Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes: Spellslinger Showdown

Welcome, readers, back to… hold on, when was the last issue of Cullen’s Tough Guide to Fight Scenes?

Ah. Early last October. Hm. Maybe the hedgerow bit has been out of use too long to be relevant. However, I’ve put those five and a half months to good use! I’m growing more adept in pointing to the concepts comprising my writing under the excellent axiom “concepts, not techniques”. If you’re not familiar with this guideline, you’re welcome, because it’s been a godsend for me. A technique has one specific use and needs certain context to function. A concept tells you how to look at what you’re aiming for in a given context and develop a technique. Master one technique and you have one technique–master a concept and new techniques spring from adapting it for each context. Handy, no? It’s also highly relevant for this entry!

Those of you who remember the previous entries likely remember I said I’d be going into shooty-bang future fights next. I lied. I’m not sure why October-Cullen thought this was wise when he’d so obviously skipped something. I’ve given you the classic swordfighter’s mirror match and a muddy brawl between two supernatural lunatics–one focused on melee, the other on magic. I’m sure you all see the missing link here: I never actually put two mages against each other. What nonsense! Let’s fix my foul-up, shall we?

A sketch of a certain Gratai Lin that isn’t up to my current standards–but it’s the only action-like mage-sketch I’ve got, so it’ll do for a post header in a pinch.

First, however: concepts. I’ve given you all the specifics in the world, but only recently reverse-engineered concepts you can use to inform your own specifics. Let’s refresh and enhance the key ones, yes? It’s been a while.

The first concept we’ll need for this bluefire brawl: ebb and flow. I hinted towards this way back in the first entry when I wrote, “Fundamentally, a fight is a contest between two characters (a main character and the antagonist, usually) over which of them gets to continue their story.” This is a good concept in itself; keep it in mind. While I love that entry, it does involve far more techniques that concepts. I can reduce most of my advice about knights versus common folk to a single concept: good writing opens with the right characters and world for the story it wants to tell. Fundamentally, historical knights didn’t live in a world where peasants could win. When gunpowder created that world, knights disappeared.

Let’s return to ebb and flow. This concept emerges naturally from one of writing’s highest commandments: the story should grow via characters acting upon and against each other. I’ve believed for years that the generic wide-lens fight scenes so favored in fantasy writing are just bad writing, but I flailed for an explanation as to why–there it is. Character emotions and reactions, effects on the world, even later conversations–these elements drive the best plots at every turn, but they need granite causes before they feel real.

It’s for this same reason that writing for morals and themes almost always falls flat; you’re letting the effect, a shift in the reader’s views based on events, determine the cause: the events that are supposed to create the shift! When a character wins because it’s needed for the story’s morals, you’re no longer showing the story created by character interactions and the world–you’re just telling your readers a moral with extra steps. Most won’t have years’ practice analyzing and revising writing to tell you this, but they’ll perceive that they’re being preached to and bridle accordingly.

Fight-scenes often consist of abstract word-thickets which break down to “they fought super hard and one of them had the advantage at this particular point.” Then one character wins. Refer to the concepts above–can you spot the problem here?

This isn’t the cause. This is the effect. All the fight’s most interesting bits happened somewhere back in the bramble-font and the author refused to write them out. Might be there was a dizzy-making pommel-strike to the helm… might be there wasn’t! Might be a sword-blade scraped along the gap beneath one knight’s visor and her neckpiece without quite finding her flesh… might be it didn’t! The readers–I want you to imagine the most obnoxious sing-song you can–will just have to imagine it for themselves!

I’ll break this one down during a later article; it appears all the time in connection with the worst writing advice I see, and I think that merits separate examination. Meantime, though–

Ebb and flow emerges from specifics. Characters can’t react effectively to abstract details, and this often leads to outrageous non sequitur victories–moments when authors write characters into fights they can’t win, then slather on nonsensical justifications for why they win. Here’s a simple concept: when fighting a battle you can’t win, change the battle. Sun Tzu wrote similar advice in The Art of War. If your opponent totally outstrips your sword-skill, move the fight somewhere that prevents him using his superior technique or look for objects in the environment to give you an advantage.

These aren’t just martial-arts platitudes. These choices on a character’s part add depth and interest to the writing. They help the reader feel that this a serious contest between two characters.

