Writing Excuses 10.33: Combat, with Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan joins us again, this time for a discussion about writing combat. She’s studied fencing, combat choreography, and is *this close* to having a black belt in shotokan karate, bringing a valuable perspective to the discussion. Also, she’s written an ebook called Writing Fight Scenes, so she knows how to talk about this stuff.

We discuss some of our favorite fight scenes in movies and in books, why they work well, and how we can go about creating those sorts of things ourselves.

That Scene We Couldn’t Stop Gushing About: Here’s a no-Netflix-membership-required version of the Daredevil fight scene. It’s a teaser from Netflix, but it’s unabridged. For context, Daredevil is looking for a kidnapped child, and has tracked the boy’s captors to this hallway.



Look at the purpose of the fight you’re about to write. Make a list of everybody who is in the fight, and what each of them wants to get out of the fight. Include what do you, the author, want to accomplish. Then write the scene.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, narrated by Kate Reading

13 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.33: Combat, with Marie Brennan”

  1. I have avoided writing combat scenes. Only have done one and that was… lol, I was a lot younger. But the advice in this episode is very food for thought for a couple fight scenes I have been avoiding for works in progress. Thanks

  2. In my opinion, Larry Correia writes the best fight scenes I’ve ever read. Monster Hunters, Dead Six and others.

  3. Another realistic element of that fight scene that I loved to see is that after DD punches a mook, the guy *gets back up* and keeps fighting. None of that insta-unconsciousness that we see so often in Hollywood.

  4. What do you want to get out of that fight scene in your writing? A black eye? Well… Three of the fantastic four, aided by Marie Brennan, take a long hard look at combat, fighting, and action. It’s not just lights, camera, action, you know, you gotta have some motivation, too! And maybe a pen in the neck…

    Anyway, read all about it in the archives or over here


    And may the best fighter win!

  5. One of the thing that can emphasize character reinforcement during combat is what tactics/skills they use. To callback to a previous episode, you should make sure that you control both the effectiveness slider and the sympathetic slider at the same time. Here are some good examples: Gregor Clegane’s headpop move, vs Hulk’s bodyslam of Loki. The Dread Pirate Robert’s combat with the three kidnappers in Princess Bride. Every gunfight in The Quick and the Dead. When watching Jackie Chan fights, see how often he uses the (usually improvised) weapon to attack, rather than to block. Ellie Driver and The Bride in Kill Bill are written as mirrors of each other, which informs their fight, and the winning move of that fight sets up the Bride as Pai Mai’s favored student so it isn’t unbelieveable that she has learned the Heart Exploder for the final confrontation.

  6. My favorite fight scenes are always ones that focus on a few things: inner emotional turmoil, goals that need to be accomplished, and the cool factor. A good fight scene is like a mini subplot with solid story/character progression while introducing more conflict than just two guys taking turns punching faces.

  7. That dare devil fight scene has to be the best I’ve seen in years

    Also, loved the (audio)book of the week! Finished it over two long roadtrips this weekend and it was everything I hoped for :)

  8. First thing to get out of they way: shield wall combat (or any combat) doesn’t kill most of the people. Loosing armies lost about 20% manpower in catastrophic defeats, with very few exceptions. People tend to run like cheap paint before slaughter can happen, and extended pursuit is rarely a good idea.

    This brings me to a larger point about combat – unless you’ve spent massive amount of time researching the exact kind of combat, you’ll likely get it wrong. Even details like how a viking would use/hold a shield depend on the circumstances (overlap and face towards enemy in a wall, edge towards the enemy in a duel or skirmish).

    Combat is a lot like sex in this regard – you should focus more on emotional state of things rather than peg a slot b stuff. If I say that someone defended against high forehand with crown pose into paesant’s strike counter (or to put it in more proper/technical terms, use posta di corona into colpo di villano against mandritto fendente), people who studied specific manual from 1410 will know perfectly clearly what happened and fall asleep, and the rest will just fall asleep.

    Removing some specifics from it transforms it into a better scene: He brought the sword down with a bone-shattering strike that I couldn’t hope to stop, and only just managed to deflect and slip away from. Problem is, you still need to know a lot about how longsword combat works to pull this off – for example, the opponent here is unskilled or angry to the point of stupidity, otherwise this thing just won’t work.

    Adding one more layer of detail abstraction gets you something that you can pull off with only a little research: He was angry, and it showed, if even one of his swings connected, he would’ve split me in half, but first he’d have to hit me – not an easy thing when you’re practically frothing at the mouth.

    Of course, this only goes for climatic/important fights – if your party is slowed down by a few orcs as a minor detail, go Tolkien route: Aragorn killed three orcs, Gimli two, and they were out of Moria.

  9. In the comics, one of the most powerful moments I have ever seen was when Daredevil destroyed a brick with one punch. (not just broke, made little pieces and dust out of it)

  10. I liked the Daredevil fight scene. Good character, but a little bit over-choreagraphed. Seems a bit overkill sometimes.

    I don’t feel like I’m watching a boxer half the time. It doesn’t have the brutality that would be interesting to see. The fights are brutal, yes, but not quite Mike Tyson brutal. Although, it is more a personal preference.

    I also liked the Captain America fight scenes. The elevator one comes to mind. If you’re fighting someone who is a lot stronger than you, then magnets are a good idea :) It shows planning and a certain sense of planning. Although, god knows why they didn’t just gas the elevator.

    Brandon Sanderson has nice pacing in fight scenes. War Breaker comes to mind, but also the Radiant series. There’s lots of breaks to take in characters, have a bit of a breather, and then go back to the action. It reminds me of Robert jordan a little.

    Personally, I like showing my characters trait through the way they fight. My current character was bullied as a child, isn’t very powerfully magical, and knows that he can be hurt quite badly. He cheats and plans a lot. He’ll run and stab someone in the back if they follow him.

    I wonder how Jim Butcher has suceeded? A a lot of his fight scenes don’t really have a lot to do with character and more to do with an exciting scene. Hell, most urban fantasy is like that. Personally, I love it, but I’m not sure why.

    Also, I like having some of my fights be a teensy bit surreal. Not quite realistic, but, just, well, cool :) There’s characterisation, of course, but it’s sometimes fun to describe it kind of like a fever dream.

  11. Pretty sure that the documentary that Marie mentions isn’t BY Jackie Chain, it’s by Tony Zhou and it’s ABOUT Jackie Chan. It’s from his excellent series on visual narrative, EVERY FRAME A PAINTING. The specific episode is this one:


    (“How to do Action Comedy”)

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