March 21st 2012
The Skill List Project: Fight Scene Basics
This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. As promised last time, we’ll be looking at a specific application of writing descriptive passages: fight scenes.
Of course, the term “fight scene” can apply to most scenes—as I said in the post on scene design, almost every scene should depict someone attempting to achieve a goal in the face of opposition. But for the purposes of this post, let’s concentrate on scenes with a high degree of physical action. Thus a chase scene would qualify as a “fight”, as would a hide-and-seek scene between a thief and a guard, even if such scenes never reach the point of actual combat. On the other hand, a purely verbal argument might colloquially be called a fight, but for this post, we’ll take it off the table.
Clarity vs. Chaos
I have never (thank the gods!) been in a genuine fight, but I’ve trained in Kung Fu for more than eighteen years, so I’ve certainly had a taste of people trying to whack me. I can assure you that when fists start flying, odd things happen to your view of the world. Some things seem very clear; others are a blur of confusion; almost everything else simply doesn’t exist for the duration of the bout.
Attempting to recreate this state of mind in verbal form is very difficult. Making it comprehensible to a reader is even worse.
So most writers don’t try. Even authors who write memorable edge-of-your-seat fight scenes don’t try to capture the truth of being in combat. Instead, they sacrifice authentic personal experience in favor of a less immediate viewpoint that’s more intelligible. In other words, writers give you a representation of the fight rather than an attempted reproduction of the viewpoint character’s actual experience .
This tradeoff between representation and reproduction bedevils all prose fiction, since we’re using a controlled linear medium to convey the uncontrolled non-linear experiences of life. But the disjunction is particularly acute in fight scenes, where fast and furious action unwinds at a much slower pace, dictated by the time required to describe what’s going on. (In the time required to say, “I punched him,” I can throw at least three punches and a kick.)
So the first question in writing a fight scene is where you want to come down on the spectrum between chaos and clarity, reproduction and representation. How much do you want to simulate the tunnel vision and incoherence of an actual fight? How far are you going to step back to a viewpoint that can see at least some of the bigger picture?
Different writers make different decisions on these questions. Some aim for a sense of the chaos of battle. Others spell things out with great carefulness, making sure that the reader has a much clearer understanding of what’s happening than would be possible for anyone who was actually there. Still others (Jim Butcher, I’m looking at you) have their characters say how chaotic combat is, then give beautifully clear descriptions of every little detail.
Realism vs. the Buckled Swash
So far, I’ve only been talking about presentation, not content—your approach to narrating action, not what the action is. When it comes to what actually happens during a fight, you arrive at another fundamental question: what kind of fight do you want to describe? Realistic down-and-dirty? Fun swashbuckling? Million-bullet gun fu? Ugly gut-wound bloodshed?
In a way, this question should answer itself, based on the rest of the story. If you’re writing a lighthearted romp, your fights should have a similar tone . If your story is more grim and gritty, your fights should be in keeping with that ambiance.
After all, there’s a vital point to remember: Your story doesn’t go on hiatus when the fighting begins. Fights can and should advance all the story’s elements, including plot, characterization, and theme.
For example, fights should be characterization: the way a character fights can’t help but be an intense expression of that character’s personality. It reveals who that character is when he or she is under pressure—when he or she doesn’t have the leisure to present a social persona. Or (depending on the nature of your story), a fight might reveal just how deep a social persona goes; in the fights of The Three Musketeers for example, the musketeers maintain their insouciance through thick and thin, thereby showing their superiority to Richelieu’s grim-faced guards and other less genteel enemies .
The actual moves of a battle must therefore reflect the characters—not just their fighting skills, but their temperaments. Consider Character A whacking Character B with a blunt instrument; here are several examples.
She aimed for the sweet spot just behind the man’s ear, where good solid contact would guarantee a knockout without too much chance of death. She swung: good solid contact. Yes.
He lashed out desperately, hoping to hit something, anything. He heard a crunch and felt the jolt of contact in his hand. The shock made him lose his grip on the weapon; it fell from his stinging fingers.
She brought the club down with all her strength, keeping her eyes on his face so she could see his reaction. It disappointed her: no gape of surprise that she’d actually beaten him, no sign of shame or humiliation. His expression just went slack. She hit him another fifteen times, but nothing changed. (Except the blood.)
All three of these examples have the same physical action (more or less), but the emotional content is completely different. Different characters fight differently, even when they do similar things.
For me, the internal personal content is paramount in making a fight scene come alive. However, the external action is obviously important too: we all love ingenious tactics and unexpected maneuvers, especially of the “Wow, I should have seen that coming” type. (I snarked at Jim Butcher earlier, but he writes great fight scenes that always have lovely surprises. Read and learn from the master.)
Some writers go so far as to gather their friends to play out fight scenes, making it possible to choreograph more realistic battles. (Beer might also be involved.) I’m wary of this—it means pinning your ability to write on the availability of other people—but it’s unquestionably important to have a clear vision of where your combatants are, how they’re standing, and so on. Acting out the fight on your own can clarify the action and help you avoid faux-pas. It can also give you ideas for what might happen next when you’re initially planning things out.
Not Done Yet
As in any battle, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. When I originally began writing this post, I intended to talk a lot about pacing a fight scene…but I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll leave pacing for next time. Until then, I’ll ask you readers for input: who writes good fight scenes, and why do you think they work?
 I have to tip my hat in the direction of Samuel R. Delany‘s Tales of Nevèrÿon in which a character barely escapes being eaten by a sea monster. She runs back to her village and tries to gasp out what happened, but she’s too agitated for people to understand her. As she gradually calms down, she becomes able to express herself more clearly, whereupon her listeners are flabbergasted by her adventure and ask her to repeat the story. More and more people show up to hear the tale, and she tells it over and over. She realizes that each time through, it becomes a better, more enthralling story, but less and less like the actual experience. It’s not that she’s falsifying the details, but she’s structuring them…and the original experience wasn’t structured at all. ↩
 Of course it’s possible to write something whose entire premise is “Lighthearted Romp Goes Bad”. Countless horror movies start with carefree teens happily partying, then suddenly the action shifts into gory violence. But if you’re writing something like that, you do it knowingly: you know that your tone is going to shift from Macarenas to machetes, so you don’t have to ask too many questions about what your fights should look like. ↩
 One elegantly effective gimmick is that “The Gloves Are Finally Off” moment when a cheerfully upbeat fighter finally gets serious. The first example to come to mind is Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. For most of the movie, he fights with a twinkle in his eye, like a charming host just having fun with his opponents…but in the climactic sword duel with Basil Rathbone, the twinkle is gone, replaced by grim determination. ↩
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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