This week I read a very good example of how to write a compelling fight scene using magic. I thought I’d break it down so you can find inspiration for your own writing. This scene comes from book two of the New York Times Bestselling Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson.
Combatant 1: Vin, a Mistborn, with the power to “burn” metals within her body to obtain various powers, including Pushing and Pulling metal objects
Combatants 2: A group of eight Misting assassins, each with the ability to “burn” one metal and obtain one power.
Scenario: The assassins sneak into the city. Vin stops them.
We’ll focus on how Sanderson pits magic against magic, though the fight does an excellent job on things like pacing and structure as well.
“A spray of coins flew toward her. Vin reached out and Pushed on them. The Coinshot, however, continued to Push – and Vin’s Push smashed against his … both were tossed backward.”
Incorporating physics into the use of magic – in this case, conservation of energy and momentum – adds a layer of realism to magical fight scenes. When writing arcane battles, have magic obey the real laws of nature as much as possible.
“… she burned iron and Pulled hard on the disappearing coins. They shot back toward her. As soon as they got close, Vin jumped to the side and Pushed them toward the approaching Thugs. The coins, however, immediately veered away, twisting through the mists toward the Lurcher.”
There’s a tendency in writing magical duels to have spells and attacks only fly back and forth between the combatants. Changes in direction, such as the Lurcher yanking Vin’s coin attack to the side, create more interesting fights. Even if you’re writing a fight between only two mages, have them redirect attacks to the side, or summon magical attacks from the side, to spice things up.
“Vin reacted immediately, twisting and Pushing against a door latch to throw herself out of the way.”
Just because a fight uses magic instead of blades or fists, it doesn’t get to ignore its environment. Incorporating environmental features, such as the metal on the door handle here, boosts realism and varies the kind of action in the fight. Where possible, let your magic-wielding characters make the same use of their environment as your non-magical ones.
“The metal enhanced her senses … and the sudden shock cleared her mind.”
Magic-enhanced characters will still be subject to the limits of their bodies. In this line, Sanderson makes use of Vin’s powers as a means of overcoming the dazed feeling that follows getting hit. This increases realism and provides yet another use of Vin’s powers. Very smart.
[Summary because the actual quote is too long: Vin Pulls herself toward a Thug using the coin bag on his belt. He tries to release the bag, but too late. She punches him in the face.]
Characters in fight scenes should be thinking two or three steps ahead. In this case, Vin Pulls on the bag to propel herself forward, and also uses the Pull as a distraction for her actual attack, the punch. Multi-step attacks increase the intensity, excitement, and tension in a fight scene, and should be sprinkled into the latter half of a long fight. It’s also worth noting that Vin uses normal, non-magical attacks interspersed with her magical ones. This is another way of adding variety to a magic-based fight, especially when multi-step attacks mix magical and non-magical strategies.
“A crack sounded behind her. Vin cried out, her tin-enhanced ears overreacting to the sudden sound.”
Remember that magic can bring weaknesses along with strengths. Use your characters’ magical weaknesses against them in fight scenes, because if you don’t, at least some of your readers will wonder why not.
“The men had hidden a Mistborn among their numbers … who had been waiting for the right moment to strike at her, to catch her unprepared.”
Rather than show combatants using their strongest magic at the beginning of a fight, you can build better suspense by escalating slowly and culminating with the strongest powers appearing at the end. In this case, Sanderson has given the characters a strategic reason (surprise attack against a stronger opponent) to wait to expose their true strength, making for a dramatic reveal. However, if there wasn’t a good reason for these characters to hold off on their best tactics, this would feel silly. Good fight scenes save the best for last, but also provide a realistic reason for doing so.
Of course these minor quotes can’t capture the full effectiveness of Sanderson’s writing, but I hope they’ve given you some idea of how to spice up your own magical fight scenes.
Where have you seen awesome magical fight scenes? Where have you seen the magical element not quite work? Share your thoughts in the comments!