Fight scenes are probably the most complex and demanding type of scene you’ll ever have to write.* You have to coordinate where all the characters are, think through their tactics, and monitor the level of realism you’re using. We already have a few posts on how to write a good fight scene, but today we’re looking at stories that didn’t follow that advice. Yes, I’m sure the authors all saw our posts and decided to ignore them – never mind that two of the stories were published before Mythcreants existed. Let’s see what lessons we can learn.
1. Murdering a Town, The Gunslinger
The first Dark Tower book is, shall we say, a mixed bag. As in, a bunch of awful things mixed together in a bag. It’s not a good book, and its big fight scene isn’t good either. The setup is that protagonist Roland has worn out his welcome in the town of Tull, and literally the entire town turns out to kill him. The good news for Roland is that it’s a small town, only 58 people in total, and the townsfolk are all using makeshift melee weapons while he has a pair of .44 revolvers. Let’s see how that goes for him.
Characters Need a Solid Motivation to Fight
The first problem in the Tull fight is figuring out why the townsfolk are trying to kill Roland in the first place. At first, it appears to be religious conviction. The town preacher is allied with Roland’s enemy, and for the last twelve years, her sermons have been riling up the townsfolk for the day they’ll have to kill a random stranger because he might be Satan or something.
Leaving aside the implications of the preacher knowing that Roland would be here twelve years in advance, that seems like a reasonable justification for gathering a violent mob. But this motivation falls apart once the fight actually starts and Roland mows down his attackers in wave after wave, on account of him being the one with the guns.
Even disciplined soldiers would probably break and run under that kind of onslaught, and we can only stretch the mob mentality justification so far. In fact, large groups of humans tend to operate in the opposite manner, panicking and stampeding away from even perceived danger. No matter how much religious zeal the townsfolk have, their survival instincts would kick in at some point.
So, maybe the preacher has them all mind controlled? That’s always a possibility, but the book never even hints at it. And if she has mind control, why bother with all the religious trappings? Are angry sermons a verbal component of her Mass Dominate Person spell? Again, it’s possible, but then the townsfolk keep attacking after the preacher dies, when you would expect the mind control to end. A few do try to run at the end, so maybe it takes a while to wear off?
With enough effort, you can spackle over the motivations and attribute everything to vague and unexplained magic. But a book shouldn’t leave readers in that position unless it’s part of an intentional mystery. At the very least, Roland should have wondered why the townsfolk were so devoted to killing him that they universally ignored their own survival. Since nothing like that happens, we’re left with what appears to be a flimsy justification for Roland to gun down an entire town. Speaking of which…
Decide on the Mood
Like any other moment in a story, fight scenes should evoke a specific mood. Sometimes the mood is light and fun, particularly if the violence isn’t very realistic. Other fights might be epic and exciting or grim and dismal. So, what mood is The Gunslinger going for?
I wish I could tell you, but the answer isn’t clear. In the opening exchange, it’s at least a little sad when Roland has to shoot his girlfriend,* but after that we have very little in the way of emotion from Roland. Just a lot of gunfire description.
If we assume that the town is under some kind of supernatural compulsion, then this should be a tragic sequence, but if Roland is sad about it, he gives no sign. What’s more, we spent several chapters before the fight establishing that everyone is an ugly jerk who hates Roland for existing. The story also takes time to show us this really flashy trick shot that Roland makes to take down one of his attackers.
That all implies the scene is supposed to be one of badass payback, which is pretty messed up considering it features Roland shooting children, some of whom were trying to run away. But even this interpretation requires a lot of assumptions. The story simply doesn’t give us enough to go on.
Plan the Positioning
It’s important to be consistent about where the combatants are, but it’s doubly important in a scene where one side has ranged weapons and the other does not. A few meters’ difference will decide whether Roland is happily blazing away or whether he’s crushed under the mob’s weight of numbers. The Gunslinger doesn’t tell us anything definite about how far away the townsfolk are from Roland. Instead, the fight starts with this:
There was a shrill, harried scream from behind him, and doors suddenly threw themselves open. Forms lunged. The trap was sprung.
The only clue about distance in that quote is “lunged.” A lunge is typically the movement you make right before striking a target. You wouldn’t lunge at something that was 50 feet away; you’d run towards it. This makes it sound like the mob is within arm’s reach, if not already grappling Roland.
Then the fight pauses for a couple paragraphs to describe what the townsfolk look like, but when we get back to the action, Roland is firing his guns and the mob is throwing stuff at him. It’s unclear if they were actually fairly far away from him or if he did something to open the distance. Either way, we have a jarring situation where Roland seems to teleport from his original location to a new one.
