Fantasy Fights: Let’s Be Serious About Writing Violence

This is a slight exaggeration, but the attitude you hear towards fight scenes is dangerously close to it at times.

In the same vein as my last postI’m coming back to one of my old favorites again. This’ll be a lot more controversial because I’m going to put an unfixed bayonet between my teeth and charge right into popular advice from other authors. Specifically, established authors with published books and follower counts they could brag about, if they wanted to! Since I rarely do this, I hope you all understand I wouldn’t try without exhaustive analysis.

It’s a baffling, esoteric art propagated both by reclusive masters and overconfident neophytes, an art as deadly to its amateurs as to its vaunted adepts’ enemies. An art which offers beauty and viciousness even within the same school, whose rules are forever obscure to your readers. Your readers, who are but visitors in the peculiarly violent lands which adhere to it…

It’s the Art of Combat, but I’m willing to bet you, like nearly every other fantasy author, have been writing it like it’s Soft Magic. You know the drill: it operates on rules which are occasionally implied but never explained beyond hints toward all the rules you’re leaving out, occasionally producing miraculous silver bullet tricks like the “Sheathing the Sword” shtick from The Wheel of Time.

Which, as it turns out, would rarely work. If I wait for my opponent to gut-stab me on the assumption I can then stab him, we immediately hit a lovely little set of rules about something called “the center line.” This gets much worse if I try to stab him at the same time he stabs me, but without worrying about his sword because, hey–I’m planning on getting stabbed! And that assumes he obliges, and his attack doesn’t cause me to go down sooner than expected, and so on and so forth. But before I get into that, I’d like to address something way more basic:

If I wait for my opponent to gut-stab me, he’s more likely splitting my head, since the vast majority of all martial arts traditions indicate you should take your opponent’s brain out if possible. You may not be aware of this, but historical warriors actually fought their battles, and didn’t have an overly-generous author who would prevent enemies thinking of instantly-deadly attacks.

The tradition of “go for the head!” appears even in the Iliad, in which Homer repeatedly uses the phrase, “and the inward brain was all splattered forth” when someone takes a spear to the cranium. This was okay the first few times, and probably sounded much better in ancient Greek when read aloud with proper Epic rhythm. In fact, “people die fastest when you hurt their thinky bit” goes back further than recorded history. Why don’t you take a guess where most of the death-blows landed in pre-civilization Hominid mass graves?

Point being, you’ve all probably realized by now that letting your enemy hit you so you can hit him probably won’t work as well if his attack insta-kills you. That’s not even considering the fact that you need to move your arms to use your weapon. Consider that if your enemy’s weapon is already embedded in you, it might be filling the space you need to move your arms through to hit back.

That’s pretty common-sense as soon as you think about it, isn’t it? And yet, in fantasy, we have a whole host of accepted nonsense surrounding hand-to-hand combat which goes totally unexamined. Even as magic systems get more developed and worldbuilding goes deeper, we cling to the same silliness about bloodshed. I have to assume that’s because, for some reason, at some point, a bunch of writing advice developed telling us not to think about it.

Don’t believe me? The most valuable of “established” advice about writing fight scenes is “characters should react emotionally and physically to the fight,” which sounds good until you realize that “characters should react emotionally and physically” is a foundation principle of all fiction writing. Here’s another one: specific details matter, especially when the reader is unfamiliar with the experience you’re showing. Help them understand why the characters feel the way they do.

Oh, but not if it’s a fight scene. Just throw out as many abstract “energetic” verbs and synonyms for “excitement” and “violent” as you can think of. Clear images will apparently bore your readers in this one case and only this one case, and it’s certainly not as if we’re giving you this advice to avoid admitting that we just have no idea how fights work.

The people giving you this advice have no idea how fights work. They could learn, but they’ve decided to give bad writing advice instead. So no, they don’t have my sympathy.

If only martial arts instructors throughout history had written resources we could use to understand how fighting works! But, alas, that can never be, and definitely not with illustrations…

I mean… c’mon, guys. I’m discussing it in martial arts terms, but the truth is that we showed a deeper understanding of violence as kids, fighting with no technique or training at all, than the vast majority of high fantasy authors. We all understood “aim for the face” intuitively, it’s that basic! We only stopped doing that when we got a little older and realized that aiming for the face was a little too effective! This isn’t some new field of science or quasi-magical power so misted and esoteric neither we nor our readers can ever comprehend it.

Yet, I can’t help but see that most, hell, basically all other authors treat it that way. And normally my instinct is to assume there must be a functional reason for such things, but as far as I can tell it all stems from a basic assumption that “readers will find detailed fights boring or difficult to understand.” Robert Jordan wrote the Wheel of Time in its entirety using abstract animist imagery for his martial arts system, and despite having the pitfalls of both the abstract and “technical” fight-scene approaches with neither’s advantages, a lot of readers loved it, but that’s getting ahead of myself.

