I’m just going to say it. Most fight scenes in books are boring.
Large scale battles or one-to-one combat, they’re boring. At least in movie fight scenes, the audience gets spectacle. In books, you don’t even have that. Instead, in a book, story is happening. Then the story stops for three pages while people hit one another. Then the story starts again. Boring.
Battle scenes as process scenes
The tedium of most written fight scenes is a subdivision of the tedium of most descriptions of process. I love Lois Lowry, but Son had an entire chapter devoted to the process of a character climbing a cliff, hand hold by hand hold, step by step. I read a few paragraphs and skipped it.
And yet, sometimes a fight scene (and probably other process scenes) work.
I recently read Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman: Warbringer, and the first battle Diana engages in drew me in. After reading it, I had to sit back and think about how Bardugo did that.
First, some of the steps in the battle surprised me, starting with the arrival of the attackers. Diana and her friends are at a party in a high-rise when the bad guys rappel in through the windows. And being Wonder Woman, she runs toward the bullets rather than away, which you must admit you don’t usually see a combatant do.
Related to surprise, Diana uses cleverness to win. She gets her friends to leave through the back of the room because all the other guests crowd around the entryway. She has no shield, so she makes one. Given who she is, she wrenches up a floor tile, but another character could probably come up with a non-superhero alternative.
An inner arc
Most important, I think, Bardugo keeps the focus tight to Diana, and she gives the battle an inner as well as an outer arc. Warbringer is set even before the recent movie (Diana’s memory is wiped at the end), so it’s an origin story, and in every moment of the battle, Diana is learning what she can do both physically and emotionally.
Finally, Bardugo keeps the battle relatively short so her story doesn’t bog down. She remembers that every word has to contribute to plot, character, or theme.
So surprise, cleverness, closeness to a character, an inner as well as outer arc, and brevity: they add up to a battle even I liked. Kudos to Bardugo.