Repetition Is Boring
After the initial confusion about where Roland is, the fight settles into a rhythm of townsfolk charging at Roland, only for him to gun them down. This goes on for a while. First, he shoots them in the street; then, he shoots them in a building. None of them ever seem like a threat to him because he’s basically got firearm superpowers. There’s exactly one moment where an attacker gets close enough to give him a potentially serious wound, but even this doesn’t seem to slow him down.
While it can occasionally be fun to watch the hero wipe the floor with a handful of mooks, such fights have a short shelf life. To keep readers interested, there needs to be tension, and this scene has none. The bad guys keep coming, and Roland keeps shooting them. This continues uninterrupted until the fight finally ends.
It’s hard to tell how much danger Roland is actually in for most of this fight. I can’t tell if the mob is on the verge of overwhelming him, or if he’s mowing them down like fish in a barrel. Even if you do take them as threatening, that threat quickly fades as they do the same thing over and over again. Honestly, the townsfolk act more like zombies than people. They don’t try to flank Roland, or trap him, or do anything more complicated than a frontal charge.
That might be because if they did do anything interesting, it would be harder to justify how one person can defeat a crowd of 58. Numerically mismatched fights are difficult to write for exactly that reason, as even a skilled fighter can only defend against so many directions at once. The best option is usually to arrange the scene so only small parts of the mob can attack at once, but that’s not what The Gunslinger gives us.
Bullets Are Finite
One very easy option for giving the fight more tension would be limiting Roland’s ammunition. While details about the world are scarce, it’s clearly been through an apocalypse of some kind, and guns appear to be very rare. They might even be lost technology, as the story notes that most of Tull’s inhabitants have never even seen one. Getting bullets can’t be an easy task, so Roland would be careful with the few he has.
Instead, Roland blazes away for the entire fight without ever considering his dwindling supply of shells. I can only assume that limiting his ammo would have introduced the possibility of retreating with some of the townsfolk still alive, and we obviously couldn’t have that. So for this scene, Roland has infinite bullets, even though the story has spent quite a few words telling us how rare guns and ammunition are.
Presumably to rub salt in the wound, ammunition is suddenly a big problem in the next book, with nary a mention of how Roland spent who knows how many shells murdering an entire town. Heck, even if Roland still had to kill everyone, he could at least have spent some extra time aiming to make sure each enemy required as few bullets as possible. That would have been something!
2. Demon Hunting Trials, Legendborn
Legendborn is great at depicting compelling characters and spicy romances, but it’s not great at fight scenes. In fact, it’s downright terrible at them. Just about every fight in the book is bad, and today we look at the very worst one, as protagonist Bree competes in a trial so she can be accepted into a magical demon-hunting order.
Don’t Withhold Information
The story starts us off on the wrong foot by opening the scene with Bree and her teammate Sidney in an “arena” that turns out to be a trench. We didn’t see them arrive, so when the narration mentions that they have human “victims” in the trench with them, it sounds like they’ve attacked someone.
Fortunately, we find out a few lines later that these “victims” are mannequins, but that leads to even more confusion. Bree and Sidney are waiting around like they know what’s going on and what they’re supposed to do, but none of this information has been listed in the narrative. Before this scene, each trial was kept totally mysterious, and then we skipped past the point where it was explained to the characters.
The lack of information is confusing and frustrating. It’s almost never a good idea to withhold what the protagonist knows from the reader, and it’s especially bad in this case because we’re being denied the scene’s basic setup. Most authors do this out of a misguided desire for a reveal, but there’s no reveal here. We’re just waiting for someone to explain what’s going on.
This goes on for two pages, which feels like an eternity when you don’t know why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Finally, we get an explanation: each team must get themselves and their mannequins past some monsters and across a field to safety. This isn’t even a complicated situation; why wait so long to describe it? It could have been summarized in the opening paragraph, or we could have been in Bree’s POV while the rules were explained. See? Easy.
If that wasn’t enough, the problem repeats itself later in the scene, when we learn mid fight that Bree and Sidney secretly made a plan that was mysteriously left out of the narration. It’s not a complicated plan, and explaining it when it was conceived would not have slowed the narration. Since this plan isn’t used as a turning point, there’s no dramatic benefit to keeping it hidden.
Keep Rules Consistent
These trials are a highly competitive affair, as there are far more contestants than the demon hunters can admit. Many of the contestants come from powerful families with influence in the magical world. Given that, you’d expect the trials to at least put on a show of fairness, since if any of these families felt discriminated against, they could raise a stink.
