Conflict, as we all know, is the lifeblood of a story. And nothing quite epitomizes raw conflict like a thrilling fight scene. If you’re like me, you crave those climactic moments in prose or on the screen, when, the hero and villain finally find themselves facing each other, circling, ready to duke it out and solve this thing, mano a mano.
Column by Fonda Lee, author of debut novel ZEROBOXER (April 2015,
Flux/Llewellyn). er novel is an upper YA science fiction story about a young
man battling to make it to the top in the world of zero-gravity prizefighting
amid brewing interplanetary conflict between Earth and Mars. Lee writes science
fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. A professed action movie aficionado
and combat sports fan, Fonda has been training in martial arts since she was
a teenager and holds black belts in karate and kung fu. You can find Fonda on Twitter.
No matter at what point they occur in a story, fight scenes are like blocks of C-4 plastic explosive. They pack a hell of lot of energy. They build and release tension in a powerful burst. Used properly, they rivet attention and propel your story forward. Overused, they are noisy and deadening.
For most writers, fight scenes are one of those areas where the old adage “write what you know” often does not serve well. Most of us hope dearly to avoid the kinds of high-stakes combat situations we put our poor characters through, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to write fight scenes that feel desperately real.
As someone who has written, read, watched, and safely practiced a lot of fighting, here is some advice I’d offer to all writers who want to write fight scenes that pack more punch:
1. Fights Must Serve a Narrative Purpose
For a fight to have meaning, it must be essential to your story. Throwing in fights just to keep the reader’s attention and the action quotient high is something that Hollywood is often guilty of, but you don’t want to emulate a forgettable popcorn flick. Ask yourself what the purpose of the fight scene is. Is it to reveal character? To set up a crucial plot point that will have ramifications later? To create motivations for the protagonist or the antagonist? Write the action sequence with a focus on that goal.
If you remove the fight scene, does the storyline completely fall apart? It should. If your story is unaffected by the outcome of the fight, then your fight scene is unnecessary. In other words: the outcome of the fight must have crucial and irreversible consequences.
2. Fights are About Character and Emotion
It is rarely a good idea to start a story with a battle. Without knowing who the combatants are, without understanding what they are fighting for, and why we should care, fights are nothing but noise. Instead, get your reader to invest emotionally in your character, and you’ve laid the foundation for every action scene.
Keep your character’s nature, emotions, and motivations at the forefront of your mind during the scenes of greatest mayhem. For most people, the emotional hurdle required to resort to physical violence is high, so how your character is feeling internally and why they are fighting is more important to the story than the specifics of the fight itself.
Here’s a quick-and-dirty example I made up on the spot to illustrate:
“I’m going to kill you,” Jim snarled. He attacked with a big right overhand punch. David stepped out of range, but before he could bring his hands up to defend, Jim drove his shoulder into David’s chest, slamming him into the wall, where he started landing solid punches into David’s gut.
Serviceable. Bar fight material. Compare to:
How could David have done this to him? Jim’s face burned. An animal snarl clawed its way up his throat. “I’m going to kill you.” He lunged, swinging and missing. He slammed David into the wall. Then he was burying punches, over and over again.
The first version is more technically explicit. But which one feels more immediate? Which feels like it has higher personal stakes?
A straightforward blow-by-blow recounting of a fight is dry. What kind of feeling do you want to evoke in your fight scene? It could be desperation, humiliation, malice, grace, beauty, loyalty, betrayal, and so many other things. Use your skill as a writer to evoke those notes. A fight isn’t just a fight. It says something about the fighters.
3. Think Camera Tricks
There’s nothing worse than a boring action scene. In movies, directors use all sorts of camera angles and techniques to create visual engagement, and your writer’s belt holds similar weapons: point of view, distance, and time. Vary your reader’s perceptions.
From whose point of view do you want the reader to view the action? The protagonist is the obvious choice, but sometimes seeing key moments of action from the antagonist’s viewpoint, or the perspective of a secondary character, can be effective opportunities to build those characters and put a different lens in front of the reader.
Consider distance as well. Sometimes you want to be right in the fighter’s head, feeling what she’s feeling, both physically and emotionally. At other times, it can be brutally effective to draw back and take in the violence at a remove, giving it the stark impact of a war photograph.
In situations of extreme stress, time seems to slow down. On the other hand, fights in real life happen blisteringly fast. Use short, choppy words and sentences to speed up action, or slow it down by pausing on details or lengthening prose. Think of the rapid action, intercut with stylistic slow motion exemplified by movies like The Matrix.
4. Don’t Make Me Roll My Eyes
As an admitted fight scene aficionado, here are some things that make me want to smack the writer in the face with a rubber chicken:
- The hero who has no training, or merely a crash course from an expert, is suddenly able to fight and defeat far better fighters.
- The awesome warrior is able to fight many opponents and emerge completely unscathed. In any kind of real fight (that is not an ambush), both people will get hit. One person may be hit a whole lot more, but even in mismatched fights, blows fly and usually both parties take some damage. Don’t even talk about knife fights. If your character is in a knife fight, he or she will get cut.
- After fighting for an hour, the hero is still fresh and ready to continue the battle. There are two problems with this. One: most fights last mere seconds. They are over before most people can react. Two: fighting is probably one of the most exhausting things you can do. Five minutes is an eternity; look at professional fighters at the end of a round. Unless your characters are, in fact, magical, don’t give them powers that defy explanation.
- After being grievously injured in battle, a character miraculously recovers in a short amount of time. Again, unless you are writing X-men fanfiction about Wolverine, this doesn’t make any sense.
Don’t do these things, I beg you. Not unless you’re writing fantasy, and even then, there better be a damn good explanation.
5. Don’t cheat. Do your research.
I mentioned not getting too hung up on blow-by-blow specifics and focusing primarily on evoking emotion and character. But don’t take that to mean you can gloss over the fight itself. I recently read a popular YA fantasy novel in which the protagonist, a seasoned and skilled fighter, goes into a dangerous situation. “Excellent,” I thought, “now I’ll get to see her fight.” Instead, the action went something like this (not a direct quote):
She moved quickly, hitting and kicking, and in a few minutes, all the men were lying on the ground moaning.
At this point, I felt, dear reader, cheated. If you, as the writer, have set up a character who knows how to fight, and a story that promises action, you darn well better deliver on that promise. To me, this line told me one thing: the writer did not know anything about fighting and needed to get through the scene quickly.
As with anything, if you’re going to write it, research it. If you can, take some martial arts or self defense classes. Go to a firing range and handle a real gun. Watch professional combat sports. Watch action movies. Read novels with excellent action scenes. And find experts you can go to with questions. In your contact list, try to have a hand-to-hand combat person, a gun person, and a doctor or EMT.
Now, get out there you badass writers, and do some damage.
Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.
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- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.
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