Today I wanted to share a post by my fellow writer, Ethan. I found his advice about combat writing to be extremely helpful, so with his permission, I decided to share some of it here on Pro Story Builders. Enjoy!
(Just a heads-up for my squeamish friends, this post covers certain topics related to combat, including bloodshed.)
Combat Writing for Rookies
There are several common mistakes that come out when authors write combat scenes.
These mistakes are not limited to newbies. I have read New York Times Best-Selling authors who have messed this up big-time.
These are the most common mistakes I’ve seen, and the ones that are most likely to destroy your fight scene.
- Shying away from violence.
- Ignoring fight-or-flight.
- Not knowing combat.
- Treating death and murder lightly.
- Using lame descriptions.
- Not doing your research.
Now we know what these are, let’s break them down and address how to avoid them.
Shying Away from Violence.
This is a problem that is recurrent, especially with young authors. It is also a leading problem in your fight scenes falling flat.
We humans don’t like conflict. We prefer to avoid confrontation, and the idea of killing or being killed is, frankly, a disturbing one. Thus, when it comes to actually writing combat, we tend to fast-forward through the action.
While this is a natural response, it can kill a fight scene quicker than just about everything else. You must resist the urge to shy away from the violence.
While this will be a very uncomfortable and even sickening exercise for some, it is important that you stop to see the action clearly.
Just about the most common critique I get on my fight scenes is, “Why don’t you show what he’s thinking?”
I am doing this on purpose. I have had my share of physical confrontations, I do martial arts, and I’ve talked to a bunch of people who have.
When humans enter an exceptionally tense situation, the body reacts by going into what is generally known as fight-or-flight mode:
- Digestion slows down, as does the logic-and-reason part of the brain.
- Adrenaline starts pumping.
- The muscles prime for action, and the self-repair system picks up the pace.
Basically, your body shuts down everything not needed and puts all the energy into survival.
People frequently react to stressful situations like combat in several ways.
First, they panic. Their muscles lock up and they are frozen in terror, disbelief, or denial.
Often, when this happens, they will have one thought, frequently a nonsensical one, that goes through their head on a loop. For example, “I’m going to die”, “This can’t be happening”, or “Man, it’s going to cost me to get these blood stains out of my tux”, over and over again.
During this mode, traumatic situations will frequently be seared into the memory.
The second way is that their brain shuts off and they react on autopilot. The body will go into survival mode and defend itself on instinct. (It is during this mode that people do things not normally possible, such as lifting a car off a trapped child.)
During this mode, your brain will often ignore pain, so that while you normally couldn’t walk with a thorn in your foot, your brain will allow you to run across hot coals to escape a burning building.
This is also why many victims do not actually realize they are injured until after the situation has passed. Due to the brain’s tuning out, people frequently have a difficult time remembering events afterward.
The brain cancels all non-essential input, meaning you likely won’t register what people are saying, notice subtle sounds, smells, and details, or have conversations with yourself in your head.
When you are writing, know when to fill in the details, and when to switch them off.
- It can be tricky to do this right, and everyone still has their own style. As long as you long as you make a conscious effort, however, your fight scenes will almost certainly improve.
Not Knowing Combat.
You need to notice the little things. If it’s dark, your hero can’t see. If it’s a bright day, the sun will get in your character’s eyes and blind them. If you are in a forest, in ruins, or on uneven terrain, your characters could trip.
You also need to know the science behind combat and wounds.
If a character gets shot with an arrow, blood is not going to spray everywhere. (I’m looking at you, Far Cry.) If the hero blocks a battleaxe with his sword, it won’t just stop. The sword will vibrate, and the shock will travel right up the hero’s arm.
I recently read a book where a character was shot in the leg by an arrow, and then died thirty seconds later. This irritated me, because I knew that unless that arrow was poisoned, there is pretty much no way a person would die that fast.
Know the type of wound you intend to kill your character with, and know how this wound would affect your character.
