Okay, there is some preliminary information for you to be able to answer this question: There is a sword of great power, a McGuffin, and a destined one who wields it. The destined one has two companions. These three we'll call Gang 1, for simplicity.

Then you have the King's Guard, who want to retrieve the sword (it was stolen from the treasury). But also, the leader of the King's Guard wants revenge on one of the members in Gang 1. We'll call these people Gang 2.

Then there is this crime boss, who also wants the sword, for power. Him and his men we'll call Gang 3. He also has a bit of a grudge to someone in Gang 1.

Then we have another crime boss, though he is of a prominent crime family, and he sends his sons on this mission. This is Gang 4, and he is in a feud with Gang 3. Also, one of his sons are one of the destined one's companions. So, his sons want to not only take the sword, for power, but they also want to retrieve the son in Gang 1.

Then you have the destroyer, who has hired a crew, so he can destroy the sword, both due to conviction but also personal motives. He and his crew is Gang 5.

Within Gang 5 is someone who is a bit more educated, and therefore knows the power of the sword, and therefore decides he doesn't want it destroyed, but rather in his hands. So, he stages a mutiny within Gang 5, which will be Gang 6. He also has personal motives involved in this, as he wants to fill his fathers shoes of being a captain (this all happens at sea, like a big ship battle, boarding, fighting, etc.)

Then you have the captain of the boat Gang 1 is travelling with. He sails for a travelling company taking people from one dock to an island, and then further from that island to two different countries. But he takes his job very seriously. His motto is "I always get my passengers to their destination". He and his crew is kind of Gang 1, but also kind of another gang, Gang 7. Whatever, it is for you to decide.

Then you have the knight, who is wanted and has been through hell. He knows the destined one, and is kind of a failed mentor to him. He was supposed to guide him on his quest, but they were separated. Now he is coming back to help him. Despite being one man, we will refer to him as Gang 8.

Then you have the renowned, super-skilled bounty hunter, who is coming to retrieve the wanted Knight, or Gang 8. We will refer to him as Gang 9.

And finally, we have a powerful being who guards the mortal realm. There is a threat to the mortal realm, an invading God, which is why Gang 1 stole the sword to begin with. But the destined one within Gang 1 is merely a child, and the powerful being believes the sword is better in his hands, as he is a more capable fighter. We will refer to him as Gang 10.

And that's everyone. I am a big fan of Lock stock and two smoking barrels, and the way those kinds of narratives play out, when all the subplots, with all their unrelated characters, meet in a messy, complex confrontation. But I'm wondering, can this kind of stuff be too complex? Too complicated? Too disorienting?

Just so it is clear, all these characters have had sufficient time to have their stories told and their motives made clear.

  • 5
    When you say "fight scene" in the title, are you saying that your story has a fight scene with all ten of these groups all fighting one another?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 21:19
  • @F1Krazy Kinda, they're respectively fighting each other, if that makes sense. There's also a lot of talking, and the fighting at times stop when another component is added to the mix, like the characters getting their bearings (and in-turn, the reader).
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 21:34
  • 3
    The answer to the title of your question is so obviously "yes" (there is no natural limit to how complex writing can be; beyond a certain fuzzy level, it is too much) that I suspect you must be asking a question different from the title. Perhaps "how do you tell when a fight scene has become too complicated?" Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 14:41
  • 2
    If it’s more complex than this question, it’s too complex. :-)
    – WGroleau
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 22:14

5 Answers 5


Let's take a look at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in the Lord of the Rings:

First, we have the Rohirrim. Among them are Theoden, Éowyn, Éomer and Merry. Then we have Minas Tirith, with its various forces, and with Gandalf and Pippin as focal point characters. There's the events inside the city with Denethor, and there's Imrahil outside. In the middle of the fray, Aragorn arrives with Legolas and Gimli. And of course there's Mordor's army. So, similar to your example, multiple characters and multiple storylines converging on one battle.

What are we presented with? A confusing whirlwind, within which first one event than another is highlighted. We have no trouble following our multitude of main characters: each small scene is clear, and they are presented in sequence. But once we lose sight of a character, we do not know where within the tumult of battle he will reemerge. And the full account of the battle is explicitly not given:

for it was a great battle and the full count of it no tale has told.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings Book V, chapter 6 - The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

This is done deliberately. Tolkien took part in the Battle of the Somme, he knew that a battle is just too big, too confusing, you can't see all of it.

What does this example mean for your situation?

You have a lot going on. You want all of it to converge on one battle. But the fact is your "camera" can only focus on one mini-scene at a time. So you would need to break "what is happening" into small scenes you want to show, and show them in sequence. A lot can be happening off-screen while that one thing is going on on-screen.

