I’m going to reiterate here that we don’t solve fight scenes. We post information so that you can solve fight scenes.
The key problem with this sequence is the attempt to manufacture cheap drama. The danger to the character doesn’t feel real because you’re having him make convenient mistakes. The mistake the audience will expect. This is why it feels cliche and why you’re having trouble.
My question is: why is this sequence important to the story? What function does it serve?
It doesn’t help the character in question, all this is going to teach them is that they can screw around and fuck up with a less experienced student and still pull out a victory. If you were looking to teach them a lesson about being careful, then it’s not going to happen here.
“If we were using real swords you’d be dead!” “But we weren’t and I’m not. You lost. Go throw your empty threats at someone who cares.”
This tells the reader nothing about the character that that wasn’t already previously established by the fact that the character is the best in the school. If you want them to worry about him then give him a challenge that legitimately hits him in an uncomfortable place, otherwise it’s going to feel like ego padding.
The scene description reads: “This is what might have happened to the character! They could have gotten really hurt!” “Did they?” “No…” “Well, meh.”
The cockiness is a weakness that could be legitimately established in a fight sequence that will ultimately matter to the story and to the reader. It’s either justifiably deserved as a character trait or it’s not. However, let’s talk about “the best” for a moment.
Here’s the second problem: this character is supposed to be “The Best” in their school.
There are two kinds of “Bests”. The Big Fish in a Small Pond (these are characters who run on talent, rest on their laurels, are in it for the perks, and don’t work very hard) and the real “Bests” (these are the workaholics, they are devoted, spend every spare minute of every day dedicated to developing their talent, they’re the first up in the morning and the last to leave, when they’re not training, they’re cleaning their gear to a polish, studying theory, or any amount of other minutia important to the practice of their art, they do fuck around and goof off but usually only with people they know well, they live in a lonely state of being admired by their fellow students and despised for the amount of time the teacher spends on them. They spend a great deal of time observing and studying the world around them and are constantly working to improve themselves. They know that every up and comer is gunning for their position, they don’t have the luxury of not working hard or not loving what they do.)
One of these is legitimate and one of these generally falls apart the minute they get out of their native environment. Both will ultimately struggle in a greater world where talent and hard work are not necessarily enough to earn you anything in your chosen field, but the disciplined, hardworking “best” who long ago learned that talent only gets you so far is more poised to make it. This is especially true of characters who will be facing life or death situations when they leave school.
The problem is that your character isn’t actually being cocky, he’s being lazy. It’s a common mistake by a lot of writers when it comes to training. This guy looked at this other character and said “Eh, I don’t need to try that hard today”. He was, according to the question, right. He knows this other character isn’t good enough to beat him. But instead of facing him earnestly anyway, he slacks off and turns his mind to other things. The other character surprises him just enough to bring his mind back to the fight and he goes “oh”, then dispatches him. Like he could have all along if he’d just been paying attention or given a damn.
A lazy Big Fish in a Small Pond is one that is not long for this world when they swim out into the bigger ocean. They certainly can be interesting characters once their dreams have been crushed by the hard weight of reality, but this one is a fighter who will presumably be fighting other warriors intending to kill him. Fighters who already know that not keeping their mind on the task at hand means a quick death (and one they may get anyway).
Think about your character some more and decide what it is that you are trying to convey. Weigh the necessity of the scene and think about why you’re having trouble with it. Is it because you don’t know enough about the fighting style and combat? Or is it because your characters aren’t working with you?
Try the John Cleese approach to creativity. The first answer we come up with is rarely the right or most creative one. Think about the problem some more and see what else you can come up with. If the answer feels cliche to you already then it will to the reader. If you can’t come up with a way to get yourself interested in or excited about the events that feel cliche, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Trust in yourself and in your creations, you’ll figure it out.