If he receives the stereotypical shot in the chest, he probably will not be able to give his closing monologue, and if he does live long enough, why isn’t the hero doing something to save him? If his throat is slit, he can’t talk. If he’s shot in the head, he won’t be able to sign the killer’s name with his blood on the way out.
Treating Death (and Murder) Lightly.
This is a big one. Just as we try to avoid confrontation, we also try to avoid thinking through the ramifications and consequences of death.
If you get one thing out of this post, let it be this: DO. NOT. MAKE. THIS. MISTAKE. Treating death as cheap will, in turn, cheapen your story. It will also ring false with anyone who has actually seen death.
Much like death, taking the life of another human being should not be treated flippantly. No matter what, killing someone will affect you. The sheer weight of having killed another human being is a burden that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
However, this does not mean you have to make your characters refuse to kill.
While I do understand that under certain circumstances, such as with Batman, a character who refuses to pick up a gun or a sword to protect himself or others is one that the audience will have a hard time sympathizing with.
While I have never had to take a life, I would not hesitate if it would protect someone else. Most of us would do what was necessary to protect the people we love, and refusing to fight will appear to the audience more like cowardice than moral fiber.
I don’t mean that your character will be destroyed mentally by the act of killing. They will certainly relive the moment for the rest of their lives, so don’t be afraid for them to feel the weight the first time.
They won’t forget the feel of their finger squeezing the trigger, but in scenarios such as wartime, where the enemy is not a genuinely evil person, it will be harder on your characters.
- However, if they are protecting themselves or others, your characters will probably not have a debilitating level of guilt. As the continue to fight, the mental scar tissue will grow to the point where killing will not affect them as much.
It is when there are unusual circumstances that killing will really mess up your characters. For example, if the killing is an accident, or if the victim is a child, an innocent person, a friend, someone admired, or in the case of many male characters, a girl, it will cause much more psychological pain then otherwise.
Using Lame Descriptions.
If this is the only problem with your fight scene, you’re in luck. Just replace your boring descriptions with colorful, rich ones.
Don’t tell us the blood ran. The blood trickled, spurted, gushed, sprayed, oozed, etc.
Precise, unexpected details will make your scene sing. Blood isn’t just liquid. It’s hot. It’s sticky. It has a distinctive coppery smell. If the character is stabbed through the lung, the blood will be pink and frothy, while the liver will give dark, thick blood.
While the hero probably wouldn’t notice the character in a brown tweed jacket, he would certainly notice a lemon-yellow coat.
In fight scenes, comparisons are your friend.
If you say your characters are being bombarded by a mortar battery, how will we know what that feels like? Comparisons. Use similes and metaphors to the hilt.
- The shelling sounds like distant thunder.
- The RPG roaring in on your position sounds like a plane flying low overhead.
- The explosion causes a flash of flame, a fountain of smoke, a geyser of earth.
- Distant gunfire might sound like popcorn in the microwave.
However, do not use funky descriptions in a fight scene. Saying the blood running down your hero’s face felt like llama puke will be weird, unless, of course, your hero has prior experience with llama puke.
Likewise, don’t say your villain devitalized your mentor, because that is weird. Disemboweled would work much better, because it’s colorful, draws a clear mental picture, and we know what it means.
As I said earlier, keep irrelevant details out, and use only ones that you would notice.
Note by Lauryn: The original post covered several more points, but for the sake of this blog post, I decided to shorten it. So, without further ado, last but not least…
Not Doing Your Research.
Do your research.
Yes, most of us hate research, but there is really no excuse for avoiding it. Use the resources you have available. If you have relatives who are veterans or police officers, ask them to describe their experiences. It will help give you a unique perspective, one that will affect your writing in a big way.
And of course, the internet has such a wealth of information that it’s almost criminal not to tap into it.
And that is Combat Writing for Rookies. Huge thank you to Ethan for allowing me to re-post this!
I hope this post was helpful to you, and as always, I look forward to seeing your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks for reading!