In one of my first articles on this blog, I proclaimed that combat (in literature) is boring! Combat, in and of itself, often adds less value to a novel than a heated conversation. Too much of it actually detracts from a story. My earlier article posited that the reason for this is that the outcome is usually preordained. You can find that discussion here. Today we’ll look at the challenges of literary combat from a different direction.
I have observed an upswing in overly described tedious combat in contemporary literature, both from new and from well-established authors. The cause, I suspect, is the influence of television and movies, particularly the growing capacity of that medium to show impressive special effects and choreography.
Inspired by such displays, authors try to capture in literary form the visual action like they seen on the screen. In doing so, they ignore fundamental truths that define the nature of the literary and visual forms. Indeed, they sacrifice those potent powers unique to the written word in a futile chase after the powers of the visual. An end that cannot be achieved.
The power of television and movies is that they can visually portray a massive amount of information in a single moment, whether that be a grand vista or, as is the point of this conversation, two warriors engaged in an incredibly fast paced duel to the death. We see all the lunges, strikes, and parries, the moves and countermoves as they unfold in perfect sequence. Or perhaps it is a grand battle with waves of charging knights, volleying archers, and maybe a dragon breathing fire. A book attempting the same level of detail would span pages and pages of exposition. Such an endeavor slows time to a grueling crawl that kills suspense and turns energy into lethargy. Does this make books weaker than television and movies? No. It means that literature shouldn’t focus on its weaknesses, but on its greatest strength: that which lies beneath.
In the visual medium, the audience is limited by what the eyes and ears can show them. Books let us live what the characters are feeling. We can be a part of them as they experience a litany of possible emotions from fear to anger to doubt to despair. Not only do we feel the emotional, but we sense the physical. We experience the sting of sweat in the eyes and the burning agony of a sword wound. We feel the sharp labored breaths of long fighting or the pulsing of the heart as it races from fear or fury. And, while movies can show thoughts in the form of spoken words, books don’t need that. We can hear our protagonists (and villains) unvoiced quandaries, distractions, ambitions, and dreams.
Simply put, a book can pull the reader inside characters’ heads in a way that movies can’t. Battle doesn’t have to be boring, but it gets that way if the interplay of swords or armies steals the focus. The best authors know how to weave the course of a duel or a battle into emotions, thoughts, and feelings of the characters. This is what builds anticipation, suspense, hope, and dread. This is what makes the reader’s heart race.
With this in mind, I plan to spend the next few articles looking at those authors who were major influences on me in the fantasy genre through my childhood and early adult years. We’ll start first with J.R.R. Tolkien, then move on to Lloyd Alexander, and culminate with Robert Jordan. With each of them, we’ll explore how they portrayed duels and battles. What we’ll discover is, that despite their differences, a common thread lies in their work that answers the question as to why their combat scenes aren’t boring, but rather spectacular. Teaser: the answer isn’t in the action.