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Writing Combat

This is a class I wrote for an online roleplaying site. While it is oriented towards that setting, I think the general thoughts and advice should be applicable to most fight scenes. At the very least, they should be applicable to the fantasy genre.

Weapons I: Choosing a weapon

The weapon or weapons your character uses will say a lot about him or her, and there are several factors you should take into account here.

The first is your character’s homeland and background. Robert Jordan spends a lot of time describing (and differentiating) the outfits, clothing, and weapons of the various nations in the Wheel of Time – and if you’re creating your own world, then it’s a good idea to do the same. This doesn’t mean that every warrior from a particular land should be cookie-cutter similar, but if your character uses something very different from everyone else he grew up with you should at least know why. (If you are creating your own world, then basic historical research is a good place to start.)

The second consideration is whether your character is a soldier or a civilian – or at least, which of the two your character prefers to look like. After all, someone who shows up on a horse while carrying a sword and shield, gives a very different impression from someone who wears nothing more than a utility knife and walks into town. Here are some samples (I’m generalizing, so bear with me):

Peasant weapons: Staff, perhaps knife and axe, and possibly bow (depending on the region). While this is not true in the Wheel of Time, there are also a number of historical martial arts that grew up in areas where the peasants weren’t allowed to carry weapons. Likewise, there are a number of effective weapons that can be adapted from simple agricultural instruments – flails, pole arms, pitchforks, etc.

Hunter’s weapons: The bow is the obvious choice here, but don’t neglect the possibilities of the sling, axe, hatchet, spear, and knife – generally, anything which can be used to bring in game can be adapted for combat as well. Note that the Aiel fit this description also.

Soldier’s weapons: Someone who fights as part of an organized military will generally use a different set of weapons from someone who comes out of a tradition emphasizing individual fighting prowess. Shield use is nearly universal, as is some form of sword; the basic combination of sword and shield (when trained for use in formations) makes for a very solid infantry. Other popular choices for infantry include pole arms, pikes, and spears.

Cavalry, on the other hand, tend to use curved swords, and will be likely to make use of lances and maces as well. Bows used from horseback will tend to be small compared to those used on foot.

Archers, of course, focus on the bow – but in a military force, that’s seldom their only weapon. Their swords tend to be smaller and lighter; there is, in fact, a variety of shortsword referred to specifically as the “archer’s short sword”. Shields, like swords, will tend to be small and light for archers – if they carry one at all.

Generally, there will be less variety of weapon designs among professional soldiers; what they learn will generally be determined by which part of the army they belong to, and which nation that army comes from.

Warriors: A trained, possibly even professional combatant who does not fight for an organized military force falls into this category, as does someone from a martial tradition which emphasizes personal prowess over group tactics. A warrior may use almost anything conceivable, including uncommon weapons, non-military weapons (such as the rapier) and weapons of his or her own design. (Because they are primarily concerned with fighting on their own, their choice of weapons doesn’t have to work well with anyone else’s – unlike a soldier, who must be able to integrate with the rest of his unit.)

Most forms of Dual Wielding (fighting with a weapon in each hand) fall into this category; while they’re perfectly usable one-on-one, they’re not nearly so useful in formation. (While the Arafellans in the Wheel of Time are noted as skilled swordsmen – in the two-sword style – I’m inclined to think that they’re noted for their skill as individuals.)

Assignment: Discuss your character’s background and how that affects their choice of weapons. What does your character’s choice of weapons say about them? Are they typical or atypical? (This doesn’t have to be an insanely long monograph; I’m really just looking for whether you’re considering you’re character’s weapons in terms of their background and nation of origin.)

Weapons II: Their Personalities

In some traditions (okay, well, Chinese is the only one I’m sure of), weapons are described as if they had personalities of their own. The jian flickers like the striking of a snake, while the staff moves constantly, spinning and reversing. The Chinese greatsword is a sort of avalanche: you don’t control it so much as guide its momentum. A rapier will use careful control and precise movements, while the katana moves in broad sweeps and tight slashes.

I don’t necessarily advocate personifying your weapons, or even naming them. However, a little work at characterizing your weapons can go a long way towards adding depth to your fight scenes. Choose the words you use with care, and you can build up a surprisingly clear picture of the flow of combat without ever providing any technical detail at all. That said, it also helps if you know enough to match the right sort of words to the right sort of weapons. There’ll be more on that in a later lesson.

Those of you using unarmed combat can still make use of this trick; just decide how your fighting style works and what sort of movements it emphasizes, then choose words which help build that impression.

