“They Died and They Died”: Writing Combat for Character and Scale in SFF

Years ago, I worked as an assistant martial arts instructor. This is an excellent fact to share in a moment of seeming far-off reverie when one’s foundations of British lit students are raising inexplicable ruckus. Give them half a moment to process the fact and you’ll be able to hear a pin drop. Human beings have a certain fascination with violence and combat, and a tendency to be overawed by real people who know anything about these subjects. There’s a whole essay in human psychology lurking in that fact. I’m here to write about combat from an entirely different angle, though.

As of this writing, I’m two days away from traveling to the Nebula Awards conference in Pittsburgh, PA, where for the second year I’ll give one on one consultations to writers working on issues of world-building, dialogue writing, and combat in their manuscripts. Last year, I hosted twelve such appointments in just three hours. Ten of them were about writing fight scenes. Dueling and training sequences; a final battle against a book’s “big bad;” the specific logistics of someone being attacked in an alley unpinning themselves. Most of the consults involved me getting down on the ground at some point, demonstrating a half versus a full guard, teaching writers how to nail an arm bar, reviewing details of how to protect the body during a fall or roll. I may have been the only person to leave my appointment table sweaty and bruised. I’m glad I had the foresight to at least wear leggings and a tank top.

This year, I anticipate a lot of interest in how to write combat again, and so for those who won’t be there, I’d like to share the best advice I have about writing violence that sharpens narrative purpose, instead of taking an audience out of a text through the blunt force trauma of overindulgence.

If you know me, you won’t be surprised that I’m drawing this example from Roger Zelazny’s work.

The writer who presented me with what must have seemed like the hardest fight scene question of the weekend — “How do I handle a scene of mob violence, especially once the authorities arrive?” — got this advice, pulled from the climactic scene in Nine Princes in Amber where the princes Corwin and Bleys fight their way up Mount Kolvir in an effort to dethrone their brother Eric.

credit: Pinterest Shadow Amber RPG

Pause for  a moment.

The question seemed hard to my client because of our modern tendency to think cinematically. Having recently seen Avengers: Infinity War, I can sympathize with how overwhelming a task writing combat on a mass scale would be. But that’s not the task of the novelist or short story writer. Or, put another way: when mass violence and combat are in the offering, our approach to them should be, of necessity, fundamentally different.

Now back to Corwin on Mount Kolvir. He’s recruited an army of thousands of pliable saps from the dimensions surrounding Amber, his brother’s realm, and thrown them into the meat grinder of war. They plow through Amber’s defenders and plunge up the mountain, perishing in the chokeholds of switchbacks and forested paths and, eventually, a rocky fissure of a staircase just wide enough for one man to pass. As he sees all of this carnage unfold, Corwin — arguably the second or third-best swordsman among his siblings (Amber geeks should feel free to contact me with their opinions about whether Eric, Bleys, or Corwin follow after Benedict); such a phenomenally ruthless and selfish bastard that his name was once a family watchword for arrogant cruelty; hundreds of years old, hardened to Machiavellian schemes — Corwin of Amber is actually overwhelmed by the effort to capture in his first-person narration the magnitude of the carnage unfolding.

credit: Amberwiki Kolvir Stairs

In the space of a few paragraphs, we go from the visuals of clashing waves of troops and swinging weapons to one, pained sentence: “They died and they died.”

Because Zelazny understands that while this battle is the culmination of Corwin’s schemes, its real importance lies in the price he will pay internally for taking innocents and turning them into the tools of his ambition. It is a sentence born of shell shock, the queasy onset of guilt, and it strips away all the vocabulary Zelazny previously gave to Corwin, borrowing from his own background as a champion fencer and judoka. No more parry in quarte or riposte. No flourishes. No footwork. At this moment, Zelazny sidesteps the summer blockbuster visuals entirely, because scaling the combat here isn’t about the number of bodies on the field of battle, but about processing the battle for the reader: teaching them how to read this battle, how to unpack it.

My consult client with the riot-turned-battle and I talked about this scene, though she’d not read the book before. One doesn’t need to have read the book to understand that the author has written this fight scene to serve a purpose bigger than the fight itself, and that readers expect that. A passing familiarity with what one weapon or body part can or can’t do, of crowd dynamics, of the ballet of grappling, is a fine thing, but combat that draws a reader into a text instead of out of it reflects the needs of the text and teaches the reader how to engage in the moment.

We decided to blend perspectives in the scene, to move between competent fighters who can parse the threats around them, giving the reader glimpses of the brutal chaos from a comparatively ordered mind, and to toggle into the perspectives of those who can’t see anything beyond the throng of bodies around them. It would highlight the difference between those at greater risk than others and reinforce the reader’s knowledge of character. It would be consistent with her style.

It’s in the style of cinematic violence (particularly the type featuring superheroes) that privileges competence, precision, effectiveness, and the impression of overwhelming strength — until it doesn’t. Then it transforms the heroes into rag-dolls in the villain’s meaty paws. Even the most over-the-top, tone-deaf director and fight choreography pair understand the visual difference between forte, fortissimo, and diminuendo. Writers of the page need to have that same sensitivity, concentrating more on shaping combat around the perceptions particular to the characters in it and less around proving they are John Woo.

The question I always ask people who want to write combat on a mass scale is simple: what would the perspective character, the perspective voice of narration, think or do when at last, all they can see is the death around them? That’s the perspective the reader will believe in. That’s a writer’s Mount Kolvir.