Tips for Writing Combat: Where Do You Focus?

Here’s Part 4 of my VirtualBalticon panel notes.

Even veterans and long-time practitioners can have problems writing fights that are both compelling and realistic; how is someone new supposed to keep up? We’ll discuss getting experience with the weapons you’re writing about, how to handle pacing in brawls, skirmishes, and battles, and how to keep the tension high when your protagonists have to survive.

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: James Mendez Hodes (as moderator), Jeanne Adams, Ken Schrader, and Ryan Van Loan.

Ways to decide which details to focus on

Who is the character?

  • A new fighter
    • Focuses on scary things: the knife, the big guy, the gun
    • Is surprised by combat: how much their hand hurts after throwing a punch, how loud the gunshot is, the feel of the other person’s gut
  • A trained fighter
    • Notices small details
    • Can analyze their opponent, at least, before they get into things
    • Sometimes, time kinda slows for them

What type of scene are you showing?

  • In Hollywood:
    • Every move works (for the main character), every punch hits, every dodge works. Unless the plot needs it not to.
  • In real life
    • People don’t move as expected, and you’re mostly left just trying to react as the situation keeps changing

What’s the character’s flaw?

  • When the character is in combat, they’re usually dealing with a weakness
    • Are they in the fight because they won’t back down or have to instigate?
    • Is the weakness going to cause them to lose?
    • Do they overcome their weakness to win the fight?

What is the scene’s purpose?

The scene needs to either:

  • reveal something new about the character
  • move the plot forward
  • raise the stakes

The best scenes do all of these things.

[Note from other panels: Don’t have the bad-guy hurting babies/women just to show they’re bad. It’s cliche, overdone, and could be done far more subtly, with just as much impact.]

Tips for Writing Combat

  1. Use visceral details
    • You can keeping them to what the main
      character is feeling, they don’t even need to be graphic, just their physical/emotional reactions to the fight
    • Focus on the sensory details
      • Emotions – anger, fear, panic
      • Smells and Sounds
      • Feelings – texture, pain, loss of sensation
  2. Walk it through
    • Sit down with a friend/family member to make sure it tracks or just plain act it out.
  3. Make sure they’re hurting after the fight
    • If you get in a hand-to-hand fight, you’re going to be hurting the next day. You’re going to be tired after 30 seconds, exhausted after 3 minutes, and your adrenaline is gonna crash hard when you’re safe.
    • Note: The Indiana jones movie got a shout out for actually SHOWING him bruised and battered after a fist fight.
  4. Being in the military doesn’t make you an expert at every fighting style
    • Basic is more intro to what you will have to train
    • Most military is only taught some hand-to-hand basics, the rest is personal choice.
  5. Fighters have limits — especially during war
    • To paraphrase Ryan Van Loan, “Everyone has a cup, and if it overflows, you break. If someone can help or give you a break, you can recover.
    • In other words, this is why we give soldiers respite, why we rotate them off the front lines. And why so many have trouble transferring back to civilian life.

Researching and Writing What You Don’t Know

I write fantasy, so I’m not a proponent of ‘write what you know.’ But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research.

War (throughout the ages) in media:

  • Restrepo – an Iraqi war documentary
  • Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War – by Karl Marlantes
    • An in-depth look at what it’s like to go to war
  • The History Channel – some of their stuff
  • Legion Versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World – by Myke Cole
  • Shadiversary on Youtube
  • “‘We Have Always Fought‘: Challenging the ‘WomenCattle and Slaves‘ Narrative” – essay by Kameron Hurley

Other Ways To Research Fight Scenes

  • Beta-readers
  • Ask people who fight in the style you’re writing
  • Read fight scenes — study the pacing

Some of the panelists favorite books for fight scenes

  • Dune – by Frank Herbert, especially the ending
  • Wheel of Time: The Dragon Reborn – by Robert Jordan

Remember, when writing combat, it’s not about the guts and glory, it’s about the story and the characters.

Any tips or tricks you like to use? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Combat: Where Do You Focus?

  1. The most obvious, IMO: use RPG. When my late wife and I had characters ambushed on a street, I pulled out my God kit (aka DM), and we ran the fight in straight, original D&D melee rounds (six sec per round): roll dice for initiative (what order in that six sec does char a, b, c go?), roll hits, roll saving throws.

    We got folks badly hurt we didn’t expect to, and others doing a lot more than we expected. After the police and ambulances came (in the scene) she wrote it up… and the readers said it was the most realistic fight scene they’d ever read.

    Remember, rpgs came from war games… and those are teaching tools, taught in ever war college in the world for the last two centuries…. and there are good reasons for that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “In real life
    People don’t move as expected, and you’re mostly left just trying to react as the situation keeps changing”

    Yes! There’s a military maxim that even the best battle plan doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy. It’s as true for the individual as it is for any size group (patrol, squad, army, etc.)

    Anything that helps you visualize it- acting, games, watching realistic footage- is good.

    I’m so glad you mentioned getting hurt! Sooo many books, movies, and shows have people get thrown across the room through a wall, or hit by a car, or dropped off a roof, and just shake it off and keep going. I don’t care how much you’ve worked out, trained, and eaten right, without some sort of superpower, that doesn’t fly.

    Liked by 1 person

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