If you try to show everything all at the same time, this will indeed be too confusing. A narrative is sequential by its nature.

But, you may well say, there is more than one thing happening all at the same time. True, but then you will need to figure out which one you show, and which one you only show the effects of.

You will also need to consider pacing: if the situation is supposed to be tense, you don't want everything to stall because you're trying to tell too many things at the same time. You want every small scene to contribute to a larger shape of things.

Figure out in what order things are happening, in what order you wish to present them (something might have happened, which your POV characters only find out later), how it all resolves itself. Then, write every small scene and let it play out: while this is the event you're highlighting, it is an island in the stormy sea, it is the one thing that's Happening. No distractions.

So, to sum up, you can have a lot of storylines converge into one massive event. This can be very cathartic when well-written. But making that situation well-written - that is a significant challenge. It would require considerable mental storyboarding.

  • 2
    "We have no trouble following our multitude of main characters" No, reading it is easy. Writing something just as complex in an equally easy to read manner, is a lot harder. It's the kind of thing you can only pull of well when you're either a natural or got a lot of experience with scenes that are half as complicated. Practice, practice and practice some more.
    – Mast
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 8:11

It really depends on how you write it, how important all the components are, and if you can construct a consistent narrative journeying through the story.

Think back to all the big budget movies you've seen where there are giant armies and dozens of characters fighting on screen. The scenes are usually chaotic with lots of things happening at the same time, and in many cases it's just too hard to follow. But some of them work out well because they focus on specific narratives at a time, and use the rest of the battle as a backdrop. For example, in the battle of Helm's Deep, we spend a lot of time following the characters we know, witnessing things through their eyes, and it's okay if we don't see everything in the fight because we're focused on the parts that are important.

In written text, it can be a little more challenging because you can't show simultaneous action well, so there's a big risk that you end up with a muddled and confusing mess. But it's not impossible.

The Wheel of Time had an epic fate-of-the-world battle, "The Last Battle", where all the characters in the 14-book series got together in a last desperate struggle. In this fight, seventeen factions of light take on seven groups of shadow, and each force's story is told from the perspective of one or more characters associated with that group - the characters readers have followed along throughout the series. All the character stories and plot threads are given space for resolution, and the battle chapter clocks in at a massive 81,000 words, more than the entire first Harry Potter novel!

You don't have nearly so many individuals and probably won't need 273 pages for your battle, but some of the things that worked for Robert Jordan may work for your case.

It sounds like you have multiple point-of-view characters you've been building up through your story. Your battle is large enough, you can tell different parts of the battle through the lens of your major characters. Break it down into the individual narratives and you can relay it like a sequence of events taking place as part of the overall conflict. Similar to how you've broken it down in your question, you can start with a few groups and their skirmish, and then have the next group show up, and the next, and the next as things spiral into chaos.

But also take care to keep the narrative scope small enough so that it doesn't become overwhelming. If Gang 1 manages to escape from Gang 2 for a while, Gang 2 can temporarily drop out of the narrative while Gang 1 encounters another gang until it's time for Gang 2 to resurface again.

Just like in the movies, if you have too many characters on screen at the same time, then the individual actions of each get lost in the shuffle. If you can keep the focus on a few characters at any given time - say, a half-dozen or so - it'll be easier to follow along.


Can a fight scene, component-wise, be too complex and complicated?

In general I don't think so. If what you mean by "component-wise" you mean the motivations and back-stories of the people fighting it, the only limit on that is the capacity of reader's memory to absorb and remember distinctly that many characters before the fight.

But you only have 10 "gangs", and the human capacity can easily absorb that, IF you have devoted enough story-time to each of them and made them distinct emotional characters.

I don't know about your family, but I had several siblings and twice as many cousins, most of whom now have children, spouses, friends and lovers. Generally I go to my brother's rather large house and yard for Christmas Afternoon and Dinner, I have counted forty people there; and known every name, profession (at least previous profession, sometimes they change), and legal trouble they might have. And that's just family and their close friends, it doesn't count the professors and staff I know at the university, and students I learn the names of every semester. Or, for that matter, the names and life stories of my neighbors and friends outside of family or the university.

The human capacity for new and memorable people can easily handle the characters you propose, for the span of time it takes to read a book.

The First Difficulty part is finding the space to make them memorable individuals instead of cardboard props without any depth.

The Second Difficulty is the technical aspect of writing an epic battle, which is already covered by Galastel and others. You probably need to jump from POV to POV, or pairs of POV, and accept that not every decision and move will be represented.

