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Inside the Blogosphere: Battling it Out

Our query this time:

What makes a battle or combat scene exciting to read, and what makes it drag on or detract from the narrative?

SMD @ World in the Satin Bag: I think some of the biggest problems with battles that I’ve noticed is a tendency towards the unrealistic. Generally when you’re in a fight all you can think about is the fight. You’re not thinking about that time in third grade when Tina the evil lunch lady spit in your mashed potatoes. Some writers put a lot of personal stuff into the action and it really bogs things down. It’s just not the way things are. Battles should be realistic. If you get stabbed, you bleed; if someone kicks you in the stomach really hard, the wind gets knocked out of you. People don’t pause for monologues or personal reflection. Once a fight happens, that’s it.

Granted, there’s certainly some leeway here; I’m not saying you can’t have some personal reflection or thoughts, but I am saying that those reflections and thoughts have to be relevant and not disruptive.

Probably the most exciting fight scenes that I’ve read have been those that feel like real fights. They aren’t drawn out for miles and miles just so you can have this epic movie fight; the bad guy really loses and arm and suffers as a result. Some of the more entertaining “cliche fights” are those that make fun of the whole thing, but generally the “cliche fight” should just be avoided. Realism is better.

Alice @ Sandstorm Reviews: I’m not a huge fan of battle scenes in general, and if it’s just a bunch of people waving swords around I tend to skim through. The few exceptions are when there’s something particular at stake (not just Winning the Battle), or when the character viewpoint has an entertaining take on the proceedings (for example Tyrion at the Blackwater), or when *really cool stuff* is happening (a la Erikson). Apart from the really-cool-stuff battles, I’d normally be just as happy if they were skipped, and the same goes for spaceship battles; I’m just not that interested in reading a blow-by-blow account of ship manoeuvres.

Lisa @ DangerGal: I think it all comes down to what’s at stake in the story. Just like sex in a novel, there has to be some compelling reason intimately tied to the plot or character development for violence not to be gratuitous. I prefer single-combat scenes to giant space or land battles because the former are easier to personalize — I have to care about the outcome. It’s more challenging to put a face on a large battle, though I have seen it done well occasionally.

Heather @ The Galaxy Express: First and foremost, when I care about the characters and the stakes are high–really high–I know I’m in for an exciting battle. I think building sufficient suspense is a significant aspect of a battle/combat scene. I enjoy them the most when I can’t see the end result coming. I love it when a story surprises me that way.

Another mark of a good battle/combat scene is consequences: injuries, unexpected deaths, or new problems developing. The right amount of gore can add to this, if it’s used judiciously. I think a battle/combat scene conveys more tension and realism when scattered with a few piquant details like blood, guts, and splintering bone. For me, two authors who have memorable battle/combat scenes are George R. R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE and Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap Series. The battle scenes in those books don’t pull any punches.

For me, detractions include gratuitous and/or cartoonish violence. I just finished Edmond Hamilton’s RETURN TO THE STARS and while I enjoyed many aspects of the book, a few scenes wherein the hero and other male characters kept grabbing each other’s throats became a bit silly. But I kept reading because the conflict between them was exciting. So stories can both captivate and suffer from flaws in this regard. I also think battle scenes can drag if there’s too much descriptive detail or too much of a blow-by-blow of the, er, blows.

Another element I find disappointing is when the action grinds to a halt just when a battle is getting good. In Catherine Asaro’s PRIMARY INVERSION, several speculative passages interrupted a really suspenseful, exhilarating battle scene. I enjoyed the book very much, but unfortunately, that particular turn of events took me out of the story. Another book I read contained pages of description about a starship’s navigational functions just as the characters were about to engage an enemy. Therefore, I’d say that effective pacing and structuring of a story makes a difference between a good battle scene and an outstanding one.

Sometimes a battle/combat scene doesn’t detract or drag on at all–occasionally they’re glossed over or missing altogether. I would love for science fiction romances to explore more intense battles/combat scenes. The authors have nailed the romance; now let’s see a few of them explore grittier conflict. Linnea Sinclair, Eve Kenin, and Ann Aguirre pen enjoyable battles in their books. I also thought Lois McMaster Bujold crafted very potent battle and combat scenes in CORDELIA’S HONOR. However, if any science fiction romance authors want to kick things up a few notches, I wouldn’t complain.

