I’ve recently finished The New Magic by Joseph Malik (review to come soon — but his first book, Dragon’s Trail, was half of what prompted me to start writing advice on writing action scenes, as an example of how to do them right).
Anyway. You often hear the advice about writing fight scenes to “use short sentences.” It’s ok — to a point.
Take a look at the following excerpt from Murder In Absentia. As you read it, pay attention to the rhythm of sentences, to the variation in sentence & sentence fragment lengths.
Thirty paces to go, and another volley of arrows. This time one man fell down when an arrow that ricocheted from a shield lodged itself in his neck. The deck became slick with the blood spurting from his wound. Margaritus was shaking Didius Rufus by his shoulders, yelling in his face to get the wind up.
Ten paces, and the pirates cast ropes with hooks onto our rails, dragging us closer. We dislodged the hooks and struck at the ropes, but within the space of a deep breath the pirate ship bumped into ours, shaking the deck under our feet. The two ships screeched like racing chariots colliding.
The pirates were upon us. With wild cries they jumped from their ship onto our deck, swinging swords, axes, hooks and clubs. I braced my shield, and as the pirate who targeted me tried to land his curved sword in a neat arc from above straight on my head I took a step back, causing him to miss his mark and forcing him to stumble as he landed, and immediately with my full weight behind the shield I jumped and slammed into him, forcing him backwards and the boss of the shield knocking the wind from his lungs, yet still with his back against the ship’s rail he tried to raise his sword to protect himself, but I knocked it aside with my shield and plunged my knife deep into his chest. His eyes widened and a gurgling, rattling sound came from his throat as he lost balance and fell overboard, splashing into the waters in the space between our ships.
What followed was a mad free-for-all battle. The pirates were ferocious, the deck was slick with blood and the air was heavy with the din of fighting, the shouts of enemies colliding and the cries of the wounded and the dying.Murder In Absentia
So, err, yes, that was from the very first book I ever published. But while I can see things I might improve now, I’m fairly happy with the rhythm of the fight.
For a novel & series that isn’t heavy on the “action” (because violence has consequences) I still enjoy writing this bouts of fighting, and I try to make them — and the surrounding text — support the feeling of combat.
By using short sentences in the lead up, I tried to build up the nervous expectations. But as soon as violence erupts I used an extra long sentence to leave the reader mentally breathless, to instill that feeling of dense, no-breaks action.
Varying sentence length is always important. These is no one size fits all. This is true for all moods. It’s boring to use always short sentences. (See what I’ve done here?)
Playing with sentence length goes further. You can play with complex sentences that have multiple short clauses so as keep the ‘quick’ pace but without falling into repetitive drudgery. Always try to consider the feeling
Tools for Fight Scenes
I’ve written before about action scenes and about making historical combat realistic. Here are a few more tools and ideas you can consider when writing such, to help you both keep track of the physical aspect and to control the tone and pace of the writing.
These are in no particular order, just various tools to keep in the back of your mind when writing, and in the front of your mind when editing.
The environment, the space available for fighting, will have a significant impact of what’s possible, on how people move and where they can move to. A bar brawl is different to the street outside, a muddy field is different than a forest, etc.
This should all be established ahead of the actual fight. When violence erupts, the POV character’s is just like any other person’s in a similar situation — afflicted with tunnel vision of the immediate threat in front of them.
The good thing is that just like any scenery piece, you don’t need to be overly explicit. You can describe a bar with “long tables and benches” or “tall, round tables to place your drinks and a few stools around”. No need for exact placement, your reader will build up the mental image.
Combat is chaotic, and keeping track of who’s where can be hard. And if it’s hard for the author, it’s going to be impossible for the reader. A simple chart with a few tokens (like miniatures in table-top gaming, but, y’know, without the capital outlay) might help you keep track of positions and movements. This works on any scale.
Don’t fall into describing a chess game with each individual movement (see POV below), but keeping a track of movement across time will help avoid the faux-pas of people in two places at once.
Unless you’re familiar with martial arts, get a painter’s model or a friend to help you position fighters and their moves. I’ve seen instances where a character had to have three hands or Mr Fantastic’s stretchy limbs to achieve what they were doing. Don’t think of just what they’re trying to achieve / needs to happen, but afford some consideration to how: what’s humanly, physically possible in a sequence of actions.
You don’t need blow-by-blow description, certainly not for any length of fight. See my above excerpt — there’s just the short burst in the initial clash to establish the feel, and then a generalised observation.
If you focus on the important bits (usually the start and end of the fight), you can whitewash a lot of details in between (which might also neatly solve some of the positioning problems above).
I’d advise to vary sentence length to control pacing. Read things aloud if you need to, and pay attention to the rhythm. I hope I demonstrated above why not to use just a short staccato, but long sentences too. Very length to control scene tempo and mental ‘breathing’ in the reader’s mind.
Point of View
My approach is to focus on one character, and what they can see. Remember that they have tunnel vision during a fight, so will need to occasionally look around to see what else is going on (thankfully, this simplifies things when you to write).
It’s entirely possible to write sweeping battle scenes with hundreds of combatants, but it’s a lot easier to draw the reader, to place them in the thick of it, when describing everything from a narrow, personal point of view.
