Combat in Fantasy

I’ll be speaking on two author panels at StarFest Denver, April 17th-19th. The subject of both is similar – how do we write combat in fantasy and sci-fi?

Combat is a common element in most fantasy novels. It can be particularly tricky to handle because, like any scene with lots of action, the author may have a clear picture in her mind of what’s going on but describing it in detail can get overly verbose and unnecessarily specific.

In general, it’s best to let the reader imagine the majority of the action themselves.

This isn’t so hard, once the author lets go of her need for control, but it creates another issue. Namely, how does an author fill a page with exciting combat when they are only allowed to speak about it in the most general way?

For example, here’s a section from my book, Wings of the Sathakos:

She charged him, almost invisible in her speed. Her knives came free of their sheaths and she swung them in wide black arcs at the Sathakos. He was yet unarmed, his greatsword still resting on his back, but he was not unarmored. He deflected her blows effortlessly with the spines on his gauntleted forearms and struck back with his own rapid blows. The contortions of her body that allowed her to dodge his attacks seemed impossible, as if she had the power the maneuver her bones and ligaments in inhuman ways. In mere seconds, dozens of strikes had been delivered between them and the fury was ended only when Ra landed an open palm strike on Sirilis’ chest that sent her rolling back into the room.

That’s just one paragraph, but it conveys a short battle between two great warriors. Much of the action is left to the imagination, and the writing merely nudges the reader in an intended direction.

However, this might be considered too short. Though a battle is clearly seen, there is hardly any action and it takes up barely more than half a page. If I wanted this to be a longer battle, how could I extend it to give it more weight?

One option is, of course, to find a way keep the battle going. In the example above, the fight is over there. The Sathakos gets on the back of his dragon and flies away before Sirilis recovers, but it didn’t have to be that way. She could have come at him again. The trick then is to keep the combat interesting, while simultaneously leaving it vague enough to keep the reader’s imagination involved.

If I still wanted the combat to be brief, yet wanted it to take up more room on the page, I could spend more time on description. Not description regarding the specific actions the characters are taking but a description to appeal to different senses. The sound of the blades as they crack against the Sathakos’ gauntlets, or the grunting and heavy breathing of the combatants. The smell of their sweat. The way their shadows look against the light of the exterior window to the spectators inside the room.

Ultimately, the level of description an author chooses to add is a stylistic thing. I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer, though it seems to me that most fantasy authors tend to over-describe more often than they do the opposite.

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