Most authors do this wrong, but it’s not really their fault. Simply put, there are things that must be experienced in order to portray them correctly, otherwise all the wrong aspects are exaggerated, and all the right things are minimized. I was in a writers group a few years back, and this guy wrote a military scene. He’d never served, and only had his father’s Cold War, barracks-bound stories for reference. There were long, unnatural diatribes given at very awkward instances, including in the middle of a firefight. Speaking from personal experience, no one says more than a few quick words, or maybe a sarcastic quip while bullets are spraying death around you.
So, how do you write combat? You write it like true combat—quick, chaotic, confusion, direct, purposeful, and NOTHING should ever go as planned. Think about the moment in your life when you were the most stressed out, maybe when you were in fear of your life. Hold that moment in your mind and remember how you felt, how your mind worked (or didn’t seem to), how you may have been so hyper focused on that threat/stressor that you can’t quite remember anything else that happened around you. I can clearly remember the day I was shot in combat. But more importantly, as I recall that horrible day, I can see how much of that moment I can’t recall. Once the bullets started cracking against the pavement around me, and slapping my HMMWV, all I can really remember is the feeling of being shot (like getting hit in the calf by a bat), how focused I was on my immediate situation, and how unaware I was to everything else.
This reminds me…please, for the love of all that is writing—combat doesn’t last a long time. The human body can’t sustain such constant mental and physical stress for more than a few minutes at a time. If you’re writing modern combat scenes, you have to remember that a basic combat load is around 420 rounds, which might last you about 20 minutes if you’re a seasoned combat veteran of many tours, and about 5 minutes if you’re green. Combat with swords and pikes was even more grueling and exhausting. Today’s soldiers don’t have to swing their weapons, rarely do they have to engage in hand-to-hand combat, and even the lowest ranking service member moves to the field of battle on an armored “horse” rather than foot march over endless leagues (the distance travelled in a day). So much has changed in combat over the millennia, but one thing will never change—combat is pure chaos, where nothing goes according to plan.
No one sees the arrow that hits them. No one feels the explosion that obliterates them. If combat is chaos, then hand-to-hand combat is it’s god. Intuition and reflexes dominate the mind and body, while reason and clarity hide like cowards. There’s no time to plan your next move, or actively anticipate your opponent’s next move. There is no time to recall your training; only to trust in your training, and let it guide you. Otherwise…you die.
If you want to have the Final Fantasy 7 mega sword in your book, or a character that can stab and chop for hours on end then do it! Just make it believable for your world. Brandon Sanderson did an excellent job of this in his Mistborn series, where the type of magic expressed in that world allowed for certain people possess the type of supernatural strength needed to effortlessly wield a 50 pound blade.
So, who writes combat well? I like to think I do, but I’m a bit biased. I can’t say who writes modern combat well, because I don’t read that genre. R. A. Salvatore does well, explaining how Drizzt gets his opponents into a rhythm; however, most writers exaggerate their characters’ stamina, allowing them to fight for hours, or days on end. Just to give you a simple idea of how exhausting it is to wield a sword—see how long you can maintain a half-squat, while holding a pencil in front of you, arms completely extended. Time yourself and see how long it takes for your arms and calves to start burning, before your arms start to sag and your legs begin to shake and straighten. Now realize that you didn’t do anything. You didn’t swing a sword, or raise a shield, or fight after marching for days on end. All you did was half-squat with a pencil held in front of you. From that perspective it shouldn’t be difficult to imagine how long you might be able to swing a sword. Tad Williams does very well in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, inundating his combat scenes with quickness and confusion.
Combat is very easy to overwrite, and when you get to that point in your manuscript, remember to think back to that moment when you were most afraid, and ask yourself, “How would I have written this scene right then?” If you’re writing from the point of an observer, then the fight scene should be quite detailed to show the skill, or lack thereof. If you’re writing from the point of view of one of the combatants, then it should be quick, chaotic, and hyper-focused (just like you were in your greatest moment of fear).