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How to Write Combat Scenes

This is a guest post by William Stacey.

I was 30 the first time somebody tried to kill me. It was in Bosnia, on the outskirts of Sarajevo at a place we called the Old Turkish Fort. It wasn’t much of a fort, really, just ruins, but the United Nations had set up an observation post (OP) there. This was 1994 and my first operational tour. Now, Sarajevo in 1994 was a very dangerous place. It was in a valley, surrounded by Bosnian Serbs on all the high features, and incoming gunfire and artillery was a constant, never-ending danger, but most of the time the warring factions were shooting at each other, not us. This day was different. Someone, a Bosnian Serb most likely, opened up on our OP with what must have been a 50. caliber machine-gun. I remember that quite clearly because a 50. caliber bullet is so much larger than people realize (about the same size as a really, really big pen), and when the first round hit the ground about 20 feet from where I was standing, it kicked up a cloud of dust and dirt so large, I thought it was an explosion, maybe a mortar round impacting. I remember standing there, staring at the impact site and the dust cloud it had kicked up while my brain tried to process what was happening. When someone started screaming at me that we were under fire, I finally reacted and sought shelter—not my finest moment as a professional soldier, but that’s what happened. Probably happens way more than you’d think—which is something to consider the next time your protagonist goes leaping into action the instant he or she comes under gunfire. Unless your hero gets shot at a lot, there’s going to be some initial confusion

Writing a combat scene is tricky and very easy to get wrong: if you’re too realistic, you’ll bore—or gross out—readers; but if you’re not realistic enough, you’ll come across as an amateur hack and lose those readers who do know better. What you need to do is to provide an approximation of combat—which is exactly the same thing that good authors do when they write dialogue. Most authors, thankfully, don’t write dialogue the way people actually talk. Instead, they create an approximation, a believable lie. They focus on the interesting stuff—dialogue that moves the story along—while cutting all the unnecessary umm’s, ahh’s, and throat clearing present in real conversations. Combat scenes are exactly the same.

However, before you can create an exciting approximation of combat, you’re going to need to understand what’s going on in the human body during times of stress. This understanding will help you nail combat scenes, because everybody reacts to stress. Nobody is without fear, even heroes—in fact, especially heroes—you can’t be brave unless you’re also afraid. If you’d like to fully understand the complex physiological changes that the human body goes through during times of acute stress, then by all means start digging into the research. After all, we’re writers. That’s what we do, we research. And this research will help you understand how the hypothalamus structure in the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone and epinephrine (also known as adrenalin). But… 

Detailed research into the human body, while fascinating, may also be too much for the average reader who just wants to have fun with a story. For this reason, I’ve simplified this for you. I approached my martial arts instructor—a life-long practitioner of numerous fighting arts—to get you the condensed version. Here goes: When your brain kicks in and realizes that you are in life-threatening danger, you get a near-instant adrenaline dump. Your mouth goes dry, your heartbeat increases, and your vision tunnels in on the threat. Time will feel like it’s slowing down, and your pain sensations will be reduced (you’ll hurt later… if you survive). Perhaps most importantly, your fine motor skills become less acute—even simple things become much more difficult. If you’re a trained martial artist or somebody who’s done a great deal of fighting in his or her life, muscle memory and training will take over—if not, you’ll either flail away with wild punches (or slaps), or run for your life. 

There’s one other thing that can happen—and it’s kind of gross, but this is something that modern soldiers are beginning to understand all too well: in times of great stress, the body will sometimes flush unnecessary fluids and wastes. During the fight—and you probably won’t even notice until after the danger has passed—you might lose control of your bladder and bowels. This has nothing to do with bravery; it’s just the body focusing on those processes that will keep you alive, while ignoring others. Now you know. Isn’t writing fun?

Okay, so now we understand some of the complex processes the human body undergoes in times of stress. But, here’s the thing: unless you’re writing a hyper-realistic war story, you don’t need to go into that kind of detail, and in fact, you probably shouldn’t. I’ve done considerable research on medieval sword fighting. I understand the different stances, the different grips, half-swording (using one hand to grip the unsharpened part of the blade), fingering the hilt (improves accuracy), and slipping (letting the hilt slide through your grip to increase your range at a critical moment), and how the different cuts and thrusts are made—at least well enough to write realistic sword-fighting scenes. I also understand the truly horrific damage that medieval weapons did to people. But if I wrote about all that stuff—or start describing how this leg moves this way, this hand moves this way—I’d put my readers to sleep. Textbook descriptions of fights are boring. Writers tell stories and engage emotions; they don’t produce training manuals. Remember, good combat scenes are an approximation of battle, not battle.

