How do you write a good combat scene? I set myself an exercise over the weekend of analysing what works for me as a reader in some of my favourite fantasy books.
The weird thing that I found was that in some cases where I thought there would be quite a bit of material to look at – such as The Lord of the Rings for instance, there was little actual description of a full individual against individual combat. Even where Boromir dies, which is a big scene at the end of the Fellowship of the Ring move, the combat is described through a report by Legolas, Boromir dies bravely. Tolkien is more interested in the mass movement of armies and epic scope of battles rather than the nitty gritty of hand-to-hand combat.
What I found was that in the best examples I came across, such as in Joe Abercrombie and David Gemmell, the way combat was described was very dependent on character and the character’s emotions. So for instance when King Jezal charges foolishly at a horde of Gurkish warriors the combat is very confusing as Jezal himself doesn’t really know what he is doing. He is hit from behind, he’s not sure what’s going on around him etc. Whereas in a scene involving Logen Ninefingers the combat is more precisely described as Logen is in more control of the situation – except when he gets berserk of course.
Gemmell though was the best example I found, especially when he deals with a straight-forward combat between a hero and his enemies. The action is fast and furious, none of the slow-motion nonsense you get sometimes when writers try to describe every detail of a fight, but lots of powerful, descriptive verbs, such as shattered, hammered, splintered, smashed etc. Every phrase and sentence describes a new attack or new movement. Everything happens rapidly and is conveyed with a sense of breathless energy.
In other scene’s Gemmell is not afraid to tell us what his character’s are thinking, and in some cases what multiple characters are thinking as well. So here again the character and their emotions plays a big part. A bigger, more important part than the precise description of the martial arts.
The energy and visceral power of Gemmell and Abercrombie is definitely something to aspire to I think.
2 thoughts on “Fight, Fight, Fight – Writing Combat Scenes in Fantasy Literature”
Combat scenes are easier to write if you take a leap of faith and talk to veterans.
My current novel which is out to tender with potential publishers is based on a rather grim battle during the Falklands War, Mount Longdon.
One of my instructors when I was in recruit training back in 1994 had been mentioned in dispatches during that particular battle. Reading his citation, the lion share of it was the fact that he fell into a bunker in the darkness, and had to fight for his life with an Argentine conscript who was in there. He eventually managed to head butt him to death, scramble out of the hole and slowly rejoin his Company as they pushed their way up the objective.
Close combat stinks of piss, human shit, cordite, the copper tang of blood, sweat and filthy unwashed bodies. When a human body is hit with bullets, they dont slam back as Hollywood would lead you to believe, the bullet passes throught like a hot knife through butter, and the body drops like liquid. The body could remain propped up by their own equipment, in which the attacker continues to smash the inert frame with more bullets ensuring the target is dead. Bits of equipment and various body parts flick off the body as the rounds slice through it. I found this to be true whilst serving in Iraq in 2003.
Keep these facts in mind, you will write great close combat scenes.
Falklands War novel
A Cold Night in June.