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 [1].

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 [2]. 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 [3].

Fight Choreography

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?

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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  1. 1. Elf M. Sternberg

    I’ve noticed that film, at least, has gone to extremes in both the “clarity” and “chaos” camps. Consider the distinction between the fight scenes in the Mission Impossible franchise with those in the Sherlock Holmes franchise.

    In the latter, you get long fight scenes drawn in with exceptional slow-motion, while the hero delivers a monologue on exactly what is happening in the middle of the fight, complete with anticipated changes necessary to compensate for any surprises the opponent may have. If there’s music, it’s charmingly light and simple. In the second film, the most dramatic battle scene involves the heroes running away from a fully functional munitions factory, and every bullet is lovingly followed in precise CGI glory.

    In the former, you get nothing but a blur of sound and light in darkened spaces, all set to a relentlessly pounding soundtrack. In the most remarkable of all such, the opening battle of the third film is set to gunfire in a darkened warehouse, and for the first five minutes of the film the audience has no idea what’s going on. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the hero so we know he’s still alive, but other than that nothing but explosions and flashes all exquisitely and precisely timed to keep the directors thumb on your “Something’s Happening Be Scared!” button deep inside your brain.

    I’ve opted for the clarity route in most of my work, just because it “felt” better. It also feels like cheating, since I’ve written erotica, to have the love scenes be so carefully detailed, but conflicts elided over.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Elf — I wouldn’t call that cheating at all; I’d call a clear sense of what your genre requires. In erotica, the love scenes are a high percentage of the reason your readers showed up for the book. Not only is the same not true of the fights, I think devoting as much attention to them could actively detract from the story — partly because of the pages it would eat up, that could otherwise be spent on more romantic/erotic parts of the narrative, but also because careful detailing of fight scenes usually leads the imagination in physical directions of the unpleasant sort. You want your readers to be thinking pleasurably about the body, not wincing as they imagine suffering those injuries themselves.

    (Full disclosure: I have rather a lot of thoughts on the topic of fight scenes, and the writing thereof. But in general, I cannot second strongly enough the idea that “Your story doesn’t go on hiatus when the fighting begins.” The conflict absolutely needs to support and further the narrative, in every way it possibly can.)

  3. 3. B. Ellwood

    This is an excellent article. Personally, what I need to work on is that crucial ‘your story doesn’t stop’ element. I have a tendency to either shortchange the scene or to get too involved in the details and completely lose the pace of the story. Only practice will help, alas.

    As for good fight scenes, I like to go back and read the fights from The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. It’s an action-heavy book but the fight scenes heighten tension without sacrificing Locke’s voice in the process.

  4. 4. James Alan Gardner

    Editing will also help, B.E. Remember that the first draft is not the last draft. If your initial version of the fight has problems, you can rework it: expand bits that are too skimpy, cut bits that are too verbose, add more personality if needed, and so on.

    Fight scenes are great for improving your editing skills, since their role in a story is usually pretty clear (i.e. you know why the people are fighting, and you should have a clear idea of what the immediate consequences are). This makes it easier to tell if your edits have improved the story: does the edited scene fulfill its role better than the original, and is it now more engaging than it was?

  5. 5. Durand Welsh

    I realise that SF and Fantasy takes liberties with reality, but I do prefer my fight scenes (I’m going to narrow this down to physical confrontations in the fisticuffs vein rather than car chases, verbal arguments, gun fights, etc) to have a grounding in reality. Unless there is some superior technological advancement that allows the usual rules of physics and body mechanics to be waived there are still only so many ways to throw a punch and so many ways a joint can bend.

    Two novels I’ve read fairly recently suffer greatly because the authors were obviously hand-waving when it came to the fight scenes. The problem is that unless you’re doing 3rd person omniscent to some degree you’re stepping inside the head of the character in the thick of the action. If they’re supposed to be a kickass fighter (as so many of these characters are supposed to be) then you would expect that what they are doing is realistic to some degree and that if our descriptions are being filtered via this character that they would have the knowledge to impart a degree of precision to their descriptions.

    I understand what is being said about representation and reproduction, but I think a writer needs to be careful about what passes as a representation of a fight.

    “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”

    I think a mistake in a lot of fiction is that the less immediate viewpoint chosen by the author is less intelligible than an attempted reproduction of the viewpoint character’s actual experience. The impression I often come away with is that the author has very little knowledge of body mechanics or real fighting and the fall-back for this is to rely on a generic representation of the fight, but this representation lacks any of the clarity or knowledge that would be expected if the character involved were narrating it.

    Before everyone jumps down my throat about how I’d have any idea about this, I’ve been in the police for 10+ years and at a guess I’ve investigated and prosecuted somewhere up around 1000 assaults and robberies in the last decade. (I actually think this is a very cautious estimate, because that’s only about 2 a week and there were times when I would have easily dealt with 5 assaults in a single night.)

    So I’ve given evidence as a witness for assaults (turning up to brawls while they’re still taking place will do that), as a victim of assaults (but never hurt badly, knock on wood), I’ve taken statements from victims and witnesses, photographed their injuries at the hospital, and as a prosecutor in local court I’ve cross-examined defendants on their accounts of assaults. (In New South Wales the police do the local court prosecutions in court.) I’ve also done (and still do) martial arts training, but there’re plenty of people out there better than me, so I’m not going to get on my pulpit on that subject.

