When writing about a sword fight (or sword and magic fight, in this case) is it better to give a general impression of the fighting, or go into play-by-play detail?
Have this bit from my current Nano efforts:
Dropping into a crouch, Orlya shifted. Head lowered, she prowled sideways along the gnoll. The end of her great tail rose, whipping back and forth.
We need to get out of here, Leah called to her dragon.
Orlya’s rage bubbled in Leah’s brain, a definite negative. There is no time.
Leah swallowed, hand falling to the plas-pistol holstered to her thigh. It wouldn’t do much against the spinosaurus other than make it angry. Pray the spino wants the fish more. Large predators didn’t like to fight unless pressed, and the spino wasn’t a carnosaur. With a closer food source and carcasses on the shore, Orlya’d be less appealing as potential prey. Pass us by, pass us by.
The spino’s head swung, noting the fish carcasses Orlya left. Head lowered, it took a step toward the lake. Paused. Then, the long snout swung back. Great yellow eyes narrowed.
Cor, Leah breathed.
Screaming, the spinosaurus raced forward.
Leah drew her pistol, fully merging into their telepathic link as Orlya sprang sideways. She aimed for the spino’s sensitive parts, the eyes and the nostrils halfway up the creature’s snout. Too small to register as a threat, she moved slowly. The spino’s eyes followed her dragon. Adjusting course toward the cliffs, the creature crossed the ground in massive strides. Leah waited until the spino closed, and fired. Neon-blue blasts struck the spinosaurus dead-on. The blast caught the creature’s snout, left a small hole. No larger than the width of her thumb.
The spino screamed.
Springing off her haunches, Orlya lunged. She came in low, seizing the underside of the spinosaurus’ neck. Her powerful teeth sank deep, blood spurting from the gash. Her jaws latched, unfurled claws sinking deep into the soft ground, and she dragged the creature down.
The spino screamed, scrabbling for a grip with its claws.
Orlya slammed her shoulder into its side, pinning its arms. She yanked, powerful jaws hauling the spino sideways. Stumbling, the spino threw its head up and whipped toward the cliff wall. Dragged about, Orlya lifted off ground. Swung in a circle. Her hindquarters slammed into the rock wall, hard. Pain lanced through their shared bond.
I mean, yes, that is a dragon fighting a dinosaur. However, notice the scene is neither vague nor an exact play-by-play of the situation. The characters are giving you enough of an understanding to follow, but it doesn’t feel like an “and then, and then, and then.” You may start out that way, which is fine. You won’t get it perfect on your first go, it may start out vague and grow more specific as you redraft or start out as a list of what you want that you then break down into action.
The keys to writing a good fight scene is this:
Understanding logical behavior patterns and how matter interacts. The above is a pretty good example of three different species fighting with various approaches based on their natural advantages. (Though not necessarily scientifically accurate.)
Animals are pretty simple to write in fight scenes once you get a basic understanding of their attack patterns. They’re often extremely effective, but they don’t change much. They fight mostly on base instinct, behavior changing on learned experience. This is going to be different from humans, who are primarily tool users and problem solvers.
In this scene, we’ve got the dragon, a four-legged winged beastie whose fighting tactics are somewhere between a lion and a wolf. (I based her on my cat. Likes falling from great heights to break the back of whatever she’s hunting, it works.) She’s all springing and pouncing, but a pack predator working together with her human partner. Not unlike what you’d expect from a traditional relationship human and their hunting/working dog. This is a symbiotic relationship between two beings who need each other, not a human and their pet.
The spinosaurus is a solo actor, when under threat it uses its greater size to intimidate, close, and ultimately get away. What is its first reaction to a smaller predator latched onto it’s throat? It tries to claw it off. When it can’t uses its greater weight to gain momentum and try to throw them In this case, into a nearby hard surface.
The human would, under normal circumstances, be mostly useless in a battle between predators this big. However, she uses her brain. Of the three, she’s the most strategic fighter. She creates the openings for her dragon to attack. Her weapon can’t kill the spinosaurus on its own, not before it kills her, The creature is too large. However, by hitting it in the vulnerable places where it hurts (the eyes, places where the bones are close to the surface/hitting the nerves, other parts the dino is going to feel necessary to protect), using pain to distract the creature and split its attention. In this way, Leah shows the audience why her dragon needs her just as much as she needs it. The human provides the strategic understanding which makes the dragon a more effective predator in an environment where it isn’t the apex. Symbiosis goes two ways.
You wonder what this has to do with sword fights and magic?
On a simple, conceptual, and very basic overview, all combat works the same. This doesn’t mean you write it the same way because that’s silly. The approach and thinking stays.
What is the situation? The needs? The goals?
What is the environment?
What are the available tools? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?
A character who is a mage and primarily defends themselves with magic is going to be limited by the rules their magic functions under. Specifically: the length of time it takes to cast a spell. Unless they can cast very quickly, they’ll be ranged bombardment or will attempt to stay at range. (Like how you should be behaving with a gun, keep your distance.)
You’ve got a character who can do magic and you can’t? You need to take them down before they get their spells off. If they get their spells off, you dead.
