Advancing Story Through Combat

Or: you do not truly know a man until you fight him.

Having complained about modern entertainment vehicles that proceed from spectacle to spectacle without developing either story or character, it would be particularly heinous of me to write a book that does the same thing. But this is military sci-fi, the fighting is a huge part of the book. How, then, to write the combat readers want and expect, without falling into the patterns I hate? Cram a ton of exposition in between fight scenes? Nah.

Meaningful combat.

Martial arts films have been doing this for decades, as have some westerns (the good ones). Fighting isn’t something that interrupts the story, it furthers the story and reveals information about the characters. Does a character finish off a downed opponent? Does he charge in? Lay complex traps? Will he patiently deflect the attacks of an angry student, letting her exhaust herself while demonstrating his superior technique? Or is he merciless, punishing her for her insolence? How and why a character fights can reveal a lot about him. Some films even convey personality through technique; straight fast strikes convey a different mindset than circular counter-throws.

Every fight can advance not only the character, but also the plot. I can hear the objections: “It’s a fight, don’t they all advance the plot? Someone is going to win, someone else is going to lose.” Well, no. “The winner gets to advance past the fight” describes Mortal Kombat the Movie, which is something one should avoid doing. For counter example, let’s look at something most readers will be familiar with: Star Wars (ep IV, A New Hope, the real one, etc).

We open in a fight. No idea who any of these people are. Leia gives the death star plans to R2 before she is captured. Droids escape. “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” The battle has set up the entire movie.

Luke fights the sand people. This ends pretty quickly, our boy catches a beat down. Obi-Wan is able to frighten them off. We’ve introduced a mysterious new character.

Han vs Greedo. This ends quickly, Han shoots first. We discover Han has a price on his head, and that it’s pretty serious. We also discover that Han is quick on the trigger and willing to shoot first (any other version of events is absolutely haram).

The Millennium Falcon is captured. Obi-Wan suggests not fighting against overwhelming odds. Han has just the ticket, but is embarrassed to be smuggling himself. Our heroes are now in position to rescue Leia.

The prison block. Han and Luke play storm trooper, Chewy has issues being put in restraints but trusts Han. “Boring conversation anyway,” plan is off the rails and we’re improvising. Leia can fight. Trash compactor demonstrates the value of hacker droid friends with universal I/O jacks.

Obi-Wan vs Vader. Hoooooo, boy. Lots of backstory hinted at. “Last time I was but the learner, now I am the master.” The guy who crushes wind pipes with a gesture is evenly matched by his old teacher. Obi-Wan sees that everyone else is safely at the ship, sacrifices self, now “more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Ship escapes.

TIE fighter pursuit. Arguably the weakest case for a fight, still essential because the Empire isn’t letting someone just waltz away. Luke and Han both have some skill on the guns, Leia bursts their bubble. “They’re tracking us.” Tarkin confirms in cut-away to villains. Final showdown set up.

The final battle. Massive stakes, rebellion on the line. Han has taken his money and gone to pay off Jabba. Luke’s wingmen hang in even with Vader on their tail, Luke dismisses Wedge “you can’t do any more good back there.” Wedge could have done more good back there, but Luke didn’t want to use him as a meat shield. “Use the force, Luke.” He believes, turns off his targeting computer. Vader recognizes force use. Han returns, in the end he can’t abandon friends. Boom. Hooray for our side.

Every single conflict reveals something new about a character and/or adds a new twist to the plot. There are no fights that are just fights, if you removed any one of them the plot no longer makes sense. That’s what I’m trying to achieve: a book where you couldn’t remove any scenes without doing damage to the story. Painful cuts, but I think the overall effect will be worth it.

My body is ready, my heart’s on fire
I’m gonna push it over the wire
Perfect timing, tight as a drum
Final battle’s already won
Taking hold of every moment
Given strength by the breath of life
I’m gonna stake my claim

I FIGHT TO SURVIVE!

– Stan Bush, Fight to Survive

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