Thursday, February 9

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, February 09, 2017 12 comments
by guest author Jenelle Leanne Schmidt

image by Earl35 for morguefile
Let’s face it, one of the best things about reading fantasy fiction is the big, epic battle sequences we get to participate in from the safety of our own homes and imaginations. Unfortunately, these can often also be one of the most difficult aspects of the story to write.

The first time I set out to write a fantasy novel, I was 19 years old. I sailed through the story and came at long last to the final, climactic battle, the crux of the plot I had been building to for over 300 pages. The stage was set, the stakes were high, and ... I had no idea how to go about actually putting this enormous and important ending into the story. It wasn’t something I had covered in any creative writing class I’d ever taken, nor would it ever be included in the curriculum of any writing class I participated in. A friend of mine told me, “Go re-read the chapter on the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers! Tolkien does a fantastic job with this.” So I did. It seemed like helpful advice at the time. And it was a good starting point... unfortunately, the chapter Helm’s Deep is fairly short, and the descriptions of the battle only encompass a handful of paragraphs, interspersed with information on what Aragorn is doing or dialogue between various characters. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for with regards to a formula for writing a compelling and epic battle sequence.

I read battle scenes in other fantasy novels and sort of fumbled my way along. I would later do a lot of editing and rewriting on that particular portion of the book. Several novels later, I was still wrestling with this question: just how does one go about writing a compelling fight scene?

One day, many years later, I was writing a new story with a scene that involved a sword-battle on a ship. My first inclination was to go through it step-by-step. My main character slashed, took a few steps, parried a blow, ducked under his opponent’s swinging sword, which connected with the main mast and got stuck, giving my MC a chance to whirl out of the way and thrust his own sword at his opponent... I stopped. There was plenty of action, but I was bored writing it, how could I expect a reader to enjoy the experience?

I tried acting it out. My husband helped me with the sequence of events. I talked to friends who had taken fencing classes and were in martial arts. I did research. My grasp of the movements was sound, but translating it onto paper turned it into a choppy mess. It sounded like I was writing choreography for a play, not an intense or exciting battle scene. My husband then suggested a different course. Instead of writing a series of movements and recording all the ducks and blows and parries that an actor has to think through when making a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean, I should try to think through what the battle actually looks like to someone in the midst of it. It is chaos. It is loud. Any participant is rarely going to get the luxury of dueling a single opponent at a time. I scrapped the scene and re-wrote it, this time focusing on the feel of the battle, rather than the actual steps. I detailed the overwhelming clash of sounds and colors, the swirling confusion of trying to determine friend versus foe as the MC made his way through the fray while struggling to survive.

And this time, it worked. For me, the answer came not from telling my readers every step of the choreography, but rather from giving them a sense of what it was like to be there next to the character. In other words, writing a compelling fight sequence meant not writing much about the fighting itself! This might seem a bit counter-intuitive, but it goes back to the age-old “show, don’t tell!” rule. Though sometimes overused, because narrative is still an important aspect of most stories, this is one of those times where it is a good rule. This is one of those wondrous places where the reader’s vast imagination is the author’s best friend. A few tantalizing glimpses and a fantastic use of descriptive adjectives in which to immerse the reader’s senses will go a lot further in developing a gloriously epic battle scene in your reader’s mind than ten pages of “character A swung his sword, while character B raised up his dagger, catching the blade just before it passed through his defenses, then character A spun 360 degrees and....” wouldn’t you agree? I guess Tolkien had it right all along.

About the Author

Jenelle Leanne Schmidt grew up the oldest of four children. Every night before bedtime her father read to her and her siblings, and it was during these times that her love for adventure and fantasy were forged. While she adored the stories of the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Prydain, the Wheel of Time, and the Chronicles of Narnia; it wasn't long before her imagination led her to the creation of a world and story all her own.

Connect with Jenelle: Blog / Facebook / Twitter

About the book

King’s Warrior
Book 1 of The Minstrel's Song

When Dark Warriors invade her country, it is up to Princess Kamarie to seek out the legendary king’s warrior and request his aid. The feisty princess has spent her life dreaming of adventure and is thrilled to be tasked with such a quest. There’s only one thing that can dampen the princess’s excitement: Oraeyn. The squire views his task of protecting the princess on her journey as an inglorious assignment and makes no attempt to hide his disappointment.

Despite a rocky start to their journey – in which Oraeyn throws the obnoxious princess in a river just to get her to call him by name – the travelers soon learn that they must depend upon one another if they are to locate the man they have been sent to find.

The adventure merely begins when they meet Brant: a warrior with a mysterious past. He joins their cause readily, his heart smoldering with a vendetta Kamarie cannot completely understand. But whether she trusts him or not, the hope of their world rests on the steel he wears at his side….

Available at Amazon

Which authors do you emulate when writing battles? How might Jenelle's impressionist technique improve your fight scenes? 


  1. As some one who has had to face the daunting task of writing fight scenes myself this is very sound advice and an interesting way of looking at the issue. Some of my favorite fight scenes I have ever read were through the emotions and senses of the character rather than what they were doing with their bodies at that moment.

    1. Glad you found it useful, Brandon. I've seen the choreographed sorts of fight scenes in CPs' manuscripts and find myself skimming. Getting to the emotional core of the action is definitely more engaging. Thanks for coming by!

    2. Thanks! I was hoping it would be helpful to someone! Thanks for commenting.

  2. Agreed. In all love for Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia or Prydain Chronicles or Minstrel's Song Series or Jason Bourne or Gladiator or We were Soldiers has NOTHING to do with the Battle scenes or sequences.....but entirely with the courage and heroism reflected in the characters who must deal with the horror of warfare. I suppose we need a glimpse of the understand the greatness of the effort or the significance of the challenge........but that is not where the beauty lies. It always lies in the character of our heroes through whose eyes we are seeing the story.

    1. Hit the wrong button trying to reply to this comment! I quite agree. And while I love a good action-packed battle sequence... I find that the motion of the story and the interactions of the characters are far more compelling. Having someone to "root for" is the only thing that makes the fight sequences interesting in the first place, and making sure that crucial element doesn't get lost in dull choreography once those fight sequences start... that is the trick!

      Thanks for reading!

    2. I like the emphasis you put on significance--what does the effort and outcome ulimately mean for the hero? That is truly what we care most about. Thanks for coming by and commenting!

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  4. I agree with this strategy 100%! The "Show, don't tell" rule applies well for battle scenes and complex fight scenes. Great post, Jenelle!

    Also, I completely forgot how Helm's Deep battle was written. That's interesting it's only a few paragraphs long; I had no idea!

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, the chapter is only about 8-10 pages long (in my edition) and most of that is set-up and then dialogue. Actual descriptions of the battle were not as long or as detailed as I was expecting, and yet, it is often heralded as one of the best battle scenes ever written!

    2. Tolkien definitely avoids the choreography approach, which will feel tell-y when divorced from character emotion. Thanks for coming by, E.E.!

  5. Writing fight scenes was and is one of the hardest parts of writing, in MHO. I have learned to focus on what the characters sees, feels, hears, thinks, with very few specific movements. It works better for me than the step-by-step boring narative.