There are ways to handle that. Pre-Battle, strategies can be discussed by generals, so the reader is aware of what each expects to happen; this can also create tension if the reader becomes aware that what sounded like a good strategy from John is then anticipated by Kevin's strategy, which may well defeat John.

A second way to handle it is, when you switch POV, Larry has been distracted but given a chance to assess his situation realizes some other things have already happened; e.g. Larry looks up and realizes his ally John has lost more than half his men to Kevin, and will never break Kevin's defense, thus Larry is screwed and must regroup. This approach is "showing" Larry in action and thinking but also "telling" the reader about what happened to John.

So between pre-strategy and post-assessment, we feel like we know the outcome of John's battle, without having seen a single element of it.

These things take time to craft; you need to fully imagine the whole battle from every POV and why it turns out the way it does, but then figure out the shortcuts you can use to convey information pre-Battle, and then specifically which POV should report each turning-point in the battle, and what that POV can tell the reader about what we did not take time to show the reader; what has happened off-screen.

But these are mechanics, the number of components and their inter-relationships is not too much at all.


I my last novel, wrote a very simple fight scene: One person quickly throws another to the ground using a specific Judo move. I described the movement in a (somewhat longish) sentence. What my beta readers told me was that when they read the passage, they felt that time had slowed down and the people, who up to that point had been in a hectic and stressful action scene, suddenly seemed to be moving in slow motion.

That was not the effect that I wanted. I wanted the one person to quickly throw down the other, not some Kung Fu movie slo-mo. But the detailed description had just this effect: it slowed down the narration.

In the end, I just wrote that the one person quickly threw down the other, without any detail of how he did it, and the next beta readers loved the scene and found it exciting.

And in fact I should have known this beforehand. Whenever I read fight scenes or battles that are described in detail, I get bored. I really don't care wither the horses ride around to the left or the right. What I care about is how the characters feel during the fight, and who wins.

You don't need to describe the exact sequence of a fight to achieve that.

  • First of all, I think your answer is more directed at describing technicalities of a battle or fight scene. My title may have suggested that was what I was asking about, but component-wise was referring to the different characters and "gangs" involved in the fight, and whether a lot of those could be overwhelming and too complicated. Secondly, I feel like your answer fails to recognize a different focus and priority that can exist behind a battle. Some authors, and readers, love the strategic and tactical aspect of battles and fights. Some love the technicalities behind combat and warfare.
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 13:00
  • Whilst others are more focused on the emotional aspect, like in the later seasons of Game of Thrones. I mean, the strategy against the Night King was batshit insane and plain stupid, but that was never the focus. The characters' emotions were. (Same with The Battle of the Bastards)
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 13:02
  • @A.Kvåle The only correct answer to any question on this site is: People like different things, and no matter how and what you write, some people will like it and some people won't. So in essence we could all stop asking and answering questions here and just write what we like to write. But there are some books that sell better than others, and the assumption that I see behind most questions here is that their authors want to write in a way that sells well. And while there certainly are people who love to learn the details of a battle or fight scene, it is my belief that most readers don't.
    – user40570
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 15:34
  • And I draw that conclusion from the same observation that you made: In bestselling fiction, battles and fights are rarely very detailed or extended. They show the brutality, the courage, the pain (or whatever else is relevant to the story) and the outcome – and skip the actual process. And that is why I advise you to do so, too, if you aim for a bestseller. If you want to write a book that pleases yourself, then any answer you might receive here isn't relevant to your pleasure.
    – user40570
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 15:37
  • 2
    @A.Kvåle I read the first few volumes of Game of Thrones and didn't find the fight scenes meticulous. Maybe you should read them yourself and see how you find them.
    – user40570
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 20:57

My personal opinion is that most fight sequences that involve more than a half dozen people will be too complex to describe in their entirety.

When you need to do is condense the whole sequence down to the key parts and emote the battle rather than describe it graphically - a reader's imagination will fill in far more gaps than you ever describe.

Still, everything has to fit.

My suggestion is to plot out the entire battle as a time line and a tactical chart/map. This way you have a complete reference to the whole mass-melee.

Once you have this, you can pull out the most important points/confrontations and build your story from it. From here you can add or remove details until the flow of the story has the correct balance of detail and speed you are aiming for.

With a timeline and tactical map, you know when one fight finishes, where and how long it takes the winning gang to get to reach the next gang. This gap is a natural transition to another fight. You could even just write the initial confrontations and the finales to each fight and let the reader's imaginations fill in those gaps. As B.L.E. mentions, the feeling is usually the more important part.

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