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I have recently written an action scene, and I am not satisfied with it. It sounded choppy and inconsistent, and I'd love to know how to write it so it makes sense, doesn't sound like a robotic description, and it keeps things going at a pretty quick pace.

If you have any advice, please keep in mind that most action scenes I plan on writing about include hand-to-hand combat, swords, daggers, etc. (No pistols or guns.)

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    The basic suggestion is always: "Read novels you like, and take inspiration from them". I am sure you read a thousand similar action scenes before: how do they achieve what you want? – FraEnrico Feb 1 '18 at 8:08
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First, make sure that you are not subconsciously trying to write a movie fight scene. Movie fight scenes are all about movement and noise (and generally far too long and tedious for anyone older than 10). Good fight scenes in the movies are actually more dialogue than action. (Consider the sword fight between Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.)

Prose does not excel at movement and noise. It does excel at dialogue. So if you are going to emulate movie fight scenes, at least emulate the dialogue heavy scenes.

But a good prose fight scene is not about the cut and thrust. You can't describe cut and thrust in anything like real time, and even the best description of cut and thrust is hard to follow. Thus cut and thrust scenes end up confusing, laborious, and generally overblown.

Instead, focus on the things that create tension in a fight: the stakes at hand, the changes of fortune, the tiring of the fighters and their dwindling ability to continue and defend themselves. Often the tension in a fight comes because it delays the hero from some vital task (saving the princess, conventionally), distracts them some necessary action, or drains them of the capacity to continue their quest.

Above all, remember that in any good story, the central peril is not physical but moral. It is the lost of status or the loss of virtue or the loss of loved ones that is compelling in a fight scene, not the loss of blood. Even if blood is lost, it is the moral consequences of that loss, not the physical loss itself, that is compelling.

So many fight scenes end with the hero having to make a decision whether to kill the antagonist or not. This is the moral quandary at the heart of the fight, and the echoes of it can ripple back through the fight itself. The hero's reluctance to kill often leads them to the moment in the fight when the antagonists boot is on the hero's throat. This moment, and the moment of victory, are the great moral turning points of a fight, the moments that will make the fight satisfying or not for the reader.

Of course, not every fight is a climactic fight. Many are just skirmishes leading up to the climactic fight. The function of such skirmishes is to advance the story by changing the balance, and thus presenting a moral challenge to the hero. Again, the cut and thrust is not the heart of the fight, but what it reveals about the characters and how it changes the conditions under which the hero's next moral quandary must be faced.

  • I would say, that both film and prose can convey a "Confusing" fight sequence well... When we have a close perspective to the hero's voice (first or third limited omniscience) the narrator can benefit from less description and more general motions of the fight. Be it personal or a grand battle charge, the reader will fill in the gaps of the motion with the prompts. If the hero is in a hard fight, it will be a mess of confusion. – hszmv Feb 1 '18 at 16:04
  • @hszmv We have to remember the importance of narrative distance. People who read about fights don't want to actually be in fights. If they did they would go to dive bar and insult a biker. Same with confusion. We may want to view a scene of confusion, but we don't want to actually be confused. Confusing the reader, as opposed to showing them confusion, can happen in both film and prose, but in prose it is particularly difficult to show confusion without creating it, which is why it is much more common to simply tell the reader that the fight was confusing. – user16226 Feb 1 '18 at 16:36
  • And the dissonance here is who is providing the confusion. If, say, the fight is about to take a turn due to an object about to break loose, you would first see the object break, and then swing towards the hero. In a narrative, you would simply have the hero react to the out come, then conclude he was hit... However the sequence would be much more simple and rely on the reader reversing the connection in his or her own mental picture of the sequence. – hszmv Feb 1 '18 at 17:20
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Without reading the scene in question, there are a couple of things I feel need to be taken into consideration when writing a fight scene, and something that a lot of authors (particularly new or younger ones) could improve on.

Firstly, don't make it a blow by blow account. It slows the pace done horrendously. Fight's are short, nasty affairs and if you're spending three pages reading about something that should be over in a matter of moments, it's really quite jarring. We don't need to know every cut, thrust and parry that occurred. Include some by all means, but every blow is just too much.

Don't describe the movements in detail, keep them broad and letter the reader imagine the fight unfolding. Give enough detail for the reader to fill in the blanks,

Do your research before you're writing. Learn the right names for weapons, armour, what they were made of and how they were used - certain swords were designed for slashing, others cutting and others stabbing - they are all very different and don't do something they aren't designed for very well. A Zweihander is not going to be used in the middle of a tight formation, nor will the user be able to react quickly once the swing has started. Likewise, unless it's magical, a rapier will never pierce plate armour etc.