This particular trial doesn’t even try to look fair. The issue is that the trial is divided into two rounds, and the teams from round two get to watch as the teams from round one make their attempts. This is a huge advantage. Since none of the contestants knew what the trial would be ahead of time, no one had any special preparation. But now, half the contestants get to watch the other half test the waters. They get critical information on what strategies are effective and what the monsters’ capabilities are.
This is the kind of blatant favoritism that should raise an uproar from the contestants that had to go first, but nothing like that happens. Bree, Sidney, and the rest of round two get to benefit from their later slot like it’s no big thing. It’s not clear why the author made this choice, but my best guess is they thought it would be fun to watch each team make their run like this was the tournament arc of a shounen anime. Since the novel is told in first person limited, Bree had to watch the other teams for that to work.
Assuming my guess is correct, the simplest fix would be for everyone except Bree to already be well briefed on the trial. Since Bree isn’t from the magical world, it’s believable that the other contestants would know more than her, so for them, going second isn’t an advantage. She just got lucky to be placed in the second group. Alternatively, going second might come with a drawback, like a reduced time limit or heavier mannequins to carry across. That way, it would be a tactical choice rather than favoritism.
Create the Fight You Want
Bree and Sidney’s goal in this fight isn’t actually to destroy the monsters in their way. Instead, it’s to get past the monsters with their heavy mannequins, thus simulating a successful rescue of helpless humans. However, as the trial progresses, each team ends up having to fight and destroy the monsters anyway, which raises the obvious question: Why not destroy the monsters first, then go back and carry the mannequins across? That way, no one has to fight a demon boar while carrying 150 extra pounds on their back.
I’m guessing someone brought this up during beta reading because there’s a short section explaining why just fighting the boars first is a bad idea. And here it is:
they [another team] plan to take out both hellboars first, while unimpeded by mannequins.
It’s a mistake.
There’s a reason everyone else’s strategy included distraction: the boars are big, heavy, easily confused beasts. They’re unable to make quick pivots or turns.
But at a straight charge, they’re nearly unstoppable.
Hang on, what? The logic seems to be that one contestant needs to distract the boars by carrying a mannequin, but the mannequins are completely unnecessary. We see quite clearly that the demon boars can be distracted by just about anything, from a running person to a thrown stick. Ironically, by including this flimsy justification, Legendborn actually makes the problem worse because our attention is now drawn to it.
The solution here depends entirely on what kind of fight this is supposed to be. If the goal really is to make a scene about running mannequins past powerful monsters, just make the boars invincible. That way fighting them is pointless. However, considering how much time the contestants spend destroying demon boars, I’m guessing that’s something the author really wanted.
In that case, the best option is to make the boars respawning. That way, we can have situations where the heroes have to stop and fight, but it would be pointless to leave the mannequins behind and fight the boars first. Any contestant who did that would find their boar back and ready for more by the time they’d picked up their mannequin.
Provide Real Obstacles
About midway through the fight, Bree is running with a mannequin while Sidney is keeping the boars distracted.* Everything’s going fine until Bree trips on a dagger that Sidney threw earlier in the scene. This is very strange for a few reasons.
First, since the rest of the field seems to be flat and free of obstacles, it gives the impression that Bree somehow zeroed in on the one place that had an obstruction for her to trip over. The area is well lit as far as I can tell,* so I’m not sure how she didn’t see it. Second, would she really trip over a dagger? Typically you trip over things that don’t move when your foot hits them, or you trip yourself because you don’t want to kick something in your path like a pet or small child. Bree is wearing boots, so I’d expect her to just kick the dagger out of the way. Maybe if it were partly buried in the ground?
The point is if you want the heroes to struggle with environmental obstacles, it’s important to set them up in advance. If you create a hazard-free arena and then introduce a single obstacle, it will appear contrived or even comical, like your hero is deliberately seeking out the one thing that can hinder them. In the case of Legendborn, the best option would be for the ground to be uneven and for lighting to be poor, so it would be believable that Bree doesn’t notice a tree root or sinkhole.
Keep Fighting Ability Consistent
Early in the fight, Bree distracts a demon boar and then Sidney kills it with a thrown knife to the head. Wow, Sidney has some skills. That’s good because Bree has zero combat training; she’s never even been in a fight. Clearly, her job is to carry the mannequins while Sidney does the fighting, right?
I guess not, because later, Bree distracts the second boar, but this time Sidney’s elite knife skills are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Sidney takes over mannequin duty, which is a weird choice. It’s not like Sidney can just leave Bree to her fate. They both lose if one of them doesn’t make it.
