In many novels you will have a fight scene—everything from a verbal scuffle as two people break up to a major battle, and because this is often the climax to your story, you might want to approach the scene cautiously.
Years ago, with my first novel, I had one critic say that in On My Way to Paradise I had written perhaps the best battle scenes of all time. I remember reading that and thinking, “Really?” But I also remembered that when I was planning the novel, that was one of my goals. So I believe that preparing properly for the big climax should take some consideration.
I’m currently working on the final scenes for A Tale of Tales, a novel where the climax has terrified me for years. It’s just so complex and difficult to write that I have to approach it cautiously. So here are 8 tips on writing those fight scenes.
1) Well before the fight scene, make us care about your players, either for good or for ill.
We might root for a young hero and wish death upon a villain, but unless we know those characters, the fight is impotent. That is why I seldom recommend that you start a novel with a fight scene. Who cares? (Of course, a skillful author can create some rooting interest in the midst of a fight scene.)
2) Escalate the fight.
Most people don’t rush into battle willy-nilly. Usually, before a fight, the protagonist will try to resolve his conflicts with an antagonist through negotiation or by “talking the situation down.” So the fight often becomes heated and escalates during a verbal confrontation.
Usually this verbal confrontation ends up with name-calling, where one person attacks another’s identity and dehumanizes them. This is a key. Most people can’t kill another person so long as they think of them as human. That is why in every war, soldiers come up with a nickname for those that they are supposed to kill.
Very often, the verbal confrontation ends with a threat or a challenge of some kind, though my grandfather in the Mafia warned that you should never signal to another person that you plan to take them out. You just, “Take care of business.”
3) Make your protagonist’s intent clear.
What does he hope to accomplish in the fight? How does he hope to win? What allies does he need to bring into the fight? In the prelude to battle, we typically want to understand the game plan.
4) Set up the battleground.
When a character gets into a fight, the action often gets hot and heavy. You don’t want to try to describe your setting in the middle of a battle, so I generally have my viewpoint character assess the grounds before the fight begins, front-loading the details and problem areas.
5) In the fight, it’s time to get realistic.
I like to write my battle scenes in a way that reflects the thoughts and actions in real time, unless of course times seems to slow for my protagonist. (As your protagonist gets into danger, a rise in adrenaline often leads to a sense of “time dilation,” where the mind is thinking quickly and the contenders are focused entirely on battle.
Because I want the fight to be realistic, I detail the sights, sounds, smells, feel, and emotions of the battle as accurately as possible without going purple in my prose. In other words, I want it to feel raw, both for my protagonist and for the antagonist.
6) Fighting isn’t easy.
If your protagonist goes in and wins a battle with a sucker-punch, it’s rather anticlimactic.
What’s better is if the antagonist has of course anticipated what the protagonist will do and erased any of the protagonist’s advantages. In short, if the protagonist is going to bring his magic sword, then the antagonist needs to figure out how to break it.
In many major battles, the protagonist often has to fight his way to even reach the antagonist. Thus, when Gandalf rides up to the gates of Mordor, they don’t even have a hope of breaking through to meet the villain.
Very often, the protagonist himself will be wounded, see friends die, and thus be both physically and emotionally damaged before the big battle.
7) Your climax for your novel often occurs in a big battle.
The protagonist often has a personal problem, his “B-storyline” that has been a secret weakness, an Achilles heel. During the climax, the protagonist often makes a discovery that allows him to recognize his weakness, correct it, and thus win the day, snapping victory from the jaws of defeat. Now, if you have such a climax, it has to be set up probably hundreds of pages before the climax, so that the reader has forgotten about it, and it can be pulled out now.
Alternately, at this climax, the protagonist draws upon some power that he or she didn’t even know that they possessed to win the fight.
8) The end of the battle.
After your protagonist has won, you might think that your reader is feeling exultation and that all is done—but that’s not true. The most powerful emotions that are aroused are often brought forth after the battle is over. As the protagonist discovers what he has won, what he has lost, how he has changed, and how he has changed the world, the story can take dozens of turns that explore powerful emotional depths. Your protagonist might have to bury friends, show mercy to enemies, win the love of her life, and so on. In some tales, the whole world is thrown into commotion and the entire landscape warps and changes after the end of the tale, and dealing with this can and should take many chapters.
Yesterday William Bernhardt spoke to us over at our writing group. He is the bestselling author of more than forty books, including the blockbuster Ben Kincaid legal thrillers (Justice Returns, most recently), historical novels such as Challengers of the Dust, two books of poetry (The White Bird and The Ocean’s Edge), and the Red Sneaker books on writing. He is one of the most sought-after writing instructors in the nation.
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