Don't try to be overly technical, though. You will get it wrong and the loudest critics are the ones who think they know the most about something, they will argue incessantly about the wrong use of some minor detail or some obscure term, and reject everything else you've written, and will lecture others about it constantly. They are Those Guys, and frankly they don't need any more ammunition.

Also, research stab wounds and how quickly people will actually bleed out, and the general damage that something might do.

Finally, read a range of different fight scenes by different authors. One of my all time favourite authors for writing fight scenes is David Gemmel, particularly at the start of White Wolf.

*What followed Capahas would never forget, not in the tiniest detail.

Skilgannon moved in on Damalon. As the dying courtier dropped the swords Skilgannon swept them up. The four black-garbed killers ran in. Skilgannon leapt to meet them, the sword blades shimmering in the firelight. There was no fight, no clash of steel upon steel. Within a matter of heartbeats five men were dead upon the ground."*

For more examples, read the likes of David Gemmell, Steven Erikson, Aaron Dembsky-Bowden (I'm sure I've spelled that wrong), Dan Abnett, Bryan McClelland.

Robert Jordan was also very adept at it. His fight scenes were often much more detailed than the likes of Gemmell, but often the fighting (by the swordsmen at least) was done using a martial style. He used the names of the moves to describe the fight (e.g. Autumn Leaves Falling merged into Herron Wading In The Rushes).

Either way, less is often more and keep the pace up. Fights are often short, vicious affairs and should be written as such.

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    As a teenager I read many fairly pulpy novels that glorified violence and described several major fights in each book in gory detail. At the time it gave my eyes something to look at that wasn't challenging. In retrospect, it was just terrible. And boring. Which is all to say that your advice to not write a blow-by-blow account is worthy of huge, bold type. – Todd Wilcox Feb 2 '18 at 19:58
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I believe the key word in your question is 'recently.'

You can certainly add to the action scene with internal thought, (I don't have my sword!) incomplete actions ('he reached for his sword but his bicep flinched and his reach was too short, then his opponent landed another blow'), described experience ('he could feel his heart racing, adrenaline coursing. He grabbed his sword but the sweat made the grip loose')...

Keep adding elements. Just keep adding. Move some around. Play with different lengths in your sentences. Look for linking words, see if they help make it less choppy or if they slow it down too much.

If he suffers a near fatal blow you can play with time.

Here's the thing. It's an action scene. You are a 'A curious writer.' There is a good chance you've not written many of these, and you wrote this one recently. So, play with it. Revise it. Give it a few days and tweak it. Keep doing that.

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  1. Staging. Set the scene prior to the fight so that you don't need to during it.
  2. Framing. Know the sequence of moves and describe only the important moments in detail. Get specific when it matters and not super often.
  3. 90% emotion. 10% stabbing. You want your reader to engage and sympathize with your protagonist. Most of your work will be about how the fight is affecting the main character, his relationships, his goals, his obsticles. So build up the emotion so that when the sword hits something, the cost is real and understood. From this you get victory or defeat and all of the emotions
  4. There must always be a cost that someone realistically pays. It's not a fight without loss. Fights are destruction and so things of value and consequence must be lost, even if victory is obtained. Value can be bodily wellness, emotional stability, objects, social standing, possession, etc.
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    I think point three is super important. There's a reason why there's a fight in the story in the first place. How does it advance the plot or develop the characters? Maybe the fight is there to help two characters fall in love, for example. In that case, the fight could focus on a character watching the fight and fearing for a character in the fight and then realizing they are so fearful because of how strongly they care about the other character. You get a view of the fight, advancement of the plot, and development of character in one succinct point of view. – Todd Wilcox Feb 2 '18 at 20:00
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Change the pace throughout the fight

Most fight scenes that use hand-to-hand combat, swords, daggers and the like change their pace a few times. For example you could start slow with the opponents watching each other getting ready. Maybe they are in an arena and staring at each other, waiting for the starting gong before they can lash out for each other. Or they are standing on different sides of a field, waiting for the other one to make the first move. You can describe what weapons they have, how the scenery looks like, how the heart of your protagonist is racing, ...

Then the start begins and everything is fast. Just describe how your protagonist has to be defensive, being pushed to the edge of the arena with every blow, waiting for their chance to strike back.

And then there's the chance - a small opening in the opponents defense. For a heartbeat or maybe two times seems to stand still. It's now or never.

Suddenly your character switches to the attack, fighting back and managing to get past the opponents defense with each strike, causing small cuts and bruises with each hit.