So, how do you write combat scenes that feel realistic, yet don’t bore readers? Well, there are some tricks you can use. First, in order to pull the reader along and generate excitement, you need to speed up the story. Use a series of short, crisp sentences. I know, I know—you always want to vary the length of your sentences—but this is combat and it’s fast; it moves. Next, focus on one or two unique sensory details—preferably not just sight—everybody does sight, be different, be unique. As an example, during one firefight scene I wrote, I had an empty casing (the ejected part of the bullet, not the part that kills) land upon the back of the hand of my protagonist, burning her. It’s something that’s happened to me on the rifle range, and it hurts, you remember it. In movies and video games, ejected casings always happily fall away from the firearm (and weapons never jam), but in real life, they can fly anywhere—and they do!  Use smells: there is a stench to cordite (gunpowder) that overpowers all the other senses; you never forget it. There is also a metallic, coppery smell to fresh blood—and, where there is death, there is always the stench of voided bowels. It’s up to you to find a happy medium between realistic combat and going too far. You know your book, your genre, and your readers. Finally, use just the right amount of realism to add verisimilitude without boring readers. An intuitive understanding of the physiological changes the human body undergoes during times of stress will help you frame your combat scene and find the exact details to use—without going too into detail and describing things like the hypothalamus structure, the pituitary gland, and epinephrine. Focus instead on details like a dry mouth or tunnel vision. Choose these details carefully and you’ll nail it. If you have a friend who’s a martial artist, a police officer, or a soldier, you can always run your fight scene by him or her and ask for feedback. Just remember, you’re the author and you’re telling a story—don’t get too technical. 

What follows is a short excerpt, a crucial hand-to-hand combat scene from my latest novel, Starlight. This fight is between two Special Forces operators: Alex (the protagonist) and Buck (the antagonist). Both have had extensive training and experience, so they intuitively understand the changes their bodies undergo during stress; but most people won’t. Ignore the magic stuff like flying rifles. And Clyde the dog is going to be just fine.


