Guest Blog: Richard Lee Byers
Dylan wrote an excellent guest blog for me about medieval weapons and armor and what a writer ought to know about them to create an effective fight scene. I thought I’d return the favor by discussing some other factors a writer should consider when writing about combat.
People sometimes lose bladder control when they’re terrified, and going into mortal combat for the first time is surely terrifying for many. When someone has just been killed or mortally wounded, he sometimes evacuates his bowels.
Bearing these facts in mind, remember the Company of the Ring in the Mines of Moria, with the orcs, trolls, and eventually the Balrog closing in. The hobbits have had some close calls before this, but this is the first time they’re going to draw their blades and fight for their lives.
Now, my question to you is this: Would you have enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring more if Tolkien had told you Frodo and his buddies from the Shire peed their breeches, or that a thick stench filled the air as dying orcs took dumps in theirs?
How about Star Wars? Would the movies be more fun if dying Stormtroopers were crapping in their armor on all sides?
Taste is an individual thing, so I hesitate to generalize. But I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that for most of us, the answer is no.
My point is that a writer needs to consider the tone and dramatic effect he’s going for, include details that will support them, and omit details that will undermine them. In real life, killing a foe up close and personal is a brutal, nasty business even if it’s a master like Miyamoto Musashi doing the slaughtering. But if you’re writing a lighthearted story about a daredevil hero who cracks jokes as he swashbuckles his way unscathed through peril after peril, that’s not the way you want to play it.
And there’s nothing wrong with writing that swashbuckler. As long as you succeed in entertaining, it doesn’t matter that your depiction of combat isn’t realistic. In fiction, which is untrue by definition, realism isn’t an end in itself. It’s an approach. It’s one tool in the writer’s toolbox.
Of course, in a different kind of story, it’s a tool you can use to good effect. In fact, if your tone and general subject matter have conveyed to the reader that by God, he’d better fasten his seatbelt and have his barf bag on his knee, because this is going to be gritty, you have little choice but to deliver on that. Otherwise, your audience will stop taking the story seriously.
My impression is that few modern fantasy writers actually deliver either the squeaky clean violence of an Errol Flynn movie or the uncompromising gruesomeness of a splatter flick. Most of us work somewhere in the middle.
Of course, there’s more to realism than how graphic and disgusting you get with the blood, guts, and excreta. One staple of vintage swashbuckling movies is the protracted duel between the hero and the main villain, both of whom are master swordsmen. On and on it goes, as the combatants fight on tabletops, up and down staircases, kick furniture at each other, swing on chandeliers, etc. For an example, check out the climactic fight in the theater in Stewart Grainger’s Scaramouche.
I’m a fencer, and I’ve watched many other fencers, some of them extremely accomplished, play our game, and I’m pretty darn sure this kind of thing rarely if ever happened. Once somebody starts attacking in earnest, either he scores or his opponent scores in under a minute. Often, within a very few seconds.
Now admittedly, sport fencing, where you’re only fighting for fun or a medal, is different than fighting for your life. The great fencer Aldo Nadi fought one actual duel and wrote about it in his autobiography. Dueling required him to abandon flashy, explosive attacks and employ a more cautious and basic form of swordplay.
We can assume other real-life combatants might well take it slow at first. They’d stay out of the distance, circle, feel each other out, and look for openings. Still, once someone decided to make his move, either he or his adversary (or both) would likely draw blood shortly thereafter.
Does this mean you should never write the protracted duel? No. It means you should recognize it’s swashbuckling romanticism, not realism, and if your story has been realistic up until now, the shift may put readers off.
Speaking of protracted, a writer also needs to evaluate how many moves to describe in detail. If your hero is standing in a shield wall fighting wave after wave of onrushing goblins, it’s probably a bad idea to lay out, cut by cut and shield block by shield block, how he slays every one of the critters that end up heaped in a bloody mound before him. You risk turning what should be thrilling into tedium. The sequence is likely to work better if you only go into detail about killing the first one or two goblins, one or two critical moments in the middle of the battle, and how it all works out in the end.
Finally, let me note that there is a kind of realism that’s important in any action scene, no matter how swashbuckling or flamboyant the story. The fight choreography has to make sense on its own terms.
I recently read a James Bond novel written by one of the writers who continued the character after Ian Fleming’s death. On one page, Bond is handcuffed. A little farther along, he isn’t.
The novel is full of glitches like that. And in a story where the action scenes are critical to the reader’s enjoyment, they absolutely ruin it.
So don’t write a scene where the hero is in front of his enemy one instant and then behind him the next, with no explanation of how he got there. Don’t have the hero and villain grappling and then say one of them runs at the other. It won’t work. You have to visualize a fight and be sure the sequence of moves actually could unfold in the way you want.
If you doubt your ability to do that, the other option is a less detailed, more impressionistic style of writing. Just tell the audience the hero cut down the ogre with a whirlwind flurry of slashes and let it go at that.
And that, I guess, is what I have to tell you about fight scenes. Before you move on, may I hawk my wares for a moment? The Q Word and Other Stories, a collection of some of my best short stories, is available for the Kindle here.
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See you next time.