Joe @ Adventures in Reading: Brevity. My answer to this question is, unfortunately, not going to be littered with nearly as many examples as I would like. I like brevity. Get in, kick some ass, and get out. That’s what *helps* to make a fight sequence exciting to read. The longer a fight lasts, the more likely I (and other readers) will lose interest. I don’t want to read about every swing of the sword or about every punch. Cover the salient points of the fight, make it feel original even if it is a fairly standard fight, and don’t over do it. All I really need to know is what happened in the appropriate number of words.

I may be completely off on this, but my opinion is that right now Joe Abercrombie, Matthew Stover, and Scott Lynch are writing excellent fight / battle / action sequences. They come to mind first, probably because they have a bit more grit in their fights. The reader feels bruised and dirty, though Scott Lynch doesn’t get as deep into the mud as Stover and Abercrombie. Terry Goodkind writes a decent action sequence (there are other problems, but action is not one of them).

I’m wracking to come up with some bad action sequences, or writers who utterly fail at action, and I’ve drawn a blank.

To recap: Brevity. Included in Brevity is all sorts of kick-assedness.

Severian @ Severian’s Fantastic Worlds:I think battle scenes and combat scenes (say a skirmish between a few combatants on each side) are quite differently portrayed by writers. I’m reading a David Gemmell book at the moment, epic heroic fantasy, and this is laden with a large number of small combats. This is because the story is basically a quest, so you have a typical small party of characters who are beset by enemies. The attacks made on them are important to the story because they raise the tension and increase the danger they are in. I think this is the most important aspect for small combat scenes: they must convey danger to characters that the reader is interested in and raise the stakes in some way.

How are they made more interesting? I would really like to have a good answer to that. In fact I sometimes find these scenes quite dull. The cut and thrust of swordplay can be dull on the page. It’s the problem of describing something that in real life or on film would be fast and furious and adrenalin pumping, but trying to fit all the necessary description onto the page. A real challenge for a writer I think. Gemmell does it well sometimes, as does Joe Abercrombie of writers I have read recently. But I don’t go out looking for these scenes, as they can be much of a muchness.

For battle scenes we are talking real battles, thousands of men fighting against each other for some larger cause. The question here is how does it relate to the characters? Are they leaders of the armies or are they in the ranks? The best descriptions of battles I have read are by Tolstoy in War and Peace and I would encourage everyone to read that book, and in particular for the battle scenes – Austerlitz and Borodino are outstanding. This is not for the glory and the bravery described, but for the way the experience of battle affects the characters. Tolstoy had been a soldier and experienced combat so he knew what he was talking about. The main things I think to convey are the feelings experienced by the characters. The overall strategy and tactics can be interesting, but its rare that even the generals knew what was going on once a battle got underway.

Daya @ The Road Not Taken
: First, I should make this clear: I am squeamish. And, for some reason, even more squeamish over books than movies. I love the battle scenes in 300 and I weekly watch Dexter chopping up limbs with a chainsaw, elbow deep in gore, but books are a little more sensitive. Maybe because what goes on in my head is infinitely scarier than any choreographed cinematic scene.

My requirements for a good combat scene are fairly concise–The most important aspect is speed. I lose interest once it starts overflowing onto more than 2-3 pages. It’s also most entertaining when I’m not quite sure who will win/what the outcome will be.

Battle scenes that detract from the narrative (for me) are either a.) extremely specific or b.) simply uninteresting. It’s not necessarily the blood that bothers me, but the level of detail. I just read Bloodheir, in which Taim witnesses a young boy speared through his lower back by the enemy and he thinks to himself “just like a fish” as the boy flops around in agony. First, I don’t like reading about children in that manner, and Taim morbidly pondering it is a little too much. But men being hamstrung in single combat or missing limbs doesn’t faze me. I know, I’m weird.

In KJ Parker’s Engineer trilogy, I recall scenes dragging due to an in depth explanation of their “scorpions” (similar to crossbow bolts) and their width, length, tolerance, etc. Maybe if I was an engineer I’d be rubbing my hands in glee about speed squares–but I’m not. I don’t really care–and if I don’t care, I end up skimming until I find the end of said scene.

If you would like to participate in our next discussion and you own a blog (authors who blog are welcome too!) send me an email, or leave a comment. Question suggestions are also more than welcome.