Craft of Writing: Writing Combat


#1

Okay, since the discussion about “Yes/But” went so well, I thought I might start a weekly “craft of writing” thread to discuss a writing topic. And I thought I’d use the “Craft of Writing” tag in the subjects to make them easier to find.

And by “Craft of Writing,” I mean the actual writing part of what we do, NOT the coding/stat balancing/stat checking stuff. I think we have TONS of threads about those mechanics. This is more about the prose, and the word choice, and the length of sentences, and the flow/pacing, and throwing in narrative tricks to heighten tension, etc.

And just to be clear, I know very little about the craft of writing, but I’m trying to learn more, as I think many of us here are trying to do. And sometimes with worrying about CS coding, and mechanics, and balancing stats, and trying to figure out what choice to offer, etc., etc., I think the craft of writing sometimes takes a back seat, even if we don’t want it to!

So anyways, I thought a good first topic could be “Writing Combat” since many of our gamebooks feature combat scenes.

A few things I think can make an interesting combat scene:

1) Realistic dialogue.

In comic books, characters sometime tell their life story while in the middle of a sword fight…on top of a burning tower…on a dying planet. This seems excessive and unrealistic, at least to me. Going in the other direction, some movies shove 10 straight minutes of bullets, lasers, clashing metal ships, and flying bodies. It’s very hard to get away with this in prose, and it will bore a lot of readers I think.

So the middle ground? Action Action…then maybe a respite for a little banter, perhaps just a few lines, either between the two sides or just between teammates? Then rinse and repeat? This would seem to break up the action, at least from my perspective. This is what I’m aiming for in CCH 2.

2) A twist

We’ve seen this before, and there’s a reason for that. Even the biggest most brutal battle is still and exercise in creating tension for the reader (or player, in our case). Whether it’s the bad guy unleashing a new weapon, or reinforcements coming out of nowhere, or a purported ally stabbing another ally in the back, or the opposite, halfway through the battle two of the sides decide to halt their conflict and join forces against the other bigger, badder foe, a nice twist can give a fight scene new energy. I think this keeps the reader engaged more than just two slides slogging it out against each other.

3) Quick sentences! Quick Actions! Few adverbs! Robust verbs! (and yes we can code fake choices too, but I’m trying to keep it focused on writing

I plan to review my fight scenes and chop! Hack! Slash! a lot of the adverbs. Some are necessary, but most probably aren’t. I think most of them can be eliminated, and hopefully I’ll end up replacing the existing verbs with robust, meaty, glistening verbs! Ah the verbs!

(and very quick CS aside - I use some fake choices to make the reader “feel” the danger more. These aren’t real choices, in that there are no stat checks. You can’t fail them; they’re for flavor. And I string two, or even three of them in a row, to make the action seem to go faster, using very short, one-sentence setups and very short choices as well, to make it all seem more immediate. Then I transition back to real choices)

So who else has tips on writing combat? I’d love to hear them! I consider writing combat one of my weak points, and I’d love to learn more from others here who are skilled in the area of war!!! :rocket::small_airplane::bomb:


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#2

This is a very relevant tip for me, thank you for expressing it @Eric_Moser.

I will say a thing or two a bit later. … time impacted at the moment (will edit in later)

Edit: @Fiogan had said a lot of what I was going to - so I’ll summarize here and then refer you to her excellent post for many of the details.

1st: Know your genre you are writing the combat for. A superhero story taking place in a Gothamesque setting will have different dynamics involved with its combat then a fictional Three Musketeer setting in Renascence France of the 1660’s.

2nd: Research your fighting methodology. Even superheroes follow their own fighting rules; from fantasy dragon fighting to modern MMA fighting, there are expectations that readers carry with them. If you know what these are you can either accomodate them or if you break them you can explain why so the reader/gamer stays immersed in your story.

3rd: Research the realities of fighting in your chosen methodology. If you write about a military fire-fight in the middle of the Arctic Tundra, you can address the effects of snow blindness, if you research fighting in Arctic conditions. True story: I once wrote a beautiful sniping scene. Got the details of the weapon use, the waiting for the target and almost everything spot on. Except I wrote how the Arctic dryness affected the sniper’s eyes. I had a consultant read it and he said: "perfect, except your sniper would be snow blind staring thusly for hours without proper equipment to protect the eyes or using tricks of the trade to counter those effects.

