Hi minions – three part post this week and it’s all about writing fight scenes. Yesterday was general advice, today is on group fights. Group fights are a whole different bucket of fish than a one-on-one fight, especially in fights where the odds are few vs many.
When you have one on fifty, there’s a whole additional layer of problems; the law of inverse ninja strength and Mary Sues are the two big ones.
So easier first: comparable sized groups fighting each other.
What’s going to be the challenge here is keeping track of everyone, who is doing what. The challenge may be mitigated if you have a first person POV, or if you are doing third person limited, or even omniscient, but following a specific individual. Your story will focus on your MC and then you only have to worry about what the other people around him are doing when they come into his field of vision or focus. In that case, you’ll want to write it more like a one-on-one fight with a bunch of people everywhere, or a one-on-many fight with a bunch of other people everywhere.
However, if you don’t have a focal character, remember what the battle is ACTUALLY about – not the fighting. If you let the real purpose of your battle be the focal character, you should be able to manage writing the fighting. With so much to see, if you try to show the reader everything that’s happening, they won’t see what’s important. So instead lead by what the reader actually needs to see – you can show extra along the way, if you do so sparsely.
First, we have to determine who’s going to win and how. If Few will win, is it through craft? When I listen to stories from my father-in-law, an army veteran who spent a lot of time doing war drill game things with soldiers, he always beats his enemy with craft and it is awesome. You still have to take care, though – foolish tactics don’t become clever just because the enemy is idiotic enough to fall for them.
Will Few actually just overpower Many? That’s when the law of ninja and Mary Sue problems come into play. How do they win? Is it because Few is actually just more powerful than Many? Okay, why? Maybe we have a Conquistador versus Native American scenario – Few just has way better weapons and armor.
Maybe it’s an A-Team versus Storm Troopers, which I don’t recommend. But sometimes you do have a scenario where you need to put your character up against a bunch of, to use the DnD term for enemies with one hit point, minions. If you do this, you really have to focus on what’s going on in your character’s head. Remember that your hero is only as good as your villain? Yeah that applies to anything any character fights. So blasting through minions doesn’t really show how powerful your character is…not in a particularly meaningful way, at best. But if you focus instead on what’s going inside of your character, either the fear or exhilaration, the scene will focus on its purpose and matter more.
More likely than not, the best way to avoid the Mary Sue thing isn’t to have one person’s raw power outmatch twenty other peoples’ but instead have your character outsmart them. I mean, there are situations where power vs power alone is appropriate, but it’s still hard to pull off.
If Many is to beat Few, well that’s easier – but do be careful not to be sloppy in your execution. If Few should have been a challenge but were just outmatched yet you defeat them quickly and easily, Few actually looks like a couple of losers.
Some questions to ask yourself when writing a big fight scene, in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, include:
How are the [50:1] odds meaningful? Just fighting cannon fodder?
What advantage does your character have that allows her to fight that many?
What level fight is this, easy, medium, hard?
Finally, consider one of my favorite one-versus-army scenes: River versus the Reavers in Serenity. If you aren’t into Firefly, go and repent. Also don’t read this part because it’s flipping awesome and I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Anyway we know throughout all of Firefly – or even just Serenity if, for some crazy reason, you didn’t watch Firefly first – we know that something’s up with River, and it’s going to (it should have) take(n) a really long time to find out what exactly. We learn she’s powerful, but it’s still vague how, exactly. Serenity gives us a glimpse with the Fruity Oaty Bar incident that River is a warrior. What makes the fight scene so epic is the build up to it, wondering about what River’s abilities are exactly, and learning that the Reavers are freaking horrifying. We know that they’re fearsome, fearless, bloodthirsty fighters who know no bounds, no quarter, no surrender…and ordinarily, no enemy.
When River fights them, her movements are so fluid it’s like she’s dancing. If you know a thing or two about psychology and the brain, it seems reasonable that the loss of an amygdala and government training could compete with the basic instinct to violence brought out above all. The fight is executed as two peoples, masterful at fighting, doing exactly that.
So how do we get a River versus Reavers scene? Well, one, it was short. I mentioned this last time, too – and my writing group really held to that fact when we discussed epic fights. It was short. We didn’t need a big whole thing, even though it was visual and they could have better gotten away with it.
Both sides were well developed before they clashed. Everything in Serenity built up to this moment.
Both sides fought viciously; River might have made it look easy, but the Reavers didn’t actually go down easily.
Fight scenes are hard; big fight scenes are generally harder. But again, don’t stress over it too much! You can always re-write it, and practice will help. Find other battle scenes you like. Another example of group fight scenes with bad odds are in the Mistborn trilogy – Vin fights multiple enemies all the time, and she is awesome at it. But even if you write the action a little poorly, if you can at least get your point across quite well, tighten up the action, and keep it short, that’s going to be good enough while you gain experience.