Q&A: Bringing Fear to Your Fight Scenes

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: How can I bring emotions like fear and anger into a fight scene without making it too long? I’m writing a blacksmith who’s never fought before, donning a suit of crude steel plate armor before being attacked by an experienced killer with a spear. The armor is supposed to be the only thing that saves him while the other guy smacks him around, and I want to capture how it would feel to be in that position… without taking up half a page to do it. Any advice?

Right now, you’re trying too hard to front end everything you want into one scene. In a fight scene, especially against an experienced opponent, all your character will have time to do is react and they won’t be able to react much because it will be over within the first few paragraphs.

Your protagonist may have time to get scared, but he won’t have time to get angry. He may not ever have time to get past shock and surprise before it’s over.

Unlike what you might have come to expect from video games or tabletop RPGs, a set of ill-fitting armor won’t actually protect him much. In fact, he may not even be able to put on all the pieces before he gets attacked.

Put Your Tension in the Lead Up:

It’s important to remember that fight sequences are payoffs, they’re supported by the other scenes in your novel. If you want to make it clear to your readers that your character is afraid and put time into showing that fear, you put those moments in the scene preceding the fight. They’ll have time to reflect, panic, slip up, stumble, as they try to decide what they’re going to do.

In this case, the best place to put the tension, anxiety, and anticipation comes from the action of this character putting on armor that doesn’t fit. In his case, plate armor was probably the worst choice because each set of plate is designed for a specific individual. Unlike what you’ll find in video games, plate is form-fitting and only works for the individual whose body it was created for. Putting on plate is an intensive process, it takes more than thirty minutes (even with armor designed for him) so this would be the perfect time to show exactly how ill-prepared this apprentice is.

Plate Mail Isn’t Grab and Go:

If this blacksmith’s apprentice doesn’t work for an armorer he may not even know how to put that plate armor on, and, even if he does, he may never put armor on himself without someone else there to help him. You can build a lot of desperation out of the mere act of his struggle to put the armor on. Armor is actually pretty complicated, properly putting armor on when you’re alone is a pain in the butt, and it takes a fair amount of time even when you know how. It would take more than thirty minutes, and, given it’s full plate, he may not be able to put all the pieces on without someone else there to help him. So, he’s not going into this battle in full plate, he’s got piecemeal plate.

You’ve probably never had the experience of wearing a garment that’s tailored specifically for you, to your measurements, to your body, made for you and no one else. Medieval armor, however crude, was not one size fits all. Putting on someone else’s armor could be debilitating all by itself, even if you were roughly the same size. This is why people didn’t just grab a fallen knight’s armor off the battlefield and wear it themselves. They couldn’t, it wouldn’t work right because it wasn’t their armor.

Plate armor is not like in video games, you can’t just slot a piece you find and go to town. The armor has to contour properly to the body in order to absorb the impact, otherwise it won’t work right.

You’re apprentice isn’t putting on the armor because its the smart choice. He’s putting it on because he’s desperate. He knows that (or he’s an idiot), and you need to let the audience know that too.

Your apprentice will be struggling with the ties, having inappropriate undergarments, feeling the metal slipping on his body, exposing vulnerable and vital parts of himself. The gauntlets rattling because his hand is too small or squeezing because his fingers are too long, too large. It’ll rattle, flop, slide, shift, and he may not be able to secure the knots tightly enough to keep it from exposing vital points.

Survival Depends on the Enemy’s Whims:

To have your own survival be entirely dependent on the whim of someone trying to kill you is a terrifying situation to be in.

The problem you’re running into on your assumptions is three fold:

  1. You’re treating armor as a applying a flat stat bonus to the character.
  2. That the enemy attacks the armor instead of the parts of the body still readily available.
  3. You assume that the experienced killer can’t easily get past the armor (that doesn’t fit right and that the protagonist can’t fight in) to kill the protagonist.

The answer is this “experienced killer” can get past the armor by going for the parts of the body which are exposed like the joints, or the neck. Plate armor has gaps, and if the armor is not made for this character those gaps are going to be even less protected.

