Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch walks us through how best to tackle fight scenes when our opponent isn’t human—or, at least, isn’t anymore.
More than any genre, I mentor writers of speculative fiction. You know, sci fi, fantasy, horror, superheroes, all the wonderfully weird stuff. So, fighting monsters is a subject near and dear to my heart. In fact, I’ve probably helped characters kill more monsters than men.
There are some monsters that come with a ready made strategy. Anyone writing zombies, vampires and/or werewolves has an idea of what it will take to win the day. But if the creature is peculiar to the work, it may seem more complicated to find a way to victory.
Thankfully, when it comes to combat, there are some basic principles that hold true regardless of character, setting, or genre of the work. There are three principles in particular that I personally keep front of mind. And because all three are principles taken from the book, The Art of War, they are well tested by time. I will first give the fundamental as penned thousands of years ago by Sun Tzu, and then how it pertains to creating a fight scene.
Principle #1 – To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
Best the enemy, then beat them.
In writing a fight scene, a physical clash should be Plan B. The first line of attack should be one of wits. Win with strategy, then fight. Think about how Perseus killed Medusa. The warrior used Athena’s polished shield to view the reflection of Medusa’s face while also avoiding her gaze. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, he killed her with a sword.
Principle #2 – The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
Find the weakness in the strength.
In the movie A Quiet Place, what was the strength of the aliens? Their sense of hearing. What was their undoing? Their hearing. What makes zombies so formidable? They will stop at nothing to eat. What is their undoing? They will stop at nothing to eat! Zombies will walk right off a cliff if they see a human snack down below.
Principle #3 – To know your enemy, you have to become them.
To beat the man, you have to be the man.
If your character is fighting monsters, they must look at the fight as if they are the monster. Once mentally “monstered up,” they should ask their own self, ‘What is my goal? How will I attack, and what must I defend?’ This requires you as the writer to know the monster as you do every other character, even if the monster has no character.
Ok, now that we’ve established a few core principles, let’s look at some broad scenarios. In each, we will look at how your character can use the situation to best the monster. Once the monster is outwitted, victory is more attainable. Because there are more monsters out there than you can shake a stick at, you the writer will have to decide on the manner of attack. If your work has supernatural properties, you should make your reader aware of those by immediately establishing normalcy. The first line of the of the Lord of the Rings trilogy reads that Bilbo Baggins would be celebrating his elevnty first birthday. That shows us, the readers, that in the world of Bag End, abnormalcy is the norm.
Thankfully, even when the setting of a work is abnormal, even when the fight is against the supernatural, normal things in nature provide us with great reference. Some of the best resources for fighting monsters are actually right outside your door. Yes, when battling beasts, consider how actual beasts do battle. By nature—pun intended—prey animals use surroundings to negate predatorial advantage. In my WDU class, What You Need to Know Before Writing Fight Scenes Battles and Brawls, I teach that where a fight takes place is more important than who is fighting. You know where I learned that? In my garage trying to get my cat out from under the car! Use the site of the fight to your hero’s advantage.
All right, here we go. Fighting monsters that are:
Consider how small creatures on earth escape large predators. Mice run into holes. Rabbits bound into thickets. My cat just sits under the car! Animals instinctively know where they fit and predators don’t.
Humans can use the same strategy to best large monsters. Have we learned nothing from Jurassic Park? If a velociraptor is after you, climb into an air duct!
On the note of large monsters, if it is simply an oversized version of a common animal, it will still function like its smaller counterpart. For example, a fifty-foot scorpion will not be able to move its tail side to side any more than a five-inch scorpion. Why not? Because the metasoma of a scorpion is not constructed for horizontal movement.
Small monsters are formidable. The deadliest creature on earth is the mosquito. To thwart tiny terrors, you have to “seal or conceal.” Your character must seal up any point of entry, conceal themselves from detection, or both. Again, look at animals. They avoid insect bites with dense fur, mud or water or hide themselves with natural repellents.
When a monster is fast, remove the advantage of speed. Find terrain that isn’t favorable to speed such as ice or rocks, or an area with an abundance of impediments, twists or turns. The cheetah is the fastest land mammal. Where does it live? Wide open plains. Not jungles, mountains, or crowded furniture stores.
In order to take flight, a winged animal must be able to spread its wings. A narrow space inhibits this process. And, although once in flight, the animal may be able to soar through a tight spot, they won’t easily land in it. Also, winged animals aren’t generally fleet of foot. Avoid open spaces and force the beast to the ground.
By all means possible, the character should have a buffer that separates them from the water, be it a boat, piece of wood, or a dead whale carcass. And whether in the boat or bobbing in the deep blue, they must have a water-worthy weapon.
From that buffer, they should watch the water and look for any cues it provides the monster’s presence. After that, it will be up to you to decide if the character is aware of how the animal hunts, what drives it away, and what it takes to kill it. If the water monster is a massive Cthulhu/Kraken situation, that’s a whole other thing.
A Cthulhu/Kraken Situation
If your creature is fantastical without magical abilities, consider what animals it is like, and the basic principles of those known animals. For example, quadrapeds cannot change direction quickly or easily go backward. Certain animals’ builds aren’t conducive to swimming. Clawed animals aren’t as steady on slick surfaces. If your created creature is an amalgam of several animals, battle the most dangerous characteristic first. Look for an animal with that same manner of attack.
I hope this gets the wheels of your monster brains turning. If you need any extra insight, my book has an entire chapter on battling robots, aliens and beasties. Give it a look.
Until the next round of FightWrite™ with Writer’s Digest, get blood on your pages.
Join expert instructor Carla Hoch in this video course to learn the three most important points for writers to consider before writing fight scenes, battles, and brawls! Using historical examples and real-world expertise, Carla will guide you through the entire process of determining why, where, and who—essential elements for the writer to understand in order to make the scene work properly.