Writing fight scenes involving magic/martial arts:

Total posts: [13]
There's a lot of great fight scenes in manga, movies, cartoons and comics involving use of magic or some other special/supernatural skills, but I have yet to see this truly done well in literature. Even ridiculously popular series like Harry Potter just don't have very interesting fight scenes (which is probably why Rowling wrote the books more like a mystery story than an action story, to avoid any difficulties) once magic gets involved - its just point your wand at your intended victim and say the magic words.

I ask because I'm trying to write a Wuxia style story for fun, but I'm having problems with taking the awesome fight scenes from my head to the page. I can storyboard it just fine, but when it comes down to taking those images and making it into exciting written action I'm missing something. I'd love to hear your ideas on how to fix this problem, or at least point me in the direction of an author who writes magical/superhuman fight scenes well, especially ones in which cleverness/creative use of spells is a factor.

Just for a quick example, Naruto has some great scenes where Naruto uses his signature move, the Shadow Clone jutsu, in truly creative ways. About to fall off a cliff? Summon copies of yourself and have them link together like that monkeys-in-a-barrel game. Need to cast a complicated spell but don't have enough hands to manage it? Clones do the trick well. Can't dodge an incoming missile in mid-air? Create a clone and push off of it. I want to capture that sort of a on-the-fly creativeness in a fight scene on print, somehow, but so far the best I can manage is to use the reactions of the antagonist to the protagonist's moves.

For instance, in a scene where Bob manages to dodge Drakes fireball attack in mid-air by summoning his familiar and punching it so that the reactive motion knocks Bob to safety, the best I can come up with is something to the effect of "That was clever, Bob, to have summoned your familiar then punched it to knock yourself out of the way of my fireball even in mid-air like you just did now!"...which is just as silly as it sounds...
Generally fights boil down to:

Applying pressure: Immediate attacks such as punches or gusts of wind. Can either be avoided, or not.
Laying traps: Generally pre-planned. The lack of mobility means the usefulness is limited, and one has to be careful not to fall into one's own trap. But they are still longer-lasting when they work and require no effort to actually use, once they're built.
Evasion, Defense: Dodging, shields, and so on.
Preventing someone from recovering: Poison darts, nets, paralysis, sleep, magical spells doing the equivalent, and so on
Recovering: Either physically (recovering balance) or with healing (fixing a gash with a healer's help or a potion, and so on)

So, if you know basic tactics, you'll be able to write a good fight scene whether you're using magic or physical effort.

edited 12th Oct '11 10:21:09 AM by Leradny

3 jagillette12th Oct 2011 10:24:59 AM from the middle of nowhere
Wimpy Mc Squishy
Hmm.... Well, off the top of my head I can think of only one good example: Test of Metal, a Planeswalker novel written by Matthew Stover and published by Wizards of the Coast. The protagonist is an artificer who can manipulate metal at will, and knows just about anything and everything you can do with it. The fight scenes involve him getting chased by giant scorpions, dueling a chronomancer, and wrestling dozens of giant undead dragons (that last one makes him sound like an overpowered Norse god, but there were extenuating circumstances that shifted the fight in his favor). Tezzeret(the protagonist)'s greatest strength is his ingenuity; he takes complicated problems and finds creative solutions with whatever tools he has at his disposal.

edited 12th Oct '11 10:30:42 AM by jagillette

slice of lice
I remember some older Magic the Gathering novels (Odyssey Block) where the barbarian protagonist Kamahl solved most conflicts with just a few sword swings or gigantic fire. Most of those scenes ended with quick single blows. The novels weren't particular good, but the idea's still there...

The big trap of having any fighting style that makes it to the page is that anything that looks amazing on screen or even comics will most often translate to a boring blow-by-blow.

Some things writing does better is if you can portray feelings and thoughts of the characters. Suspenseful fights seem to work just as well in writing.

edited 12th Oct '11 12:53:01 PM by OuthouseInferno

Forget the tropes until after you're done.
5 jagillette12th Oct 2011 01:14:27 PM from the middle of nowhere
6 MadassAlex12th Oct 2011 01:20:06 PM from the Middle Ages.
I am vexed!
If you need any particular questions about European swordsmanship answered, don't hesitate to ask me. I know it's not 100% relevant to this, but if extra knowledge would contribute, then I'm happy to help.

Aside from that, one idea is to write some parts of the fight in retrospect. I find this can be really effective and really accurate. Sometimes you miss things in a fight and piece it together afterwards via the evidence. You wake up the next morning and have a bruise? Must've been last night's fight, even though you don't remember even getting hit. The Lord of the Rings does this pretty well, and it goes further by implying things rather than outright stating them. Boromir's final battle was done this way, and not a speck of the action was described in literal terms. This is the information we get:

  • He was blowing the horn.
  • The horn was split.
  • His sword was broken.
  • He was pierced by many arrows.