Why all this build-up? Because even more than sword-duels, magical battles remain terrible on this count. In fact, they’re so dire that even many movie and TV mage-battles have this problem–even with choreographers helping and actors doing their bit, they frequently feel like disconnected vignettes. Remember, a stream isn’t a series of isolated points. Each fork and bend happens only via those which proceed it. A bunch of stagnant little ponds do not a river make.

I mean just this: if you can remove every action from a fight scene and put it somewhere else where it makes equal sense, you know you’ve failed to write a good fight scene. If you can do this, it proves that nothing you just depicted was created by the characters in this fight acting against each other. Not every moment needs this action-reaction-action again sequence, and some fights will have less continuity than others, but all the best have some.

If you believe your readers won’t pick up on this, you’re sadly mistaken: just as they’ll say dialogue feels “off” when none of the characters’ statements are truly connected with each other, they’ll perceive that none of the actions your characters take in this battle drive each other or restrict later actions. They may or may not be able to quantify that, but they’ll understand on a subconscious level that this “just doesn’t work” or “feels choppy”.

How often, in any spell-duel in any piece of writing, do you feel that the mages actually react to each other’s spells in specific fashion? Even something simple, like creating an opposing charge to draw an enemy’s lightning bolt off to one side–this is basic science. We puny non-magic types built lightning rods for the same purpose.

Not everyone has the time to study martial arts on the side or consult with martial artists, but the beauty of crafting a magic system is that it’s yours. If you want to say that all illusion spells require the mages to down a blend of pureed cheese and hard liquor before they become convincing, you can! You can create whatever system you damn well please to fuel whatever you want in the story, and not a single person can tell you it’s wrong.

Aside: since I’ll not use the idea myself, I highly encourage one of you to write a short story featuring mages who rely on ridiculous drug-mixtures to cast spells. In fact, just call it Narcomancy.

Art of one Illanel Nemaris, a desperately-edgy elven sorceress, courtesy of https://twitter.com/nintengatos; they’re quite talented and you would do well to check them out!

I bring up magic systems as the final conceptual piece: you need a specific magic system with clear rules and enough variability to write interesting fight scenes from it. If magic in your world doesn’t work in a way that lets mages detect or interact with other mages’ spells in detailed fashion, then you’ve already trapped yourself among those isolated ponds. You can still write explosive set-pieces, but you’ll never be able to create momentum or depth. No matter how inventive the individual moves, something will always be missing.

So, for our example here we’re going to work with the only magic system I’m comfortable using–mine! There are a lot of ins and outs to the Twin Spirals system, but all you really need to know for this fight are these:
1. All mages use the same magic. Casting is about how they trick their brains into using it safely; however, casting styles can impose secondary limitations which are usually pretty intuitive.
2. Understanding the science behind a spell makes it much easier to cast.
3. Aside from violating the First Law of Thermodynamics, magic follows the laws of physics–however, by its nature, magic expands its wielders’ capabilities enough that things we regard as impossible become quite easy, and thus it retains most of its mystical effects.
4. The primary limits on the amount of magic which can be wielded are how much exists in an area, and how much the mage’s body can withstand channeling. Mages increase their limits over time naturally, but harder training will yield exponential results.
5. Mages can sense both the current–the dark matter-like flow of magic, no matter how limited–and other mages even in places without current.

I have far more sub-elements within my magic system than just these, of course, but pretty much everything we’re about to see flows from the concepts above. No need to waffle any longer–let’s get in there!

***

Autumn leaves drifted between rain-slicked boughs. Gentle pattering made a cocoon for the senses. Today Senach’si would kill his best student.
The gods willing, anyway; Moranye had always been a stubborn boy.
Senach’si adjusted his tan robes; his right hand caught in a developing hole between two orange-thread squares. He sighed and passed on between a few crumbling white-stone walls overgrown with sickly brown creepers. A single porous hole marked an ancient Loar shot. There was no rush; Moranye awaited in the hut at the path’s end–perhaps twenty paces now. Senach’si massaged first one shoulder, then the other; Ceslon was a peculiar continent, either cold and damp or hot and dry, and usually more the first than the second. His aging bones missed Anseth’s climate.

