Well, now that we're all settled in to the new school year, I finally got a chance to put this together for you. I know, you were in suspense waiting for it! How ironic that this article is, in fact, about suspense writing, or writing suspenseful and action oriented passages, to be more specific.
I've had a lot of questions coming in from the board about this recently, and to be honest, it has taken me a while to figure out exactly how to approach this. See, there are all kinds of suspense writing; there's the physical fighting senses, verbal fighting, emotional suspense, fast paced chase scenes... The list goes on and on. Originally, I was only going to address the fight scenes, but I figured that would only be half of the story, and we needed to cover it all. I'm going to post these in sections, much like I did with point of view, because there are so many different kinds of suspense and action scenes and it will make it easier to grasp if we do it in small lumps. So, without further ado, let's get started.
Suspense Writing: Physical Fight Scenes
How do you write a good fight scene? I get asked this question a lot. Well, the answer isn't always easy. So many variables go into writing a fight scene, and there are dozens of different ways to fight. The short answer to this question is; keep the sentences short, the description down to the basics, and know the way your characters are moving in a physical scene. But let's elaborate on that a little bit.
Keeping sentences short and to the point is a lot harder than it sounds, especially if you're like me and don't believe a sentence is complete until it reaches the twenty word mark. It may seem like a trivial piece of advice at first, but trust me, keeping your sentences short and direct will add to the feel of the piece immensely. The stop and start of a short sentence jolts the reader, keeping them always on edge. With short sentences should come short paragraphs as well, this adds to that on-edge feeling. This is also where the occasional fragmented sentence can be used to great effect.
As for description, this is where it starts to get tricky. When a character is fighting for his life, his entire world shrinks down to that survival instinct. His surroundings may blur around him, but chances are he feels his muscles strain, hears the grunts of his opponents, and braces himself against the impact of a punch. This is not the place for the character to notice the alluring geometric pattern of the marble floor, or the gentle sigh of the summer breeze. This is also not the place for all those fancy words you learned on your word-of-the-day calendar. Anything that takes away from the peril your character is in needs to be cut. If you need to describe the area where the fight is taking place, do it before hand. This way you're not stopping the action to let the reader know where everything is.
Planning out the movements of our characters for a fight scene is very important if you don't want to have to do a lot or rewrites. I usually draw a basic sketch of the room or area where a fight will take place, and use small buttons or dimes to represent all the people who will be in the room at the time. Then I can have a visual reminder of where everything is, and who is a part of the action. Mapping the scene out like this is especially helpful if you have the kind of fight scene that requires a lot of bobbing and weaving, or a shooting match where characters might be ducking behind different objects, and running around. Even if you have a fairly straight forward sword fight or fist fight, mapping it out before hand will keep everything straight in your mind. I've had to do numerous rewrites because I skipped this step. I also like doing an outline for my more complex fight scenes. The outline, in addition to a drawn-out map, helps the writing process go a lot smoother.
Another way you can map out a fight scene is to use figurines (like War-hammer miniatures). You can place them on a drawing that simulates the setting of the fight and then move each figure slowly to plot out the action, taking notes as you go.Having a visual-kinesthetic aid like this helps tremendously when trying to make yourfight scenes realistic and believable.
Now, I want to give you an example of a fight scene from a book called: The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. The two characters fighting are both…well let's just call them otherworldly. To be honest, it's the only book I had handy with a good fight scene in it. Because it is a long passage that leads up to the fight, I'll cut all the preliminary stuff and get right to the meat of the fight.
The Nonman had raised the point of his sword to Kellhus, who had fallen into a stance, his own curved sword poised above his head.
Again silence, deadly this time.
"I am a warrior of ages, Anasurimbor…ages. I have dipped my nimil in a thousand hearts. I have ridden both against and for the No-God in the great wars that authored this wilderness. I have scaled the ramparts of great Golgotterath, watched the hearts of High Kings break with fury."
"Then why," Kellhus asked, "raise arms against a lone man?"
Laughter. The free hand gestured to the dead Sranc. "A pittance, I agree, but still you would be memorable."
Kellhus struck first, but his blade recoiled from the mail beneath the Nonman's cloak. He crouched, deflected the powerful counterstroke, swept the figure's legs out from beneath him. The Nonman toppled backward but managed to roll effortlessly back to his feet. Laughter rang from the helmed face.
"Most memorable!" he cried, falling upon the monk.
And Kellhus felt himself pressed. A rain of mighty blows, forcing him back, away from the dead tree. The ring of Dunyain steel and Nonman nimil pealed across the windswept heights. But Kellhus could sense the moment—although it was much thinner than it had been with the Sranc.
He climbed into that narrow instant, and the unearthly blade fell farther and farther from its mark, bit deeper into empty air. Then Kellhus's own sword was scoring the dark figure, clipping and prodding the armour, tattering the grim cloak. But he could draw no blood.
"What are you?" the Nonman cried in fury.
There was one space between them, but the crossings were infinite…
Kellhus opened the Nonman's exposed chin. Blood, black in the gloom, spilled across his breast. A second stroke sent the uncanny blade skittering across the snow and ice.
As Kellhus leapt, the Nonman scrambled backward, fell. The point of Kellhus's sword, poised against the opening of his helm, stilled him.
Taken out of context like this, the fight might be hard to understand, but we want to pay attention more to the way the words and sentences are strung together than to the actual content anyway. Notice the simple sentence structure; subject, predicate. Very few adverbs or adjectives to clutter up the prose. Also, there are a lot of commas breaking up sentences in a way that seems almost confusing, and more then a few fragmented sentences. The writer is trying to impart the speed and uncertainty of a fight through words on a page, and that is a very difficult thing to do.
Writing a fight in a fantasy world has some unique challenges. Because there are things like magic, altered physics, and inhuman strength involved, we have to be cautious about keeping a sense of realism to the fight scene. For example, the chances are good that no matter how strong you are, or how magical, if you hit someone full in the face with your fist, it's going to hurt…a lot. A punch to the face is bone against bone, and bone is a sturdy substance. So don't be afraid to show your character's pain, or exhaustion. It will make them more human and likeable to us.
Another common mistake I see all the time in fantasy books and movies, is the indestructible character. The character that keeps fighting no matter what. Every time I see a character like this, I am reminded of the Monty Python movie "The Search for the Holy Grail" where the Black knight keeps insisting someone fight him even after he has lost all of his limbs. Trust me, it's hysterical. Keep in mind that everyone suffers physical limitations no matter what kind of power or magic they hold. If you lose a limb the chances of getting up and continuing the fight are slim to none. And no matter how good your character is, chances are there is someone better out there, somewhere. Try keeping this in mind when writing a fight scene. If you know ahead of time just how powerful your character and his opponent are, you know what your limits are when you start the fight. Do not make it too easy for your main character to win. After all, it is our job to make a character's life more complicated, so don't be afraid to let the bad guys get a couple of good punches in. It will only increase the tension you're setting up for the reader.