Even if I accept this explanation, it only explains why our fight scenes avoid specific details or properly-structured martial arts styles. It doesn’t explain why they’re full of things that just don’t make any sense. Here’s a fun one: going for the legs. For some arbitrary reason (I think The Karate Kid may have started it), it’s considered a dishonorable technique. And maybe it is in a tournament fight, but in a life or death confrontation? Historical warriors had no such taboos; the closest thing would be Medieval Europe’s grudge against the crossbow, and that deserves exploration in an article about fantasy’s Medieval misconceptions.

Otherwise, it was generally accepted that once you and someone else try to kill each other, all bets are off. The old masters didn’t dislike brutality (we’ll get to that in another few paragraphs), they just despised fighting thoughtlessly or with bad technique. Leg sweeps aren’t undesirable because they’re “dishonorable,” they’re undesirable because they effectively shorten your reach; think about how much harder it is to reach an object five feet away on the floor than one five feet away on a table. At the same time, they leave your head wide open to a killing blow. That’s a really, really bad combination in a no-holds-barred sword duel.

Let’s say you’re in a sword-duel and you bind up with your opponent. There are all sorts of fun techniques you can do from here if you’re not afraid your readers will get bored by details about swordsmen killing each other. For example: depending on how you move in, you may be able to stomp with your right foot against your opponent’s knee, completely destroying it! Imagine, before the awful splinter of savaged bone ends, angling your point down and driving your opponent’s blade aside in a single movement, then impaling them through the neck and to the ground in the blink of an eye!

All I need to do to set that up is to risk explaining to my readers the importance of firm footing, that the tiniest difference in leverage may let one warrior shunt aside the other. A single teensy detail to set up this brutal execution.

Or… or I  can just have them hack non-specifically at each other until the plot needs one of them to win. Yay. Excitement. This isn’t even covering the authors who blithely apply our 21st Century pop media prejudices to historical combat when, in fact, multiple European martial arts instructors had in-depth techniques for attacking the opponent’s genitals. Seriously–who wants to “avoid specifics to hold the reader’s attention,” when actual swordmasters advocate vicious testicular battery if that’s what it takes to win a fight!

How is that not interesting enough to put into fight scenes?! I’m serious, help me understand! How is that level of gritty, ruthless violence not compelling enough to write about? Now, an important caveat here: a lot of publishers, even post-A Song of Ice and Fire, are really squeamish about the level of violence you’d need to sell this. To be clear, we’re not talking about techniques for kicking the opponent’s genitals, we’re talking about techniques for making him a eunuch.

I’m saying these techniques, some taught during the oh-so-civilized Renaissance, involve grappling and ripping off a man’s testicles. Not, er, kid-friendly stuff. But again, that’s not the argument. The argument is that readers wouldn’t find this interesting to read about, and you’d lose their attention by writing the sentence or two needed to set it up. I just can’t buy that. Not knowing what I do (and there are plenty of “gorgeous yet lethal” techniques, not just ball-mangling).

To disclose my own bias: as I’ve said many times before and will shortly say again, I’m a martial artist. And I take umbrage with the fact that… um… how do I put this civilly… fuck it! I’m fed up with  authors who refuse to do research asserting, from positions of consummate ignorance, that it’s boring or overly technical. How would they know? They’ve never watched a single sparring match or listened to an instructor walk through this. For most of them, knowing that the term “parry” exists is good enough!

That’s infuriating to me. At its basic level, martial arts is intuitive. Its complexity emerges only over time as you grasp the basics, your opponents grasp the basics, and you have to figure out new ways to use them to gain an advantage again.

Oh, dear, it’s just so difficult to understand how this guard position works. No one could ever comprehend this image, it’d just bore them.

Let’s come back to Robert Jordan’s “Sheathing the Sword” and the center line. This term is among the most common and self-explanatory of all martial arts: there is a shortest possible distance between two warriors. It’s a straight line from one to the other, and it’s called “the center line.” See? Easy! There’s nothing nebulous about this part. Technically, as a Meyer practitioner, I should just call it the center, but diving down the Moria-esque balrog pit of different schools and interpretations right at the moment would be ridiculous. I’m trying to sell you the simplicity here.

Here’s where the center line gets fun: only one weapon can occupy it at a given time. Swordfights, especially with thrusting swords, often revolve entirely around the complicated effort to take the center line. There are a lot, and I mean a lot, of rapier, longsword and even sabre exchanges decided by which person binds the other’s sword away from the center first. Do I even need to explain “bind?” It’s applying pressure to your enemy’s weapon so it goes where you want while they try to do the same to yours.

Right now you don’t need to know the HOW of it, you just need to know that intercepting an overcommitted thrust and moving the enemy’s blade so its point passes harmlessly by your body while your point goes into their body is the basis of all thrusting combat. Suicidal attacks work, but they don’t work this way. “Sheathing the Sword” is just assisted seppuku, full stop.

