Until the 20th century and the arrival of the movies, detailed descriptions of fights, duels and the like were rare in novels. Although RE Howard was a boxing fanatic (a very popular sport in the US at the time) and F Leiber was found of fencing, however, neither saw fit to give detailed descriptions in their novels. Back then, before widespread stunts and digital effects, seeing Douglas Fairbanks' early action films had to be something! Paradoxically, most viewers and readers had at least a vague idea of what a fight was: fights between kids were considered normal and most men had had, or were going to have, the experience of fighting. In a world war.
Later, with the development of movies and comics, fights became part of the specifications of certain pulps (gangsters, espionage ...). Currently, apart from dark fantasy, there are relatively few such scenes in the fantasy genre, for 4 reasons IMHO:
- The arrival of women among the readers and the authors
- The genre has become a bit intellectual
- We prefer wizards to warriors
- These scenes are terribly difficult to write, especially since nowadays, in the West, we are not very used to physical confrontations.
Paradoxically, if in writing, the trend is towards a certain realism, in the movies it moves towards exageration.
1- Expect to write multiple versions of your scene, or even write your scene not only in multiple versions, but from multiple perspectives, to see which one will be the best.
2- Ask yourself why you are going to sweat to write this fight scene: will it advance your plot? Give capital information? Or satisfy your fantasies? In the same vein, what are the stakes? Is it a "ritual" fight between two males? Sport? A fight to the death? Do the stakes have the same importance for all the protagonists?
3-Learn a minimum about combat techniques, go to forums, read about the weapons you plan to use. Watch demonstrations on Youtube, watch your favorite action movies. Read the great specialists of the genre like Gemmell, RA Salvatore or Louis Lamour (it's Western, so a lot of fistfights). What do you mean those books are really crude? Who said fights were intellectual?
Think about your own experiences of violence IF IT DOES NOT TRAUMATIZE YOU.
4- You are going to have to make a series of choices:
- Will your scene be realistic? Totally unrealistic? In-between?
- Which tone will you use: clinical, epic, colorful or gory? Will the tone be different from the rest of your novel?
- Are you going to use a point of view internal to one of the fighters, or a witness, omniscient or alternate them?
5- You are going to define your settings : is it a wide meadow or a narrow staircase (if it is a sword fight, do the protagonists have room to draw their weapons or give them momentum?)? Are there obstacles? Light? How is the ground: rough, slippery?
6- What do the fighters wear: armor? Evening dress and stiletto heels?
7- What are the circumstances: is it an unplanned fight? An ambush? A duel? A war?
What are the mindset and motivations of the characters? If your fighter is a barbarian mercenary, and fighting is her activity, she might be more « relaxed » than, say, a prince who fights mostly for sports, but rarely for his life. Likewise, if there are several characters attacking an individual, they will not be as stressed as if it was a duel.
One thing often forgotten in fantasy novels is belief in the afterlife: if you are a Viking warrior and you are sure that if you are killed, you will go directly to sit at the god’s table, you will be more willing to take risks than if you are a total atheist.
First, a few tricky issues:
1- Great speeches:
They are a bit out of place. Have you ever seen people chatting in a fight? Even less listen to what they are told and give an appropriate response? if they are soldiers, their leader will give them brief orders. They can also have ritual insults at the start, or if they are not directly hitting each other, but other than that, the dialogue will be limited to curses and onomatopoeias.
Your characters aren't going to stop to comment on their injuries either, or they're dead!
Remember that most of the communication between humans is non-verbal, especially in highly emotional scenes. Instead, describe the facial expressions and stance of your fighters.
2- Great thoughts:
Your hero is not going to think of his shopping list, nor of a childhood memory, or review his life in flashback, Hollywood style. If s/he does, s/he's dead. On the other hand, if s/he has kept enough composure, s/he will have thuoghts related to the fight: her/his opponent has a shoelace undone, a strategy to attract the villain against the edge of the ledge, how to escape through this little hidden door that no one knows about ...
3- The duration of the fights:
If you read the US blogs, they shouldn't exceed 2-3 minutes, because a normal human wouldn't have the energy to fight any longer. This is true for modern people. I suspect even a weakish 12th century knight had more stamina than that. Besides, the battles of the Middle Ages still lasted a few hours. Granted, they weren't fighting all the time, but that gives you an idea. Ditto for legal duels and "judgments of God" which could drag on a bit. So you can go a little longer, but don’t bore the reader, especially if you are a real fencing expert! By the way, a sword fight, with its attack / parry / riposte sequences is rather monotonous: you have to spice it up a bit.
4- Hand-to-hand combat versus combat with weapons:
In general, physical brawls are described in more detail, as they are usually shorter, unless you are doing in manga style. Also, in combat with weapons, the tendency is to describe in detail the beginning and the end as well as the important sequences (one of the fighters is wounded for example), but for the rest, just give the general trend : who seems to have the upper hand? Are the opponents moving? Does one appear much faster or stronger than the other? Are there any exterior elements? Do they only use their swords? What is going on in their head?
The consensus is to have short sentences, action verbs, active rather than passive verbs. Lengthen sentences when you want to slow down.
You have to find a subtle balance between the description of gestures and the description of emotions.
In modern novels, the treatment of those scenes is strongly inspired by cinema: close-up of the hero's face, traveling to follow the combatants... There are even slow-motion, when the sentences get longer, and sometimes the camera (sorry , the narrator) focuses on an element external to the fight, in order to break the monotony: the face of the princess who trembles for her hero, the emperor who eats a popcorn while stifling a yawn above the arena, a hungry monster lurking in the shadows ready to eat all the fighters ...
If the description is mostly visual, do not forget the other senses, especially if you are writing from point of view internal to one of the characters (noises, perception of blows, smell, taste of blood in the mouth, etc.)
Some « accessories »:
1- A horse:
After many tumbles when I was a teenager, I can guarantee that this animal is not a chair! In a combat, with noise, even blows, it has a strong risk of panicking. In short, if your hero is on a horse, you have included one more character in your scene. If it's a trained warhorse, or better yet, a magic horse, it could take a thing or two. If not, do you really need a horse in this fight? Also check that your hero is good enough rider not to be thrown off and control his mount.
2- A fantastic animal: make sure you have a clear idea of their size, weight, anatomy, strength, speed and way of moving.
2- Ditto if you have to stage a fantastic humanoid like giant or elf.