4th: Sometimes you don’t have to be realistic, only believable. When writing about fencing, watching the Olympics can give you valuable insight as to how such fights can proceed. That isn’t your only resource; there are old Errol Flynn movies you can watch that give beautiful examples of choreographed sword fighting. Its not realistic but for Westerners raised on 100 years of Hollywood, such sword-play is believable in story-telling…

5th: Always be open to feedback. Sometimes your testers will have surprising backgrounds which can help them critique your scene. A tester of mine recently discussed with me Damascus steel - something I was using to make knives more realistic - I know a lot about knife making for a lay person but this tester knew more and so I learned from them.

6th: If possible, get a consultant or two that are experienced with the type of fighting you are writing about and discuss your fight scene with them. Sometimes two different sets of eyes can help you see your scene in two equally valid ways and in doing so, you gain an additional ability to write that scene better.

7th: Don’t get caught up in the minute details and lose sight of the bigger picture. Your reason for writing the scene is not to describe the second-to-second experience of harpooning a shark attacking you but rather to convey the terror and suddenness of a wild and horrifying moment of a diver meeting a hungry Great White that is 22 feet long and which weighs two tons …

With all that said, I do refer you to @Fiogan’s awesome post. She beat me to the punch; that’s what I get for life interfering with my plans, eh?


#3

Fake choices in my opinion are a muddy terrain. Too few and combat will feel not enough dynamic and flow with suffer. Too much fake choices will lost player attachment and give sensation that they are being railroad. Or making replay battles a chore that needs spam buttons over and over.

I think fake choices should be there to flavored the current development of a character make player feel attached to it like attack with their choosen weapon and details their selected clothing or armor. But nothing so minor that the fake choice. In fact, it doesn’t change absolutely nothing in text that make feeling ghe players they choices didn’t matter.


#4

As someone who has an abundance of combat in my three HGs and The Magician’s Task, my current WIP, I would like to add that I think combat should always be written out like regular narrative, which makes it more engaging. Most of us do this, anyways, but I’ve also seen some combat systems that just seem like rock paper scissors with dice rolling, and I don’t think that is as interesting or meaningful.

I also don’t mind fakechoices, as both an author and a reader, but I do think they’re much better when they still have a sentence or two of original narrative and some stat changes, as well. When the fakechoices have no stat changes and zero original text, that’s when I start to resent them, haha.


#5

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a writing expert, but I guess if there’s one tip I’d give, it’s this:

Give combat choices for every class/stat.

I know this sounds a bit obvious, but it’s true. You don’t do this, you run the risk of having players feel like their characters aren’t “good enough”, or they aren’t “optimal” for the game.

For example, look at The Lost Heir. The third part, specifically. In terms of story, it was rather neat. However, the game play was where the real issue lied. Everything was fine up until the final battle with Zusak, where players said that the fight was too hard and that they’d always get the worst ending. I usually dismissed those complaints, thinking that they were just casuals whining about the fact that they actually had to go through a challenge. But, after reading mor reviews and looking at the game itself, the reviews weren’t as bullshit as I believed them to be.

Literally almost every choice in the final battle that hurt the enemy resulted to either Blades, Magic or Archery. Nothing else. There was a bit of Strength and Agility checks every now and again, but those three stats were dominant in the final fight. And if you didn’t have extremely high percentages in them, you were more than likely going to lose. So it made the people who specialized in the other stuff stuff like Stealth and Unarmed feel useless.

Basically, the moral of the story is to put choices for each stat so that no one feels like their characters are absolute shit.


#6

I think the main thing to remember is that ChoiceScript is not for writing Final Fantasy-style RPGs. I’ve seen a few attempts at writing RPG-style battles in CS (I even tried one myself, although I quickly realised the error of my ways), and they’re either boring and repetitive or ridiculously difficult (and often non-intuitive).

Another thing to remember to avoid (although this applies to all choices, really): don’t just have each option matching each stat. One of my main complaints about the recent Paradigm City was that while its earlier battles felt interesting and dynamic, the climactic final battle was basically just hitting the antagonist with your highest stat in four different places.


#7

Great responses thus far!

However I did want to stress that I’m focusing on the writing, not the mechanics or gameplay. We talk about stuff constantly anyway. I don’t feel that we give the actual “writing” enough attention.

So I’d like to keep this discussion centered on the prose, word choice, sentence length, use of dialogue, pacing/flow, etc.,


#8

I think there’s also something to be said for using long, run-on-type sentences to describe combat in certain cases as well. It can highten the narrative pace to make things feel like they’re zipping along and building up to something.


#9

What are some tools you use for picking up the pace in combat?

