R.A. Salvatore on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene

 WritersDontCry Nothing gets your pulse pounding like a good fight scene. It’s better than coffee in the morning, and worse than a Red Bull at night—especially if you’re trying to get to sleep sometime before dawn. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who would confess to missing more than one lunch bell while engrossed in the middle of a particularly riveting fight scene. Salvatore

A hallmark of the fantasy tradition, fight scenes are as common as whimsical six-syllable names in fantasy books, and yet, despite their frequency, there’s nothing harder to write. So when it came time to write this column, I knew I was going to have to call on the big guns, if I wanted to get it right: R.A. Salvatore.

Best-known as The New York Times best-selling author and creator of the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, who fights with his signature two-sword fighting style, he’s been mesmerizing readers with whirling blades and battle-raging dwarves for over twenty years. And there’s a reason he continues to hit The New York Times best seller list time after time: his characters are gripping, his plotlines are engaging, and nobody—nobody—does fight scenes better than R.A. Salvatore.

Susan: What makes a fight scene interesting?

Salvatore: It's many things, all wrapped together in a proper package. Mostly, a good fight scene has to start with characters the reader cares about; without a sense of danger, what's the point? Other than that, writing a fight scene is about mechanics (it's got to make sense to people who know something about fighting--kind of like the science in a science fiction book has to pass the physicist test!); about emotion (anyone who's ever been in a fight, sporting or for real, knows that you go to a different place in such a situation); and mostly, a good fight scene is about the pacing. I notice that my sentences get shorter, paragraphs become single sentences or even sentence fragments, and characters are too involved in staying alive to muse about the meaning of life.

Simply put, if your pulse isn't pounding with fear and/or sheer action, I'm not doing my job well. 

Susan: What do you think about before writing a fight scene?

Salvatore: For many years, it was about the dance, about how two or more armed characters can move about each other in ways that mesmerize, excite, and make sense. Fighting is more about your feet than anything. Balance, balance, balance. Now, after so many battle scenes, I find myself spending my preparation thinking about the battlefield itself. If these guys were fighting in a ring, I'd be writing pretty much the same movements every time. Put them on a rocky hillside, or in a tight cave, or against a monster that is decidedly not humanoid, and I've got the variety that keeps it interesting for me.

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Comments (12)

Excellent interview, Susan! As an occasional writer of fantasy fight scenes (ahem!), I concur 100% with this, and I learned new things by reading it. Thanks!


Posted by: Erik de Bie | Monday August 15, 2011 at 7:53 AM

Thanks! You don't write bad fight scenes yourself :)!

I was impressed in particular with his answer to whether there are different "kinds" of fight scenes. I was well aware that fight scenes involved more than swinging a sword, but I hadn't thought to use the sword so expressively.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Monday August 15, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Great interview! I feel the need to add something, though, that I've noticed as a reader more than a writer: fight scenes can be, and frequently are, horribly overused, in many genres but this one in particular. There's no denying that Mr. Salvatore can write a good fight scene, but I scoffed when he said that there's no point without a sense of danger. I'd always thought that the main shortcoming with Salvatore's books was that there was no sense of danger in the fight scenes. The first two or three I'd ever read, sure, but after the same three or four characters have fought their way through dozens of enemies who are only nominally able to hurt them, the tension evaporates regardless of how well written the choreography is. In the Drizzt books particularly, I've flipped ahead a few pages specifically to skip fight scenes; the guy just cut a swath through hell, I really don't think these pirates are going to hurt him no matter how many pages he takes to kill them all, and it gets boring.

Posted by: Benjamin | Monday August 15, 2011 at 4:34 PM

Great choice to ask R.A. Salvatore about fight scenes. His Icewind Dale trilogy got me into fantasy books. And he's actually spoiled me too. For as much as I enjoy Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and as I patiently wait for the last book in Kingkiller trilogy, I fall back to fantasy action-fests like Abercrombie's works and other Salvatore books.

Posted by: Steve | Monday August 15, 2011 at 7:14 PM

Benjamin: Thanks! It is true that with long-running series, one always risks losing that sense of danger to the main characters. Without giving away any spoilers, however, have you read Gauntlgrym (http://www.amazon.com/Gauntlgrym-Neverwinter-Book-Nights/dp/0786958022/ref=blogs_omni_link)? It seems like it may reignite the feeling of danger for you :).

Steve: Thank you! Salvatore's fight scenes are so immersive for me! I, too, find them a fantastic escape.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Tuesday August 16, 2011 at 8:24 AM

I really appreciate this interview. I just published my first book and the fight scenes were one of the major areas I had to work hard at. It's inspiring to hear the advice of a master in this area. I'm definitely going to go back and read his favorite fight scenes.

Posted by: Moses Siregar III | Wednesday August 17, 2011 at 3:33 PM

Congrats on your first book! And I'm glad you found it useful! Hopefully, I'll be able to poll more masters for advice in their area of expertise :).

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Friday August 19, 2011 at 8:54 AM

Good advice for some lovely present!! Thank you

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