Fight! Fight! Fight!

NOTE: You can now buy the revised and expanded version of this blog series as an ebook, in both epub and mobi formats.

When I got to college, I made instant friends with the entire drama club by uttering five simple words:

“I know some stage combat.”

It isn’t a skill commonly found among college students. There was one other guy at the school who knew stunt fighting, but he was a senior, very busy with his thesis. For the next four years, I was the go-to girl for anything resembling fight scenes; I worked on sixteen plays, for things ranging from chasing a character around the stage with a broom to full-on duels. It was fun, stressful — and enlightening.

See, I’d always enjoyed fight scenes, in books or movies or wherever. When I started choreographing them myself, though, my understanding of the topic deepened immeasurably. Not only did I have to think about the practical concerns of stage work (how to make the scene safe, and hide its tricks from the audience); I had to construct the entire thing, move by move, with due consideration to not only what happens by why. And, above all, how to make it interesting.

To illustrate, let’s go back to my own senior year, when two directors asked me to put together multiple fights for two different plays — both of which were going up in two weeks.

(Hold on just a sec while I get over my PTSD. Rule #1 of stage combat is that the actors need time to practice. Two weeks is not enough to be really safe. But me refusing wouldn’t have made it any more safe, so I agreed and did my best. And chewed out the directors, of course.)

The two plays were both Shakespeare: Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida, with five fights between them. The two TN ones were both slapstick-y fun; the three for T&C, much less so. For the latter, I had to work out things like how to “break” an actor’s neck, which my high school fencing teacher (source of my knowledge) had never taught me — but the real trouble came from the big T&C fight, between Troilus and Diomedes.

The setup was this: Troilus, having lost Cressida to Diomedes, comes face-to-face with his enemy, and kills him. (If you don’t remember that being in the play, just go with it; this was a very cracked-out production.) The director wanted it to be a big moment, and so he told me he wanted the fight to be long — “at least five minutes.”

First word out of my mouth was “no.” Because the director had no idea what he was asking for. Assume one move per second — a slow pace, actually — that’s still three hundred moves. Even if I’d had the months necessary to choreograph, train, and rehearse, it would have been boring for the audience, because here’s the thing:

Only a movie can get away with making a fight purely about the spectacle.

In a movie, you’ve got stunt doubles and/or highly trained actors who can do the awesome things. You may also have wires. Furthermore, you can speed up or slow down the film, change camera angles, overlay the entire thing with a pulse-pounding soundtrack, and generally play all kinds of tricks to make the thing exciting. (Even then, a five-minute fight scene would be damn long.) On stage? You have actors who probably don’t know what they’re doing, a static point of view, and extremely limited special effects. The audience would be yawning. So I had to figure out how to give the director what he really wanted — a big dramatic scene — within the constraints of the stage.

Working that out was the most enlightening experience I had in four years of fight choreography. I sat down with the actor playing Troilus, and together he and I constructed an arc for the scene: how it would start, how it would end, what shifts would happen along the way. That was the key to making it exciting, you see; it couldn’t just be punch-punch-punch all the way through. Like a piece of music, it needed dynamics. And that meant digging into character, making use of the stage, and lots of other things I now realize are integral to a good fight scene.

The arc we built was this. The production’s aesthetic was sort of “post-apocalyptic rave;” characters had guns. But we didn’t want a gun-fight. So Troilus and Diomedes run into each other during the battle, guns out, but lay them down in a kind of truce; they’ll settle this like men, with their fists. (No dialogue, because this fight doesn’t exist in the script; it was all body language.) When the fight begins, it’s gentlemanly boxing, circling, feinting, dodging and blocking. But Troilus is better than Diomedes: he gets in a good blow, then another, and pretty soon Diomedes figures out he’s going to lose –

So he pulls a knife.

Now the entire tenor of the scene changes. Now it’s potentially lethal, and if Troilus stays within Diomedes’ reach he’s toast. The fight moves more rapidly across the stage, Diomedes pursuing, Troilus fleeing, up onto a platform on stage left, then up again to an upstage walkway, where Diomedes lunges and Troilus manages to trap his arm against a pole. He disarms Diomedes, and now we’re back to a fist-fight, only this time honor’s nowhere in the picture. More punching, and Troilus gets the upper hand again, until he has Diomedes down on the walkway and he’s just throwing blow after blow into the guy’s face, then strangles him to death. After a moment, Troilus gets up slowly, collects his gun, and is about to put some lead into his enemy for good measure when someone enters and the play returns to the script.

