Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.
My ankle is colorfully bruised and still swollen. I seriously haven’t had bruises this awesome in a long, long time. I can move about on it, and the brace helps, but it looks like I’m not going to get back to running as soon as I thought I was. This makes me somewhat cranky. Anyway.
When I’m questioned about writing combat scenes, I think today’s post is the sort of answer the questioner expects. Unfortunately, to get here, one has to build on everything that’s come before: why you would want to beat the shit out of your characters; reason, stakes, and cost; getting a zero draft; and big-pixel revising. Now we’ve reached the fine-tuning revision, where one breaks down a scene sentence by sentence (not as much fun or as much dreadfulness as it sounds) and polishes it to give the reader the illusion of a (hopefully) seamless combat scene.
Here’s a (not definitive or comprehensive, but hopefully helpful) list of the sorts of things I do when I’ve hit the fine-tune revision of a combat scene:
* Pick the best sensory cues. Remember earlier when you jammed in every sensory cue you could find? Here’s where it pays off–you get to look at each one, and decide which is best. (This is why I save a draft right after the big-pixel revision; sometimes I go back looking for a sensory cue from an earlier draft.) This requires you to be ruthless–sometimes the cue that’s best isn’t the one you like most, and you also have to juggle the scene as a whole and make sure you’re not hitting just one particular sense (say, hearing) over and over again. You want the reader to be pulled in, hopefully with full-body sensations. (Seducing the reader is easier if you make it holographic.) Not only that, but different readers have different sensory needs/preferences. You want to maximize your chances of hitting at least one sense really well for the reader.
Deciding which sensory cue is the best is something that will be different for every writer, and the only way to learn it is by writing–and reading. I’ve written elsewhere about why reading is so important if one wants to write–it will teach you, once you’ve done it often enough, a sense of what works and what doesn’t on the page. A certain Blink-style judgment will result from a critical mass of reading, and the pure practice of revising your own work will help too. There is no easy shortcut.
* Look at sentence length. The gaze moves on the page, commas provide a pause, periods halt the reader’s eyes for a moment. Learn to use sentence length to give the reader cues. Short choppy sentences pass quickly and can give a reader a sense of speed or of jerky motion. Run-ons can be used to drag the reader along breathlessly. “Breathlessly” is a big clue–if you want to work on the pacing of a combat scene, read it out loud. Notice where you take breaths, notice where the natural “breaks” in each sentence are, and think about how you want those breaks to actually run. Reading it out loud is actually one of the best tools for getting to a respectable combat scene.
Don’t be afraid to really get into it. Get histrionic while reading it aloud. The exaggeration will lay bare every place where it’s not as amped as it could be, and every nook where you want the reader to slow down and savor. Getting a reader through a combat scene is kind of like satisfying sex–a balance between breathless urgency and slow savouring. Sometimes you shift the toward one extreme or the other, depending on your mood. Paying attention is mandatory.
Yesterday’s description of how I sprained my ankle used different sentence lengths in different places, from the run-on describing the bouldering route to the short, staccato “I didn’t listen” to the ending broken up into three short words with a period after each to slow the reader down and provide the terminus. I revised it deliberately to be an illustration of this principle. Kudos and extra credit if you broke it down, dear ones.
* Maximum clarity. It should be utterly clear who is doing what to whom, what the stakes are, who has a dog in the fight, what that dog is, and what every dog wants.
* Maximum weight carried. The fine-tune revision is where you ask yourself at every damn point, “Is this sentence necessary? Is it carrying its own weight? Does it advance the action, provide characterization, or give a sensory cue? Can I make it do two of those things at once?” The good news is, once you’ve developed this set of mental muscles, you start asking yourself these questions even while writing, which is nowhere near as panic-inducing as it sounds. It makes your writing better once you’ve gone through a couple fine-tune revisions and start getting a sense of what combing through a scene this thoroughly entails.
Sometimes you may decide that a sentence isn’t necessary, but you want it there to slow the reader down, or it will become important later in the work that you have a detail there. That’s all right–just be prepared for your editor to call you on it. Which brings us to an important point:
* Getting edited is still going to hurt. Even the pickiest fine-tune revision you do on your own work won’t match the brutal objectivity of an editor’s take on it. You are too close to your own work to be that objective. (This is a good thing. Your involvement with your own work is necessary for you to be vulnerable enough to touch the core of human experience and transmit that core.) Your editor’s job is to make the book as awesome as it can be, and it is going to hurt your tender pride. Get over it.
Why bother with this sort of fine-tuning if the editor’s going to catch you anyway? Simple. You are doing a disservice to yourself and your readers if the book is not as strong as you can make it going out the gate; sometimes you can even catch yourself before you commit a boner move in front of your editor when you fine-tune this closely. Every little bit helps.
* Burn any dead wood. Dialogue tags. Passive constructions. Unneeded detail. These things are your enemies in combat scenes. You want punch, you want adrenaline, you want heart in mouth and jaw on floor. If a sentence isn’t pulling its weight, make it do so or kill it. You can always add later at the request of an editor (within reason). Get every single sentence in the scene working as hard as it possibly can.
Yes, I know I just told you above that a sentence might not be “necessary” but you might want it to slow a reader down a fraction. That means it’s functioning deadweight, and you have to be crystal clear about why you want the deadweight in that particular place. I call this the Copyedit Principle–every time I reject a single copyediting change, I am thankful that I have to stop and think about precisely why, and if I do not have a good defensible reason I am not allowed to be a whinypants and scrawl STET. If you want extra weight anywhere in a combat scene, you must justify it satisfactorily.
* The finish line. The closer a combat scene gets to its culmination, the less deadweight you want. Unless you chapter-break in the middle of the scene (you may want to do this for varying reasons, including maximizing tension or because you want the reader to get into the next chapter before they set the book down to go cook dinner or whatnot) you want to get to a white-hot dead gallop by the end. Think of a good car chase scene in the movies–by the end of it, the car should be busted up and everyone else involved should be breathless and possibly bleeding. The last paragraph(s) should tell us if the hero/ine (or anyone else) has got what they wanted out of this interaction, and should also bring the combat scene to a close in a way that allows the reader to feel satisfied. It doesn’t mean you can’t start ramping up the tension again soon, but you do need to give the reader a chance to catch his/her breath and look back over the mountain she’s just climbed with your characters and say “Dayum, that was good.”
* Get rid of repetitions. Repetitions, unless handled very carefully, are deadweight. Sometimes an editor will say “What happened to X? Mention it again, because we forget about it here.” This is probably necessary if they’re asking for it, but during the fine-tune revising, be on the lookout for your particular word-tics and mannerisms. This is difficult and one will never, ever manage to do it perfectly. Still, during the fine-tune revision, spot and kill as many of them as you can. (Beta readers often will catch and highlight these.)
I warned you that this list wouldn’t be exhaustive or definitive, just (hopefully) helpful. Now for the bad news: I’m worn out, so I’m going to take a short hiatus from Friday writing posts-probably two weeks, maybe a month. The good news is that when I come back, I will do a couple catch-up posts of the best questions asked in the comments of this whole combat-post series. So, go ahead and ask. I may not get around to answering every question, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Right.
Until then, dearies, keep writing. Over and out.
 I leave out the tricky morass of revenge edits and editor agendas here.