How to Write Great Fight Scenes
Fighting is a messy business. In your fiction, though, it can be downright boring, or it may lack flow, or stretch the boundaries of believability. How do you write a good fight scene? How do you ensure it preserves the action and suspense and drama of the rest of your work? How do you make it ring true? Steve and Aaron answer these questions and more on this weeks’ episode of Firsts in Fiction. You can listen below, or download the file here. Remember, you can always find Steve and I on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.
CHARACTER MOTIVATION: Fighting in your book should adhere to a few rules. The first of these is providing believable character motivation. Avoid putting a fight scene in your book simply to spice it up and create more action and/or conflict. If you have a fight scene for the sake of fighting, the lack of believability will push your reader out of the story. A fight should be unavoidable. If it isn’t, readers will know, and they’ll cry foul. It breaks the story, and jeopardizes the satisfaction of your readership.
KEEP THE OPPOSITION STRONG: What made the fight between Neo and Agent Smith so good? Why were we so eager to see Luke fight Vader? Our psychology wires us to appreciate a good challenge. We want to see our hero struggle before a triumph. We don’t want things to come too easily, and the contrast between success and failure is what makes the success so much better. There’s something to be said about a worthy opponent, someone who isn’t a pushover. Often, our heroes are measured by the opposition they overcome. Often, this opposition will come before the climax. In Equilibrium, the protagonists struggle is against himself. Once he decides to fight on the side of good, he’s able to easily overcome the villain. In The Matrix, Neo fails to overcome Agent Smith in their first fight. But once he realizes he is The One, he gains a new understanding and insight which allows him to easily defeat several agents at once. But, both of these work because the villains are shown to be of sufficient strength so as to add tension and drama. We understand that the hero wins, not because the villain is weak, but because our hero has ascended the ranks of power and become infinitely stronger than the opposition.
SHOW VS. TELL: Some weeks ago, we did an episode called The Mysterious Case of Show vs. Tell. The guidelines we discussed in it still hold true for fight scenes. Remember, fighting is a visceral, physical action. We should include details that will create imagery and allow our readers to better experience the fight. Charles Baxter, in his essay on “stillness” says that acts of violence are often made more startling when bookended with stillness (passages high in imagery that slow the narrative pace) and vice versa. You don’t want to overuse this tactic, but it can be quite effective when used sparingly. When doing this, try to remain impressionistic. Give small details, impressions of colors and sensations, rather than focusing on minute details our characters would be too preoccupied to notice. This lack of concrete details and imagery better portrays the craziness of a fight. However, this seeking of impressionistic detail should never compromise the sense of clarity for the reader.
For example, in the midst of battle, the ringing of his sword may somehow, for our hero, morph into the voice of his wife singing their son a bedtime story, just for a sentence, maybe even a half-sentence; long enough to burn in our memories, but not so long as to belabor a point. Such a subtle hesitation on delivering the action, such a short susurrus of intensity, does several things: it reminds us of what’s on the line for the character–what they have to lose; it also adds to the current tension by distracting our hero. He should be focused on the battle at hand; instead, he is worried about his wife. This distraction may have disastrous consequences for him. Using interior monologue this way can prove very effective.
A WRITER’S WEAPONS: In the same way that we would never send our heroes into battle without a weapon, we should never write a fight scene without remembering ours. While writer’s don’t use steel swords or fire automatic typewriters, we do wield a certain control over things like language, diction, figurative language, syntax, semantics, and even punctuation. We should use these in such a way as to heighten tension and conflict. Here’s how.
SENTENCE LENGTH: Something like the length of your sentences may not seem important, but it is. Varying the length will have a dramatic impact on the pacing of the story. Moments of stillness will likely have longer, more complex sentences. They will flow together and feel lyrical. But a fist fight will be punctuated with short, active sentences, and punchy details. Deliberate run-on sentences will give the fight a sense of wild abandon, of chaos and lack of control.
PRECISE LANGUAGE: Distill the writing of your fight scenes. Clear all “fluff” from your writing. Cut adverbs and adjectives wherever possible in favor of stronger, more dynamic nouns and verbs. These have a much higher pay-off in context of action and drama. One technique to accomplish this is to use onomatopoeia as verbs. This is a sound word (usually utilized as a noun) being put into the role of a verb. Think “clang.” An example sentence might read, “His sword clanged off the shield.” Or, “The bullets shrieked from the barrel.” Or, “The spell sizzled past his ear.”