So, you’ve got the one guy who wants to get the mage and the mage who needs to get away. This is how you get a basic setup. Now you know how both are going to behave as actors on the battlefield. Now, you can start strategizing on how one gets to the other.
In order to hit the magic user, the guy with the sword needs to get close enough to hit them. The magic user doesn’t want the guy with the sword to get close because then they focus enough to cast or it becomes more difficult. Their battle is going to function around these basic needs as they try to take advantage over the other, and the increasing difficulty of survival.
Next is the environment. They’re going to use their environment because terrain is a primary means of gaining advantage, often whoever uses it better wins. Whether that’s the spinosaurus throwing the dragon into the cliff face in order to dislodge them, or your sword user running from cover to cover hiding from a mage’s fireballs. They can’t stay in cover because fire. Even if their cover isn’t burning, the area around them is. Fire means smoke and fire is eating up the oxygen they need to keep their muscles moving and stay fighting.
These essential needs and limits are going to change how your characters behave and the strategies they employ in order to win. What’s important is grasping the movement of the battle, the physical ramifications of the actions, and how those affect the characters participating. There are set limitations on the battle i.e. how long your character can fight before reaching exhaustion, and the amount of damage they can do in that time frame. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes someone else gets there first.
The spino screamed in defiance, sides heaving. Blood raced down its neck, pooling on the dirt. Air sick with the stench of raw flesh.
Oh, c’mon! Leah leveled her plas-pistol, sighting down the barrel.
Orlya fanned her wings and frills, hissing.
The spino took another few lumbering steps, preparing to charge.
A flash of silver and ruby dropped from the sky, slamming onto the spino with the full force of its weight. Wings unfurled, body arched over the sail, a red dragon sank his claws into the creature’s sides; seizing the spino’s neck with his teeth. Leah saw his rider perched on his back, pike in hand, wearing red plasteel armor. The dragon too heavily armored.
The spino shrieked in agony, legs giving way. Unable to stay upright, fell forward and landed in a cloud of dust. Jaw smacking the dirt with a sickening crack.
The red dragon’s armored head gave a great shake before ripping upwards. White bone clenched in his teeth, he leapt free and landed on the gnoll. His wings tucking as he fixed Leah and Orlya with his yellow gaze. Blood dripping from his jaws, he grinned.
In Orlya’s case, she doesn’t win. Or, doesn’t have the chance to win.
All the little surface things most writers get caught on that they think are all important are ultimately ancillary. Your characters‘ personalities and how that affects their decision making is ultimately secondary to their available tools and the needs of the situation. What comes after is their unique approach, which is the solution they come up with to win.
Then you add in Newton’s Laws. “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” When you throw a bowling ball at a bunch of pins, what happens? You want a fight scene to feel real, you need to have your characters reacting to the imaginary harm in ways that jive with your audience’s expectations. Dem’s the rules.
If you shove someone, what happens? They move or they don’t, but either way their body has to take the force. You got a two legged creature suddenly hit with the great force of another monster pouncing on it from a great height, what happens? It’s going to be destabilized. It’ll fall. What happens when it hits the ground? Hard surface, the force is going to rebound back into it and the environment will respond accordingly. Fall in a dusty area, you get dust in the air.
You stab someone in the leg with your sword, what happens? They bleed sure, but blade’s gone into their muscles. Depending on which muscle that was and where it was, that could be very bad. You ever tried moving with a sprain? Or a cut? Now imagine doing it with a hole right through those muscles you need to move. How do people respond to pain?
Writing a character using a technique and naming said technique is only useful if you understand what the technique does and the effect it has. The effect is what’s important here. That is the show versus the tell.
You’ve got five senses. Use them.
Sight. Sound. Touch. Smell. Taste.
The sound of a scream. The scent of blood in the air, charred skin. Copper on the tongue when a character’s bitten through their lip or gotten blood in their mouth.
Action. Reaction. Action. Reaction.
You did X. I will negate and follow up with Y. However, both actions will do something. Both lead to their own results depending on success. So, what was it?
Orlya grabs the spinosaurus by its neck, a vital organ. The spinosaurus tries to grab her with its claws to drag her off. In order to stop the spino from hurting her, she turns sideways and yanks the creature around and negates its arms by ensuring it can’t get an angle.
Your body is limited by its options for motion, arms can only bend so far. This is a universal truth, whether you’re a human, a dog, or a dinosaur. A key part of strategy in combat is getting on angles that cannot be countered. Animals will do this out of learned experience, just like humans do.
The spino’s first choice fails, but it doesn’t give up. Next, the spinosaurus lifts its neck to get her off the ground. Using it’s great weight it whips into a turn, gains momentum to throw her into the wall. Like a horse, bull, or other animal, it drags the unfortunate predator on a nearby tree or wall or rolls in hopes the stun will dislodge them, crush them, or break some vital bones. Like the Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that directs the tank into a mountainside while a hapless Indy hangs helplessly.
This is how you theorize a fight scene, and after that its just putting words on a page, drafting and redrafting until it works.