Emotion in Battles

A little while ago, Writing Excuses published a podcast on writing fight scenes.  One of the points they made was that it’s better to write the emotions of the fight than the moves of the fight.  A few people have asked me what they meant by that, because of course I know exactly what Writing Excuses means when they say anything.

But with this topic, even though it took me a while to write this post, I think I do know what they were talking about.  When I was younger, writing my first attempts at epic fantasy in ratty notebooks, I fell into a lot of traps like this.  I had incurable worldbuilder’s disease (I tried to create my own language), my main character was perfect, and my battle scenes (of which there were many, considering this was epic fantasy) were very detailed.  “He swung this way, his opponent swung that way, he swung this way again…”  It was all very stupid, and although I’m glad I actually started writing something, I wish I had learned a few things first.  The most important thing I could have learned, of course, was how to write emotions, and when.

Emotion is awesome.  As I keep saying, it will make you a success if you do it right, and a failure if you do it wrong– or forget to do it at all.  And emotion in battle scenes, while difficult to do, makes the battle more realistic.

How many people, while playing a game of some sort, will catalog every move they make, and every move the opponent makes?  Do you?  I wouldn’t expect so.  Most people, when playing a game, will be caught up in the emotions they’re feeling at the time– excitement that a plan they’re implementing is actually working, frustration that someone foiled them, or even boredom because the game is taking so long.  And what is a fight but a giant, life-or-death game?  (If you don’t believe me about that, take a look at first-person shooter games and tell me what exactly they’re simulating.)

In real life, people don’t concentrate on what they’re doing, or even on their specific plan, much of the time.  Instead, they concentrate on their moods– confidence, fear, agitation.  The reader isn’t going to feel those same emotions just because of the events of the fight the main character is fighting.  They have to know how the main character reacts.  Everything in a story, unless in an omniscient, impartial style, comes through the lens of the viewpoint character.  Show how they react to everything.

How do you do that?  In the opposite way you make anything logical.  When you go through an emotional moment logically, what do you do?  When I analyze an emotional book, I pick it apart.  I get as specific as I can, try to see what actually happened, instead of skimming over it.  The same works for the fight scene.  Instead of going in-depth about the moves, describe the fight in more general terms.  Instead of the opponent cutting at the head, swinging at the flank, and finishing with a jab to the stomach, have the opponent beat the main character back.  It’s the same thing, but the reader will fill in the details for himself as he envisions an awesome, action-packed fight.  Remember: anything the reader can envision for himself is automatically more powerful than anything the writer can write.  (That’s stolen from a quote about writing horror, but it works here too.)

So try it once.  See if you can describe a fight scene without describing any moves except those that are unavoidable.  (For instance, if the main character’s sword is knocked out of his hand, you can say that his sword was knocked out of his hand.  That, obviously, is allowable.)  Compare that scene to one where you described every move in detail.  Personally, I think it’s a lot easier to describe emotions than to think up every single move.  You also have less of a hassle when it comes to choreographing the fight (yes, there is such a thing).  Instead of having to worry about your character having enough room to swing his broadsword in this dense forest he’s fighting in, you can just describe the emotions and leave the weird contortions up to the reader.

And really, this works for anything.  In my latest novel Stakes, I had to work with a magical card game through which enemies dueled.  Each duel I described, I made an effort to describe through emotions instead of card-by-card.  It made it a whole lot easier in the long run, and, I think, more impacting.  Try it and see what works.



47 thoughts on “Emotion in Battles

  1. Actually, this is a technique I’m trying to hone with my drawing. It’s kind of a “less is more” situation, I suppose. You give just enough so that the reader/viewer can understand it, without putting in too much detail. Granted, the reason I do that with my drawing is a bit different than why you’d want to do it with writing, but whatever.

    Anyway, it’s definitely a good point. I personally am having trouble writing emotion without going into telling-instead-of-showing, but… I’m working on trying to fix that. Hopefully.

    1. Yes, that’s a good point about drawing. The motivation for doing something like that isn’t the same, obviously, but the art of suggesting something without drawing it completely is worthwhile.

  2. Thank you. Now I’m feeling self-important because I’ve always written battles from the emotional point of view. This post made me smile at how Awesome And Amazing And Brilliant I truly am. XD

    Besides, it’s boring to write a fight scene like a chocolate cake recipe. “Add eggs. Stir. Add flour. Stir. Die of boredom. Stir. Set the cake on fire. Stir.”

    1. But again (and this is totally to break your bubble), you shouldn’t overdo this. If your fight scenes feel like two people standing a meter apart and making faces, it might not work.