Ripplings, or tinglings in waves like ripples, alerted Senach’si that he should focus on the present–the sensations he felt when coming close to another mage. He’d invoked wards earlier, but Moranye knew enough battle-magic that a passive ward was not a sure defense. It would be silly to come all this way and have the boy kill him while daydreaming. This moment, however, Moranye chose to step through the hut’s creaking door.
The boy’s gaunt features had not grown more dignified with a few years; he still looked like a gawking bird with too much plumage–or dreadlocked hair with mismatched beads in it, rather–though he had traded looser Ansethi wear for the tunics and close-fitting pants favored here in Ceslon. Purple was still his favorite color; it made his new doublet clash horribly with the drab fall forests. It was, ironically, the boy who retained his rich dark skin; age was paling Senach’si just enough that one would think he lived in this northern place.

“You are looking very fashionable,” Senach’si greeted the lad.
“Teacher,” Moranye said. The boy did not ask why he had come. Stubborn, always, but never stupid.
“This cannot go on,” Senach’si said. “If you had sent for help earlier–damn it, boy, did I not tell you every day that it is better to cry over a cut thumb than brave an amputated arm?”
“I didn’t mean to kill them,” Moranye said.
The old invoker sighed. So, here at the final meeting, Moranye would lie to him without shame for the first time. It stung. Perhaps he had no right to be hurt by it, given his purpose, but it stung.

“You know what I remember, Moranye? I remember you just a year before Binusi brought her hordes against Tushirsi. I remember that without asking me, for you knew I would forbid it, you arranged that ridiculous display with the local urchins. You buffeted them and tumbled them and laced fire through the winds you carried them with–I thought it was a bit cliche how you sent one spinning through that flaming hoop.” Senach’si shook his head. “I was in arguments to keep my tenure right up to the moment the first undead appeared on the horizon.” He drew a long breath through his nose. He folded his aching arms and gazed skyward, closing his eyes to better feel the raindrops speckling his face.
“You cannot tell me that you, who did all this, who juggled scrawny underfed children amid fire and chaos so ably that they laughed and thanked you for the fun–you cannot tell me you killed the Vigil’s men-at-arms by accident,” he finished.

“Teacher,” Moranye said again, “why have you come?”
Senach’si met his gaze. “You know why. And you know I will not take this chance you are offering. Are we incanters, boy? Must I speak every idea for you to accept it?”
“I don’t believe you’ll change your mind,” Moranye countered. “Don’t I deserve to hear you say it?”
The old invoker nodded slowly. “I have come to kill you quickly so that you will be spared a Vigil execution.” His lips quirked. “And because your family wants this kept quiet, if it can be.”
“Is that the final wrinkle?” Moranye regarded him for a long moment. “If you don’t kill me here, it’ll come back to haunt my family?” He grinned without humor. “Isn’t that cliche, too, whenever a necromancer is involved?”

“Perhaps,” Senach’si said. “But did I not tell you–”
“–Some things are cliches because they work,” Moranye finished.
Senach’si felt the current tugging him and drew power. Moranye hurled forth a lightning-bolt and for a moment all the world dimmed around Senach’si as his own ward shut out the excess light. The bolt forked and jumped into a thousand tiny arcs–jumping between the rain-droplets before gouging at Senach’si wards in a screeching, sparking tide. The old master thought of grasping magnets and bursting drainpipes, and sheets of rainwater hurled in at Moranye’s wards in a dozen swirling columns just as the boy threw another lightning bolt.
For a moment he became the center of what looked a great shattering light in the air. His golden ward hummed and buzzed, spiderwebbed by its own master’s attack, until he fed it more power.
“Nothing has changed with you,” Senach’si chided. “Always, if a spell pleases you, you must cast it a second time–even in battle.”

He spoke even while he thought of pummeling winds and coursing birds, a kinetic pulse carrying him to one side just before the ground where he’d been standing erupted upwards. As he touched down, mud, dirt, pulverized roots and rocks spouted and pummeled his wards. He grimaced–sometimes Moranye’s repetition was the right choice. He thought of crashing boulders and splitting clouds, driving away the deluge with pure force and already forming another invocation. He thought of tensing muscle and twanging bows and striking snakes, of sunlight and forge-heat.

Even as Moranye’s spell drove the debris back in at Senach’si, a jagged stone unearthed by the landscape-burst superheated and lashed out–a cruel point aimed at the younger mage. His ward sparked blue around it for a moment, then split open just long enough to let it drive home. The stone embedded in his gut and Moranye shrieked, clawing at the molten missile.