Goals and Outcomes
Those characters are fighting for a reason. Everyone wants something, and the other side is standing in their way. When describing the fight it’s important not to lose sight of the motivations and the consequences of winning and losing for all participants. This isn’t just for the author to keep in the back of their minds as they write the lead-up to the fight, but something that should be on the page to heighten the drama for the readers.
Writing excellent action scenes, the kind that draws your readers in and makes them feel like they’re in the thick of it — not leaving them scratching their heads and wondering how the heck did that just happen, is a skill you can cultivate.
It’s not (just) about describing the maneuvers (although that has it’s place), but about the sum totality of the conflict, about the forces that shape it as much as it is about the specific action sequence. By examining both the participants and the environment, you can describe rich, immersive clashes.
Bonus Rant: Never / Always type of advice
Having dealt with the Offending Advice of the Day regarding the blanket “use short sentences for fight scenes” above, there are a couple of other pieces that I came across recently and though to address.
In general, I’d say that every advice that starts with an “always” or a “never” is suspect. Like all art, writing rules are meant to be broken. By all means, try to understand what prompted that advice in the first place (it might have a grain of truth), but go beyond just accepting it and figure out if it’s right for you in this particular instance.
This is a bit like stereotypes. It’s a useful shorthand, that allows me to say something like “A redneck and a rabbi walk into a brothel…” without having to detail what that means are and what do those people look like. If I told you “never use stereotypes”, you’d end up the world’s most descriptively boring book. We as authors rely on tropes, on stereotypes, on cliches even. As long as you understand their origin and the extent of their usefulness, they can be tools to get into the meat of your story. Even the most rabid “show vs tell” proponents can be brought down to tears with a bit of sophistry, when you pick on each individual detail requesting to be “shown” it until they cry mercy. (Oh, it’s a bar? Describe the lighting. And the tables. And the bar. And the bar stools. And that patron in the corner. And the bartender. No, I don’t care your protagonist saw the blonde first and is making his way towards her — show me each cigarette butt in the saw dust on the floor!)
We use words to evoke a feeling, and sometimes less words are better. Besides, so much of the reading experience of a work happens in the reader’s head (something I’ve learnt working with beta readers and reading reviews), that it’s not even funny. You can’t control the complete mental picture, and you shouldn’t even try. Balance evocative descriptions with progressing the plot.
Getting back on the topic of never / always advice about writing, I’ve mentioned before what I believe to be the only eternal pieces of writerly advice. If you’ve paid attention you probably noted that they have nothing to do with technique. They’re simply Read, Write, Edit as the most general things, constant things you need to do. Not what to read, or how to write, or rules of editing — just the activities in themselves, together with a judicious application of reason, lead to improvement.
Anyway, moving back to ranting…
Dreams, Waking up, and the Weather
Something random that came up, and sparked this part of the rant:
- Waking up from a dream or a coma is cliche and boring
- Dreams are just cheating the reader of emotional investment, and you end up waking which is boring as above.
- Don’t start with the weather
And my response is…. Meh.
You can make everything work well (and you can make everything crap, too). Sometimes waking up is important: if you’re about to disrupt someone’s idyllic life, you need to show that life first. As for comas, tell that to Zelazny and Nine Princes of Amber (one of my all time favourite authors, and whose books so far withstood the test of time).
Dreams go for motive, your honour. Even whomever wrote that original meme acknowledged that done in the right way they can be an important part of the narrative.
As for the weather — tell that to Danielle Steel. 92 of her 179 books start with the weather — and you can’t argue with her best-selling status. In fact, whenever you look at the statistics of literature, the only thing you can safely say is that author’s styles and sales figures have nothing to do with literary criticism. And that includes any such always/never type of advice.
Oh, and I’m totally not writing it because I started my first book with a dream (a nightmare, really, about an old love) followed by Felix going to wash his face and do some light reading until dawn… at which point he has a visitor that hires him to deal with a cult death, and he’s doing a squishy autopsy before the sun is much up and it’s still chapter one.
One beta reader said everyone stops reading at “it was all a dream”. Err, there’s a difference between prologue and epilogue, dude. That dream, which repeats in important variations throughout the novel, is actually serving both to establish character (showing his scars, without telling about them), and comprises the emotional arc (which is always secondary in hard-boiled detectives) as the perfect mirror image between the opening and closing images of the novel.
My second book opens with the weather, as Felix is lying naked in a fountain because summer is too hot… until someone comes to hand him a haunted building and asks him to evict the ghosts. As for the third novel, ah my third novel opens up with… a politician exposing himself (literally) on a public platform. And then Felix gets called to handle a case of bizarre misfortunes and curses.
My point in all this is that, yes — it’s good to start as close to the action as possible. But be wary of starting too close. Sometimes there’s a good reason to show the character’s daily routine, to establish their life before events overtake them.
In conclusion, all I can say is you should find your voice, make your works distinctly your own, and don’t look back.
So what bad advice have you gotten? What imperative, imperious tones have raised your hackles? Have you considered why such blanket statements came to be, and why and when should they be broken? How do you approach controlling rhythms — ion and out of fights — in tense scenes?