Combat scenes – Blocking & initiative order

I’ve always prided myself on my combat scenes. I’m good at tracking all the variables in a scene, allowing me to construct more dynamic fights and keep them straight in my mind. Considering how much I like to write action scenes, this is a good skill to have.

Now imagine my devastation when my editor told me that most of my combat scenes were shit.

I kid, I kid. Part of taking criticism is not being wounded every time you receive it, so I took it in stride. What’s important is the advice he gave me, and how I fixed it.

My problem was that while I do have good situational awareness, and can keep track of all the little details in my mind, they weren’t always making it onto the page. That’s a critical mistake for a writer. Here’s the advice my editors gave me to fix it:

Write in blocks. Every scene should be a collection of blocks, where each block should detail what every participant in the battle is doing before proceeding to the next one to repeat the process. This will better allow the reader to keep track of the constantly changing situation via constant updates.

Upon hearing this, I was struck by another example – this was like going down the initiative order during combat in D&D, where every character has the opportunity to make an action before any character has the chance to act for a second time.

This helped me with my combat scenes immeasurably. Now I proofread each one an extra time to make sure it’s clear where every participant is and what they’re doing at all times. As a result, the feedback I’ve gotten on my edits has been much more positive.

Note that you don’t have to take the initiative order example too strictly. For instance, you don’t have to define what every single individual character is doing – groups of mooks can be described together – and characters can act a second time before another character takes an action, provided it makes sense in context. The idea is simply to constantly update the reader about what every participant is doing, otherwise they’ll get lost.

After all, we storytellers don’t get points for the parts of the story we forget to tell.

4 thoughts on “Combat scenes – Blocking & initiative order

  1. Writing a coherent combat scene is something I think is very challenging – especially if you have more than one concurrent fight going on. A considerable amount of the stories I read (both historical and fictional) contain those. There is definitely an “art” in writing them. I’ve had to re-read combat scenes at times just to figure out exactly what’s going on – who’s doing what, when, where and with what result.

    Breaking it up into “D&D” type rounds is a good method IMO. Organization, including “initiative” (i.e. who strikes first, second, third, etc.) is critical. The image that comes to mind is a boxing match, breaking the fight down almost blow by blow. An author must have crystal clear ideal of how things play out. If the author isn’t exactly sure what transpires down to the small details, then you can bet that the reader will be even more confused. Attention to detail is critical, and you can’t be too organized here IMO.

    Some other suggestions: Separate concurrent battles and/or wide scale battles into time/area blocks. Ambrose, in his best book (IMO) D-Day, did that very effectively: First Omaha beach from (roughly) 7am-9am, then Utah beach for the same period, etc. on a per chapter basis. Within those chapters, he further breaks things down into groups (platoons, etc.) or individuals. Avoid going back and forth too frequently between different battles. It can be confusing and breaks up the flow of each battle.

    You have to give give the reader markers in such cases – whether time, location and/or connecting/transitioning type statements. “As Sgt. Smith was slogging his way up to the shingle at “Dog Red”, Pvt. Jones’ Higgins boat hit a sandbar 1000m east of their designated landing zone of “Dog White”…” This may not seem applicable to fantasy settings, but it can be. Campione! and Mondaiji-tachi both feature concurrent battles taking place at different locations. Tolkien’s The Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Return of the King is perhaps a quintessential example of a large scale fantasy battle. There, he breaks down a very large battle into smaller individual fights by location and participants.

    Learn from the pros. If there’s a book/LN you have read in which you thought the battle scenes were easy to understand and flowed well, analyze why. How was it organized? What details were given that made the battle(s) easy to understand and follow who was doing what, where and when? Lastly, having one or more editors, or even “test readers” is definitely a good idea IMO.

    • Trust me, learning from the pros & having editors are things I’m waaaay ahead of ya on, lol. I’m a big fan of creative theft, and it was my editor who caught this flaw!

      One minor quibble: Even if the author knows exactly what’s going on, it doesn’t matter if they don’t say it. We don’t get points for the parts of the story we don’t write, alas.

      I may have to add that Ambrose book to my reading list…

      • Thanks for the reply, Stilts. Just to be clear, I’m sure you are aware of all of this. Just pointing out some things that came to mind after reading your post.

        I agree 100% that it doesn’t matter how well organized the author is if he or she doesn’t write all salient points. My comment was more that, IMO, an author must know the battle he or she plans to script down to the last detail. JMO, but this isn’t a topic which lends itself to writing on the fly/as you go. To be clear, I’m making a general statement, not one directed at you.

        As for D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, It’s one of my favorite WWII oral history books – actually one of my favorite WWII books period (read around 25 so far). It’s extremely well written/organized IMO – especially given that the book primarily consists of many personal accounts (i.e. “oral history”) combined together. Reading “‘Target Dora – fire!’ – Lieutenant Frerking shouted into the telephone.” still sends a chill up my spine. I can readily imagine being there.

        That’s the strength of the book IMO. It is not (IMO) a good “textbook” account of D-Day. Ambrose is overly biased (something not all that infrequent unfortunately with this genre), and on a couple of occasions make some very questionable assessments. What the book does extremely well (again IMO), is put you in the combat boots of those who fought in that battle.

        That’s why I read Ambrose’s books – not for “textbook” information or his military assessments, but the oral history accounts. My original copy was from a relative who fought in WWII. He thought D-Day was a tremendously well written book (also agreed with my other conclusions about the book).

        Reading D-Day makes me wonder how I would react in that situation had Fate decreed that I was born many years ago. I marvel at the individual bravery and how the actions of just a few could make such an impact on the overall outcome – which was not a foregone conclusion.

        In short, it was the book which sparked my strong interest in the subject, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s an easy read (compared other books of it’s type), and you can pick up a used copy for less than $10. If you do ever read the book, I’m very curious as to your assessment of it as an author.

        • Oh, sorry about that. Yeah, I figured you were speaking in general rather than just to me. You’d think I’d have learned about dashing off quick comments after all my time at RandomC, but in some select ways I’m a very slow learner, apparently!

          As for writing combat on the fly, a lot of the time that can actually work…for smaller conflicts. For a quick fight it can work fine, because you’ll know the start and the end point, maybe one or two important details, and the rest is just ACTION that needs to be filled in. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of thinking this could be extrapolated to larger combat scenes faaaaar more than it can be. On those, you’re 110% right – they need to be thought out in much greater detail, or revised 12 times to flesh it all out. Personally, I prefer the former tactic.

          As for D-Day, I stuck it on my backlist, but my backlist is huuuuuge so I have no idea when I’ll get to it :X It is valuable to read great writers in different genres though, and some of the facts being off is utterly unimportant to a fiction writer like myself (since ALL my facts are made up, heh). Maybe I should move it up…. But yeah, no promises.

          Someday though, someday. Stick around and I’ll get to it eventually : )

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