An experienced killer will go for those like the armpit, the knees, or (if exposed) the groin, or they’ll put him on the ground, brace the spear to put the tip directly through the breastplate, or drive the spear through the eye slit in the helmet. They won’t waste time playing pinball, and his best hope is that they’re in enough of a hurry that they won’t confirm the kill. Or, that he’s not their target, they genuinely don’t care if he’s dead, and they just want him out of the way. Dead or not, so long as he’s not moving, it doesn’t make a difference. He’s irrelevant.

His survival depends entirely on the person trying to kill him and how sloppy they decide to get. He has no control over living or dying, and the armor he’s put on? That gives him the illusion of protection, it might prolong his death, but it’s not what saves his life. The experienced killer is the one who saves him by deciding to (or not being given the chance to) be thorough.

They assume they’ve killed him. So, he lives.

Loss of Agency is Terrifying All By Itself:

There’s a mistake a lot of writers make when setting up scenarios with lopsided power dynamics where they call it a “fight scene” in an effort to inject some sort of equality into the sequence. There is no equality here. You need to call the sequence what it is. This isn’t a fight scene, this is a murder.

Your character is being victimized. They’re a victim.

Your protagonist has no control, no power, no ability to save themselves. They’re stripped of their agency and left defenseless. This is the fight scene you’ve constructed for your protagonist, which is why his survival is dictated by the whims of experienced fighter. The experienced fighter holds all the power.

One of the problems with this sort of scenario is that most writer’s don’t want their character to experience this kind of powerlessness.

However, this is helplessness is the true source of fear your character is going to be experiencing in the sequence.

Nothing. They. Can. Do. Will. Save. Their. Life.

Their life is in the hands of the person trying to kill them.

That’s terrifying.

You’re Not Giving the Experienced Killer the Respect They Deserve:

The real issue you’re having with your scene is that your treating this Experienced Killer character as a mook. A minor character who shows up to get this protagonist the experience they need then wanders off to never be seen again.

You’re not afraid of them, and, if you’re not afraid of them, why would your audience be?

It is very important to establish motivations and characters for your minor characters because their actions shape your narrative. This one character is formative for your protagonist, the memory of them is going to drive your narrative.

Who are they? How do they behave? What are their mannerisms? Why are they trying to kill this kid? Is this a job for them? Are they here specifically for him? Or is he just in their way?

If this character doesn’t unnerve you in your protagonist headspace, if your gut doesn’t twist, and your body doesn’t tense up a little in anticipation of the arriving horrors, then go back to the drawing board. Focus on crafting a character who feels threatening from start to finish.

Stop Remembering Your Protagonist is Going to Live, Start Focusing on the Fact They’re Going to Die:

Fear isn’t actually that difficult to write. You’ve experienced fear. Everyone does at some point in their life. Fight/Flight is different, but fear is common. You’ve experienced anger. The problem is you’re not properly simulating the experience when writing your scene. The solution is behaving like your protagonist can actually die. Forget that you intend for him to live. He needs to believe he will die, and this individual going to kill him.

Embrace your powerlessness. How does that make you feel?

“I’ll give you six gold pieces to toss him out that window.”

“Seven and you’ve got a deal.”

Personally, if I had to choose how to deal with killing this character, I’d go with defenestration. I’d have the experienced fighter throw or kick him out a (probably second story) window. They’d assume the fall in combination with the forty to eighty pounds of armor killed him, and go on with their day. This way, they don’t take him seriously, the “death” is humiliating, they don’t care enough to finish it, and the protagonist is, for the moment, out of reach.

This is an old sleight of hand sequence in media from novels to film, and a good one because it allows you to make the scene about something other than the killing for the character holding the power. If they look seriously at the protagonist as a threat, the protagonist will die. If they’re focused on doing their job, the protagonist dies. So, make it about something else. Entertainment is usually a good alternative. Experienced professionals don’t, usually, play with their kills. I toss this method out to bored soldiers or mercenaries looking to spice up a Tuesday pillage.

Casual cruelty, especially dismissive cruelty, is terrifying all by itself because it highlights the protagonist’s powerlessness. The antagonist’s power is amplified because they don’t bother giving the protagonist the benefit of dignity or the illusion of being a challenge. The protagonist is going to die, and the villain is going to have their fun before they roll right over them onto their next victim.

-Michi

This blog is supported through Patreon. If you enjoy our content, please consider becoming a Patron. Every contribution helps keep us online, and writing. If you already are a Patron, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.