Friday, May 9, 2008

Six flaws in combat scenes

1. The characters simply slash and hack at each other

If they have the same weapons and fight in the same way, this can be repetitive and won't bring out the full potential of such a scene. Different weapons have different advantages – a spear has a longer reach, but is useless at close quarters, unless the shaft breaks so that the character can use it to stab an opponent. Different weapons also mean different fighting styles, and that might mean the difference between life and death for a physically weaker opponent.

2. The characters have no psychological tactics

They fight in grim silence. Unless this is what they would normally do, let them taunt or bait an opponent, or fake an opponent out by pretending to attack. If they’re injured, even if ‘tis but a flesh wound, they could act as though it’s far worse so they can lure an opponent closer.

I once read a great short story about a love triangle in a primitive tribe, which was finally resolved when the two men involved went into a darkened room to fight it out with knives. One of them had won each such battle he’d fought, killing every one of his opponents (it was later revealed that he had a hidden flashlight built into the hilt of his knife). He was naturally so confident that he gave the woman an expensive perfume and told her to wear it for him when she gave him the victor’s reward.

She wore it when she came to wish them both luck before the fight, and she embraced Flashlight Guy warmly before they went into the room. The smell of the perfume clinging to him was enough for the other man to track him in the dark. Turned out she was in love with the other man all along.

3. The characters don’t use their surroundings to the best advantage

When the Bride confronts a knife-wielding Vernita Green in Kill Bill, and the fight goes to the kitchen, she grabs a frying pan to use as a makeshift shield. I love that detail. Similarly, if characters are fighting on sandy ground, one could pretend to fall, grab a handful of sand and fling it in an opponent’s eyes. Combat near a campfire? Use burning branches. Throw a blanket over the fire to disconcert an opponent with the sudden darkness. A fight in ankle-deep water, at night? Toss a stone to distract an opponent with the splash.

4. The characters show no real effects of wounds

I could buy that massive amounts of adrenaline will override pain, but at some point, blood loss will weaken characters. Wounds in the limbs will make it difficult for them to move and to use their own weapons as effectively. Blood will slicken the hilts of weapons and whatever hard surface the characters are standing on.

Finally, I’ve seen mortally injured or dying characters speak in complete, grammatically accurate sentences. That’s impressive, and also unrealistic.

5. Such wounds are unrealistically inflicted

A strike that lops off someone’s hand looks cool on Kill Bill. Leave it there. A strike that impales someone, driving the weapon through the victim’s body? If the attacker had previously been established as extremely strong, I might buy this. If not, it’s not just unrealistic, it’s foolish. The attacker has now lost his weapon, since it’s lodged in his shish-kebabed victim, and while he’s trying to retrieve it, someone else can attack.

6. The characters do not have normal physical reflexes

If something jabs at your eyes, reflexes will jerk your head back and close your eyelids without your having to think about it. If someone grabs the dagger from your belt, brings it up and tries to cut your throat with it, you’ll be instinctively flinching or blocking or grabbing the person’s hand first.

There are probably more that I haven’t thought of, so please share any other flaws you’ve seen!


Luc2 said...

Good one. I love the perfume trick. Very nifty.

I love battle scenes, but they're hard to write. Especially the epic battles, not the one on one duels, where you have to show both the MC fighting his micro fight while giving a sense of the macro battle.

I have a scene where someone throws my unarmed MC a sword. Instead of snatching it out of the air, he lets it clatter to floor, afraid to cut his hand on the blade. (sorry for the self-promotion).

Anonymous said...

great list!

I remember the first battle scene I ever wrote (I was 11), one of the main characters was a winged unicorn thing. That added some interesting dimensions.

I don't think I've ever topped the unicorn battle scene, actually.

Marian Perera said...

Good point, grace - fights in air or underwater will be in three dimensions. I'm trying to think of a good one in published fiction... can't come up with one at the moment, though.

