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.