This may seem obvious, but let’s face it—not all writers do enough research into their worlds. True, fantasy and science fiction writers can get away with a lot more than most but ALL writers MUST do research of some kind. You can reinvent the wheel any way you want, but you have to at least know all the ins and outs of how wheels work. You can design a mighty castle with an army that would make the Witch-King of Angmar piss his pants, but can you explain why it is great without just stating it. Do you know how many years it takes to build, how many towers it should have just for support and how tall you can make it without it buckling under its own weight?
Research everything. From the shoes of the peasant children (if they can afford them) to the types of jewels that are available to place in the king’s crown. If your tale is one of ancient kings, why would anyone have a rapier which belongs in a far later century. Are there guns? Are guns superior to bows and arrows yet? What is the range? Who made them? Who uses them?
“You’re asking too many questions!” You say. “My readers are smart enough to figure it out.”
Readers are smart enough to figure out that you did bad research. They might read on if the story is well-written and character-driven, but more likely than not, the inconsistencies will be like a fly buzzing around their ear. Not worth focusing on completely but definitely a distraction.
So whatever genre you want to write, find books and read them. Thankfully, there are no lack of books! So read on! Read J.R.R. Tolkien, R.A. Salvatore, Brent Weeks or Brandon Sanderson if you like fantasy. There are a hundred other genres with dozens of sub-genres to each. Research everything you can and make more backstories than you ever plan to use. Those backstories will shape how you view your characters and how you will end up portraying the characters in the scenes—even fight scenes.
Flow and pace
You might be tempted to rattle off what every single movement that your character makes. While this can make for some very evocative scenes, it is like salt in food. A little brings a dash of flavor but a lot ruins the whole dish. The same goes for over-explaining a fight.
- In a move too quick to see, John struck hard at the mercenary on his right, cutting through the cloth and slicing through the tender flesh beneath. His back now exposed, John rolled over the now-dead mercenary and was back on his feet, facing the other mercenary. With a whirl of his blades, he attacked high then struck low. Both were blocked, and John swung both blades down hard and decapitated him. Blood spew from the man’s neck and . . . (you get where this is going, right?)
- John struck hard to his right. The mercenary opened his mouth in a silent scream, clutching his wounded chest. He slumped to the floor. Rolling over the corpse, John turned on his heel, his blades at the ready. With a whirl of his blades, he unleashed a flurry of attacks on the second mercenary. High strike. Low strike. Block. John knocked the man’s attacks aside and both of his blades came sliced down on his enemy’s throat. The man’s head flew free of the bleeding stump.
See the difference? The second example tells us all of the same things as the first but build the tension of the fight with a natural ease.
Avoid being so wordy that you lose sight of the fact that your scene must have a good flow or it will feel as if you are simply reciting in precise detail what happened. A reader doesn’t open a novel to read an essay. They do so to step into the world be immersed. The point is to make the reader want to take up the invisible sword in their mind’s eye and fight alongside with our hero.
Use Strong Verbs
Hit should be smash or slam. Laugh should be chuckle, giggle, etc. Don’t say he was angry when you can use powerful verbs like ‘seethe’ or phrases like ‘it made his blood boil,’ etc. Normal verbs can be used but sparingly. Strong verbs are what gets a readers attention. And you want their attention to be locked onto every page.
Imagine you are standing at the edge of a sheer drop. It would be a breath-taking view with all the intricate layers leading down to the colored sand below if you didn’t know that you had to jump. You hear the whistle of the wind across the plateau and the lower tone of the gusts through the chasm below. The roar of the river seems to rush up to meet you and you swear that you can feel the cold, foamy water on your skin. Licking your lips, you try hard to force some moisture to your suddenly dry throat. Your heart thunders along with the river as you step off the edge.
You don’t have to include every sense in a sentence, but it’s just something to think about. If you are fighting someone or something, think about something other than pain if a blow were to land. The weather doesn’t have to be described if you mention that the air cooled his hot skin as the fight intensified. Or if you do want to describe the weather, describe what it feels like. Is the rain cold or warm. Is there a crosswind. Does lightning illuminate any figures or something hiding in the shadows. Use everything around you to bring the reader into the world you have created.
So your heroine enters the room of the man that just saved her life. She can fight with the best of them, but in this case, he has saved her. The warrior maiden feels the tug of opposite emotions. On one had there is a strength to him that lures her in and the gratefulness of his act of kindness in saving her strengthens that feeling. On the other hand, she is a proud warrior of a great family. She does not need some traveling man to save her. She doesn’t need anyone. And yet—there is a quiet strength to him that echoes deeper than the calm understanding in his eyes. Yes, that was why she had stayed. What sort of man was he and why had he saved her?
Zing! Poetry, prose and fiction all have the benefit of relying not just on acts but on the feelings that they evoke. When you read the paragraph above, your first thought was most likely: This shit must’ve been written by a five-year-old. Second thought: Well, maybe it’s not so bad. It does carry a certain emotion to it. And that’s the point. No matter how good a first draft may seem, the focus on dramatic scenes is that they evoke a strong emotional response. That is why people weep when they read a sad chapter. They feel for the characters and that translates into an emotional connection. The more the reader connects to the protagonist, the more they will want to read.
Here is the ultimate writing secret: Readers don’t read to find out about heroes saving the damsel from a dragon. They read to know how the hero grew as a man to fight the dragon, how the damsel braved the flames of the dragon’s breath and how fiercely they loved each other. Readers are human, full of complex and irrational emotions. The characters they love the most share those emotions. The greatest thing you can do is get a reader to sympathize with the protagonist. After that, stay consistent and they’re hooked til the last page.