Senach’si thought of a titan’s grasping hand and water parting ’round a stone, opening a pit in the earth beneath Moranye. Even as the boy began falling he thought of forest reclaiming cities and of torrential rains filling once-dry riverbeds, then of the spectacular chill from a steel pole left too long in the night, of snow-swept tundra and boreal forests. The muddy fall morass seethed up and collapsed down on the younger invoker–it froze solid an instant before his frantic kinetic burst. Now Senach’si thought of the titan’s hand clenching, collapsing mountains and seizing heartbeats. The frozen mass cracked, shuddered, and condensed in, each time refreezing as the rain fed more water to it.

Golden light flared from within for a moment, the mass snapped inward that much further, and the tingling ripples on the current ceased. Jaw set, Senach’si ground the spell inward until pulping crimson trickled from the gaps. Other necromancers might resurrect the boy if left with a sound-enough corpse.

At last, the bloody work done, the old invoker staggered away. And then there is the difference I never had the heart to tell you, boy, he thought, hating himself. You were never ruthless enough to be a battle-mage.

***

Yeesh, so, how about a post-fight unpacking, eh? There aren’t a ton of extra details to fill out for this one, but remember what I said about Twin Spirals magic obeying the laws of physics? While I called this a mirror-match, as I wrote it out I began to realize it just couldn’t be. Moranye might have had more stamina in a raw physical sense, but Senach’si is both an arcane instructor and supported by the Vigil. As his own dialogue implied, he’s in good with noble families. He has all the time and luxury in the world to practice and pick up the best tricks from colleagues and students alike. In a mage-duel, he’s not only stronger, but just plain more skilled and fluid than Moranye was.

This allows him not just to block Moranye’s spells from having full effect, but to instantly think of ways to turn them back on the younger mage–sometimes obviously as with the lightning bolt spell, sometimes more subtly as with the superheated rock. Now, why does the rock work so well? That’s actually quite simple. Again, magic in the Twin Spirals follows the laws of physics–in order to create a ward which protects him equally well in all directions, Moranye must create one which will not be able to resist the same (or even far less) energy concentrated on a smaller point. Just like mundane armor, you’d be crazy not to wear it, but it’s not going to stop something that hits hard enough, fast enough, on a small enough point.

From here on, Moranye really couldn’t have won without Senach’si messing up far more than would’ve been credible. Mages in this universe are effectively arcane conduction devices. An elderly body’s not the end of the world because it’s still–at least in Master Senach’si’s case–still a cohesive unit. Leaving aside the psychological effects of having a semi-molten rock burning a hole in his belly, Moranye’s body no longer provides that cohesive unit.

His spells will need more concentration–which he doesn’t have courtesy of that damn stone–to cast more sluggishly and with less power then Senach’si. Moranye’s large-scale attacks aren’t inherently bad, but they introduce variables such as loose debris that he’s not fully able to control, and he’s fighting Senach’si at close enough range that he has no time to react when the stone suddenly hurls forth from the pulverized soil he’s using to wear down his Master’s ward.

Note also that not everything in this fight is scientifically optimal–for example, water needs to be specially treated to be a good electrical conductor. However, the rain-drops do still provide a dispersed guide for Moranye’s lightning-bolt in a medium which will naturally be contacting his master’s body (keeping out raindrops would add up to a lot of wasted kinetic energy over time), so this remained a savvy attack regardless what comes later.

There’s a final point, of course–Moranye decides to stand and fight. There’s a brief window during which Senach’si is blinded when Moranye could’ve started to run. Had he done this, the stone might’ve missed him. Killing Master Senach’si would’ve changed nothing since an Inquisitor would’ve been along to clean up shortly. Moranye allowed his old teacher to psychologically manipulate him into viewing this as a personal confrontation that he had some sort of obligation to participate in when, for him, victory would have been simple escape.

Anyway, I hope you’ve all enjoyed this. I may do a post of just fight scenes according to my own rules, or I may move right into the pre-modern fight scene advice–if you’ve got a preference, let me know in the comments!

(If you found the fight scenes concepts above as useful as I do or just enjoyed that short-and-brutal mage-brawl, 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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