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.