Writing A Fight Sequence

Beginning fiction writers have difficulty expressing the momentum of a high-energy fight sequence without their sentences taking on a breathless pace that is heavy in ellipses and light in detail. They forget that fight sequences require the same richness of language as a passage where their protagonist stares out into the rain.

Take, for an example of a fight sequence done right, the outbreak of the battle for Helm’s Deep from Tolkien’s The Two Towers.

In this scene, an army of Elves and men are fighting a fortified battle against a great host of Orcs, a host as “thick as marching ants.” The Orcs come to a halt before the high walls of Helm’s Deep, and the Elves and men “looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great field of dark corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with a barbed light.”

Brazen trumpets sounded. The enemy surged forward, some against the Deepening Wall, others towards the causeway and the ramp that led up to the Hornburg-gates. There the hugest Orcs were mustered, and the wild men of the Dunland fells. A moment they hesitated and then on they came. The lightning flashed, and blazoned upon every helm and shield the ghastly hand of Isengard was seen. They reached the summit of the rock; they drove toward the gates.
Then at last an answer came: a storm of arrows met them, and a hail of stones. They wavered, broke, and fled back; and then charged again, broke and charged again; and each time, like the incoming sea, they halted at a higher point. Again trumpets rang, and a press of roaring men leaped forth. They held their great shields above them like a roof, while in their midst they bore two trunks of mighty trees. Behind them orc-archers crowded, sending a hail of darts against the bowmen on the walls. They gained the gates. The trees, swung by strong arms, smote the timbers with a rending boom. If any men fell, crushed by a stone hurtling from above, two others sprang to take his place. Again and again the great rams swung and crashed.

Beginning writers should note that Tolkien does not abandon the powers of metaphor and simile when the battle begins. The enemy “surges”; the arrows are a “storm” and the stones a “hail”; the enemy takes control of the gates slowly, but fatefully, “like the incoming sea”; they hold their shields above them “like a roof” and send “a hail of darts” against the defenders above the gates.

Tolkien does not narrate the action with objective descriptions; he colors his language with the same mythic vocabulary that he has established over the previous 800 pages of The Lord of the Rings. Trumpets are brazen, lightning is flashing, sigils are ghastly, men are roaring and leaping and springing, trunks are mighty, arms are strong, timbers are smote with rending booms, and great rams swing and crash. As in the previous 800 pages, he keeps the action apparent and his adjectives effusive.

Nor does Tolkien increase or decrease the enthusiasm of his narrator just because this sequence describes a fight rather than a fireside tale. His strategic use of passive sentences in the opening of the passage stalls the onrush of the action, freezing time in a lightning flash to describe the size and sigil of the evil horde, and at the end of the passage, he moves his tense to the subjunctive, posing an “if, then” statement that opens the field of his description from the moment-to-moment action and onto a wider range of time periods, one that covers both the current action and its potential: “If any men fell…, two others sprang to take his place.”

The breathlessness of the beginning writer’s fight sequence is probably due to the influence of cinema. Because a movie camera captures “truth 24 frames-per-second,” beginning writers think their fight sequences have to describe every thrust and parry at the speed of time. They forget the power they have as writers to stop, slow down, and speed up the movement of their world.

If the influence of film is to blame, beginning writers should, perhaps, look to the more cinematically-adventurous fight sequences for inspiration. Directors such as Zack Snyder and The Wachowskis capture in incredible sequences the temporal freedom awarded by poetic license (see this sequence from Snyder’s 300). These directors are doing in film what writers from Tolkien to Homer have long since done with words: freezing time to focus the mind’s eye.

So, beginning writers of fight sequences: stop using ellipses, stop using incomplete sentences, and focus, instead, on capturing the beautiful ballet of battle.