Boss Fights & Paper Tigers


Having used Extra Credits yesterday to seamlessly segue into gaming parallels, I now want to look at boss fights. This is a gaming term but entirely applicable to almost any form of storytelling. A ‘boss’ is a particularly tough opponent. In gaming it’s usually an end-of-level enemy; in writing, think of it as either the main bad guy or one of his named flunkies/allies. It’s basically just a handy term for a peak-tension conflict against a named antagonist.

My ‘boss’ in Corpus is, for most of the book, described to the protagonist as the queen of the gods who’s going to wake up and enslave the populace. I’m currently at the point where I’m writing the first draft of that final boss fight, and I’ve posed myself a question – does there actually have to be a fight with the queen? Is it okay to build up the tension and fear of this antagonist and then have their known weakness exploited pre-emptively, or does that leave the reader feeling either frustrated or let-down?

The final boss fight is such a staple of stories that to not have one feels a bit risky. It’s been done, of course. There’s no actual showdown with Sauron in Lord of the Rings, for example, and the fight against Loki in Avengers Assemble is basically a walkover. In both cases there is a battle but it’s against minions rather than the boss – you still get the climactic build and release of tension, but the boss isn’t really a part of that hands-on conflict.

Puny god

Puny god

Obviously you need to pay attention to the tension pacing, and not wuss out entirely from a big finale. But if the Big Bad Boss turns out to be a paper tiger – if their bark is much worse than their bite – how much of an anticlimax does the reader consider that to be?

A lot depends on how it’s done, of course. If they have a known weakness to exploit it makes things easier, although it can be much harder to maintain tension and mystery in the story if everyone knows from page 12 onwards that Baldr will get shot with mistletoe, the Wicked Witch of the West will be given a bath and the One Ring will end up in Mount Doom. At that point the whole nature of the story changes from a focus on the end result to a focus on the journey, and much of the climactic impact is lost. So I guess you need to make at least one of several options clear – but not too clear – to the reader in order to set the right expectations for where tension should be:

  1. There is an Achilles’ Heel. It’s important not to over-telegraph this. (See TV Tropes’ wise words on Chekhov’s Gun and Epileptic Trees).
  2. The Boss is known to be less of a threat in certain situations or within a certain time-frame.
  3. The Boss is a leader rather than a fighter, so the challenge will be to get past their minions.
  4. The ending is inevitable and it’s the journey that counts. To be honest I feel that this is generally a weak approach unless you’re deliberately intending to subvert the finale.

What do you guys think? Am I wrong? Have I missed some obvious examples or points? It’s something I’m trying to figure out for myself so any thoughts would be gratefully received.

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