[Part One of a Three Part Series — Coming Up: Let the Reader Do the Heavy Lifting, and FINESSE: Making a Fight Experiential]
How to Write Fight isn’t a new topic. Most of the topics I choose to write about aren’t new. You can find articles about them in books and in blogs all over the internet, but writers new and old still ask the same questions. Why is that?
It’s not for lack of access to the information, because we can all Google well enough for Google to take pity on us now and then.
Then what keeps us asking the same questions again and again?
Well, I’ve read more than a few articles on “how to write fight” so far, and while they all tend to have very nice observations from a reader standpoint, I feel like most of them lack a lot in the “how” department of “how to” for writers.
Avoid “generic settings”, “no casual conversations”, “general believabilty”. These are all important points — I’m certainly not disagreeing with them–, but they are not the HOW of HOW TO.
So what is the how?
The first step is probably the step you all know the most:
1. Short Sentences
You know this one, but do you know the why of this one?
The passage of time.
Readers feel the passage of time with every word they read. The longer it takes them to reach the end of a sentence or thought, the more time they feel has passed between the last action and the next. So, when you have long purple prose describing things which are (no doubt) essential to the story, the reader feels more time has passed than if you give them a few simple passages about what exists.
For a fight, this means short, choppy, sharp sentences that convey the character of an action as much as the speed with which it happens.
A little one fell. Olem’s hammer fell harder. The bodies piled up at his feet.
A shield flew toward him in a screaming rage. It splintered, exposing its master’s chest. Also gone; a cavity where a man had been.
Two more screamed from behind. The long hammer rose above his head to greet them in a heavy arc.
Their screams joined the silence at his feet.
The blows weren’t accurate, but then, they didn’t need to be. He lumbered through their ranks, breaking their force into hopeless shards.
Not only does this read as a brutal fight, it reads as happening in mere instants. One swing, another swing. No time to process the violence left behind; just an impression.
Sentence length is directly proportionate to the perceived passage of time.
See its opposite, here:
A smaller fighter approached from the rabble. His armor gleamed like new; likely little more than a boy, and a recruit at that. It would be just like the count to recruit from the children of his county, conscripting them and doing little more than hand them a sword and a pat on the back before shoving them to the front line.
The boy had fought his way to the fore with barely a scratch on him, but balked at the size of the giant before him. His eyes grew wide with terrible realization, but the hammer was already in motion. He was dead before he hit the ground. The hammer chased him down to splatter the contents of his helm across the already blood-soaked ground.
An older man, one with a shield — not likely the child’s father, given the cast of his features–, came screaming from the chaos to his right.
Olem’s hammer met him half-way, colliding with the flimsy shield the man thought strong enough to protect him. The shield shattered instantly (as likely did the man’s arms), exploding into fine splinters, which rained down upon the combatants in a dangerous mist.
The shield had dissolved like tissue in a river, and the hammer continued, unabated. It punched through the man’s chest, ignoring the elaborate cuirass now barely holding him together, and lobbed his startled shell to the side as Olem swung for another little soldier.
His body joined the growing heap at Olem’s feet to contribute the wet essence of his life to the river of death staining Hadron’s Field.
This certainly does say more, but do you feel the action has been moving at an active pace? Or does this feel more like the ghostly ride-along during a slow-motion fight scene?
If it seems more like the latter than the former, it probably has a lot to do with the sentence length. It’s not that all of that information is useless, or distracting; it’s that all that information slows down the pacing. The perceived amount of time between each blow increases, so the reader has to literally suspend imagining the action to process the rest of the information being offered.
Use this to your advantage and decide what KIND of fight you want to depict: Is it full of choppy, evocative action? Or is it a little more informative and introspective? A balance between the two can make truly dynamic fights.
Which brings us to:
2. Varied Sentence Length
Take a look at that first example again. One of the things that helps the action forward is the varied length of the sentences. This is important to note, because it keeps the passage from feeling repetitive, or cadence-driven. It can feel very monotonous if the paragraphs all have similar sentence lengths.
Let’s see Olem demonstrate, again.
Spears came at him from the side. They danced and jabbed at the air. Olem braced his hammer on the ground. He reached out with a mighty fist; spears snapped like twigs in his hand. He used the hafts to swing the men. Screams joined screams above him. They flew off into the fray. Little pockets opened where they landed.
Arrows flew, but just bounced off.
His armor was of no fancy make. Not like their elaborate shells. His was hardened bronto hide; hide was enough with his thick skin. They couldn’t pierce him if they tried.
Here is the danger of “short, choppy sentences”. When you pursue “short sentences” over everything else, you can create a scenario that feels like this. Each sentence alone may not even be bad, or use bad imagery, but when you stack them all together it’s a sea of sameness.
Even when you mix it up with semi-colons; the literal sentence is long, but the pauses and breaks cause it to conform to the same pattern.
SUPER PRO TIP!
When in doubt, read your passages out loud. Record you or someone else reading them if you still can’t hear where something might be off. Hearing your voice played back, or hearing how someone else interprets the pauses, can reveal where you need to focus the most when you next edit that section.
Remember: Sentence length = perceived passage of time. That’s all we’re talking about here when we say sentences should be short for fight scenes. That doesn’t mean “make them all short”. It means when you’re writing, and when you read them over, ask yourself how much time you feel has passed between each action.
If it’s too sudden, add some color with a few more words. If it’s too long, cut out some of that color to bring a sense of immediacy back.
That’s the balance of varied sentence length.
If you want a good formula, try: [Short]. [Short]. [Medium Long]. [Short]. [Long]. [Short]. [Short]
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Tell ’em Cordy sent ya.😉