I feel that the “standard” 200-400 words of text between choices can be much too slow in some tense combat situations. It’s great for building tension, and it can be great for setting up a big choice, but as far as the “pew! pew! pew!” part (those are lasers, btw!) I think a few fake choices are a superb way to have the reader mentally “feel” that the action is picking up. In the best of all worlds, the player would be so caught up in the moment that the player would click the choices faster too! Again, I would stress very short choices like “dodge right!” or “dodge left!” And again, I’d only use these to manipulate the pace, not in most situations.

And @Samuel_H_Young, I guess I’m not sure I see how long, run-on-sentences help to pick up the pace. Can you give me an example? I think short sentences, with strong verbs but few to no adverbs help to pick up the pace, in my opinion. But again, I’m learning.


#10
About my stuff

THIIS. GUUUH…

My motto when I write my WIP is “Go realistic” and that includes dialogues that flow natural. I’m quite happy with the result, but not so much with the process. (@{multireplace} here and there, *if after *if continued with *if, and so on).

But hey, it flows really nice that it feels like the story is linear while actually there’s a lot of branching there.


This.
One of my scenes includes having a dialogue with an NPC (in this case, a physician).

There’re no single scene without a *fake_choice on it. Heck, I count 20 events/vintage and only 4 of them having “Next” as its next button. The rest are either *choice or *fake_choice.

I’m not sure whether this is a good practice or not. I guess, we’ll see when I push the update for my WIP.

But that’s enough banter about my stuff. Since I already took pretty big space for advertising my WIP, let’s talk about the real deal. :upside_down_face:



Action

I mean, literally. Action!
What will you do when you hear the director shouts at you “Action!”?

One of the key points when writing a combat scene is to imagine what kind of move the combatants will do.

He launch a dropkick, causing the Bullhead to trip over the bridge-railing and fall to the sea.
She ran and backflipped upon the wall; the pursuer rammed to the wall head-first.
You dash-down between his leg and open your arms wide, knocking him down. (this one is quite unrealistic, tho. But rule of cool!)

Just let your imagination go wild and let your Characters bend their limbs and perform acrobatic maneuvers.


Stats

Another key points is balancing stat-checks.
With a stat this high/low, can the PC do it? If not, what can they do?

You need to tread this zone carefully, or perhaps forget all stat-checking and let your combat just purely full of action.
Or perhaps, just give the player the option to surrender or run away. :wink:

Research

And lastly, like other aspects in writing, do a research.
Yes, you can write cool street-fighting combat scene with minimum research, but researching allows you to write even-cooler-combat-scene.

I personally make a research about Polish cross-cutting swordfighting. This way, I can write something like

Bonus point if you can give the player/reader the reference of what art you included in the work (e.g. a link to external video, a .gif image, a mention/hint of the art’s name)


Those three are my rules of thumb when writing combat scenes, in which the combat is not only for the sake of combat, but also move the plot forward. But of course, The Great Tournament have their “repetitive turn-based” combat and many ppl still like it.

Now, I don’t know if there’re some points I might be missing, but I’ll post them here if I can found any. :ok_hand:


#11

The problem with those choices dodge and such, in my opinion is that affect replay value and if is the scene is too long, The effect is alienate player and make them total lost connection with the scene.

A good comparison is with the quick time events in adventure games or video games in general. Several games abuse so much of them that it becomes a boring chore that has to pass. More than a thrilling experience. If the battle is bigger than 1,500 words all those type of fake choices, in my opinion ,break the flow and credibility of the battle


#12

Even just the string of directions “up,down, up, left” paints a vivid picture, IMO. It’s many times more descriptive than something like, “He swings his saber in many directions, keeping you off guard!” I like it!

And you mention the Great Tournament, but isn’t that more in the “Game” side of the Gamebook spectrum? I’m talking about the gamebooks that are more story than game, the ones that really depend on strong prose. The ones that would be interesting stories even without choices.


#13

Hmm, than you’ll need a combat system that moves your narrative forward, not just a simple “turn-based hit-dodge-run” combat. :thinking:

I think I mentioned this somewhere before, but I kinda forgot where. :sweat_smile:
It was a good discussion.


#14

Disclaimer, im not a writer, purely a reader. For me, personally, realism is a big part of combat sequences. As a person with interest in weapons and martial arts, it’s easy for me to taken out of the story whenever a character does something unrealistic in combat. When I say realism, I meant something that would be use in real combat. Even if the characters are super human they would still uses common sense, a simple kick is always better than a twirling, flying, bicycle kick from 30 meters away. But I’ve noticed a fair amount of authors prefer fancy and imaginative moves than simple, effective moves. I don’t if that just make it easier to write or if they want flashy actions to draw the readers in. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents.