And luc, that's exactly what I'd do if someone threw a sword at me, too. I've read of people catching a spinning axe out of the air, but an axe's blunt end is much more catch-friendly than a sword's.

kiwi said...

Naomi Novik, if mass battles count and you like dragons and can stand an extraordinary over-use of the semi-colon!

kiwi said...

Luc, in what context does this happen? I'm trying to think of a context where this woudl work, and I can't. For instance, say a near-stranger throws the sword. If the MC drops it intentionally or otherwise then there are some serious credibility issues as a fighter. In the case of a friend throwing the sword, I wouldn't expect this unless he/she knew damned well the catcher was competent enough to catch it, because incompetence could be very deadly.

So, seriously, what's the context?

Angela Ackerman said...

Whoa, this is great! I'm going to send Merc over here from the Toasted Scimitar--this is right up her alley.

Spartezda said...

Many good points here, thanks! Battles of magical power often suffer from #1, in their own way--the characters "strike" and "shield" but not much else, and it can get boring. One fight scene in Lisa Shearin's Magic Lost, Trouble Found has the heroine use her magical talents to dump a bucket of manure over her opponents' heads--very distracting, as you can imagine. ;)

Luc2 said...

Heh, I see some familiar faces here from over at CC. :)

Marian, thanks. Not too mention that the hilt of an axe is often longer than the hilt of a sword. however, some historical research showed that swords blunt fast during battle, and people with good gauntlets would be able to grab a blade with their hand.

Kiwi, it happens at a point in the book where the MC is firmly established as a good commander and clever tactician, as well as a capable fighter.

Anonymous said...

Well, as for catching swords with bare hands, that was quite common. In fact, medieval fencing manuals show techniques for fighting while holding onto the blade, and hitting or hooking the other guy with the hilt. The act of striking someone with the crossguard in this way is evocatively called 'the murder stroke.' None of the illustrations show people wearing gloves. The sword blades were sharp, but not knife-sharp. they cut only when used in the proper cutting motion. This was to spare the blade from going dull in a fight; a very sharp blade would dull faster and worse than a somewhat sharp blade.

As far as lopping off limbs, this was common, even with the only somewhat sharp blades. This was common especially when one person is cutting at the other intercepts the arm coming in, thus doubling the force.

Japanese samurai would test their swords by cutting up the bodies of executed criminals. A sword was not considered good if it couldn't cut through a torso.

here is a medieval fencing manual:
See tafel 58 for the murder stroke, and tafel 228 for cutting off of hands. In fact, see them all, they are a hoot.

Luc2 said...

Thanks for the link to the manual, Sarpedon. Interesting. I always thought, mistakenly, that fencing was a thing of the Renaissance.

Anonymous said...

Literally, fencing means 'fighting.' So its been around for a long time. The idea that fencing means light swords is a modern one.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks for the link, Sarp. I wish those illustrations were moving, they would be so much fun to watch.

Maybe I could print them out and make a flip book.

Tiberius Clausewitz Drusus Nero Germanicus said...

Well, as for catching swords with bare hands, that was quite common.

I would dispute that, since the half-swording and Mortschlag ("murder-stroke") techniques don't really involve catching a sword blade with bare hands. Sure, you're grasping the blade with your hand, but you don't catch it while it's still in motion--you transition into the half-sword or Mortschlag as you settle into the appropriate guard, not in the middle of a blow. So the presence of Halbschwert and Mortschlag techniques in the German swordsmanship tradition can't be used to justify the idea of catching a thrown sword because they're very, very different things. A Mortschlag or half-swording technique wouldn't hurt your hand if you grip the blade firmly and correctly but trying to snatch a fast-moving blade out of the air is simply a good recipe for losing your fingers (as well as much of your hand).

BTW, while we're at it, I guess I can do a shameless bit of self-promotion; I've written some entries on the subjects of single combat and swordsmanship in my LJ, and somebody here might be interested to check them out. ;)