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I've just been reading a bunch of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books. Although they were the most enjoyable read I'd had in ages I always found myself skimming long segments that described involved battles or fights.

I often find that when the swords are drawn in a story I tend to tune out. A good author always provides a summary of what the hero has lost or gained as the result of a battle after the fight anyway.

As soon as the story becomes paragraph after paragraph of description along the lines of:

Alonso dropped to his right knee swinging the dagger in his left hand up at Bardolph's ribs. He was dextrous but not quite fast enough Bardolph swung his right arm down deflecting the dagger with his grieves, a defiant snarl emerging from between his lips.

Bardolph stepped back, grounding himself with feet shoulder width apart, the left leg slightly back to aid stability. He swung his left hand in a vicious hook and connected with the side of Alonso's head. Pain exploded in the smaller man's ear drums at the crushing blow...

These things can go on for ten or twelve pages when they get really involved. They seem to say nothing of value and they're not even as inolving as the commentator's patter on wrestling shows.

So what makes a good fight scene? Other than brevity, of course? How does one write an epic battle that doesn't have people skipping to the post-match report?

EDIT: The first answer to this question I got from John Smithers makes it seem like you could all put it down to taste, which is fair enough as I first put the question. Let me be more specific on the Dresden thing.

Almost every fight in vols 1-7 of the series I skimmed through. I always start out trying to read them but then get bored and skip. In vols 8-9 something clicked and I read the fights, mostly, without even realising that I hadn't been jarred out of the narrative.It's not 100% but certainly something had changed. I just don't know exactly what.

This is what I'm looking to pin down. What makes a combat scene a compelling read? Some people like any combat scene sure but I'm talking about the kind of person who has no objection to a combat scene in principle but is choosy about which ones they commit to reading all the way through. What are the ingredients of that kind of scene?

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I skimmed through all the battle scenes in the second half of War and Peace because I got bored. –  justkt Jan 20 '11 at 13:26
    
I'd never fast-forward the battle scene in a movie. I'd definitely skip over a gratuitous bit of infidelity in a book, though. –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Jan 20 '11 at 16:00
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@QuickerSnarkerBacker: I'd never wear a blindfold at a fireworks display. Doesn't mean I want to read: "Then one went boom and red bits filled the sky. Then another one went wheee leaving a trail of green sparks. etc." –  One Monkey Jan 20 '11 at 16:33
    
@monkey.. You don't take the time to savor much? There is of course such a thing as too much, but such a determination depends on the purpose of the piece. I could easily see an apt description of just such a fireworks event in a book, though with a different tone. In a pause. A lull like before a couple are going to be separated, the calm before a storm, or as a part of a contemplative/cerebral treatise. –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Jan 27 '11 at 19:46
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Combat scenes need to be written in a way to engage the reader. They should be more fast paced and emotional. You're not going to want to be describing every little bit of detail like you would in a slower-paced scene. The character isn't focused on the scenery or what's going on around him, he's focused on the fight. Sentences will be shorter and more compact and not include a lot of flowing details. You need to pick and choose your imagery so that your reader's heart is pounding in their chest and they can feel like they're in the fight.

In a way, fight scenes are a lot like sex scenes. They need to be more engaging than the rest of the story or a reader will skip right over them. They should be emotional and full of feeling. You're going to want to make it easy for readers to visualize themselves in the action.

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I agree with the point about fight scenes and sex scenes being similar. Although when you write a story describing sexual exploits that's called erotica; there is no violence-based equivalent I know of. In many cases sudden scenes of sex or violence, intimately detailed, in a story that's about something other than the sex or the violence distract from the actual story itself. –  One Monkey Jan 21 '11 at 11:04
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When I thought about this topic, I came to the conclusion: There are people who like combat scenes, and there are people who don't. That's it. I love these scenes and I know many people who skim these exact scenes I like.

So the easy answer: Know your audience and then write them like other do ;) Even easier: You don't like them, then don't write them.

Which of the LotR books is your favourite? Mine is The Two Towers, because of the battles. I love the Helm's Deep scene. When I needed a battle scene, I read this one again and then wrote it down with my own words. After that I compared it with the original. That teaches you, how to write them. If you want to write a combat scene, do the same thing. Read one which you like and try to rewrite it.

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Heresy Alert! I don't really like Lord of the Rings. I admire the work and the intention but I don't like the writing. I find it ponderous, pompous and overly concerned with food. –  One Monkey Jan 20 '11 at 12:05
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I will burn you, heretic, as soon as I catch you! ;) Pick a book with a battle scene you like, @One Monkey. If you don't know one, don't write them. –  John Smithers Jan 20 '11 at 12:07
    
@One Monkey: Tolkien is very hard. Incredibly hard. Frankly, I couldn't pick up LOTR until after I'd seen the movies and I understood WTF was going on. Then the characters hooked me, and now I re-read the trilogy every year. It's an acquired taste, and I don't blame you for not acquiring it. –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 20 '11 at 12:53
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@John: Dude, I read the Unfinished Tales, the Simarillion, and all twelve of the slush books his son edited. I'm just saying that Tolkien is not for the faint of heart. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 20 '11 at 15:52
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I kinda love/hate LOTR. Some scenes are just wonderful. What I find boring are all the travel bits and the descriptions of nature and hills and valleys and... yawn :D The battles? Great stuff! –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 30 '12 at 3:06
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I think the important thing is to keep the combat interesting (as trite as that sounds).

