What we'll cover
Be the man in the arena.
Yes, I mean this in regards to Theodore Roosevelt’s speech Citizenship in a Republic. Yes, I mean this in regards to my gladiator novels. Yes, because the gap between the human experience and the imagination required to write about it is vast. Don’t believe me? Ask any fantasy author about their Google search history. We have to ask The Google some wild questions that would most certainly put us on some federal agency’s watchlist. But there are times where we as authors can narrow the gap.
For me, the gap that I realized I could help narrow in my books was the physicality of being a gladiator. So often when reading a story, combat scenes are often quickly glossed over. Some readers even say they are boring, and I agree, they certainly can be because combat scenes don’t necessarily move the plot forward. If it were in a screenplay format, it might just say [Fight Scene] and move on, so some writers do something similar. The fight happens. The protagonist wins. We move on. However, there’s so much more that it could be. In my writing, I wanted to capture that heart-pumping, sweat-dripping action and make my readers feel something. But to do so, I had to first put myself in the arena (at least to the best that I could)!
As a fitness professional for the last fourteen years with experience in some rather unconventional training modalities it didn’t take me long to start devising workouts for myself that could help simulate the training gladiators likely went through. Though it’s nowhere near a one to one experience of fighting on the sands of the arena, it did allow me the ability to feel the weight of a sword, the range of a staff, or the momentum of a mace or club. It quickly highlighted the importance of footwork, edge alignment, and the timing of stringing together different attacks to maximize the efficiency of strikes. When things like effective range of weaponry or gaining leverage during binds can make all the difference between life and death in combat, it is important to make certain they are not neglected in the writing.
How to Write Fight Scenes That Feel Authentic
However, since these interests don’t align with everyone’s and one doesn’t need to swing a sword in order to describe it in a compelling fashion, I have developed a four quadrant system to write fight scenes that slap. They are as follows: Sensations, Emotions, Environmental factors, and Surroundings [SEES].
Sensations—Sensations are the physical feelings that come with combat. The heat of the sun glaring down on your armor, attempting to worm its way inside. The sweat trickling down your brow and spanning the length of your nose before clinging to the tip and eventually falling to the ground. The way the sand feels between your toes, the moisture of your palms as you strangle the hilt of your sword. The weight of the armor threatening to stoop your posture. These sensations paint the picture to make the scene come alive, but once the fighting starts there are more sensations to be mindful of. The vibration down the shaft of a spear when it is slapped aside; the tension building within your muscles as fatigue begins to set in; the tightness in your chest as your lungs struggle to consume air through the narrow slit of your helmet; the delicate balance between the pains of injury and the benefits of adrenaline. All of these considerations make the combat come alive.
Emotions—Different characters will respond differently to being in a combat scenario based on their experience, their advantages or disadvantages, their desire to fight, the person or people they are up against and why—all of these factors cannot be neglected regardless of how technically sound your combat scenes are described. We are human beings and these types of scenarios trigger our fight/flight/freeze response; even if the stakes are low, it will trigger some sort of emotional response in just about everyone. And if it doesn’t, that might even say more about your character, so do it with intentionality!
Environment—Earlier I mentioned the sand beneath a fighter’s feet, squishing between their toes. With a focus on the environment, I’m not talking about the sensations caused by the environment, but rather the environment’s effect on the combatant. Though the sand is soft and forgiving, it is also unstable, uneven, and difficult to generate force from. Same thing with sweat, but instead of using it to describe the salty taste or the way it stings a character’s eyes, it can be used as an environmental factor in which it changes the combatant’s vision. Think it’s strange for this to be included in “environment?” Let me change the scenario. Let’s say the combatants are fighting in a well-lit room and suddenly the lights go out. This similarly changes the landscape of the combat scene, however it is doing it to everyone and not just one character.
Surroundings—Surroundings have a tremendous capacity to influence a fight. Think about a Jackie Chan movie. He’s almost always outnumbered, but he’s not just punching and kicking. Sure he’s doing that too, but so are the people he’s up against. What separates him from them is his ability to utilize his surroundings to his advantage. Everything becomes a weapon. A tablecloth, a fallen chair, an open door—the way he uses his surroundings to influence the fight makes it interesting and dynamic. Additionally, surroundings can also include bystanders or people watching the combatants. Depending on the scenario, this may influence the combatants emotions, sensations, or environment. And that’s the best part, each quadrant feeds into the other. The interconnectedness makes for great combat scenes.
So even if you don’t want to start training with swords, clubs, maces, and staves, there is so much you can do to write better fight scenes! Whether you choose to invest time, energy, resources into learning the skills you want to write about to better describe them, or you invest the time, energy, resources into the writing craft, either way, you need to put your blood, sweat, and tears in. Be the man in the arena.