Armies lining up on either side of a field. A jousting tournament. Two warriors circling each other, swords drawn. Arrows raining down on an enemy. Siege weapons. Epic fantasy battle scenes are thrilling to read. They are generally the big, exciting climax of the massive tome or series that a fantasy reader looks forward to.
But writing those battles and fight sequences can often be the exact opposite of exciting to write. Many authors and aspiring authors agree that writing fight scenes is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fantasy novels.
The first time I sat down to write King’s Warrior, I was 19 years old. I sailed through the story and came at long last to the final, climactic battle, the crux of the plot I had been building to for over 300 pages. The stage was set, the stakes were high, and … I had no idea how to go about actually putting this enormous and important ending into the story. It wasn’t something I had covered in any creative writing class I’d ever taken, nor would it ever be included in the curriculum of any writing class I participated in. A friend of mine told me, “Go re-read the chapter on the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers! Tolkien does a fantastic job with this.” So I did. It seemed like helpful advice at the time. And it was a good starting point… unfortunately, the chapter Helm’s Deep is fairly short, and the descriptions of the battle only encompass a handful of paragraphs, interspersed with information on what Aragorn is doing or dialogue between various characters. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for with regards to a formula for writing a compelling and epic battle sequence.
I read battle scenes in other fantasy novels and sort of fumbled my way along. I would later do a lot of editing and rewriting on that particular portion of the book. Several novels later, I was still wrestling with this question: just how does one go about writing a compelling fight scene?
Skip ahead a few years and several novels later. I was working on the first draft of The Orb and the Airship. The story was building up to a major conflict on board my pirates’ airship. My first inclination was to go through the scene step-by-step. I saved that early draft, and thought I’d share it with you here today:
The deck of the Crimson Eagle became a maelstrom of confusion and noise. Grayden lay where he had fallen, the side of his face pressed against the cool decking. His head throbbed and swam as he tried to raise himself to a standing position. He reached inside his jacket. His fingers found what they were searching for. As he stood, a figure charged at him. Grayden stepped back and to the side. His attacker’s sword missed him by a breath. His assailant recovered quickly, angling his blade to deflect Grayden’s knife thrust at his side. Grayden began to feel panicked. He was only basically trained, and he knew he was no match for a skilled swordsman, and his long-knife could not compete with a sword. He ducked as the lethal blade swung at his head. His long-knife was not the ideal weapon for this particular contest. He backed away from his attacker, his eyes darting wildly as he searched for something he could use to his advantage.
The answer came so suddenly it startled Grayden himself. He backed into one of the tall masts. The impact surprised him, but he instantly knew what to do. He moved his knife from his right to his left hand and slid around the mast to the right as his opponent swung his sword at his head once more. The sword stuck briefly in the wood of the mast and Grayden took full advantage of his opponent’s momentary impediment. He swung back to his left, grabbed the back of the man’s head, and dashed his head against the mast. His attacker slumped to the deck, out of the battle, at least for the moment. Grayden retrieved the man’s sword.
I wrote out the rest of the chapter and then stopped to read over what I had written. Something was wrong. There was plenty of action, but I was bored writing it, how could I expect a reader to enjoy the experience?
I tried acting it out. My husband helped me with the sequence of events. I talked to friends who had taken fencing classes and were in martial arts. I did research. My grasp of the movements was sound, but translating it onto paper turned it into a choppy mess. It sounded like I was writing choreography for a play, not an intense or exciting battle scene. My husband then suggested a different course. Instead of writing a series of movements and recording all the ducks and blows and parries that an actor has to think through when making a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean, I should try to think through what the battle actually looks like to someone in the midst of it. Or even someone watching it from afar. It is chaos. It is loud. Any participant is rarely going to get the luxury of dueling a single opponent at a time.