Something like:

Alonso dropped down on his right knee, swinging his dagger upwards, just like the Italian maestros. Bardolph stepped back fractionally, uncannily anticipating the thrust. Bardolph snarled and slammed his fist into Alonso's face. Staggering back, Alonso felt a flicker of fear in his chest. He'd not measured himself against someone with Bardolph's gift for several years. Spitting bloody froth, he swept the dagger, slicing across Bardolph's ribs.

Obviously needs work, but it removes some of the "this is only the mechanics of a fight" and injects a small smidgen of emotion, maybe some back-references and the like.

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Mmh, that makes me think. Maybe what's missing is the good old conflict, like in each good scene. Because the author describes an obvious conflict (the fight), he forgets the inner conflicts. –  John Smithers Jan 20 '11 at 13:01
    
I like your point about "mechanics". Because I don't like over-long descriptions of anything unless there's a binding to a character development / emotion, either. –  QuickerSnarkerBacker Jan 20 '11 at 16:02
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Again I think it is mostly about characters. If you really care for at lest one of the characters involved, you will automatically be drawn into the scene, because you have some emotional interest in the outcome.

Another point related to that would be to be detailed, especially regarding the people the reader is attached to. Describe in detail the fight in which you main character is involved, and draw a short, general overview of the rest of the battle.

If you have a group of people attacking, make sure it is "King Dredabloids horsemen" or "Baltrasims archers", not just "a large group of horsemen rode into the battle from the west flank." Attach it to someone whom the reader has an enotional attachment to.

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Fight scenes involve fast action. A fight scene that's slow to read misses the point. Moreover, the details are mostly irrelevant. I'm not a martial artist, and I don't care what fighting technique those two are using. Like sex, the exact details of who's doing what to whom are much more interesting for the participant than the reader.

Try looking at the fight scene and its relevance to plot and characters. Cut it down to the bare minimum of detail. Something like:

Alonzo launched himself at Bardolph, wielding his father's dagger. With practiced moves, Bardolph defended himself from the furious onslaught, hitting back when he could. After a minute [a long time in a fight], the combatants separated, Alonzo shaking off stars and blood running down Bardolph's arm. "Okay," Bardolph said, "I apologize."

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You example is, depending, not enough detail. I totally love the fight scenes in Ludlum's Bourne Identity (and similar, he likes his fights up close and personal... and dirty). Quite some detail. So detailed it hurts. And that's what he gets across: in Bourne's case, we quickly learn that he's an expert at hand-to-hand. And he almost kills a man. With no feeling at all. Which shocks him. And us. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 30 '12 at 3:09
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In your example, what's wrong is:

  1. Too much detailed description. We don't need to know how Bardolph was standing, and it takes so long to read it that we lose the excitement. You just described 2 seconds in 2 paragraphs.

  2. Not enough feelings. describe how the characters are feeling: fear as they duck a blade, desperation as they lunge, surging confidence as they push their opponent back, etc.

In a book with good fight scenes like Mistborn, the action description is minimal; just enough so you notice what the character notices about the scene. But there are plenty of clues as to how the character is feeling.

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I agree, my example was just like fight scenes I have read. Part of my agenda in asking this question was to find out if there was any earthly reason why some authors write out bullet time descriptions of their combat. As we can see above some people eat that up, but most find it tedious. Which is what I thought. –  One Monkey Jan 28 '11 at 13:37
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I was going to say that the key to good fight scenes is that they are less about how to fight and more about what it feels like to fight. But you said it better! –  jalefkowit Feb 4 '11 at 16:36
    
@jalefkowit honestly, I like what you said. Very succinct way to put it. (Mine is just more detailed because it's longer). –  MGOwen Feb 8 '11 at 0:56
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I've recently been reading an anthology of Robert E. Howard stories. He's a pulp author from the 30s who is known largely for his action-packed adventures. In fact, pretty much every one of his stories has at least one fight scene, and in my opinion, he writes them very well.

The REH system for fight scenes seems to go something like this:

  • Start with descriptions of the characters and their emotional states. Are they excited? Scared? Angry? How do they show it?
  • As they leap into battle, give a few sentences of detailed description. Swords clash, parry and counter, guns are fired, etc.
  • After the first few sentences, zoom out from the action a bit. Describe how the characters move and fight in a more general way. Character X fights fast and wild, while character Y stays on the defensive, only counterattacking when he sees an opportunity.
  • Zoom back into detailed description as the fight finishes. What does the killing blow look like? What do the characters feel?

I like this style for a few reasons. The description up front reminds the reader exactly what these characters are fighting for, and it makes the fight emotional as well as physical. The detail at the start of the fight makes it feel visceral. By zooming out in the middle, we avoid having to sit through pages of detailed description without feeling like we missed what happened. Then we zoom back into detail to lend excitement to the finale.

I'd recommend picking up some REH. The anthology I'm reading is The Best of Robert E. Howard, Vol. 1. The stories occasionally feel a bit dated, but they work very well if you look at them as a workshop on crafting fight scenes.

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A late answer but nonetheless useful. I'm a big Howard fan via Lovecraft and Marvel (the writers of Dr. Strange plundered Howard's Lovecraftian stuff shamelessly). I shall re-read with interest. –  One Monkey Feb 15 '11 at 8:59
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