    The biggest problem for me with a lot of fight scenes is not simply that they’re unrealistic (a problem in and of itself) but that there is no way to visualise the fight. A physical fight is visual to a large degree. Dialogue is obviously not likely to be the main focus. And if the fight is being filtered through a fighter’s eyes (think about all the protagonists who are supposed to be fighters or have had fight training) then they should be able to lend some precision to their descriptions.

    In court, the magistrate or jury wants to know precisely what occurred. A good story, a believable story, has detail. You never simply state that a person was punched to the jaw unless that’s all the detail that it’s possible to remember. You have to go into detail about what kind of punch it was — hammer fist, closed fist, open hand, straight, uppercut, etc, etc — and if and where that punch connected. The witness may not be able to remember, and in fact they may not even be sure how the hit occurred, but it’s expected that you attempt to elicit that detail. If someone blocks a punch, it’s usual to get the witness to demonstrate the exact movement to the court. You never let the witness say, “I blocked his punch”, and leave it at that. Who can visualise that? A story that you can’t visualise is a story the magistrate or jury is going to have questions about, and questions lead to doubt. Doubt about what? Well, the truthfulness of the witness’s story, and a voice of truth is something every storyteller wants.

    Lack of precision creates problems for me because it takes out the visual aspect of the fight scene and makes me suspect the author is hand waving. I’m thinking of two specific novels by different authors, both of them nominated for top awards in SF. Neither novel had a coherent physical description of what was occurring during the fight scenes. My interpretation of this was to assume that neither author had a clear understanding of what would occur in a real fight. (This was to a large extent backed up by the physical description of the fight that did make it into the scene.) If the characters were artists or this was a romance novel then who would care? Not me. But the characters in these fight scenes are trained killers. I’m expected to take them and their punch-ups seriously.

    When I say that they lacked a coherent physical description, I mean to say there was no real way to follow what was taking place. There were punches, kicks, blocks, but it was all very ethereal.

    Anyway, I’ve got a lot more to say about the topic but I’ve probably worn out my welcome for one post. :-) . i wrote a lengthy blog post (which I never posted on my blog due to a certain amount of controversial material in it) on this topic a couple of days before I saw this thread, and given that I’d held off posting on my own blog about it I figured I’d get some of it out of my system here. Grin.

  6. 6. Elizabeth Moon

    A little background: some years in rural EMS work, which involved seeing a lot of results of fights, and qualifying work in urban and military ERs, ditto. Childhood fight experience, complicated by being a girl, and thus not supposed to fight (back then, boys could without getting in trouble. Girls were supposed to get beaten up and cry, if they didn’t have an older brother to protect them. Fighting back was “unladylike.” I fought back and escaped the regular beatings some girls got.)

    As stated: fights happen faster than you can describe in writing, or readers can read. They’re often quite brief (especially with certain weapons involved) though multi-participant fights last longer–they generate more hostility.

    For the writer, a problem not yet mentioned occurs when the POV character is not a hot-shot fighter, but is attacked. Some readers assume that the POV is always actually the writer’s…and thus an unskilled character whose internal view of the fight is all chaos must mean the writer doesn’t know anything about fighting. When writers choose to put a fight scene into the point of view of a unskilled character (and this is a valid choice) it will take extra work to make it clear that it’s X who doesn’t know what’s going on or how to respond, not that the writer is skating past his/her own ignorance. This is possible in multi-viewpoint stories (novella-to-novel-length) because another character can be proxy for the writer’s own experience and knowledge.

    Marie’s exactly right that the kind of story you’re writing determines how much the fight scenes “count”–and whether they can advance the story, as they certainly should. In some stories, the fight scenes read like cheap add-ons–fake glitz to catch the eye.

    Character revelation that links to the fight scene can occur before it (is the character aware that a fight may happen in the near future? What does this say about that character’s past experience, attitude toward violence, etc?), during it (is confidence growing, shrinking?) and certainly after it (how does that character understand what happened? What changes does clobbering someone or being clobbered make in that character? Even as a child, every fight I had made a difference to me, to my attitude toward the attackers, to my understanding of how to avoid fights and how to come out of them with less damage.) You’re wasting opportunity for deeper characterization of your hero just wipe sup the barroom floor with six baddies and doesn’t get anything out of it but “Well, that’s done.” (Except in humor. As humor, that can work.)

    Beyond revealing character, a fight scene can and should reveal setting (the underlying culture, as well as the specific location) and be plot-relevant in at least two ways. Does the story’s history and culture glorify fighters? Distrust them? Loathe them? Will your victorious fighter get a dozen free beers, be hauled into court to explain herself, or automatically be sentenced to five at hard labor? Or something more complex? Will this fight have unintended consequences that affect the protagonist? Does someone watching the fight, or hearing about the fight, become attracted to, or repelled by, your character? Fight outcomes affect reputations in more than fighting itself. Actions have consequences–things will change outside the character (setting) as well as inside the character and it’s a waste if you don’t use that to propel the plot.

    Fight scenes should be carefully placed–they’re high impact reading, attention-getters–and not wasted on parts of the plot that don’t need them. If it’s the kind of story that has multiple fight scenes, they must not be all alike, all with the same rhythm. If not a light-hearted story, a character should react somewhat differently to new conflicts…different situation, different reactions. Starting a fight is a different mindset from reacting to an attack, though picking the moment to clobber the guy who’s standing there threatening you while he’s still boasting is yet a third. So put the fight scene where it will do the most good for every other element in the story.

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Author Information

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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