Thursday, June 4, 2015

Action Scenes

Action is something I struggle with. For some reason, my friends say it's my strong suit, and I don't understand. I have a hard time envisioning all these limbs and weapons flying around everywhere, and what appropriate responses would be. I have a hard time keeping track of all the characters. It's not pretty. 

Which brings me to a point: Fighting is messy. You have to really think about what's going on to know what's going to happen.


Something that's difficult to avoid when writing fighting scenes is knowing how to actually use the weapons you're writing. Bare-handed, staff, sword, nun-chucks, long bows, crossbows, guns, daggers, war hammer, ax, or even magic, all have different abilities and limitations. Even different types of weapons are used differently; you would not use a katana or cutlass as you would a long sword. Therefore, you would not write a katana or cutlass as you would a long sword, or your characters may find themselves doing impossible or simply downright ridiculous things. 

Secondly, you have to know what weapons your characters are suited to. A halfling would not be able to wield a sword that's nearly as long as them very well. Someone who needs agility over power needs something smaller. Someone who needs power over agility and grace will likely choose something bigger and more formidable. An untrained person probably won't care, but they will need to be able to hold their weapon to think they can do something with it. 

Responding to Unexpected Attack

My reaction when someone scares me is to injure them (much to my family's chagrin). My brain has already kicked into "freeze, flight, or fight" mode, and it decided on 'fight' as soon as I got scared/surprised. It happens even before I can see if the person scaring me is truly a threat or not. 

Almost everyone has this instinct (I've only met one person who doesn't). How do your characters react to sudden attack? Some people who think they would fight will freeze. Others who think flight would be their first reaction will fight. There's really no way to know until it's happened, I think. 


I've heard that there are four different intentions when fighting: immobilize, injure, cripple, or kill. Intentions determine how someone fights. Remember that intentions apply to both sides: attackers and defenders. An attacker/defender may want to kill the other, while the other only wants to stop the attacker/defender from doing so. 

(The attacker is usually the one that initiates the fight, but your definition can depend on different things, like who's stronger/more aggressive, who's ganging up on who, or whose viewpoint you're writing from. Sometimes both are the attackers.)

(I'll use 'she' to refer to attackers, and 'he' to refer to defenders, for the sake of sanity.)


If an attacker is aiming to subdue the defender, she's not going to fight as viciously as she would normally. She'll try to use non-lethal techniques to subdue the defender. 

This gives the defender an advantage, which he may or may not take. If he has no compulsions about maiming/killing the attacker, he can fight without having to worry about hurting her. If he only wants to subdue her as well, then they're fighting on even footing.


In this scenario, the attacker is going to avoid using lethal blows, but she wants to give the defender something to think about for a while. She wants to bruise and wound the defender a bit. 

If the defender is wanting to injure the attacker, he's probably worried for his own life, no matter her intent. (I don't know about you, but I'd be trying to injure anybody who tried to kidnap or kill me.) He's not going to worry about immobilizing her when he's worried about keeping himself healthy and alive. 


To cripple someone is to do damage that someone can't recover from. If the attacker has gone here, she's really pissed at the defender. She wants to break his legs and set 'em so he can't walk straight ever again. She wants to leave a lasting mark on him, and possibly use him as an example to others of "this is what happens when you screw with me." Killing him would be too merciful, and merely injuring him would quickly be forgotten.

The defender is scared at this point (or he and the attacker have a long-standing rivalry or something--in that case, his motivation is much like her's: kneecapping). Subduing the attacker has failed, and/or injuring her did nothing to deter her. The only resort left, short of killing her, is to maim her.

It also could be that the defender has been seen as a weakling, and he's going out of his way to prove that that is simply not true, and you'd best remember it.


This one is fairly self-explanatory. The attacker wants to kill the defender for whatever reason. She's not going to hold back; lethal shots are her friend.

A defender with this motivation is either merely fighting without restraint, has a previous history with the attacker, or is someone who will retaliate with death at being attacked. He's also not going to hold back.

Both of them will do everything they can to be the winner of the fight. 

Fighting Outnumbered

Often, the hero has honor and would never gang up with his buddies on a only one or two people. However, the hero's enemies will often disregard this rule. The play of battle changes when you're fighting odds that are five or even ten to one. 

For example, when fighting against greater odds, you need to fight dirty.  Fighting outnumbered has no rules. Dirt needs to be flung in eyes, arms need to be bitten, faces need to be scratched, fingers broken, etc. If your attackers aren't going to play nice, you can't play nice. Nice people get killed. 

If you're alone, standing out in the open is a good way to get yourself surrounded and quickly stabbed from the behind; you can't fight against ten people all attacking at once from all sides. Therefore, you need to put your back to something, like a wall. (Don't put yourself in a corner--that leaves you open to getting stuck and simply worn down by your attackers, and it also limits your ability to fight with certain weapons (e.g. a staff). There are only a few circumstances where a corner is a good idea--if your right arm isn't working, you don't want anybody coming at you from that side, for example.)

Try to conserve your strength. Facing ten attackers means they don't have to do a lot of work to fight you, but you do to keep them away. If they're smart, they'll just wear you down. This means you need to a) end the battle quickly or b) make sure you can hold out long enough to beat them all. 

Be as clever as possible. If you see an opportunity to trip someone up, take it. Fling other people into their comrades; trick the attackers into slipping in mud or blood; use any of your surroundings to your advantage--put your back to the sun so they can't see straight; dodge through that minefield better than they can (okay, this probably isn't a good idea (at all), but the same thing applies to a forest or city); etc. 