As soon as I have control over my enemy’s sword and a clear line to, say, his eye socket, I just have to extend my arms. In a good bind, my sword’s handguard will carry the enemy’s sword with me, keeping it under control until the moment I pierce his brain, or at least force it off to one side where it can’t threaten me while I’m giving an enthusiastic lobotomy. Knowing these things and writing with or around them strikes me as vastly more enjoyable for everybody than using only abstract terms to “keep the sequence moving.”

Again: “I pierced his eye and violently wrenched the blade upward, driving it further in until he went still, then yanked it loose. The eye came with it, dripping.” Or: “He and I exchanged heavy blows until, suddenly, I saw an opening and struck him down.”

I’d like to remind you all that this is fantasy, a genre where many of us spend huge amounts of time describing plants and landscapes. That’s geography and botany! Botany! You’re telling me the average fantasy reader is less interested in the lethal science of martial arts than they are in botany?!

Disclaimer: I also enjoy plants and include extensive descriptions of plants in my writing. I do not, personally, believe that botany is boring. However, if we were to pick which of these things was more interesting based just on pop culture, it’d be fighting, wouldn’t it?

I have a difficult time guessing the roots of this idea, but I see it everywhere. “Fight scenes need to be more abstract or you’ll lose the rhythm!” I used to believe exactly the same thing. I was dead certain that a realistic fight would be boring, that a bunch of flashy phrases non-specifically describing the fight’s ebb and flow were the only way to go. Except… where’s the sense of threat, really? The reader’s supplying it. Their emotional reaction to the scene has nothing to do with the actual writing; it stems purely from the fact that they recognize there’s a fight.

You cannot, with a straight face, tell me that “the sword’s whistling point barely missed her throat” conveys less threat than “Ricaud and Mme. Devilier circled each other, stabbing back and forth with countless near misses.” The second example is fine, sure, but “near miss” is an abstraction. Nearly missing what? Does the fact that they’re attacking a lot really carry as much punch as the true terror of a rapier duel, which is that a slight misalignment of the wrist might be all it takes to sign your own death warrant? Which of those ideas is really more nerve-wracking, more exciting: that you can attack over and over without success or disadvantage, or that a mistake so small as to be almost invisible could get you killed in the blink of an eye?

In the second, “conventional” example, our margin of error seems almost infinite. After all, both fighters make a huge number of movements without any being important enough to focus on, so it can’t be that hard to stay alive. Near misses seem to be quite common, and nothing to get worked up about!

In the first: that could’ve been the entire fight. If Ricaud adjusted his aim more quickly, that’s it: lanced through the jugular and dead on the ground. Can you imagine the adrenaline, the mortal terror, the freezing panic induced by the idea that the first movement you make is guaranteed to be your last if it’s not a good enough move? That’s a real fight. That’s how they’ve always worked, as far back as humans have killed each other with weapons.

…alright, satire aside, maybe Fabris’ manuscript illustrations are a little TOO interesting. Bit heavy on the phallic symbolism there, Sir. Um… not that there’s anything wrong with that! (Fabris used his techniques to kill, and not infrequently. Not a man to screw with.)

In every other part of writing, it’s one perfect specific detail that gets the accolades. Surely you’ve all noticed that as much as readers go out of their way to praise most other parts of a book, they rarely praise fight scenes until someone outside the fandom criticizes the fight scenes? At that point, it’s not really about the fans’ love or hate of the fight scenes; it’s an emotionally-based argument against a perceived assault on their right to enjoy something.

Is it really so outlandish for me to argue that maybe, just maybe, the fact our fight scenes get so little attention suggests there are serious problems with the way we write them?

By now I hope I’ve at least convinced some of you that writing martial arts-oriented fight scenes with an eye for detail is worth trying, though maybe you have no idea where to start. Fortunately, you don’t need one: I’ve been working on this for years, and it’s going to be my next major group of articles. For now, though, a few closing thoughts.

The real, basic problem with writing martial arts into fight scenes is that there’s no knowledge base to support it. We don’t have the centuries of tweaking, ebb, flow and mutation which brought all our existing details to the point they’re at. We don’t have the framework which exists for writing magic systems, the shared library of terms and ideas we all borrow from (or, that rarest wonder nowadays, add to). We don’t have any examples of this done right, at least not as far as I’m aware of, because there hasn’t really been an author to pull it off.

I’ll be inhumanly arrogant for a moment: I’m going to give it my best.

Over the next few months, I’m going to give this a good hard mull-over. I’ll consider all the problems encountered so far, from trying too hard for exact clarity to the deeper, more basic problem of conveying a fundamentally kinetic art through words alone, from style–a badly-overlooked piece of this puzzle–to terminology, not always the same thing, and even fundamental workarounds used throughout the fantasy genre that are going to keep getting in the way until they’re dealt with.

For now: you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts to write them into books. You don’t need to lay out every technique for the reader or know exactly how the school fits into its region’s history, and you definitely don’t need to worry about exactly how it stacks up against rival schools. Because, you see, that last one’s almost impossible to quantify, and there’s no point in doing it if it’s not vital to your writing.

You just need to be excited about what you’re doing, and write it as well as you do anything else.

(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)

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