Saturday, November 5, 2016

A Battle of Words: a WAR PIGS post

One of the main challenges that I put before me when I wrote WAR PIGS was the knowledge that I would have to write multiple combat scenes in little less than 120 pages while at the same time allowing for the narrative to develop, allow characterizations to be made, and keep the story moving.

This post is a short exploration of how tools I brought in to create those intense combat scenes, whether they ranged from one-on-one conflicts between Lut and his foes or sprawling battles where thousands upon thousands spilled their blood, as each variation has its own sets of difficulties and opportunities, which I will try to explore in the most digestible way possible. There will be a lot of things to cover so I'll do my best to keep it simple.

In general, there are three tried-and-true rules that I developed and follow in keeping my fight scenes exciting and manageable, two things I find many writers struggle with at varying levels of experience. I often find that these authors, whether they are new or more experienced, tend to focus themselves in doing one or the other, which results in fights that can be fun but a mess, to clear and concise yet are prosaic because while they put the scenes together well they lack the kind of pop needed to wow the reader. That said, following these rules can help land you somewhere closer to the sweet spot of being both clear and exciting.

1. Keep fights between individuals to ONE PAGE OR LESS (in Word)

Unless you have a really good reason for lengthening the pace of your fight (be it through the device of Cat-And-Mouse, Character Resets due to injury/interference, Comedy, etc.), it is often better to keep your combat scenes quick and to the point. It reduces the pressure writers often put on themselves to be too graphic in detail or too descriptive in execution. Generally speaking, a balanced approach fits better than not. Authors who are great at this (though they sometimes break the rules) are R.A. Salvatore, Brent Weeks, John Marco, and David Gemmell, they of whom are considered masters of writing action-packed combat. Ursula Le Guin knocks it out of the park in her Earthsea novels The Farthest Shore and Tehanu. And there are some great authors out there that go even shorter than that!

Also take note: when I say a "page or less", I mean the equivalent of a page in Word or whatever word processor you use to write. Word allows up to 500 words per page, single spaced, and you lose anywhere to 25% to 32% if you double-space. Keep that in mind when it comes to this rule.

2. Smaller Paragraphs = Faster (and better) Movement

To write a good fight scene you need to know something about film making AND paragraph formatting, the latter being an art that I see is getting lost the longer I edit works for others. In fact, most of what I find myself doing while editing combat scenes for others is re-working the paragraph formatting to clarify what is actually happening. To resolve this I encourage writers to take advantage of the film making technique of blocking out their action sequences into digestible sections, as this will allow focus on what we as writers want to convey in terms of the imagery we use.

Here's another idea to keep in your "toolbox" as Stephen King calls it:

One paragraph equals one sequence of action/movement in the shot.

If you have a sequence of movement in your mind that you wish readers to pay particular attention to, then giving the sequence its own paragraph allows the scene to breath, the writer to refine, and the reader to follow in a way that is more active. Speaking as a dedicated reader of Fantasy as well as a publisher author of the genre, I have seen this play out in the opposite fashion too many times--writers will write an entire fight scene contained in a one-page paragraph (just a paragraph!) and it ends up cluttering the page. Formatting large paragraphs into small ones not only allows you to focus on the action, but it quickens the pace for the reader, ultimately drawing them in to what is going on.


Now a writer is of course free to write whatever sort of combat scenes they want, whether it is dirty, realistic bloodshed that I try to incorporate into my fiction, or high-flying, magical, wuxia-like action that you might find in RA Salvatore's later work or the work of Steven Erikson. A writer can be as simple or as intricate as they want to be, but I always offer a cautious reminder to all of this--your combat scenes are not what makes the story progress. That is what characters, plot, setting, and the other literary devices are for. That said, what can make your combat scenes unique to you is the process of what you incorporate in the write writing them.

I wrote about this previously while providing an extensive reading list, but expanding your knowledge base, taking part or observing the martial arts, and asking questions on all aspects of combat will invariably enrich your combat scenes into intense, powerful movements that will add literary impact to your storytelling. I draw on a lot of my knowledge from my experiences studying Muay Thai, Judo, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kendo, Iaido, German Longsword, Medieval Ringen, Scottish Highland Broadsword, and Dirk Fighting, and I added to it further by researching Sanatan Shastar Vidiya (the war arts of the Sikhs), Pehlwani (Indian Wrestling), and English Quarterstaff. You can find a lot stuff to watch on Youtube, thousands of great books, and many wonderful martial arts schools that will be happy to let you observe and ask questions to help you better form your combat scenes.

Want to see these rules in action? I hope you'll consider picking up WAR PIGS! It is on preorder for right now at $0.99 until it's release date on 11/15/2016.

Have anymore questions about writing great combat scenes? Hit me up @JayRequard on Twitter or leave a comment below!


  1. Jay,

    I just pre-ordered War Pigs, and am looking forward to the 15th. That's an impressive martial arts background. The book sounds like a blast.

    Best of luck with it.

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    2. Thanks, Mike! I really hope you enjoy it!

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