SYNESTHESIA: This is an under-utilized device to create figurative language. Simply put, it’s the description of something experienced with one sense in context of another sense. My favorite example is, “The lights in the room dropped an octave.” Here, lights are experienced with the sense of sight, but octave is a musical term, which appeals to our sense of sound. While it may seem nonsensical, it is, in fact, a powerful tool to use, not only in moments of stillness, but of action. You might use this to say something like, “His heart blinked,” or, “He was blinded by the smell of gunpowder.”
NATURAL MOVEMENT AND BLOCKING: Bad fight scenes are notorious for bad blocking and unnatural movement. One second, our hero will throw a punch with their right hand, and then immediately block a punch from behind with the same hand. This kind of non-sequitur leaves the reader confused and frustrated. Above all, we want to be able to imagine the fight without having to break our brain. Remember, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Fights take a toll on our heroes physically. If they break their arm, they’re not going to use it to throw a punch or block or wield a sword. If they fall, and someone kicks them in the head, they won’t be getting up immediately. If your character swings a sword, they will begin in one position, one place, and end in another. Remember, these are not foam swords. They have mass, weight, speed, force. One can’t simply block it without suffering some drain on their energy, and likely sustaining some bruising or other physical damage. True, they may continue to fight despite the pain, but they won’t be as agile or nimble or fast as you imagine they are.
A fight builds on itself. For each action, there is a consequence. Ask yourself what those consequences are, and how they manifest themselves in the rest of the fight. Do some research. Pick up a broad sword and see how taxing it is to wave around. Look into different fighting styles and see what your character is most apt to learn. Perhaps they, like Mohammad Ali, like to adopt what appears to be a losing position only to gain the upper hand later in the fight.
STAY TRUE TO CHARACTER POV: How would your character fight. How would they describe it? Are they a strategist or brawler. Do they see the trap being laid for them? Are they laying a trap? Is this a chess match, with very calculated movements and foresight, or is this a read-and-react reflex of motion?
SPATIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS: Our characters should be aware of the environment surrounding them. Trees and forts, rivers and hills, buildings and cars, trucks and fences; all of these have an impact on the battle. They may complicate the conflict, or provide a resolution to it. Our characters should be aware of this. If they’re not, they may come across as thick or dense. Instead, make them shrewd and observant. What in their environment can give the hero an upper hand? What in their environment might put them at a disadvantage. Is the sun in someone’s eyes? Are there bottles on the table that can serve as a weapon in a pinch? However, resist the urge to have the environment solve the problem on its own. That is, the villain is pursuing our hero, but then he slams into a well-placed tree branch. These types of easily contrived quick-fixes feel more like deus ex machina than anything else.
WHEN USING MAGIC OR TECHNOLOGY: Be consistent. Brandon Sanderson suggests all fantasy and sci-fi writers meticulously plan out a magic system so that they will write about it consistently and believably. There’s nothing worse than seeing things that could be utilized not being utilized. We see this in the Harry Potter series (to some extent) and in the Star Wars film. If our reader is worrying about why our character didn’t use such-and-such a spell or shoot such-and-such cannon or use their rocket-boosters to escape, they’ll be taken out of the story. Whether or not your reader knows all the rules you’ve established is irrelevant. If you have rules, the fictive dream can be maintained.
Additionally, readers like when our heroes test the boundaries of established rules. If magic exists in your world, or advanced technology, think of new ways they can be utilized. Sure, people will use magic as a weapon, but how might they use it economically? How might the technology be sabotaged? Is there a way to combine spells? To unite different technologies to create something new? These types of out-of-the-box thinking bring a certain level of satisfaction for your reader.
WHEN DEPICTING MULTIPLE CHARACTERS IN A CONFLICT: Be clear about who is doing what. You may not have names, but you can give characters descriptive elements to serve as names. For example, “Red Hat lunged at me. I moved out of the way, but Crooked Nose kicked my legs from under me.”
Additionally, big battle scenes add an additional layer of difficulty by increasing the number of characters that must act in a believable way. They all need their own motivations, their own fighting styles, their own backstory. Not all of this will come out in the scene, but knowing it will help you craft a memorable, immersive scene.
You may want to map the scene out, maybe imagine it on stage. Remember, in real life, hordes of mindless thugs do not attack heroes one at a time. The more characters in the scene, the more chaos exudes. This creates a challenge to write about convincingly and clearly.
We’ll come back to the topic of multiple character scenes in a later episode. For now, we’ll call it a show and sign off. Until next week, good writing.