Fighting a Stronger Opponent 

Much of what applies for fighting against multiple opponents applies to fighting a stronger opponent; notice your enemies weaknesses and recognize your strengths, and use them against the opponent. You probably want to end the conflict quickly, otherwise they'll just wear you down. 


There might be cursing and other such exclamations. There might be trying to intimidate another character with words. But, unless you're writing an anime, no one is going to pause to have a full-length conversation in the middle of a battle. (The villain and hero might trade a few blows, back off, and yell/talk to each other, and then go back to fighting. In this case, more dialogue is feasible, but not while fighting, really). 

Actually Writing Fighting

Alright, you're probably bored of me droning on and saying to yourself, "Yeah, yeah, that's all good, but how do I actually write a fighting scene?"

(My truthful answer: LOL I have no clue. I usually blunder through them blindly and hope I've written something coherent. But I'll try to give you something useful here.)

Here are some things to think about when writing fighting scenes: 
  1. Study. Research the weapons you'll be writing; watch videos on how people use them (this may be a touch difficult to do with magic; in that case, you need to know well how your magic works). Let actual fights disillusion you of Hollywood myths. Also read other people's versions of fighting, both fictional and not. 
  2. Shorten. A problem I have is that I like to make my sentences long; in a fight scene, your writing structure should reflect the action. Short sentences! Short paragraphs! Move the action along.
  3. Simplify. Don't focus on description too much. You need some when your character is using their surroundings to their advantages, but a character is not going to marvel at the beauty of stained-glass windows when they've got a sword coming at their throat. 
  4. Space any Dialogue Tastefully. 
  5. Remember Intentions. What do the fighters want to do to one another?
  6. Remember Limits. What can't the fighters do? What is physically impossible? 
I'll share a short excerpt from the beginning of a novelette (the first chapter) I wrote, called The Space Between: 
            "Krammick, woman!" the man growled as he caught Bell's fist in his hand, fingers tightening around her own. He snatched her other wrist as she attempted to free her captive hand.
            "Let me go!" she snapped, bringing her heel down on his toes. The action surprised her and obviously didn't hurt him—who the dreld wore steel-toe boots now a-days?!
            "I don't have time for this," he muttered, releasing her fist in order to twist her other arm, bringing her to her knees as she cried out, pain flaring in her shoulder. She braced herself against the ground with her free hand, gritting her teeth as he held her arm in a lock.
            "Fen," Bell heard him swear with a huff, which proceeded clinking metal sounds. Twisting her head, her eyes shot wide at the sight of handcuffs—the sort that lawkeeps used.
            "No!" she yelped as she kicked back at his foot. He easily evaded the clumsy attack and pushed her forward onto the ground. She attempted to push herself back up with her free hand, but he wrenched her arm from beneath her, snapping both her wrists into the cuffs.
            "By the voids!" he growled as he pulled her roughly upright, pushing her forward while keeping a hand on her upper arm. She stumbled, purposefully stalling them to give herself more time to think.
            The man would have none of it, giving an irritated growl and spinning Bell around, hand firmly on her shoulder. She kicked at his shin, but he ignored it, grabbing her around the waist and hoisting her over his shoulder effortlessly. Her stomach fled to her throat as one of his arms wrapped around her waist and the other gripped her legs—keeping her on his shoulder as well as preventing her from kicking the fen out of his midsection.
            "Put me down, fen-faced-dreld!" Bell protested as he began striding down the hall. She gritted her teeth—it really was not a comfortable way to be carried, with his shoulder jerking into her stomach with step.
            Straining her head, and shaking her brown hair out of her eyes, she could see her surroundings changing as they swiftly came into a hallway—a docking hall, she noted as the door shut behind them with a hiss.
            They entered the docking bay and he carried her inside his ship—which had been left open.
            "Put me down, you—oof!" He did as she requested, thumping her down in the passenger seat of the ship, then held her down as he drew and tightened the two chest belts and one stomach belt in place, securing her in the seat—all while she swore profusely at him.
            "Starting to make me wish I had my taser," he muttered as he took a place in the pilot's seat—a good four or five feet away from her, which was, unfortunately, out of her kicking radius. 

Referring back to the list:

1. All of this is done barehanded. Something, as I'm reading this, that could probably be confused in a reader's mind for what position Bell is in is the line ". . . releasing her fist in order to twist her other arm, bringing her to her knees." Something else you should do is make sure all of the fighting is clear and is actually physically possible. Rewriting is a thing. 
2. Yeah, no, I'm still not good at the short-sentences thing. But I think I do pretty well with the paragraphs! 
3. I think I nailed this one (and we're not going to say it's because I tend to have a lack of description in my writing). There's not really a whole lot of description where they are as Bell is defending herself, although she takes note of her surroundings as she's hauled off. 
4. Well, I like dialogue, but I think I restrained myself well. There's a lot of exclaiming going on.
5. We can tell that Bell's intent is simply to stop and escape from the man, and/or do any damage she can to deter him from doing whatever it is he wants to do--which, we discover, is to subdue and capture her. The man definitely doesn't have lethal intentions.
6. I think I did pretty well with this one, too. Bell's limits are mostly that she's smaller than the man, and a whole lot less trained and powerful.  

What do you think? I'll leave the rest up to you.

(This is a really long blog post. I'd best stop now, while I'm considering it, before it expands another thousand words.)

Have at it: for ten minutes, referring to the list above (or whatever list you like, truly), write two characters fighting each other. Comment below with what you come up with!

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