I’m delighted today to welcome author Will Hahn, as part of his blog tour for the new release Judgement’s Tale from Games of Chance.
Will Hahn has been in love with heroic tales since age four, when his father read him the Lays of Ancient Rome and the Tales of King Arthur. He taught Ancient-Medieval History for years, but the line between this world and others has always been thin; the far reaches of fantasy, like the distant past, still bring him face to face with people like us, who have choices to make.
Will didn’t always make the right choices when he was young. Any stick or vaguely stick-like object became a sword in his hands, to the great dismay of his five sister. Everyone survived, in part by virtue of a rule forbidding him from handling umbrellas, ski poles, curtain rods and more.
Will has written about the Lands of Hope since his college days (which by now are also part of ancient history). With the publication of Judement’s Tale Part One, Games of Chance, he begins at last to tell the tale of the Land’s most unique hero, The Man in Grey.
I’ve never had a post about writing fight scenes on this blog, so I’ve asked Will to do one as part of his tour.
When Karin first asked me to do this post I was quaking with excitement. Ancient-Medieval History major, military history nut, figurines on my shelves, cardboard counter wargames all over the table, maps on the walls. I’m the guy your mom didn’t need to warn you about- you could warn yourself just fine. I know the difference between a mace and a main-gauche (it’s a big one) or a morningstar (not so big). More bits of useless trivia than you could shake a rhomphast at (after all, eight feet long with a hammer on one end, that’s tough to shake).
Then I thought about it some more, and I got worried.
I’ve SEEN combat, tons of it, in movies and reading about it in books. And I know what I like- everybody does. But the chef could explain all about gazpacho, and it still might taste like cold soup to you.
I can give you one piece of news you won’t find surprising- it’s very easy to do fights poorly. Sometimes the description itself is “unrealistic” if that’s a word that applies to fantasy writing. More often, I think, you read a fight that serves no purpose- or to be accurate, it serves the wrong purpose at the time you read it. It’s almost as if the writer feels, when a fight or battle or war breaks out, they have permission to take off their thinking caps and just let ‘er rip.
War, especially today, doesn’t make a lot of sense to many people. I often see the bumper sticker that says “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER”.
But your readers never stop wanting to know why.
When I see that bumper sticker, I always mutter “What was the question?” Writing about combat is the same as writing about everything else, in that you need to know:
The Stakes and
It’s the conflict part that gets easier- fighting IS conflict (but maybe not the only one in a good fight scene).
I wrote a bit on this earlier when I gave my opinion at the blog site I share, on the various genres of fantasy
. Basically, when the stakes are crucial (“Save the World”) the tale is Epic Fantasy: you tend to see combat less often, and the sides involved cannot afford mistakes because that would be the end. On the other hand, with casual stakes (“Save Your Skin”) fighting is more frequent, sometimes constant: these are Sword and Sorcery tales, and the fight can be trivial (it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an arm). Deciding the stakes of your tale will help inform the frequency and tone needed in your fights.
As an example of good fantasy fighting that many folks might know, I would recommend the incredible sword duel between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black from The Princess Bride. This is an example of the middle-ground in Stakes, Heroic Fantasy. The kingdom is at risk, or at least the future happiness of most folks in it- not just one or two lives, but not the entire world. Either combatant could die- it is set up as a fight to the death. But neither man is fighting only to save his own skin. In fact, the two men are not in combat for the same purpose, and that’s one reason it is so entertaining either to read or see.
The plot usually makes Stakes clear for the writer, but Objective- not so much. Again, the key is never to lose sight of “why”, which in my opinion relates to characters. Why are they in this fight? Because it’s been twenty pages since the last one?
The duel in Princess Bride is a great example. Inigo is fighting to kill the Man in Black- why? Because he’s been ordered to. Why is he taking those orders? Why is his boss so confident he’ll succeed? These questions come rolling out as you see the scene (for the first time, from Inigo’s PoV). You catch up- there’s flashback and humor and heart. You don’t know who the Man in Black is, but you don’t want Inigo to die.
And the Man in Black doesn’t seem to want to kill him. His objective is to catch up to the Princess- and now all your “why” questions remain unanswered. The author stiffs you completely- what a bum! But you are glued to the scene, and some of the most deathless descriptions of dueling and battle chatter ever recorded.
It’s Never NOT About Character
This is I think the final and best advice I can give you. Fighting is alien to ALL of us- unless you’re a war vet writing non-fiction. If you think you can make up for a wandering plot by having some people killed, or throw in a bunch of accurate detail about missile and shock weapons because you don’t know what should happen next, then you’re going to lose the readers. Combat scenes are almost always life and death- for your story.
Yes, you need to be familiar with what weapons and soldiers do. I recall rolling my eyes when halberds were getting thrown in combat (yes, it has a spear-end, but it also has an AX-BLADE, you think that might alter the balance a bit?). On the other hand, I have seen publication guidelines that promise any manuscript will be rejected if a character calls upon archers to “fire” their arrows, because presumably that wasn’t the call in medieval times. But I could live with the first action, if the thrower was really strong and desperate- it might be even better. And can you imagine Kiera Knightly in Pirates of the Caribbean turning to her crew and screaming “Loose!”? Not quite the impact the screenwriters were looking for.
Remember the characters are there for a reason and never stop telling us about that. Even when it’s armies fighting, look at what Tolkein did with Legolas and Gimli- their competition and argument over the finer points shows so much. It’s grim humor, and their pride on display- it implies that the fighting, in itself, is not much of a threat to two such experienced warriors, and of course it reveals a growing bond forged in a battle that now means something more because of what these characters carry through it.
Partway through my tale The Plane of Dreams, the Tributarians are camped in the open by a fire, about to get ambushed. They know it’s an ambush, and have prepared a surprise to turn the tables on their attackers. But what they most need is not to win- their assailants evidently wish only to rob them and, oddly, put them all to sleep. The Tributarians need information, they must capture at least one of the leaders alive and question him. So before the combat even starts, the stakes and objective are clearly off-center: and who really knows if an ambush-of-an-ambush can work?
This is your story, don’t be intimidated by a fight- would your heroes ever back down? Certainly not, but you serve them best by knowing their reasons and goals before the first blade leaves its scabbard. Good fortune to you!