Both are starting to get weary. Maybe they take a stance a few feet apart and waiting for the finishing blow. Carefully they examine their enemy, watch their every move, assess their own wounds and their chances to win.

Then the final clash happens, maybe the oppoent seems to get the upper hand, but in the final moment the protagonist manages to slip past his defense and delivers the final blow.

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One of the most memorable fight scenes I've read is duel between d'Artagnan on the one site, Athos, Porthos and Aramis on the other, Chapter 5 of "The Three Musketeers". A whole chapter albeit a short one, is just this one scene. So how does it work?

We start from how the MC plans to go about the battle (set-up). The MC meets his adversaries. A dialogue ensues. In between, there's also a brief description of the location and the weather. Finally, the swords are crossed. Then, the scene takes a turn: new adversaries appear, forcing d'Artagnan and the Musketeers to unite against them (after some more dialogue). There's word-fencing with the new adversaries, there's mention of how this new battle is personal for Athos (raising the stakes), there's a battle-cry. When the real battle commences at last, there's no pass-by-pass description. Instead, there's the MC's mood, a one-sentence description of his fencing style, and how it compares to his adversary's. (Can't bring you the quote - I only have the book in French. Sorry about that.) A change in the adversary's attitude, the MC's tactical response - still all general, then a zoom-in (a.k.a more detail) on the adversary making a mistake, d'Artagnan takes advantage of it and runs him through. The whole combat sequence is one paragraph, out of it only one attack-parry is described - the one that's important. That's the only actual action sequence in all the chapter. The battle, however, is not over yet. We get a still moment of how the other combatants are doing from d'Artagnan's POV. He recognises that one of his companions, Athos, needs help and acts on this recognition. The micro-scene between Athos, his opponent and d'Artagnan is all about Athos being wounded but this fight being personal for him, and d'Artagnan recognising both. The actual fighting plays second fiddle to this interaction. Then there's the resolution of Aramis and Porthos's fights, and the scene ends with a triumphant march.

So what lessons do I draw from this scene? (I draw. There are things I miss, and things on which others might disagree.)

  • Set-up: Where is the combat taking place? What advantages and disadvantages does it offer? Is it a planned combat? If so, what's the plan? (If you tell the reader the plan, things shouldn't go according to plan. Which then makes everything more interesting.) Is it personal for at least one side? What are the stakes? Is one side stronger than the other?
  • Dialogue: a "Princess Bride"-like combat isn't very realistic. But it's awesome because of the dialogue. You can forego realism for awesomeness, or you can have dialogue before after, and during breaks in the actual fighting. Either way, dialogue is something that can be done well in a book, so writing good dialogue is playing to your strength. Also, where relevant, don't forget battle cries, orders, sounds of pain and cries for help.
  • Pacing: if it takes a long time to read a scene, it feels like the action took a long time. Therefore, if you want the action to feel fast-paced, you want it to happen in a short amount of text. "He kept spinning around his opponent, changing tactics often, attacking furiously while also parrying every blow", for example. You don't have to be specific. Remember that real-life fights are very fast. Whether with swords, daggers, or unarmed, it all takes less than a minute.
  • Let readers use their imagination. You don't need to be specific about which blow went where, how and why. You can use a few general sentences about a character's fighting style, and let the reader fill in the blanks. If you get too technical, the scene starts reading like an Ikea manual.
  • Zoom in on important moments. You want the killing blow to be dramatic? Make it the one element you describe. If you give every pass the same detailing, the important one will lose impact.
  • Mood. How does your character feel about the coming battle? How does he feel once battle has started? What about after the battle?
  • POV. You don't need to be with all the characters on the battlefield all the time. If you have more than one thing going on, you can show one that is happening, and then show that others have happened in the meantime.
  • Turn the tables. Things look like they're going a certain way? Why not make everything suddenly change? Surprises help keep up the tension.
  • What's important? The details of the fighting might be less interesting than something else happening at the same time. You can switch your focus to that something else.

Also, remember not every fight needs a detailed action sequence. "The Three Musketeers", a novel about sword-wielding soldiers whose favourite pastime is duelling, has quite a few combats go "they crossed swords, and after a few passes he killed him". In movies it's different - action sequences look great. In writing, a fight is not the written media's strongest suit.

I usually think of it this way: it takes longer to read about drawing a sword than to draw a sword, longer to write about a punch than to perform it. Therefore, fighting in writing is by default happening in slow motion. Since that's the case, the only fighting that should be described is the fighting which warrants the slow motion. The battles that warrant it, and then the specific instances in the battle that really warrant it. If that's not the case, press the fast-forward instead, or focus briefly on something else (feeling, thought, dialogue).

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