You see, one of the things going on in Troilus and Cressida is that everybody in it sucks. Even the “good guys” turn out to be good only some of the time; lots of productions cut the brief scenelet where Hector whacks a guy to steal his armor, because it’s depressing to find out even Hector’s only decent when somebody’s watching. So the shift the actor and I worked out was that when Troilus starts whaling on Diomedes again, he finds out he likes it. A black, horrible thing — but a powerful bit of characterization, that makes the fight more than just spectacle, or a plot device to remove Diomedes from the story.

And that’s what I learned to understand about fight scenes. They’re part of the story, and not just on the level of plot. Remember how I said I was choreographing five scenes for two plays in the space of about a week? One night I went from a T&C rehearsal straight to one for Twelfth Night, and my brain froze up; all I could think of was the choreography I’d just been doing for the other play. Director #2, meaning well, told me he didn’t mind if I just reused the same moves. I nearly had an aneurysm at the thought. “The same moves,” in this case, would have meant kicking the enemy in the head while he’s crawling across the floor — not exactly fun comedy material. I couldn’t cut-and-paste from one production to another, because they were fundamentally different stories, and what I was constructing had to fit its environment.

Fit, and add to. Fight scenes are intense, even the shallow silly ones, because at their base they’re about violence, what people are and are not willing to do to their fellow man or woman. Because of that, they can reveal or change or confirm important things about character. They can support a story’s themes. In fact, they should do those things, especially if they’re going to get any significant screen or or stage or page time; otherwise just knock them out of the way and get on with the real story. Movies have enough tricks on hand to get away with pure spectacle — but even then, how much more awesome is it when there’s more going on than just martial pyrotechnics?

At the Sirens Conference this past month, I held a workshop on writing fight scenes, and promised people — both those in the workshop, and those who weren’t able to come — that I would write the material up in more developed form. So if you want to know more, come on over to my LivejournalJ, because this is only the first in a series: over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting about the considerations that go into first envisioning a fight scene, and then rendering it on the page. (I’d do it here, but once-a-month posting wouldn’t really serve the topic in this instance.) No LJ account is required to comment there, and if you have another kind of blog, you can probably log in with OpenID; you should also be able to add it to whatever RSS reader you prefer.

In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comments here. What are your favorite fight scenes in books? What makes them so awesome? Have you ever written one yourself, and if so, how did you approach it?

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  1. 1. Andrew A. A.

    I can be immediatly swayed by a book if it has 2 things… A training sequence and a decent fight scene.

    When it comes to fight scenes the best ones are the ones(as you mentioned) that a realization about what a character can or is willing to do in middle of combat. I know that in a practical fight the body needs to take over where the mind is already exhausted which is the training of any organized fight system. The best written scenes will utilize this mental exhaustion as a device in any realization one has be it, “I… must… keep… going!” or “Hey i got a gun and all you got is a whip.”

    I’m also a proverbial underdog cheerleader. I appreciate a character over coming overwhelming odds to win. Those are the memories that stick with you.

    Amazingly most of the best written fight scenes seem to be only few paragraphs long. I always imagine them to be entire chapters but in reality those chapters includes set up and some kind of resolution. Sam Butcher’s Codex Aleria series have both major but few paragraph fights and a couple pages fights.

    I try to have my written fight scenes push the plot, bring in self realizations, and/or bring out an emotion. Because I have been an advid fight enthusiast, (western/eastern martial arts) and trained, I do try to make things practical and as realistic to the world I’m writing as possible. But at times this isn’t exciting enough so you must stretch a little… In reality most sword fighta don’t last more than a thirty seconds, a gun fight last even shorter… If your hero/antagonist can dodge bullets then why hasn’t anyone created something that the enemy can’t dodge? If you don’t have a reason then move on…

    I will be following your journal for tips. Thanks for the post!

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Do you know the story behind the gun-and-whip moment? It was supposed to be a big dramatic fight scene — but Harrison Ford was sick as a dog that day (you can see it if you look at him there), and just couldn’t manage it. So he said, “Why wouldn’t Indy just shoot him?” And thus a classic moment was born.