#15

Well, expanding my point to prose: Don’t just do the same thing over and over again. Even if the fight is supposed to be a long slog, make sure the player gets to read something new every page. I’d like to think I manage this in my longest fight, in which the MC faces off against a giant robot (obviously ;P). They begin by having to avoid capture by the robot’s hand (before they’ve even seen the rest of the robot), running through a building with the hand smashing walls behind them. The player can choose whether to try to escape or to face the opponent face-on, although both choices eventually lead to the direct fight. From there, they can choose from various options (e.g. going for the pilot, or the weaponry), before finally getting a chance to take out the power source, and thus the robot itself.

And I know you said this is just about the prose, but I do feel that the available options can’t really be separated from the prose. If the available options are always essentially the same then the fight is going to feel far less dynamic to a player than a fight where the options are all far more dynamic, even if the rest of the text is identical.


#16

@a_shoggoth, I think it depends on your genre. A gritty noir story or military story should probably go for realism, yes. I agree. (That’s why I’d have to steer away from writing those, because I think the writer would also need to be very knowledgeable about guns!)

But when you dive into fantasy and comic book and sci fi, I think combat is inherently going to be less realistic because of reader expectations in those genres.

@ParrotWatcher, First of all, that sounds like an epic scene. As you say, I think it’s important to present new scenes in combat and to keep it fresh. I am trying to get better at writing more intense prompts leading up to the choices.


#17

My main thought-process for writing action scenes is essentially “write like how a sports commentator talks.”

I… don’t watch sports. But I have friends/family who do, and who, while I’m around, will have sports commentary playing. I noticed that none of them ever seem to really “embellish” their sentences. It’s always very short, to the point-style of talking, and the more things that are happening (the more excited they get) the shorter the sentences they get until it almost seems like they’re interrupting themselves to describe what’s happening next.

I realized that this is part of what gets people so riled up- those fast sentences that seem to fly by in a blur so that they have to put full attention into comprehending what’s happening. I realized also, that this can apply very well to fight scenes.

If you don’t add a lot of descriptors to your fight scenes, and just have them be short, quick sentences, then the reader will get caught up in how fast they seem to pass by, how everything seems to happen one after another- and then you can even try to “interrupt” yourself in the midst of a sentence when one action comes in the middle of another (usually by using a dash or such). And that these short, simple sentences will make the pace seem fast paced and the action more fluid and tense.

I’ve also noticed that the reverse… doesn’t really work when you’re trying to write a good, fast-paced action scene. If you bog down the sentence with too many descriptions then it bogs down the action as well. It makes everything seem slow and sluggish and just… doesn’t really feel like an action scene. (Mind you, that’s not to say there’s no place for that in combat. If you’re trying to do a stealth-combat section this might be the way to go to keep tension high, or if your narrator is on the verge of losing consciousness then this might help out as well.)

So with action scenes (or at least fast paced action scenes) I’ve noticed that less really is more.


#18

I love it when a game has text that changes based on combat stats (agility, strength, magic, etc). That’s why I’m trying to do exactly that in my more combat focused WiP; give the reader short bursts of text (say 150~200 words) between choices which will change what those words will say (plus changes based on stats and stat checks).

An example of this is the scene I was in the middle of writing right now. In it the reader can choose to fight “unarmed”, choose between four different weapons, or fight with magic. But here’s the thing, say your MC is a melee combatant, I will give you a choice for that MC to favor agility or strength when they’re fighting; the stat checks will be directly dependant on that choice since someone who is more agile would likely have an easier time dodging an attack than blocking it, making the check lower for that character’s agility stat than the one for the strength stat, and so I would change the text to reflect that.

I found that that way of doing things kept me more engaged in the narrative and so I decided to try my hand at it.


#19

Realistic Dialogue:

It’s awesome when you’re a kid and you see your heroes give a speech as they’re about to curb-stomp the villain into a pulp. Not so much if you’re older.

The average person can fight for about 2 minutes before they’re going to experience exhaustion. Now, this statistic is obviously a moot point if you’re featuring someone who has trained for intense combat but regardless of who’s fighting, you’re going to be tired and out of breath and not feeling very chatty because you’re trying to get oxygen back into your body.

Witty one-liners are fine, but communication between your team mates is probably more appropriate. Also, monologues just set you up for the opponent to one-up you.

A twist:

Twists are better executed in non-text based games, typically. But if you were going to implement a twist, make it’s introduction short, sweet, and a surprise to the MC.

3.) I don’t have a lot to add, besides what’s already been said, but I have considering offering choices that are “reflexive”.

