This is probably a heretical article title given that I’m a writer of military fantasy. Nevertheless, it is a common occurrence I’ve noticed in recent years. Good fighting scenes are a challenge to create, both in the written and the visual medium. This may seem surprising. After all, what could be more heart-gripping, more adrenaline-filled, than epic battles of life and death?
The answer to this paradox, I suspect, lies in the intrinsic promise every author makes to their reader. In fact, I had started writing this article before I devolved into a discussion of the “authorial promise” and realized that topic needed to come first. I’ll touch on it briefly here, but encourage you to check out that other article. In basic form, every author makes promises to their readers. For epic fantasy, that promise usually includes the idea that the hero will prevail. In recent years a grimmer side of fantasy has become more prominent where this isn’t necessarily the case but I suspect that the classic promise will continue to predominate. Most fantasy readers will expect to see their epic hero rise triumphant over whatever darkness has fallen over the land. The remainder of this article proceeds from this general idea.
If our epic hero is to be triumphant, then it follows that they cannot die. At least, not until the end. This leads me to the two halves of the combat dilemma. The first half exists prior to the climax where the hero can’t be slain, but probably will face setbacks. Heroes may be injured and they may be defeated. Allies and friends may fall, but the hero has to survive. This known truth puts story tension at risk. The second half of the dilemma concerns the climax itself. Here the hero may die, but they still have to succeed in whatever quest they’ve undertaken. So if you know the hero will survive at least until the climax and will ultimately succeed, then combat ceases to be the epic battle of life and death that readers yearn for.
Yet many stories try to pretend there is doubt anyway. I’ve read too many books and watched far too many movies where vast amounts of time (and pages) are spent portraying battle scenes where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In movies, I yawn and consider hitting the fast-forward button as I wait for something useful to happen. In books, I may flip forward a few pages until there actually is a story. If it happens too often, especially before the story’s hooked me, I may even put the book down and find something else to read.
When suspense is absent, the litany gets boring: The hero strikes with his sword, the villain parries and counter-strikes. The hero blocks and swings his sword again. The villain ducks and, grabbing a handful of sand, throws it into the hero’s face. And so on and so forth…
Sure you can use all sorts of colorful metaphors and vivid adjectives but in the end that may just be window dressing for an empty room. I don’t want to take this too far, though. In wise dosages, such descriptions are important. After all, who doesn’t love a massive explosion? The worst solution would be to give up and simply say: “The hero and villain fought. The hero won and the villain died.” For combat scenes to succeed there probably needs to be some measure of thrust and counterthrust, but that can’t be its foundation.
So, how do you beat the boredom?
My least favorite choice is to kill beloved characters randomly and often. Demonstrate that the story is gritty rather than epic, realistic rather than romantic. Perhaps one of your best characters is walking along a cliff and the ground collapses beneath him, dragging him to his doom… not for any plot or character point, but just to prove you can. And, as author, you have that power. Your readers will constantly be on edge because they never know what you’re going to do next. No one is safe! Ever! Depending on what kind of story you’re trying to tell, this may be very successful. But to speak in terms of the classic epic fantasy genre which has Howard’s Conan and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for its bookends, this type of story is metaphorically off the shelf. While these two authors told very different stories and both had plenty of dead heroes, none of them met their demises without reason.
Another mechanism is to make the combat scene more than a choreographed blow-by-blow. The interspersing of dialogue is one method to achieve this. But if there’s too much chatter, especially where heroes and villains spout bits of bravado at each other, then you run the risk of corny cliché. On the other hand, there may be practical reasons for opponents talk to each other. One circumstance might be an argument that has led to drawn blades so that the dispute continues to a more violent tempo. There may also be reasons for allies to communicate on the battlefield. Combat takes many forms in real life that aren’t a single endless stream of sheer violence. There might be advancing or withdrawing, charging or ducking for cover, shouting commands or reloading. This is especially likely if the form of combat isn’t hand-to-hand. Warriors on ships or defending a city wall or using any variety of mechanized armaments (catapults, cannon, planes, tanks, battlesuits, etc.) are very likely to have opportunities to speak.
Or you can explore other techniques to describe battle. This is a method I attempt. I try to capture the feeling of war. Its intensity, its fear, its heat, its chaos. In this way, battle can sometimes become as much a setting as an event. It can become another character in the story with a life of its own. In other words, demonstrate the battle’s importance in ways beyond the simple false promise of high energy in its choreography. Personalize it. Make it feel immediate. Evoke senses or emotions appropriate to your style and themes.
Finally, find other ways to introduce peril. Yes, we know the hero will live. But is survival enough? Story plots thrive on setbacks and combat is often the perfect way to introduce failure and loss. But simply using this technique doesn’t guarantee a rise in suspense as we’ve already discussed. This is especially true early in the book. The means of failure or, even better, the type failure should be in doubt. I watched a movie recently (I won’t name any names), where the hero was going into battle and it was extremely obvious that he would be defeated but survive. Several minutes of predicable bravado and swordplay were concluded just as I expected in exactly the fashion I anticipated. But sometimes that expectation is a part of the scene’s potency. If you’ve intentionally foreshadowed defeat then you have to deliver on it. The how or the why, though, should include a surprising element. If you merely recount the obvious inevitability then you may have some work to do.
If the climax of the book includes a battle, and most epic fantasy does, then options are even more limited. To have an outcome where the hero prevails, how much can the hero fail? There are still ways. Successful climactic battles often rely upon surprise rescues at the last moment turning doom into triumph. The use of common techniques can provide some comfort to the reader. There’s a reason the same stories are told over and over again in slightly different ways. People like the familiar. But even if you take this route, the reader still deserves to be treated to a surprise. It can’t be out of the blue, though. Using inexpiable rescues or changes of fate, often called deus ex machina, are a certain path to a failed climactic battle and a disappointing book. Your reader stuck with you to these final pages and deserves a satisfying conclusion. The best unveilings, I think, occur in ways that the reader doesn’t expect. But then they look back at the chain of events throughout the story and have the pleasure of seeing the final piece of the puzzle fall into place.
There are many other techniques I haven’t listed here. After all, a host of authors have employed combat scenes to great effect. The key is to realize that just because you’ve introduced combat doesn’t mean you created something interesting, compelling, or intense. Combat doesn’t guarantee excitement or suspense any more than any other possible story event. Indeed, combat may be far less gripping than two characters talking over a pint of ale. Because of the assumptions that lie within it, writing successful combat may be one of the art’s greatest challenges.