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.