I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way combat is depicted in some books. It’s a common thing to see in most of the books I read. From the huge, epic-scale wars in books like The Wheel of Time, to the wizard-vs-wizard slugfests I’ve been reading recently in The Dresden Files, there’s a lot of battles, big and small. Some of them are dramatic and tense. Some are long and drawn out. Some make me worry about the fate of the protagonist, while other times I’m confident that things will turn out okay. But regardless of the circumstances, the depiction of time during battles can be a tricky thing.
Sometimes I’ll be reading a book when an enemy starts charging forward, then it takes a couple of pages before they actually swing their sword or cast their spell, while the narrator describes every motion in great detail. Other times someone will fire off several gunshots or fireballs in a single sentence, dropping multiple foes at once. It’s almost as if the writing can sometimes move into bullet time, allowing the narrator to paint a detailed picture of the danger that is coming or the style and deadly grace of an opponent. When it’s well-done, it makes me appreciate the precision, speed, and skill of the combatants, whether it be their skill with weapons or their powerful magic. Other times, however, I find myself wondering, “How long does it take someone to pull the trigger?”
This gets more complicated when there’s multiple combatants involved, and each one needs some time in the spotlight. Though Jim Butcher handles that pretty effectively in The Dresden Files. When he writes a battle scene from Harry Dresden’s point of view, Harry usually starts off throwing spells around and kicking some serious magical ass. But then he either runs out of juice (draining his magical energies for his spells), or he gets injured, or in some other way he is briefly sidelined. This allows Harry to observe the action and the carnage, narrating it to the reader, with a reasonable excuse about why he’s taking so long to get up and help his allies. Though it does get to be a little predictable after I’ve seen the same storytelling tactic used multiple times across multiple books.
Another factor that seems to affect how time is portrayed and perceived in a book is how “close” the narration is. In a series like The Dresden Files, everything is being told in the main character’s voice, so the action is told from where he’s standing (or sometimes, where he’s lying on the ground, bleeding). In other stories, however, it’s easier to “zoom out” and narrate a battled from the third person perspective, telling the reader what’s happening across the battlefield all at once. Then, the story can “zoom in” and focus on a specific character and the blow-by-blow duel they’re having with an individual opponent. This seems to be a more effective technique if you want to describe things going on in multiple places at the same time, since the narration could describe events on one side of the battlefield, then the other, even though they’re taking place simultaneously. The reader can innately understand that the narration shifted a few moments back in time to catch us up on what’s happening elsewhere.
This is something I’ll definitely be studying more closely as I continue reading more urban fantasy books. There’s not a lot of “battles” so-to-speak in Manifestation (there’s some fights and action, but nothing on the scale of a massive armed conflict). The later books I’m working on in the series, however, step up the game quite a bit. And the more I read about how fantasy battles are depicted, the more action-packed and intense I can make those future battles. And hopefully, the passage of time during the fights won’t get confusing.
Unless I start writing romance novels, then I don’t have to worry about it.
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