So I took my step-by-step first draft and created an outline to follow:
- Enemy ship crashes into Crimson Eagle
- Ship lurches, people stumble/fall over
- Grayden falls down
- Hits his head
- Momentarily stunned
- Grayden gets up and faces a swarm of attackers
- Realizes he’s been separated from his friends
- Realizes he’s been separated from his friends
- Spots Wynn
- Moves towards Wynn
- Faces attackers
- Sort of lurching his way through the fray
- Lots of “luck”
Then I set out to re-write the scene, this time focusing on the feel of the battle, rather than the actual steps. I detailed the overwhelming clash of sounds and colors, the swirling confusion of trying to determine friend versus foe as the MC made his way through the fray while struggling to survive.
The deck of the Crimson Eagle became a maelstrom of confusion and noise. Grayden lay where he had fallen, the side of his face pressed against the cool decking. His head throbbed and swam as he climbed to his feet. He reached inside his jacket. His fingers found the hilt of his long-knife as another wave of attackers swung their way onto the cruiser. His heart pounded in his ears matching the ominous rhythm of their boots hitting the boards of the deck.
His gaze swept the airship wildly, searching for his friends. At first he could not find them amidst the chaos. Then he spotted Beren, towering above the rest. Desperately, Grayden began to make his way toward him.
Attackers blocked his path. Grayden sliced out with his dagger at one. He ducked and whirled away from a sword blow, his heart lurching as he felt the wind of it ruffle his hair. He rushed through a line of attackers, elbows flying; he heard a grunt of pain as he barged through the mass of bodies. Something sliced into his leg and he crumpled to the deck, dropping his knife. A man leapt after him and Grayden scrabbled desperately for his weapon. Failing to retrieve it, he rolled away just as the sword cleaved into the deck where he had been. Stumbling to his feet, he jumped at the attacker, knocking him to the deck. The man’s head slammed against a barrel and he lay still.
Grayden rose, feeling sick. His leg throbbed. He retrieved the sword that had nearly killed him. It was heavier than he was used to, and had a strange curve to its blade that made it feel awkwardly balanced, but it was better than nothing. His eyes scanned the deck until he found his dagger. He picked it up and bent over, breathing heavily, thankful for a sudden lull in the area around him. The reprieve was short-lived, however. One of the raiders noticed him and advanced, sword swinging lazily, a knowing smile on his clean-shaven face.
Grayden lurched away from the new threat, wielding the unfamiliar blade clumsily. His attacker slashed and cut at him with speed and precision. Grayden parried as best he could, backing away. His thoughts were awhirl as he blocked blow after blow. Suddenly, his attacker grinned, a cunning light of victory in his eyes. Before he had time to wonder what it meant, Grayden crashed into something with such force that it brought tears to his eyes and nearly knocked his breath from his lungs. It was the mast. Without thinking, he slid around it just as his attacker swung. The blade bit deeply into the wood of the mast where Grayden’s head had been but a moment before. Quicker than he had ever moved before, Grayden reversed direction and grabbed the back of the man’s head, smashing his face into the mast. The man slumped to the deck, motionless.
I don’t know about you, but personally I think that is a much more exciting read. For me, the answer came not from telling my readers every step of the choreography, but rather from giving them a sense of what it was like to be there next to the character. In other words, writing a compelling fight sequence meant not writing too much about the actual fighting! This might seem a bit counter-intuitive, but it goes back to the age-old “show, don’t tell!” rule. Though sometimes overused, because narrative is still an important aspect of most stories, this is one of those times where it is a good rule. This is one of those wondrous places where the reader’s vast imagination is the author’s best friend. Now, obviously, there is some choreography in both versions, but the second version just gives the reader enough to ground them and be able to know what’s going on, it is less clinical and more about what Grayden is feeling as he encounters his first real battle. A few tantalizing glimpses and the use of descriptive adjectives in which to immerse the reader’s senses will go a lot further in developing a gloriously epic battle scene in your reader’s mind than ten pages of “character A swung his sword, while character B raised up his dagger, catching the blade just before it passed through his defenses, then character A spun 360 degrees and….” wouldn’t you agree?
I guess Tolkien had it right all along.