Write Bites is a new series in which I write shorter, bite-sized blog posts based on whatever writing topic has been on my mind that week. These posts are meant to supplement the longer Writes and Crafts posts, and will appear more frequently.
As the last book of my YA fantasy series draws to a close, I’ve reached the combat portion of the climax, also known as the “final battle” that concludes so many series in this genre. I’ve always admired writers who could do this well—J.K. Rowling’s Battle of Hogwarts, for instance—and side-eyed final battles I felt were rushed or too narrow in scope (the ending of Mockingjay resulted in quite a death toll, but the action itself was underwhelming). So I wanted to get this right. The second I entered the combat portion, however, I realized I was in way over my head.
Combat scenes have always been difficult for me. As I mentioned on Twitter a few days ago, I choreograph fight scenes as I’m drafting. Since fight choreography is often complicated, this means more time spent at the computer will produce fewer words than I’m used to. More than that, most of the words I’m conjuring up are useless. I need to know every movement in order to see it in my head: “She fell. She turned. She saw [x] coming up behind her. She reacted emotionally to [x]. She drew her weapon. She lunged toward [x].” Even as I’m writing it, I know this is too much information. All the reader really needs is, “She fell. She saw [x] coming up behind her. She lunged toward [x].” The final draft won’t take the time to mention her weapon, because once she uses it later, it’ll be obvious the weapon was drawn at some point. Same with turning—if she saw [x] coming from behind her, she must have turned. The relevance of her emotional response varies depending on what she’s reacting to.
Cutting this down later can be frustrating, but it’s how my process works. I’m the type of writer who is blasted with sensory information when the scene appears in my head. I have learned that, for me, the best time to parse through this information and choose what is strictly necessary is during revisions. If I try to do it during drafting, I feel like I’m using my “editing brain” and my writer brain doesn’t know what to do.
With this final battle, though, this wasn’t the only problem I ran into. This isn’t the type of fight scene I’m used to. The battlefield is much bigger than usual, for one. There are so many more characters to take into account. It’s longer, and the stakes are higher. For many reasons, my main character’s emotional responses are different from what they have been in past combat situations. My character needs to encounter certain other characters, but I wasn’t sure how I should order these encounters, or where each encounter should take place. I needed to take a step back and do some planning before diving back in.
I originally decided to make an outline, but quickly remembered that when I try to write according to a detailed outline, my creativity feels constrained. I require something looser. So instead, I made a checklist. I accounted for 1) the battlefield’s primary landmarks and 2) the most important characters involved. Then I made a rough sketch of the battlefield map, so I know where landmarks are relative to each other and can better visualize the path my main character takes. Then I made notes for myself, such as reminders about the terrain and that my main character does not need to hit every landmark, nor does she need to run into every character on the list.
This has helped immensely. Now, when a sub-scene ends, I can turn to my checklist and decide who the character will encounter next, and where. More than that, designing a loose checklist has allowed for creativity that an outline might have prevented. One confrontation ended up in an unusual place that I wouldn’t have chosen if it weren’t for the map, and if it hadn’t happened to be located near where the character already was. As each character and landmark is checked off, I can breathe more easily, because the final battle feels like something I can handle, logistics-wise.
I say logistics-wise, though, because there was something else I neglected to think about when I began writing this battle: the emotional toll it would take on me.
The events of this scene are extremely traumatic, both for the main character and in general. I’m not used to writing situations with very much gore, but this battle requires it. I’m used to my characters grieving after something terrible has happened, not grieving in the midst of an extended battle that may end up spanning a few dozen pages. Not grieving over multiple people and events, simultaneously, while still having to fight and strategize. Because of the nature of the battle, there are also a lot more people for the main character to worry about.
This is emotionally exhausting. Every time I approach the computer during this section of the book, I know there will be more blood. I know there will be more deaths, or death scares. I know there will be more destruction of things important to my main character. Sometimes I think, “I’m having a good day. I want to stay in a good mood. Why should I intentionally venture to this dark place? It would be so much easier not to go there.” If I give in to this thinking, though, the book will never be finished. It is important to me to finish this book, and for this final battle to happen.
I do want to emphasize, though, that venturing into this dark place is my choice. I am in no way suggesting that you must inhabit a dark space in your mind to produce good art. Please take care of yourself first. If your art does call for a headspace like this, remember to practice self-care (for example, I try to do something light and fluffy after these writing sessions). No art is worth seriously hurting yourself over.
Also, we must remember that the United States is a battlefield of sorts right now. Turning away from that very real darkness is less of an option if we want to build a better world, especially for those of us who are privileged and can choose to ignore it without much personal consequence. Please join me in donating what you can to Charlottesville organizations by following this link.
How do you approach fight scenes as a writer? How do you like to see them executed as a reader? Let me know in the comments!
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*Avatar by Charlavail