Some advice on action scenes in prose

Before I get into this one, let me establish something that wasn't obvious to me when I started to philosophize about storytelling. The point of describing a fight scene - or any action scene - in the first place is to let the reader envision it. I say 'let' because if you just skip over the scene ("We fought and I came out on top"), the reader is effectivly *prevented* from envisioning it; if they care enough about the story to be reading it, they're just going to want to go on. Stopping their reading to imagine a fight would kill the enjoyment of doing so. That's why this has to be the author's responsibility. With that, here are a few points of advice I can give, despite not being good at it myself:

Equal time

Time should pass at the same rate for everyone.

This flaw is constant in Attack on Titan. The worst instance is in the Trost arc when they're trying to convince the soldiers that Eren's not a titan; after Eren tells Armin that he has 15 seconds to make his decision, the amount of conversation between then and when he does couldn't possibly have taken place in less than a minute. It was bad enough to make me laugh out loud, despite being otherwise a marvelous scene.

Attack on Titan review


Obviously, if the images you put in the reader's mind involve obvious physical impossibilities, the effect is ruined and you would've been better off just summarizing the scene.

As far as fight scenes in particular, there are three main types as far as I'm concerned: fistfights, swordfights, and gunfights; and each one is very different. And of course, writing a realistic fight scene is very hard if you don't know much about the relevant kind of combat in real life. This is problematic insofar as the reader *does* have the knowledge you lack, since if they don't they won't know you're being unrealistic.

One escape that some fantasy novels take, like Mistborn, is to create a radically different combat system: no reader will be more qualified on it than you are. No one has any first-hand experience and you've put a lot more thought into the ruleset than anyone else has. Of course, that doesn't completely solve the problem - you still have to follow basic ideas of physics and human intelligence, like making sure characters who are supposed to be experts don't forget to use an ability or technique that you've taught the reader is a thing in an obvious situation for it - but it's a big help.

Mistborn review

Regarding fistfights in particular, my (small) experience is that actual fistfights involve less punching and kicking and dodging than is often depicted and more grappling. A punch to the chest or a limb might hurt a bit, but it does basically nothing in terms of actually incapacitating your opponent. If that's your characters' goal, and they're not stupid, they should know that the main way to do that without a weapon is trauma to a vulnerable body part, such as the head.

Level of detail

I think a pitfall I fell into in my first few years of writing was over-choreographing. I would describe every hit and every motion and probably bored the nonexistent readers a lot. If the scene is important, it might be worth choreographing everything, but if it's too long or you've had similar scenes before, try only showing the turning points; eg. in a sword fight, describe only the parts where a character is wounded or disarmed, and joining them with something like "We fight for another minute, and then", and show the POV character's change in mood each time.


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