You have a choice of two assignments for this lesson. Either:
1) Tell me what words you use to describe your character’s weapon (if you are seeking a WS point, please use the weapon you wish to have the point awarded for) when it is in use. Ashfalcon, for example uses a jian, so a description of his fighting will include a lot of words like “circling,” “arc,” “thrust,” “abruptly,” and “sliding.”
2) Pick a fight scene from a movie, and write a brief description of that. Try to give a good impression of what the characters are doing, without focusing on the detail of individual movements. Naturally, I’ll need to know which movie you picked.

Describing Combat I: Internal vs. external, evocative vs. descriptive

Written combats are not all alike; there are plenty of different things you can focus on. The more aware you are of the various possibilities, the more variety you can add to your fights, and the more you can make them fit the needs of your story. Here is one way of classifying fight scenes:

Evocative: Writing designed to convey a particular feeling or impression, without necessarily providing a lot of tangible detail: “Black-veiled figures fell upon the Fade, spears stabbing.”

Descriptive: Writing designed to convey precise technical details: “Riun shifted his stance as he lunged, turning the Myrdraal’s blade aside with his buckler with the high block he had learned a year ago. He thrust with the spear in his right hand, keeping the point on a low line as he stabbed into the ninth gate of attack.”

External: Writing that concerns itself with the physical world; in fight scenes, writing about the characters’ actions. “The Halfman appeared out of the night, its black blade swinging, and Riun leaped to the attack.”

Internal: Writing concerned with the thoughts and feelings of the characters. “I am going to die, Riun thought. There was no passion behind the thought, only the calm awareness that to attack a Shadowman was madness. Still, he could feel his honor driving him on.”

There is a correlation here, and you can even draw a little chart if that sort of thing makes you happy. Evocative and descriptive writings counterpoint each other, as do internal and external.

Fight scenes can be written with a focus on only one of these areas – depending on the needs of the story, one approach may be all you need or all you want. However, as a general rule, if all your fight scenes fall into only one of these categories, they’re not going to hold a reader’s attention. Most should use a combination of these techniques.

Assignment: Choose a focus or two, and write a fight scene which emphasizes them. Your response should be a sentence or two describing what you intend to do, and one or two paragraphs of actual fight.

Describing Combat II: Levels of Detail

Another way of classifying fight scenes is by the level of detail involved in them. Not all fights are equally important, and not all of them deserve the same amount of the reader’s attention.

The truth of the matter is that most combats are interesting primarily for what they tell the reader about the characters involved – even if that’s only, He’s a really good fighter, or This guy fights dirty. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t take a lot of text to get that sort of point across. (One of my favorite examples of this comes from Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber: the narrator is following his brother, as the brother fights his way up a narrow staircase full of armed men. The fight reads like this: “For half an hour I watched him, and they died and they died.”)

The other reason that fights matter is when they have emotional importance – if your readers are caught up in the action and really care about who wins this conflict. The more the reader cares about both participants in a fight, the more attention you’ll need to pay to the scene.

Generally, the more dramatically important a scene is, the more detail you’ll want to add. When a character is surprised, or in danger; when the combatants have a personal reason to want to damage each other; when the combat will reveal something, either about the characters or important to the characters; when one of the characters will have an important (usually moral) decision to make.

(A side note: In roleplay, combat between two player characters will usually have medium to high levels of detail – as would a fight between two of the major characters in a book.)

Let’s take one possible situation: Our heroine, Jessa, is pursuing a villain. In so doing, she comes to a bridge and finds one of the villain’s minions blocking her way. Both of them have swords out, and combat begins.

If Jessa’s opponent is just a minion who has been set to block her way, little detail is required: “They faced each other for a moment, sunlight glinting off drawn blades. The guard moved first, but Jessa left him clutching the stump of his sword-hand. Undaunted, she continued across the bridge.”

If Jessa’s opponent is closer to her in skill, a moderate level of detail might be required: “They faced each other for a moment, sunlight glinting off drawn blades. Then the guard attacked, a heavy downward blow designed to split Jessa’s skull. This one’s good, she thought, as she parried and stepped aside. She tried a shot at his leg, but he danced out of the way and came back strongly. Suddenly, she saw her chance, and stepped in as he began another of those powerful overhead swings. She left him kneeling by the side of the bridge, clutching the stump of his sword-hand. Undaunted, she continued across the bridge.”

For a genuine enemy, someone Jessa knows and hates, you should probably include even more detail – possibly including her decision about whether or not to kill him after she takes his hand.

For this lesson, I’d like you to write a fight scene in both low and medium detail. You may either create your own scene, or borrow one from a film.

Describing Combat III: Fighting Styles

A well developed character, in addition to his or her basic personality traits, will probably have a few small quirks – little things that make them distinctive: a tendency to smile at inappropriate moments, or a preference for tulips instead of roses; a favorite outfit, or a strong dislike of seafood. They’re not major plot points, for the most part – just a way of adding realism and flavor to the character. The same trick can be used to help your combats come alive – as your characters are distinctive, so should their fighting styles be.