If there’s someone aiming a gun at the MC, for instance, I’d probably give them options like this:

  • Stall them, look for a way out of the gunman’s line of sight.
  • Bait and switch.
  • !!!

The third is my favorite because it’s the most realistic. It’s an instant reaction. This reaction would be followed by the MC throwing themselves off to the side, out of the line of sight, and then they get to plan out what they’re going to do when they’re behind cover. The first two are clever and might be more rewarding, but the MC would be putting themselves at a greater risk - standing there and allowing the gunman to get a clear line of sight, if they don’t have that, etc. - to think of what they’re going to do.

Whenever I see a movie or a TV show where it features soldiers or agents, people who train for intense combat situations, they seem to have trained themselves to the point where their reactions are reflexes. This seems to be the case because when they get into a combat situation, it’s either very chaotic - like a war zone - or they’re matching wits against someone who has similar experience and they can’t afford to waste time thinking about this or that because someone’s lining up the shot.

Here’s a good guide to writing action sequences! It might need to be stretched in order to apply to text based games, but I hope it helps.


#20

Research. I cannot stress this enough. I’ve edited an awful lot of fight scenes, in ChoiceScript and regular prose. I agree with what @a_shoggoth was saying, you can lose a lot of readers’ attention fast if your combat is ridiculous, even in SFF (or I think so, anyway).

I have a list of questions I usually fire at authors, or at least keep in mind for myself when I’m editing fight scenes. (So any of my authors on here who thought you were in for special badgering, no, all fight scenes get this treatment. XD ) But here’s my usual list—it’s in ‘pragmatic blunt editor voice’, sorry—in case any of it is helpful:


I. Is the scene you just described physically possible? Get a friend and try acting out the sequence, or act out one part in the mirror. Has a character suddenly grown three limbs? Did you describe a sword swipe that only a master at the game of Twister could ever physically make?

II. Are the characters fighting consistently? What are their fighting styles? (This is how I ended up studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu, krav maga, knife fighting, amateur wrestling, judo, and a bunch of others, heh.) Are they trained? Keeping different characters consistent to different styles can add a lot of flavour and vividness to fights—a bit like each character having their own ‘voice’ in dialogue.

And once you’ve settled on a plausible style for a character, watch videos of that fighting style in action and use it in your descriptions. If you’re going to describe pushing out of a hold, do it in a way that’s realistic and possible. If you’re going to use an exotic weapon, make sure your character actually knows what to do with it (or let them cut off their own limbs by accident). Scythes are terrible weapons; you will die (or be a SFF character, the choice is yours). If you’re describing a street fight or free-for-all with untrained fighters, watch some videos of actual street fights or riots and see how people move.

III. Resources. Youtube is obviously a good friend, so is How To Fight Write. Also find someone with combat experience if you can, or at least martial arts experience. If you have swords, see if you can find someone who’s done the correct kind of sword play. Beg or bribe them to read through, and tell you what is or isn’t working.

IV. Be careful if you give your character any injuries, especially regarding realistic recovery times/processes afterwards. Scriptmedic is a great resource for that, and takes asks too (ask box is open on the first through third of each month).

V. Less is often more. Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist—the manga, not the anime, I haven’t seen the latter) is a great example here. Especially with long battle sequences, she’ll show major moves or incidents, but she doesn’t show every single blow. That helps a lot with pacing.

VI. Environment! Your characters aren’t facing off in the vacuum of space (well, if they are, that’s awesome and I want to read it probably, but mostly one doesn’t). Did they stumble on the cobblestones? Skid in the dirt? Choke on exhaust fumes? Is is dark, or is the sun in their eyes? Are their hands slippery from sweat or are they shaking with cold?

VII. Physics. If an explosion is strong enough to throw you into the air, it is strong enough to kill you, blow the skin off your flesh, etc… What would it actually look like if someone is shoved through a wall? If your super powered character is shoved through a brick wall, what actually happens when a wrecking-ball style mass knocks down something that sturdy?

VIII. The time spent against any one opponent is probably short—I’ve read several MMA/street fighting types say that an actual physical fight is usually over in a minute or less, especially if weapons are involved. Some people even estimate that’s more like ten seconds or so (I know, I know, but think of the drama!).


Tl-dr: I think the single most helpful thing is watching real-time fights (not scripted ones or film re-enactments, unless you’re sure the choreographer did their research and it’s correctly and sensibly done). Try describing what you see, and then bring that over into your fights. I think it makes them much more convincing, even for SFF. Maybe especially for SFF, where keeping the rules of the world consistent is important to help the readers along with suspension of disbelief.