With Sidney’s knife skills temporarily on vacation, Bree has to fight the boar herself. That’s gonna be pretty tough, but she has a plan. First, she climbs a tree, because apparently she’s good at climbing trees. That’s normally something you’d establish before a critical fight scene, but whatever. Next, her plan is to drop down on the boar from above and stab it to death.
This feels incredibly unlikely to succeed. While gravity might give her strike some extra force, hitting a vital spot sounds really difficult when you’re falling from a tree. It feels even less likely that Bree would try such a reckless maneuver in the first place. Remember, Bree has had a completely mundane life up to this point. She’s not a veteran of magical battles; she’s an advanced placement college nerd. At other points in the story, she’s not even sure if she wants to join the demon hunters.
The big lesson here is that while it’s good to make your hero an underdog, Legendborn goes too far by giving Bree zero combat skills. This is a problem in later fights as well, when she somehow defeats experienced combatants after a night or two of practice. In this case, it would have worked better if Bree had some kind of martial arts background. She’d still be at a disadvantage because she just learned that magic is real, but it would be more believable when she pulls out unlikely wins through determination.
3. Coffee Shop Battle, Soon I Will Be Invincible
For a superhero story, Soon I Will Be Invincible has surprisingly few fights. I guess that would get in the way of all the backstory. Fortunately, it does have one big fight scene, which is very bad and therefore perfect for our purposes. The context is that Doctor Impossible, the villain with a POV, has just stopped in at a coffee shop in NYC. Pretty soon the heroes arrive, and it’s time for a rumble in the concrete jungle.
Keep Description Consistent
The fight begins with this single-line paragraph that’s entirely unattributed dialogue.
“Hey. Um. Honey? I think that guy over there is Doctor Impossible.”
Impossible then looks up and sees Blackwolf – this setting’s version of Batman – talking on a wrist communicator. Blackwolf’s appearance is already confusing because it seems like a chance encounter. Considering that NYC has close to 4,000 coffee shops, that’s quite a coincidence.
Adding to the confusion, we still don’t have a dialogue attribution for the quote above. Did Blackwolf say it? Unlikely, for two reasons. First, Impossible knows what Blackwolf sounds like. The lack of attribution implies it’s a voice he doesn’t recognize. Second, if it was Blackwolf, would he really say it loudly enough for Impossible to hear? As off-brand Batman, this guy is supposed to be really smart.
The other option is some random customer in the coffee shop said it, but that makes even less sense. If Impossible were so easy to recognize, he wouldn’t be walking around in public. And it stretches the coincidence even further if Blackwolf just happened to walk in at exactly the same time a random civilian recognized Impossible.
The fight scene keeps going without providing any further clues or context, so I guess we’ll never know the answer. It’s a disorienting way to start the scene, and things are only going to get worse.
Stay in the Moment
After that confusing introduction, we pause the scene so Impossible can have a flashback to his first super-fight. Interrupting an in-progress scene for a flashback is almost never a good idea, but it’s way worse for fights. In a fight scene, every second matters. This two-page flashback gives the impression that Impossible is staring into space for several minutes while one of his archenemies is standing right in front of him.
Interruptions also make it difficult to remember exactly what was happening in the original scene. When we come back from this flashback, it takes some time to reorient ourselves and figure out if any time has passed or if the characters have moved. It turns out they haven’t, like the main story freeze-framed just when the flashback started and then lurched back into motion when it ended.
And for all that, the flashback doesn’t even tell us anything interesting about Doctor Impossible. We learn that he once had a fight with a low-level hero, which he won, and that’s it. The only point to it seems to be hearing Impossible internally monologue about his previous fight. Come on, Soon I Will Be Invincible. The Incredibles came out three years before you were published, and it covered why villains shouldn’t stop fighting to monologue!
Remember Where Characters Are
After the flashback ends, Doctor Impossible throws a mug at Blackwolf’s head. That’s a bit more Three Stooges than superhero, but whatever. Then, with no explanation, Blackwolf is gone. This is all the description we get about it:
He sees [the mug] coming, of course, and it shatters harmlessly on the wall next to him. At least it gets him out of the doorway.
After that, Blackwolf is just gone. Or at least, the narration stops describing him. I assume he’s gone because Impossible then has several uninterrupted paragraphs to set up his gear,* but for all I know Blackwolf could just be standing by the door watching.
Later we see Blackwolf assembled with the other heroes outside, so he must have left at some point. That’s the last thing he would do though, since he knows Impossible is primarily a gear-based villain. Blackwolf is supposed to be the team’s tactician; why would he let his enemy have extra time to get ready? Later we see that Blackwolf is also the better fighter, so he could have ended the encounter right there.
