R.A. Salvatore on How to Write a Damn Good Fight Scene
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.
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.
Susan: How do you choose which points of view to feature during a fight scene?
Salvatore: After my first trilogy which introduced the dark elf character, my publisher decided to send me back for a trilogy explaining where the character came from. I thought it might be interesting to write the books in The Dark Elf Trilogy from a 1st-person point of view. Then I realized that there was no way I could do my fight scenes from that perspective, because a guy in a fight certainly isn't worrying about the fight going on across the room. And I like to mix it up--lots of moving parts.
I wish I had a better answer about which point of view to choose, but honestly, I just go with my gut. I'm a product of growing up with television; I love point of view shifts as long as they're clearly done. If I have six people fighting, you might get six different viewpoints. It's controlled chaos, you bet. And not just the heroes. Oftentimes, the villains give me more to play with, and so I get into their thoughts and play.
Susan: How did you develop Drizzt's signature two-sword fighting style, and what inspired it?
Salvatore: The short answer would be: hockey. The longer answer is my recognition that Drizzt would have to be an agility fighter and not a strength fighter, since he is, after all, an elf. Curved blades make me think of movement, movement leads to acrobatics and spins. Few actual fighters would ever do a spin in a fight, of course, fearing that they'd catch a sword between the shoulder blades. Drizzt does that spin move all the time. He's just that fast, and it is, after all, fantasy.
Salvatore: I love good cinematic fight scenes. There was one in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon between a couple of women. Throughout the fight, they kept changing weapons, and thus, styles. That was my inspiration for Kozah's Needle, Dahlia's staff, bo, tri-staff, nun'chuks. Her fighting style is cerebral. She wins because she recognizes patterns within her enemy's style and weaponry and has enough variability with her own styles and weaponry to best counter and overcome. In a way, she has elevated the game for the other characters, because even if they're superior to her in training and experience, as Drizzt and Barrabus the Grey both are, they find themselves strangely off-balance going against her. They don't know what to make of her.
Add in a bit of lightning magic with that particular staff, and Dahlia, though young and still with much to learn, becomes quite formidable.
Susan: Which of your characters' fighting styles is your favorite?
Salvatore: I love writing Drizzt (still), but I'm going to go with one of the more minor characters in the books: Thibbledorf Pwent, the battle-raging dwarf. Pwent is pure offense and pure rage. His entire body is a weapon because he wears ridged armor with spikes at the knees, the elbows, on his gauntlets, and a large one on his helm. How can you not love a furious dwarf hopping around with a dead goblin flopping around dead on his helmet spike?
Perhaps I enjoy these scenes the most because they're so darned easy to write. Pwent leads with his face, after all, and has all the subtlety and side-to-side movement of a train.
Susan: What is your favorite fight scene that you've ever written?
Salvatore: Believe it or not, despite scores of fight scenes in dozens of books, the top ones are easy for me to rate. In third place is the battle between Elbryan and Marcalo De'Unnero in The Demon Apostle. Mostly it's because I simply love these two characters, particularly De'Unnero, who might be my favorite bad guy of all. He's just so sure that he's right, and he couldn't be more wrong--all the time, unrepentantly. Elbryan's style is part fencer, part classic swordsman, while De'Unnero is pure martial arts, adding in a bit of magic which allows him to turn parts of his body into the limbs and claws of a tiger. It made for a great dance.
Number two takes place in Night Masks, the middle book of The Cleric Quintet. I couldn't figure out how to write it for a long time because it involves two very different tones--comedy and deadly serious drama--in its wide scope. I couldn't quite determine how to go with that paradox, what balance to strike, what weight to give each of the two major parts. It came to me in the middle of the night. I woke up and knew I had it. What makes this fight stand out the most for me is the diversity; it takes place in, around, and on top of an inn called The Dragon's Codpiece--that should tell you something, right there.. I've got a pair of crazy dwarves engaging in something part barroom brawl and part vaudeville slapstick in one place, ending with one dwarf holding a guy by the ankles and spinning him around, while the dwarf's brother tries to properly line up a chop of his great-axe to split the fool in half as he swings by. Meanwhile, one of my protagonists faces her greatest fear and greatest enemy in a deadly serious contest on the roof of the building. There are so many moving parts.
But the winner, hands down, takes place in chapter 20 of The Legacy, a 1992 book, seventh in my dark elf series. Drizzt and Artemis Entreri, his arch-nemesis, the person he fears he might have become had he stayed in his homeland, stand on a flat ledge on the side of a mountain and finally get to the battle that's been building for three books. The fight itself is ten pages of non-stop action, not a break, not a side story to be seen. I think I wrote it in one sitting, never coming up for air. I watched it in my head while my fingers played on the keyboard. I could hardly keep up. The fight itself is very clean, with few props outside the two scimitars, the sword and the dagger. This is the purest dance of my two best dancers. Ever since I wrote that battle, I try to measure every new fight against it. I always just give a resigned sigh, because I can't quite get there. Ah well.
Susan: What are the different challenges of writing swords, magic, and blasters, and which is the hardest?