One character may circle constantly when she fights, always changing directions and never approaching her opponent directly. Another may charge right in, putting all his power into every attack. Yet another may fight defensively, never making the first move. A fourth might always attempt to disarm an opponent instead of killing them, while a fifth may strive for a total economy – using only the minimum amount of movement that each situation requires. Characters may be loud or quiet, talkative or reserved, bold or cautious – perhaps even overconfident.

Such quirks are often even more obvious in beginners – one may have trouble blocking things that come at his head, while another always falls for a feint. A third might have trouble blocking strikes that come up from below. A fourth might hesitate on the attack, while a fifth makes constant attacks because she doesn’t trust her skill at defense. As these characters learn and improve, they may do these things less and less often, perhaps finding new quirks to replace them with.

The words you choose will help to convey this impression. Does your character block incoming blows? Beat them aside? Slip past them? Turn them aside? Parry them? Each term offers different possibilities, and gives a different impression. If you choose a collection of words that evoke similar images, your readers will build their own views of how your characters fight. (This goes hand in hand with the previous lesson on characterizing your weapons.)

Assignment: Describe your character’s fighting style. If you’re uncertain, try sparring with someone and see how your character reacts.

Know Your Subject I: Real Life Training

Oddly enough, actual study of martial arts is a distinctly mixed blessing – while it lends a unique and useful perspective on the subject of unarmed combat (and fighting in general), it also tends to color your views. If you aren’t careful, all your characters will sound like they studied at the same Dojo. As a general rule, though, if you plan to write a lot of that sort of combat, studying a martial art is a good idea. There are some things - issues of timing and rhythm, for example, and subtle qualities of movement - that just can't be taught outside of a class.

From a training perspective, I really don’t recommend taking lots of different martial arts. If you’re going to study one at all, then find a system that suits you and learn it in depth. However, since people tend to write what they know (and sometimes to dismiss things they don’t know as much about), it’s a good idea to at least look at a few other styles, maybe talk to some students and instructors, and see how they present themselves and how their approaches differ.

Likewise, when you take a weapons class at the Grey Tower, pick up a ruler or a broomstick and see if you can reproduce what your teacher is trying to describe. Be careful with this; it’s generally a good idea to do it outdoors, preferably behind a tall wooden fence. Otherwise, I’m told, the neighbors look at you funny.

There’s no assignment for this one. Just let me know you read it. And if you want to add comments on what sort of things you’ve taken, please do.

Know Your Subject II: Faking It

This lesson is really just some alternatives for those who – for whatever reason – cannot study fighting or martial arts. You’re not out of luck; there are other ways to add verisimilitude* to your writing… as well as methods for cheating your way around the things you don’t know.

First and foremost, as in any writing, research. I cannot stress this strongly enough. The more you know about a subject, the better you can write about it. This is why the WS classes emphasize technical knowledge. The Warder Library includes a page of weapon descriptions, which make a good place to start. There is also a truly amazing amount of information online; a little time with a search engine can turn up information on how to use anything you care to name. Local libraries are also likely to have books on various subjects, and even simple weapons catalogs often include notes on how things were used.

The other thing you can do is simply avoid details. Concentrate on Internal or Evocative writing, and keep the External and Descriptive elements down to a minimum. As a general rule, it’s better to have very no details than it is to have incorrect details.

Another trick – especially helpful for those with little technical knowledge – is to write the fight scene retrospectively. Robert Jordan uses this to good effect in describing Mat Cauthon’s fight with Couladin: we, as readers, never actually see the fight. All we actually get to see is Mat sitting around afterwards and reflecting on the way the battle had gone. This is also a good technique if the details of the fight are not important – if, for example, the fight is only important for its effect on the characters involved. Like any other technique, beware of using this one too often.

A similar trick is to have the fight take place offstage, as it were. Your characters need not remember every little detail of a fight… or even any details at all. “I saw his fist coming at me, and I blocked. After that, everything was a blur; the next thing I remember is staggering home with a split lip and bruised ribs.” This is especially appropriate if the character was surprised, or drunk, when the fight began.

Lastly, you can do what Robert Jordan has done with the sword in the Wheel of Time books: make up a set of neat-sounding names for some techniques, and maybe add some notes on how they’re used. Then, instead of trying to describe a particular motion, you can just say something like, “Jalian attacked with The Scorpion’s Tale, then spun away as his opponent countered with a technique from Wolf On The Hunt.”