      But yes, you’re awesome.

      1. Break my bubble? Please. If anything, you only strengthened it. I know what you mean by not overdoing it. The actual battle is important too. And it’s fun to think up stunts and choreograph the scene.
        (I really love writing fight scenes.)

        Yes, yes I am.

      2. It gets annoying while you’re trying to think up cool moves when you realize that a lot of fights just involve yelling and swinging. Of course, I don’t know what kinds of battles you write, nor how you weave in your concepts.

      3. Funny story: when we’re walking our crazy little dog, dad uses a riding crop. The dog likes to pick up pebbles he finds on the way and when he does that, dad tickles his nose with the riding crop and he drops the aforementioned pebbles.

        When the riding crop isn’t being used to distract a mad dog, I take it and use it as a sword. That’s how I construct my fights. All my character’s signature moves have been custom-made by that silly thing. When it isn’t a sword battle, I still use props of some form or the other so there’s less yelling and swinging. Although I have to admit, the yelling and swinging is fun. It’s also fun to create innovative ways to win a battle.

      4. I see. I have a story with playing cards too. I havea deck that I use as props, though there really isn’t much to do with it. I just like studying the patterns on the cards xD

      5. No, I have not heard of your dragon deck. However, I can find myself liking it very much. Who doesn’t like dragons? I shall google a picture of dragon decks later. I’m curious.

      6. Indian Standard Time is ahead of yours. Though as the joke goes, Indian Standard Time is half an hour late to everything. XD

      7. In my case, it’s true. At least today. I overslept and I am going to completely miss my first class. *gives herself a slow clap*

  3. Though I don’t write much ‘fighting’ scenes, I understand what you mean Quirk, and I think that’s your entirely right. And while writing anything really, not just ‘fighting’ I’ve been trying to include more emotion than ‘action’.

  4. Oahhh – yesss! I’ve been writing fights that way forever and a day and thought I must be doing something wrong because I CANNOT for the life of me detail all the moves and WAS just writing “what it felt like to be in this fight.”

  5. (I’m embarrassed to even ask this, but my desire to know the answer is outweighing my pride.)
    You’ve been talking about emotions for awhile now. When you talk about emotions, are you speaking about the emotions of the characters or the emotions of the reader or some combination? I’d like to know what it is you’re actually talking about and doing so that I can attempt it myself, but I am honestly lost. Which is better than dishonestly lost.

    1. Your goal as a writer is, generally speaking, to make the emotions of the character the emotions of the reader. Thus, when the character is creeping through a forest at night knowing a Nazgul is going to jump out at them, the reader should be feeling the same amount of suspense the character supposedly is feeling. Now, in the 19th century style of writing and in cinematic style, they like to tell you why you should be afraid before the character knows. That’s the sort of suspense you feel at the beginning of a cop show when someone is whisking eggs in their kitchen. You know something bad is going to happen, but the character doesn’t.

      In this case, I’m speaking completely about the emotions of the character. Since you have this resource, you can look at the Challenge chapter in Stakes, and look at that Game. I describe the first hand card by card, then for the next nine hands, just say who won and how Cais felt about that. At the end, I brought it back to the specifics. (I’m not saying that’s a perfect example, but I thought it worked out well.)

      Usually, when I speak of emotions, I am speaking of the emotions of the character. If the reader is involved in the story, they will feel the same emotions, or at least know they exist for the character.

      1. Thank you so much for explaining that. I will look at that chapter in Stakes. (It may not be perfect, but it was good.)

  6. Interesting. Of course, it’s more fun if you don’t entirely delete the moves… 😉 But yes, describing the high emotion of a battle scene will ensure that no two feel exactly alike.
    Whoops, bad pun up there! I apologize wholeheartedly. :-S

    1. Indeed. As I said to DK above, you don’t want your fight scenes to degenerate into staring contests just because you’re doing emotions instead of blow-by-blow. You want some action, so that the reader knows it’s happening, but most of it must be emotions.

  7. I just wanted to let you know, your tips inspired a short story out of me. [insert smirky grin here] In fact, I posted it on my (fledgling) blog: http://wp.me/p4ePsB-C.

    PS- I am not expecting a response, seeing as this is pretty much blatant self-promotion. It just felt weird to (attempt to) implement your advice into a (likely horrible) story without informing you.

    1. I followed the WordPress pingback link, actually– I read it and commented. Anytime you link to a specific post, I’ll be notified of it. (I love blatant self-promotion. I do it all the time.)

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