Salvatore: Well, the biggest challenge for me when using blasters or other guns is not to get bored. To me, swords are sexy. Any fool can pick up a gun and kill you, but to use a sword, you need to train, and proper training isn't just about how to use one, but, far more importantly, about when to use one. Maybe if I had done more gunfights in my body of work, I would view them differently--I used to love shooting sports, after all.
The challenge of writing sword fights is mostly about the dance, as I've said. You have to watch them in your head, understanding the balance of each of the opponents. Where are their feet? And how might they next move powerfully in such a position? They come easily to me--much more so than the other two types of battling you mention, but that's probably because I spent a lot of time playing hockey, boxing in high school, and working as a bouncer in night clubs. This type of hand-to-hand, even though there are melee weapons involved, makes sense to me.
The hardest to write well, for me at least, is the magic battle, particularly when I'm writing within the confines of a well-defined magic system, such as we have in the various incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons. You can nick someone with a sword, but how so with a fireball? And last time I looked, people don't fight well while immolated. So there remains the problem of unbalanced power, of sheer weirdness, and, if we're talking powerful wizards (who often slip into godlike status), of pure deus ex machina. The swordsman fights brilliantly! The mage turns him into a frog. Wow, that was exciting.
Still, you can find a balance and make it work, but magic is the hardest to write well, hands down.
Susan: What do you think has changed regarding how fight scenes are written in the last 50 years?
Salvatore: Were they written at all 50 years ago? I must have missed that. It seems to me that fight scenes used to be vague descriptions of the chaos happening around a major character or characters, who were often more interested in accomplishing something within the context of the fight rather than winning the fight itself. Even 30 years ago, I remember reading Terry Brooks's excellent Wishsong of Shannara. I love that book and adored the character of Garet Jax. In the climactic scene for that character, Garet Jax battles a demon. The fight starts, Terry cuts away, and we come back to see the result. Not the fight, but the result. This is tradition. Go back to Homer and Virgil--they don't describe the fights in actual terms, but in symbolic and grand gestures.
So why did it change? Partly, I think it's got to do with the amazing choreography in movies like The Princess Bride. I've watched the fight between Inego Montoya and Dread Pirate Robert so many times, I know every movement. Once again, I go back to the fact that mu peers and I grew up with television and movies much more so than did Professor Tolkien and his peers. The writers of old had to go into great detail with images that my generation of writers can take for granted. How many people who read Moby Dick had ever actually seen a whale?
Tolkien had to describe his dragon in great detail, but now, with so many shows and movies and computer games, all I have to do is type the word "dragon" to put the image in the head of my readers. I knew this, and so I went with something a bit different than those who came before me. They described whales and trees and dragons in detail, while I spend those adjectives, adverbs, and descriptions on the movements of a fight scene.
Susan: Are there different "kinds" of fight scenes that you write, and if so, what are the challenges of them?
Salvatore: Certainly! The best ones come to be when the combatants have a long-standing grudge, when the fight itself is the goal, and one the reader has anticipated for many chapters, perhaps even many books. Look at my number one favorite fight scene listed above for reference.
There are many different reasons for a good battle scene. Am I trying to give a proper end to a beloved character? Am I trying to resolve the grudge, or to determine who, in the end, is better? Am I using a fight to leave a cliff-hanger (which I call "job security")? Am I writing a personal fight between two enemies, or a grand-scale battle which can determine the fate of a city? Or am I simply trying to wake up the readers after a long pause in the action? I do that. I admit it openly. There are times when I just want a reader to get his or her pulse pounding.
All of these (perhaps) seemingly minor distinctions bring with them a matter of tone, as well as the actual choreography. If the hero is going to fall, perhaps there is a melancholy to it, or a drive beyond all reason that leads him to his ultimate glory. If large scale, are all the moving parts leading to proper resolutions of the wider battlefield? I spend a lot of time watching the History Channel, let me tell you, or re-reading books like Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. Tactics matter. Momentum matters--a lot.
Susan: What is the goal of a good fight scene?
Salvatore: For me, mostly, it's about putting a reader on the edge of his or her seat. I want you to see every blow. I want you to hold your breath with every swing, or wince through every near miss. For all the other goals which might be tangential to the actual battle, for me, the proof is in the pie. The battle itself, the speed, the energy, the insanity, the viciousness--all of it--is the point. My best writing days are battle scene days, because when I get into it, I can't stop. Then again, my worst writing days are battle scene days, because if I don't have the energy, I simply cannot do it.
Susan: Any recommendations for writers looking to improve their fight scenes?
Salvatore: Watch the dancers as you write the scene. Make sure the characters, hero and villain, have meaning to your readers, and use your sentence and paragraph structure to give your scene the proper speed (usually faster is better for a fight scene, I find). And most of all, make sure that the first fatality in any fight scene is the verb "to be." If you're using "was" and "were" and "had been," well, the first fatality will be your reader's interest.
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Check out R.A. Salvatore on his web site, on Facebook, at his game studio (38 Studios) and, of course, on Amazon. Get the inside scoop on Drizzt from R.A. Salvatore and his editor in A Reader’s Guide to R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt. And steal a sneak-peak at his upcoming book Neverwinter at Wizards of the Coast.