Warning: May contain minor spoilers for The Stone Sky.
TLDR: Fight scenes are miniature stories with: Setup, rising action, and climax. The fight scene serves the story.
NK Jemisin begins this fight scene with three pages of setup, introducing the pieces and setting them on the board. This is important for multiple reasons, not least of which is that this is chapter two, book three. The reader appreciates a little reminder of where we left off since the last book.
Since the scene is told from the point of view of a distant narrator, the description feels like literal stage setting, even in the language used:
To one side of this tableau stands Schaffa, Nassun’s Guardian, who stares down at what is left of Jija Resistant Jekity in a combination of wonder and cold satisfaction. At Nassun’s other side is Steel, her stone eater.
Setup lays out the rules of the game. An unsatisfying fight scene might rely on some unexpected help from outside, deus ex machina, but a satisfying fight scene shows the tools the players have to work with and then only lets them work with those tools.
The setup serves a second purpose. It increases the tension. Our hero is wounded, barely able to raise her knife. Her foes are designed to kill her kind. Silence falls like the moments before the gunslingers draw pistols in a shootout. There’s room for a splash of badassery.
…only people who think they have a future fear death.
The action begins decisively.
Umber and Nida move.
One of the most impressive aspects of this fight scene to me is what’s not included. Jemisin is not above a fancy description or even *gasp* an adverb! Hell, she uses the word “inexorably” in this scene. But when things happen fast, the sentences get short and choppy. Umber and Nida move. No unnecessary words.
Next comes the meat of the fight, spanning about four pages. This should be a back and forth. One character acts, forcing a response, then must respond in kind. All while the danger increases. That’s exactly what we get:
Nassun weaves a net of magic. Nida shreds the net. Nassun drives stone spikes through Nida’s feet. Nida breaks the spikes and keeps coming. Nassun raises her knife. Nida laughs and dodges around it.
Our hero panics. Jemisin describes how Nida’s hands will tear Nassun apart.
Then Steel makes his entrance and takes Nida decisively out of the fight.
Hold up! How come Steel gets to come out of nowhere and save the day? Shouldn’t our hero succeed through her own grit or cleverness or whatever?
Scroll back up to the “tableau” quote. Steel was listed among Nassun’s allies. Relevantly, few words were spared on Steel, encouraging the reader to forget about the stone eater in order to make his entrance even more dramatic.
Also, this outside intervention gets a pass because we’re in chapter two, not chapter thirty. Our hero will have to fight her own battles eventually.
Meanwhile Schaffa has been fighting Umber. Next we’re treated to a frightening display of Schaffa’s inner strength and ruthless commitment against a superior foe. This is a good reminder to the reader that Schaffa is still an unknown and dangerous quantity. The fisticuffs part of the fight is basically over so it’s time to serve the plot by introducing more tension and foreshadowing things to come.
As Schaffa snuffs out Umber, the victory is rendered somewhat hollow as Nida speaks for the true villain.
Broader threat is re-injected into the story as the immediate threat evaporates. Crucial plot information follows that is directly tied to the finale. (I won’t give it away.)
It’s never only about the fight. The fight serves the story. Nassun lives to fight another day only because these two foes are minor pawns of the true villain and even so, her pair of guardians have to save her. She’s out of her depth when it comes to the ultimate battle.
Then comes the aftermath. To quote Schaffa:
“We cannot remain here.”
The heroes must move on literally and figuratively. There is no time to rest or recuperate. The plot must be driven inexorably forward 😉
Thanks for reading. As always, feel free to post comments or questions? Got a fight scene you love? Share it. Questions about writing some aspect of a fight scene? Post it below.