Your assignment for this lesson is find a webpage or other reference which describes the way your weapon is used. If you used any interesting or unusual search techniques, I’d like to know what they are. Research really is the most important part of this lesson.

*Verisimilitude is the quality of seeming true – in this context, the little details that add realism to your writing.

Writing Combat I: The Opponent

Probably the hardest thing to do when writing combat is to have the bad guys respond in believable ways. It’s important to consider not only what your character would do, but also what your opponents would do. When confronted with a master swordsman, town guards with a strong sense of duty might be expected to ignore the casualties and keep attacking. Bandits in the wilderness, on the other hand, would probably run after the first few casualties. Someone who finds themselves in a fight where they’re clearly overmatched usually won’t just keep at it until they get killed; plenty of other options – including retreat, surrender, begging for mercy, and playing dead – are available. Expect your Bad Guys to shout for help if they need it, raise alarms, hide behind the furniture…

This sort of thing needn’t spoil your fight scene, either. If your character engages an inferior opponent, who throws down his blade and begs for mercy, then you’ve moved out of combat and into character development. Your character has still won (even if it isn’t as satisfying a victory as taking someone down outright); as a bonus, now we get to find out more about what kind of person your character is.

The assignment for this one is relatively simple: write a short fight scene (a couple of paragraphs) from the perspective of your opponent.

Writing Combat II: Large Battles

Large battles present their own problems for a writer – primary among these, the fact that there’s simply too much going on to cover all the details. There are several ways of dealing with this.

One is to take a wide angle – to cover the progress of the battle as a whole. Describe the movements of armies, the rallying of forces, the employment of different bodies of troops. Essentially, this treats each army as if it were a single opponent. Once again, research is your friend here – the more you know of military theory, the better you can write this sort of scene.

Another is to take a narrow view – follow the progress of a particular character or group of characters through the battle. This leaves the reader without any real feel for the progress of the battle as whole (which may be your intention), and focuses instead on its effects on the characters.

Or, you can go back and forth – shifting from the overall progress of the battle to the exploits of certain characters and back. This provides a more balanced view, but sometimes you don’t want that – you want to keep the detail level down, or you want the reader to wait (with the characters) until after the battle is over to find out who won.

Assignment: I can’t think of an assignment for this lesson that wouldn’t be prohibitively long. If you have an idea that sounds workable, please let me know. In the meantime, just post and let me know you read this one.

Interactive Writing: Sparring and Co-authoring

Writing a two-player combat – where each player controls one of the contestants – is an exercise not only of your writing skills, but also of your social skills. The usual rules of online courtesy apply doubly in this sort of situation.

As a general rule, this sort of writing will have a high level of detail, and will focus more on the descriptive than the evocative. That said, it’s easy to get too descriptive, and create a situation where your opponent/co-author gets lost in the details. A good mixture of internal and external writing is also recommended. Try, as best you can, to match your partner’s writing style in these areas.

I mentioned the etiquette of online roleplay already, but let me emphasize a couple of points:

Do not attempt to control your partner’s character. This is important, and – although the specifics of what is and isn’t acceptable may vary a little from one site to another – nearly universal. It’s okay to say, “Urok swung his axe around, a massive blow that usually felled opponents like trees. With luck, it would drive Kalen back, cornering him.” It’s not okay to say, “Urok swung his axe around, chopping Kalen’s quarterstaff in two and forcing him into the corner.”

Make your posts open-ended. In other words, leave your opponent with some options. Give him or her something to work with. You may be surprised by what they come up with. This also means that you should include enough information for the combat to continue. If your opponent describes an elegant combination of two sweeping blows followed by a stab, and you respond with, “Kalen grunted as he blocked Urok’s blade,” then you haven’t given your co-author enough information to continue. As a rule of thumb, each of your posts should include a response to your opponent’s attack (parry, dodge, stop-cut, whatever), and an attack of your own. There are, of course, exceptions.

Nobody is invincible. If you play a master swordsman, and some novice comes up with a weird-but-effective move that you think would take your character off guard… let it hit. Don’t worry too much about what should happen, and don’t let your ego tangle you up.

Communicate. Email is your friend. If you don’t understand what your opponent just did, ask them to clarify. If you’re doing something that is supposed to produce a particular result, let them know. If you’re having trouble because they’re writing a fight from the perspective how their character feels, and you’re writing about what your character does, ask them to include more physical detail. Before you even start, let your partner know what sort of piece you will be writing together.

Above all, be polite.

Assignment: Find a partner – preferably someone who is also taking this class – and spar with them in character. I’d like to see at least three posts from each of you.

Conclusion

That’s pretty much it. I hope you’ve enjoyed the class. Even more, I hope you’ve gotten something useful out of it. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please feel free to email me.