By implication, we can infer that Boromir fought, and his sword was broken. He continued fighting, despite being pelted by arrows, and killed Orcs with his bare hands. At some point, the horn he was using was split; whether it was chance, the hewing of Orcs or something else is left up to the reader. Or perhaps not. Who knows?

Don't forget to keep the emotions of the characters in mind, too. Anger could cause someone to fight recklessly, or it could build resolution in them and cause them to fight with greater efficiency and initiative. Despair could cause them to lose all hope or need for survival, causing them to take risks that adversaries might not see coming. An inspired fighter might do much the same thing for different reasons. Someone who's afraid might lash out and fight with bestial aggression when pushed.
Shadowed Philosopher
The way I do it is to basically just...write what happens. For the familiar example earlier, just write "he summoned his familiar and pushed against it, flying backwards out of the blast radius" (or whatever, change in context to make it actually good writing). There's no need to have strange dialogue explaining what happened.
Shinigan (Naruto fanfic)
8 USAF71312th Oct 2011 03:25:20 PM from the United States
I changed accounts.
I personally prefer to eschew the average fight scene style (which is pervasive in both Eastern and Western media) which tends to boil down to "throw a punch, talk talk talk, throw another punch, do something gimmicky and cool, talk some more, and then end the fight."

I tend to go for a much more visceral style, which boils down to "punch, punch, punch, beat the shit out of each other, talk while fighting, do various cool things, and then end the fight." I don't like to cut down action for the sake of exposition, though. I try to make it more fluid, and go for Show, Don't Tell and have the scenery deal with it.

So, basically, the point here is, try not to break the fight down too much. When the fighting starts, we want to see a fight, not people talking and talking endlessly on and on, maybe throwing a punch or two in the interim...

edited 13th Oct '11 4:12:47 PM by USAF713

I am now known as Flyboy.
OK, I can write decent fight scenes, including magical ones, but it's really hard to critique anything you've done without seeing an actual story. The best I can do is give you some information about the fireball scene. From what you're describing, the fireball scene comes across as just silly.

First you don't have time to execute something like that in mid-air, unless this scene takes place while sky-diving. If you jump, you spend about a second in the air; that's hardly enough time to do that. Also, a punch can't produce the sort of force needed to propel you backward from an object.

slice of lice
It works if you're running on game or cartoon physics, but yeah, it's much harder to get that working in text form.
Forget the tropes until after you're done.
11 JHM12th Oct 2011 05:37:21 PM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Not war
Thunder, Perfect Mind
[up][up][up] Honestly, it's a bit unrealistic to have people talking at all, depending upon the type of fight... or, if large, sharp weaponry is involved, fighting for very long. Y'see, fighting generally requires staying in one piece...
12 Night12th Oct 2011 11:22:53 PM from Jaburo , Relationship Status: Drift compatible
The future of warfare in UC.
I learned by reading old Buffy novels but my style bears little resemblance to them now.

A few general reminders: TV and manga are concerned with cinematics and therefore tend to reject tactics that are valid but not pretty enough. This is primarily shown in the fact that the ability to kill at a distance with (some) weapons or magic powers does not disappear in close combat. If you can kill with but a gesture at 200 feet, you can kill with but a gesture if you're punching the other guy too. (And I personally find something immensely satisfying about a swordfight that ends in one of the parties being gutshot.)

Too much detail is your enemy. Minimalize your descriptions. Opening cut-and-thrust should be covered in a comprehensive but brief fashion to set a tone, but the middle of a fight you can be more generalist about it (who has the initiative, who's doing well, is anyone hurt?) to allow room for thoughts and feelings. If somebody's dying, though, you should always say how.

edited 12th Oct '11 11:23:15 PM by Night

"Christ, where's your designer? I need to kick him in the balls!"
13 USAF71313th Oct 2011 04:14:31 PM from the United States
I changed accounts.
Honestly, it's a bit unrealistic to have people talking at all, depending upon the type of fight... or, if large, sharp weaponry is involved, fighting for very long. Y'see, fighting generally requires staying in one piece...

Yes it is, which is why characters I write don't talk much at all if it's a physical fight and there's no in-story reason for it.

The sharp weapons part is usually off-set, in terms of how the fight can last so long, by the characters being superpowered, and thus harder to kill and/or better at not getting killed immediately.
I am now known as Flyboy.
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Total posts: 13