    You’re right that real fights are usually very short. But that isn’t nearly as interesting, is it? I see it as being like dialogue in fiction: neither one is realistic, in the sense of being “just like it is in real life;” instead they’re both heightened and polished for the purpose of drama. (Though you can get fun effects by dropping in a solid bit of pure realism here and there.)

  3. 3. Ariella

    This is a great idea for a series of posts and I’m excited that you’re going to cover it.

    I recently discovered Rory Miller’s book, Violence: a Writer’s Guide, which kind of blew my mind and made me re-think a lot of my assumptions about crafting fight scenes, but Miller is specifically interested in discussing the reality of violence rather than techniques for writing about it, so these posts will make an excellent counterpoint to his work.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Ooh, that book looks interesting. I’m definitely approaching this from a craft standpoint; it would be interesting to read the viewpoint of somebody who has more experience with actual violence.

  5. 5. Rachel Brown

    it would be interesting to read the viewpoint of somebody who has more experience with actual violence.

    I could do that.

    I read the sample on Smashwords. It’s interesting but very much from his perspective as a prison guard, largely dealing with career criminals, and not true of all violent situations – especially those which don’t involve career criminals.

    For instance, his advice for avoiding violent situations is absolutely accurate if you’re a well-to-do young man – the situations he discusses are indeed prone to becoming violent. It’s not true that by avoiding them women can reduce their own risk to “nearly zero,” because women are less likely to be the victim of random violence by strange men looking to prove their manhood, and more likely to be assaulted by dates, boyfriends, husbands, etc.

    His theories on PTSD don’t match current research, which says you’re MORE prone to PTSD if you’ve been repeatedly exposed to violence, and that you’re LEAST likely to get it if your exposure was a single incident and your life has otherwise been non-violent and stable. (He claims the opposite.)

    A lot of what he says is true in general, but only applies to one gender when he says it’s universal, or actually applies to both genders when he says it only applies to one, etc. For instance, that ritualized “You looking at me?” (shove) thing he says young men only do to other young men? I’ve had men try that on me. Twice. I’ve also seen teenage girls do it to each other.

    That being said, his description of how it feels internally to suddenly be in a violent or life-threatening situation – the variance of reactions, from brain-freeze to crazy exhilaration – is absolutely dead-on.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    It’s useful to get perspective on the career-criminal type, too, given how many fantasy novels involve characters who routinely engage in violence. (Sometimes of a sanctioned kind, sometimes not.) It reminds me of the series of LJ posts someone did a while back about the reality of being a teenaged runaway, and the mentality that life produces.

    But it’s also good to get counter-points. My own experience with actual violence — outside the context of, say, sparring, which is not at all the same — is limited to about two encounters, one when I was eleven, one where I came close to throwing a punch at a drunk guy but didn’t, so I don’t have a lot of first-hand knowledge of how that feels.

  7. 7. Adele

    I’d recommend the work of Geoff Thompson who was a bouncer in Coventry for year. His first few books were biographies about his doorman days and are entertaining, but his writing since he started teaching MA and his advice on dealing with on the street situations are much more informative. Simple things about personal safety that genuinely do apply to both genders or the gender he refers to which helps.
    He has a strong interest in psychology which informs his approach to things, is an interesting chap and has plenty of experience of real, casual street violence to draw on as well.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Adele — thanks! I’ll add that to my list.

  9. 9. Ian Thomas Healy

    I actually teach a workshop on writing all kinds of action scenes in books – fights, chases, battles, what-have-you. If you’d like to check it out, please visit http://www.writebetteraction.com.

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    May I suggest somewhere amid reading about crafting a fight scene and reading about other people’s fights, that the writer consider actually taking a lick or two?

    Pause for head shaking and/or eye rolling.

    No, this isn’t some “Fight Club,” nonsense, it will improve your writing and your prospective on violence.

    Take a self defense class, preferably one with some poor schmoe (my sympathy is based on experience) in an attacker suit. Take a boxing class, even if you don’t spar, hitting a heavy bag will teach you how fun it’s NOT, trying to land a blow on a target that doesn’t cooperate. Take a plan ol’ Karate class with focus/non-contact sparing.

    Any of the three will provide ample demonstration why most real-world fights (not pushing/shoving matches) end in less than a minute.

    You’ll also see the necessity in an honest depiction that also illustrates consequences inherent to violence.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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