The world around Alex became crystal clear as the adrenaline rushed through his blood system, enhancing his fight-or-flight responses. Everything became fine-tuned—every leaf on the trees, every vine. He heard the gurgling rush of the river and the droning of insects around them; he saw the bead of sweat running down Buck’s green-painted face.
Am I really going to shoot my superior officer? he asked himself, knowing the answer almost instantly, his heartbeat pounding a cadence in his ears: no.
I can’t do that. So where does that leave me? About to die.
From somewhere nearby, Clyde growled.
Buck moved first, grasping for his M4, raising it to shoot from the hip. Rather than go for his own rifle, Alex threw himself to the side, hitting the ground, knowing all the while that it was pointless; at this range, Buck couldn’t miss. But then Buck’s M4 flew from his hand, the weapon’s sling yanking him off balance before it snapped free. The carbine soared through the air, smashing into a tree trunk ten paces away. 
Elizabeth stepped in front of Buck, her hands raised to stop him. “Wait.”
Buck punched her solidly in the face. Alex heard the cartilage crunch as the young woman flew back, her nose a bloody ruin. Clyde leapt for Buck. Buck—insanely fast—twisted out of the way and hammered his fist into the top of the dog’s head—dropping the animal in a heart-stopping moment. Alex, ignoring his own M4, which still hung from his sling, launched himself off the ground, tackling Buck around the knees. Both men went down, a tangled flurry of arms and legs. Buck hammered at Alex’s jaw with his elbow, ramming into the bone as he tried his best to break it. Pain flared through Alex, but before the other man could hit him again, he head-butted Buck, smashing his helmet into the other man’s chin. Blood flowed from Buck’s face as his head snapped back. But he came on again, a wild insanity in his eyes, like an animal, driven thoughtless by the need to rend and kill. 
They rolled atop one another, each fighting for leverage, each trying to control the other’s limbs to get an advantage, an opening. Alex was no amateur in ground fighting—he had studied martial arts and jujitsu for most of his adult life—but Buck was crazy good, and so strong. At any moment, Alex expected the others to rush forward and hold him down while Buck finished him. After all, he was a traitor now.
But no one interfered. This fight, it seemed, was just between the two of them. Alex saw a flash of steel. A knife! Buck had somehow freed his fighting knife in the struggle. Knife fighting was always bad, always bloody—even when you won. Alex was only vaguely aware as his body went through an instant adrenaline dump: his mouth went dry, his heartbeat surged, and his vision focused, tunnellike, on the other man. Pain disappeared; fear disappeared—only muscle memory and training remained. Alex assumed full-guard position, locking his legs around Buck’s torso to control him. Unable to get in the position of leverage he needed, Buck still tried to ram the knife into Alex, but only managed to catch it against the edge of Alex’s ceramic plate in his body armor. In desperation, Alex gripped Buck’s knife hand with both of his and yanked, rolling to the side. Buck elbowed Alex in the face, connecting solidly with his jaw. Alex saw bright lights but rammed his knee into Buck, aiming for the groin. Buck twisted his leg away, and Alex missed, but struck again, this time hitting the mass of nerves along the outside of Buck’s thigh. He connected, and Buck gasped in pain, creating space between them. Before Alex could take advantage of his opening, though, Buck was back on top, trying to shove the knifepoint into Alex’s throat with both hands. Alex caught Buck’s forearms, but the other man was larger, heavier, and stronger. The knifepoint descended. 
Then the blade shattered, pieces flying away. Buck stared in confusion at the broken knife. The blade had somehow snapped off, leaving only an inch protruding from the hilt. Alex’s eyes darted to the side, where Cassie stood only paces away, the pistol he had given her held in both hands. Tendrils of smoke drifted from the end of the silencer.
“Get off him right goddamned now, you—”
Buck threw the broken knife, hitting her in the face, and she fell back.
Reaching up, Alex gripped the sides of Buck’s helmet and wrenched it, twisting it—and Buck’s neck. Buck, feeling the pressure on his neck, panicked and rose up on his knees, trying to pry Alex’s hands free. But Alex didn’t fight his grip; instead, he used the other man’s distraction to flip him over onto his side. Then he slipped out from beneath him, coming up over top of the prostrate man, who now lay on his belly in the dirt. Realizing too late his mistake, the larger man thrashed and bucked his hips, desperate to get away, to get Alex off. Alex slammed his knee into Buck, right over the T-12-L1 thoracic vertebra. He grabbed the sides of Buck’s helmet again, and—knowing he had to move quickly or risk letting the other man escape—twisted it savagely up and to the side.
Buck’s neck snapped—a sickening, grinding crack. He yelped once and stopped fighting.
Alex fell onto his side, panting, gasping huge breaths of air, and still seeing spots in front of his eyes. What did I just do?
He got to his knees. Buck stared at him, surprise and terror in his eyes. His lips moved slowly. Spit bubbles popped at the corner of his mouth. Almost instantly, there was the smell of feces in the air. Alex looked up and saw Cassie watching him, her hand held against her cheek, blood tricking through her fingers. Their eyes locked. “Please. Do something,” he said.


William Stacey is a former army intelligence officer who served his country for more than thirty years with operational tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan. He is a husband, father, and avid reader, with a love for the macabre. He is an avid fitness enthusiast, a martial artist, and a fan of all things medieval and violent. He can often be found walking his German shepherd Thor in his hometown of Ottawa, Ontario. 
Visit him online.

Starlight: Book 1 of the Dark Elf War
A secret power. The revival of magic. An ancient evil stirs.
When an impossibly localized lightning storm hits the surrounding forest, twenty-year-old university dropout Cassie Rogan discovers her supernatural side. After centuries of atrophy, the forces of magic are flowing back into our world, and Cassie can now wield arcane powers. Cassie must quickly master these new abilities to protect mankind because a dark entity secretly watches from the shadows. The Fae Seelie (a.k.a. the Dark Elves)—humanity's ancient enemy—have returned to settle the score.
Starlight is the first book in the Dark Elf War series, an epic urban fantasy and coming of age series that features fast-paced action, mysterious creatures, careful world-building, and breathless pacing. Author William Stacey is a 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarter-Finalist.
Buy it on Amazon here.

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