence than others. Medieval fantasy novels typically contain very graphic descriptions of the kind of damage an edged weapon can cause to the human body. Science fiction more typically involves the discharge of energy weapons. Thrillers are more contemporary, with fistfights and shootouts. Even romance novels can contain a few scenes of violence. How you handle the writing of those scenes will greatly affect the overall quality of your work. After kicking this idea around for a while (pun intended), I came up with a few topics that can become problematic when constructing your own battles.
Let’s start by looking at the fight scene from the perspective of your protagonist’s (or point-of-view character’s) ability. Has this person been thoroughly trained in hand-to-hand fighting? Can he use a sword? Is she a good shot with a pistol? Has this person ever seen a lot of blood—or internal organs—before? As a person who has grown accustomed to seeing such things in real life, due to my job as a crime scene investigator, I can tell you that the first few times you see a gory scene, it’s not easy to look at. The same should go for your character.
In my medieval fantasy novel, The Piaras Legacy, my protagonist is an Elf named Elac. He had never been in a serious fight before. In the opening pages, he is rescued from a band of Kobolds. A well-trained Elf warrior slaughtered the Kobolds… and Elac lost the contents of his stomach. Throughout the book, Elac trained under the eye of his rescuer. By the end, he was able to hold his own in a fight, and the sight and smell of blood no longer bothered him. This is a natural progression, where familiarity with horrific injuries will create a numbing effect.
As a contrast, the main character in my science fiction novel The Killing Frost is a member of an elite military unit. Arano Lakeland had been trained to fight since childhood. In a one-on-one fight, there are few who could stand up to him. So when he gets into a physical confrontation, I have to ramp up the odds against him a bit. Since he can easily beat one person in a fight, I’ll send him up against three. Or maybe give the opponent a weapon. Anything to put the character at greater risk.
This is another problem in fight scenes: not enough danger. If your character fights like Chuck Norris, your reader will get bored with fight scenes where he easily beats a single opponent. Part of the thrill of a good fight scene is that the reader wonders how the character could possibly get through it. In my thriller novel, Martyr’s Inferno, Jim Hunter is my protagonist. Jim gets into a number of scraps and shootouts, and in fact, some of them are more than he can handle. This adds a bit of realism as well. I’m a firm believer that no matter how tough you are, someone out there is tougher. It’s true in life, and it should definitely be true in your novels.
During my own hand-to-hand training, I learned about defending against edged weapons. The first rule to remember: despite what you see on TV and in movies, if your opponent has a knife, you will get cut. If your character has to face someone armed with a knife, more often than not your character should be wounded in the fight. There are exceptions. Years ago, I read where a thug pulled a knife on the aforementioned Chuck Norris. Mr. Norris commenced to whipping on his assailant and came out unscathed. If your character has that sort of training, maybe an injury-free knife defense is feasible. Otherwise, it’s time to bleed.
The injuries are important at the time of the fight, but don’t forget about them later. Too many times, I’ve read books where a character gets thoroughly beaten, or stabbed, or shot… and is miraculously healed a chapter later. Ever had a serious cut? They take weeks to heal, are a constant source of pain, and inhibit your ability to function. The same should go for your character. If he gets hit over the head in one scene, the injury better be with him for at least several days of book time. My thriller character, Jim Hunter, suffered multiple injuries, and they stayed with him throughout the novel. If his major injuries were gone a day later, my readers would have ripped me on their reviews.
One major difficulty in writing the fight scene is point of view. Strictly speaking, when you stay inside the POV character’s head throughout the scene, all you can write about is what that character sees. If she is alone against the enemy, this is easy. But if she has companions with her, and they are fighting against multiple opponents, the reader would miss out on most of the battle because the POV character is focused on her own fight. For that reason, it’s acceptable that anything going on in the general area of the POV character should be described in depth. This will paint a more thorough picture for the reader. Where you will run into trouble is when the fight is more widespread. If some of the POV character’s friends are in another room, outside the building, or otherwise out of sight, she will have to find out what happened in another way.
This is especially true when you get into major battles. Warfare takes the fight scene to a whole new level. When there are hundreds, or thousands, of combatants on each side, it becomes impossible to describe all of the individual fights raging across the battlefield. Instead, the focus should be on the POV character and one or two other important characters nearby. Aside from them, the battle should be described in generalities. Explain where a phalanx line has crumbled. Show the reserve forces rushing up to fill in the gaps. Mention the indirect fire, be it modern artillery or ancient longbows.
In my forthcoming novel, A Matter Of Faith, the battle scenes at the end become quite complex. I have major battles ongoing in three different locations. For that reason, I had to bring in minor characters as generals in order to have POV characters in place for each battle. I introduced these characters earlier in the book and kept them in the reader’s head from time to time. That way, when the time came to have all the major characters go up against the antagonist, the minor characters could be outside conducting the battles for me. This was crucial for the book. I needed my main characters inside the castle, fighting the main bad guy. Without my minor characters, I would have no way to keep the reader apprised of the situation outside.
As far as the details of fight scenes, your greatest strength is research and knowledge. In my case, I have a great depth of life experiences to draw from. As a wrestler, a paratrooper, a combat veteran, and a police officer, I’ve had extensive training and experience in fighting techniques and military tactics. But that doesn’t mean a writer without these types of experiences can’t write a good fight scene. Research is the key. I’ve never been in a sword fight, so I attended a demonstration by a sword fighting club. Not only did I get to see the actual fighting techniques, but they let me hold a sword and a set of armor. It gave me much greater insight into the whole swordfight phenomenon.
If you don’t know much about military tactics, there are a number of great books and resources out there. Of all of them, the one I would list as a must-read is The Art Of War by the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu. Although it was written over two thousand years ago, modern military tacticians still study Sun Tzu’s insights. Businessmen follow the same tactics in their aggressive business ventures. The police academy I attended used the book to lay out planning principles for tactical operations. Read the book. And when you’re done, read it again. The ideas it contains for strategy and tactics will greatly strengthen your battle scenes.
Plan your scenes out in advance. Follow the guidelines above, and you’ll do fine. Your fight scenes will be much more exciting and more believable. As Rick and I have mentioned many times, don’t be afraid to ask other authors for help or guidance if you get stuck. A second set of eyes on your battle scene might be just what you need to bring it to a successful conclusion. And your character will live to fight another day.