Combatants Shouldn’t Take Turns
Once the other heroes arrive, we run headlong into a major problem with group fights: it’s difficult to depict a character fighting multiple enemies at once. This is a major headache for movies and TV, but it’s no picnic for authors either, as even a skilled fighter can only defend themselves from so many angles at once.
At this point, the specifics of each hero become important, so let’s run through the five of them.
- Blackwolf: Off-brand Batman. No powers,* but super skilled and real smart.
- Damsel: Off-brand Wonder Woman. Flight, superstrength, force fields, and swords.
- Rainbow Triumph: Teenaged cyborg. Superstrength and speed.
- Feral: A real big cat-man. Superstrength and toughness.
- Elphin: Some kind of elf or fairy. Flight, superspeed, and a magic spear that does whatever the plot demands.
Impossible opens the fight with a stun grenade that takes out Feral, but the other four heroes are unphased. Then Rainbow Triumph rushes up to fight Impossible one on one. There’s no description of what Damsel, Blackwolf, or Elphin are doing, so I guess they’re just hanging out.
Rainbow does a pretty good job all on her own though, getting in multiple hits and driving Impossible to his knees. And then the narrative just stops describing her. I don’t know if she left or went on a coffee break, but for whatever reason she’s done with the fight. Next, Feral attacks, the one hero we were previously told got taken out by the stun grenade. He’s apparently back, and the other three are still nowhere to be seen.
You can guess how the rest of the fight goes from here. Impossible knocks Feral out again,* then he fights Damsel one on one for a while. I guess Elphin and Blackwolf must have joined Rainbow for that coffee break, because they are barely in this scene. Not only is it awkward that the heroes only fight one at a time, but it feels like they disappear whenever Impossible isn’t looking at them.
Then, for no discernible reason, the heroes emerge from their out-of-sight void and converge on Doctor Impossible. The good doctor decides that now he’s got to retreat, since he can’t fight the whole team at once. Never mind that fighting the whole team at once was his plan from the beginning.
Characters don’t have to be onscreen for every moment of a fight. In team fights like this, describing every movement of every character would overwhelm the reader in short order. But when a combatant isn’t onscreen, it’s important for readers to know what they’re doing, or at least what the POV character thinks they’re doing. Doctor Impossible might dispatch a robot to menace civilians, forcing some of the heroes to deal with it. Or he might create a force field that traps just one hero inside with him while the others try to batter it down.
Keep Fighting Ability Consistent
I’m repeating this lesson from Legendborn because, lucky us, we get to learn about it a second time! Realizing that he can’t beat five heroes when they aren’t taking turns, Doctor Impossible retreats into the sewer where he meets Blackwolf. Using his “I’m totally not Batman” skills, Blackwolf predicted that Impossible would retreat, so he set up an ambush. Why Blackwolf didn’t just cut off Impossible’s retreat is anyone’s guess.
Naturally, it’s time for a one-on-one fight. The problem is that previously, Impossible was holding his own against multiple superpowered heroes, including at least one hero who approached the power of a minor god. Blackwolf has no powers; he’s just very good at martial arts and gymnastics. Impossible should crush this Batman-wannabe like a bug. Instead, it’s a very close fight, with Impossible only escaping because of some psychological trickery.
To be fair, the real Batman sometimes runs into this problem too, as do the less-powerful heroes in the MCU. But this sequence is extreme even by those standards. I kept expecting some kind of justification, like Blackwolf had figured out some weakness in Impossible’s tech and exploited it, but no. It’s time for their fight, so we just have to pretend their capabilities are roughly equal.
Don’t Be Gross
The fight finally ends when Damsel catches up with Impossible and instead of stabbing* or punching him, she picks him up and flies away with him. She doesn’t even disarm him or take away any of his super science gear. Suuuure. All I’m saying is that the real Wonder Woman would know better.
Still in possession of all his gadgets, Impossible decides his best chance to escape is a surprise kiss. Apparently he’s had a capsule of knockout gas that only works on Damsel in his mouth for years just in case this situation came up. Somehow this goes fine. I guess all of Damsel’s combat training stops working when lips are involved.
You might expect, at the very least, that Impossible and Damsel had some kind of romantic attraction from earlier in the book, which could explain why she’d let him kiss her. No, that would make too much sense. Instead, the scene loses any credibility it had left so its dime-store Lex Luthor can get a little smooch action.
This brings us to the end of what is possibly the worst fight scene I’ve ever read in a published story. On the bright side, it did give you all a front-row seat to what happens when an author doesn’t follow fight-scene best practices. Best practices like prioritizing who’s doing what over backstory monologuing. It’s a tragedy when what should be a story’s most exciting moment turns boring and tepid.
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