Let’s continue, shall we? If you missed part one–well, don’t look now, but it’s right over there.
Fighting has a pretty big role in lots of genres. Who doesn’t like a good Indiana Jones style fist-fight? If it’s not that, it’s a gun fight. But those don’t take much attention to detail to write. You point the gun. You feel a little nervous. You pull the trigger. Applause.
Fantasy, on the other hand, is home to the more complicated type of fight. There are fist fights and the like, and those are good. But then there are armed battles. Fights to the death with cold steel and red blood. Tension! Excitement! A sharp blade carries so much more consequence than a balled fist. It sometimes seems to carry more consequence even than a gun. You’re used to hearing the stray bullets whiz by, never seeming to connect. When’s the last time a main character in a book or movie took a bullet anywhere but the shoulder or leg? And, according to Hollywood, those are least lethal places to be shot! Everyone gets shot in the shoulder at least once. You’ll be fine!
But see, a blade is different. Yeah, the guy with the knife might miss, but what if he doesn’t? He’s right there, in the character’s face. You, the reader, are forced to imagine the sensation of steel biting into flesh. No bang, thud, “I’ve been hit”–but a slow, searing pain as the weapon is twisted in the wound. Now that’s grit. That’s realism.
So why are so many fictional sword fights flawlessly choreographed displays of superb fencing? I’m certain that the reality is different. And reality is what I like in my fantasy. Here’s how it should go: the combatants square up. Sudden movement, and two strokes of the opponent’s blade are parried. Our hero counters, and his sword finds its mark. The enemy screams as the blood pours from his wound.
That’s how a fight goes. That quickly, and it’s over. It’s a scary thing. So I ask again–why all the smooth choreography and flash? It’s not a dance, friends. It’s a fight to to the death. Where is the tension, and the risk? Where is the sweat and the blood and the dirt? Like I said, a blade should carry consequence.
Hm. Actually, there is a good example of a sudden, bloody battle that does involve guns. So it can be done. In the western film Appaloosa, the two main characters approach a bank in which four foul criminals are holed-up. Their approach is noticed, and their enemies are ready for them. In reality, this should not end well. And it doesn’t. The heroes draw their guns and immediately shoot down the two men by the bank door. One of them takes a bullet himself, but they switch targets all the same, continuing the fight. A bullet doesn’t kill you right away, you know. So they aim their pistols again. Before they can kill the two men in the bank’s second story windows, however, they are both shot down. The remaining bad guys ride away, and the good guys are left lying in the dirt. They’re leg and shoulder wounds, yeah… but one of them has a limp later, so the consequences are real. And most importantly, the fight is over in an instant, and that’s the way fights are.
Okay. Now, before you finish that thought, I do understand that a scene can’t always be written like that. I get it. A drawn out duel can even be more exciting than a quick one. Books and movies need drama. But the threat of that sudden, unforeseen final blow has to be there. I’ll provide an example in the realm of books. Roger Zelazny’s Amber series contains plenty of well-written action. In the first novel, the main character engages in a duel with his brother, a pretender to the throne. Both men are expert swordsmen, so we don’t exactly expect a quick kill. But the tension is there. Their blades meet, and they begin to fight back and forth across the room. There is fear in the main character’s thoughts as he duels. Trying something unexpected, he catches his brother on the arm and then mocks him, literally adding insult to injury. Suddenly his fear begins to dissipate, and he sees the same emotion growing on his brother’s face. The other man starts to tire. His wound is nagging at him and the main character knows it. He presses the attack. And then the duel is interrupted.
See, there is no death. There’s no brief, confused scuffle. But there is real tension because there is real danger. There’s also real, personal issues in the mix, and that’s always better for a story than a fight without meaning. The main character feels outclassed even when he is performing well. That is how a real fight feels. The confidence doesn’t come until you move in for the finish. The rest is only uncertainty and fear, and therein lies the tension. The realism of technique helps with that, too. In the second part of his series, two of Zelazny’s characters engage in hand-to-hand combat, and the author has clearly done his research. The main character wrestles with his opponent, and the techniques are there. He’s being outclassed again, this time by strength. He dives for a toehold, but can’t finish the move. He’s pinned. Yes, it’s another drawn out fight, but at no point does it seem silly or contrived.
So. Risk. Tension. Fear. Those are the keys to a good fictional fight. Being a bit of a practitioner myself, I think that some attention to technical detail goes a long way in establishing these things.
There’s a little more, but that’s all for today. Come back soon for Part Three, wherein we will talk about how writing style affects the feel of our realistic battle.
Until we meet again, gentle reader.