The Skill List Project: Fight Pacing

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. Last time, I talked about fight scene basics. The post got several thought-filled comments from knowledgeable writers/fight savants, and I urge all you readers to check them out. (Thanks, commenters, for sharing your expertise!) A summary won’t do the comments justice, but I want to extract two important points to emphasize:

  1. Fight scenes should serve some purpose within the story besides just being loud. Have a definite purpose in mind, and make sure the scene fulfills it. (Of course, serving multiple purposes is usually better than serving just one.)
  2. Fight scenes should be convincing within the context of the story…and specific details are more convincing than generalities that haven’t been well thought out.

In other words, fight scenes can’t just be tossed off. We have to resist the influence of Hollywood, where fight scenes are the domains of fight choreographers rather than writers. (I get the impression that many scripts just say, “They fight; the hero wins.” All other aspects of the fight are handled by non-writers: the director, stunt coordinators, etc.)

In prose, the writer has to do all the thinking, all the planning, and all the envisioning. If a writer is slapdash on any of these points, the readers will know. As Elizabeth Moon said in the last post’s comments, this includes dealing honestly with the fight’s aftermath: the physical, psychological, social, and legal consequences of hurting someone else or being hurt yourself. Again, we have to resist the influence of Hollywood, where heroes routinely get into one fight after another without being injured or thrown into jail.

Pacing is Done with Wordspace

Having stressed that the content of a fight is primary, I want to set that aside and look at delivery: specifically the pacing. As always, it’s ludicrous to claim that content and delivery are separable—the words you use determine the content, and vice versa. On the other hand, this series of posts is about the skills of fiction-writing. The ability to pace a scene well is a learnable skill that can be improved, so let’s focus on that for a while.

Pacing is achieved through what I call wordspace. In crudest terms, this means the number of words (or the space on a page) that you devote to describing an action. The more words you use to describe the action, the more time elapses as the reader reads them, and the longer the action occupies the reader’s mind. You can speed up an action by using fewer words, or slow one down by using more.

Wordspace is the verbal equivalent of decreasing or increasing the film speed of a camera to achieve effects like jittery acceleration or slow-mo. (I introduced the idea of wordspace in a previous post.)

In the context of fight scenes, wordspace determines the fight’s pacing. This means that you have to pay attention to it—you can’t just describe actions “naïvely”.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example that we’ve all seen in movies. An assassin sneaks up behind a guard and whips a rope around the guard’s throat. The guard struggles, maybe bashing the assassin against nearby walls and furniture, but not making too much noise. The assassin hangs on and eventually the guard succumbs…but in his last second of life, the guard manages to kick over a table, sending the table’s contents crashing to the floor with a huge clatter and alerting other people that bad things are happening.

(Yes, it’s a cliché, but cut me some slack. It’s just an example.)

So how do you actually write this scene? One way would be to envision it from some point of view (e.g. the assassin’s) and then merely describe each action as clearly and accurately as you can. I call this the naïve approach, because it doesn’t take into account the effects of wordspace.

The problem is that a complex action will take more words to describe than a simple one. The complex action will therefore receive more wordsapce and will loom larger in the reader’s mind: it will seem more important than simple actions, and will seem as if it literally takes more time to happen. This may diminish the impact of the scene if it unbalances the pacing.

In our assassin/guard example, sneaking up behind the guard is pretty simple—it’s just slow quiet walking—but it undoubtedly takes longer than the actual struggle. For the sake of pacing, you usually want to drag out the description of the sneaking so that it reflects the actual time that the action takes. (As a bonus, this builds up suspense as the reader waits to see if the assassin succeeds.)

So how do you do this? You add more words to extend the time that the reader spends reading the action. I don’t mean that you put in empty padding; you put in meaningful padding—padding that adds to the reader’s experience, while also giving more wordspace and thus better pacing. Something like this:

The assassin peeked around the corner. A guard stood several paces away, crouched over a cell-phone that he’d propped on a Chippendale table (1778, from the collection of George Wyndham, third Earl of Egremont). The assassin grimaced to see this lout texting away atop one of the finest pieces in the museum. If the man’s filthy little phone scratched that priceless antique…well, he deserved what was coming.

The assassin opened his coat and examined his weaponry: taser…dagger…silk rope. He withdrew the rope—he refused to use the dagger for fear of spraying blood on the table, and he wanted to conserve the taser’s batteries in case they were needed later. Besides, the oaf should be killed, not just stunned, for his callous indifference to the treasures surrounding him.

Rope in hand, the assassin crept forward. Past an ornate cuckoo clock (ca. 1760, maker unknown, Black Forest region, from the collection of Father Franz Steyrer). Past two paintings by Watteau (a good one and a bad one, both dated 1710, both sold to the Duc du Roche who’d had terrible taste in art but excellent luck at buying work from artists on the verge of becoming famous). Past a lovely little harpsichord that some gullible curator claimed had once been played by Bach (C.P.E., not J.S.). So many fine pieces on display, and this fool of a guard was likely sexting some trollop.

On a Chippendale table. The nerve.

The assassin slipped his cord around the fool’s throat and twisted with righteous ferocity.

This is a lot of words compared to, “The assassin sneaked up on the guard and strangled him.” However, the words aren’t empty padding. For one thing, they portray the assassin’s personality and his apparent expertise in the field of antiques. [1]. For another, they set the scene for the ensuing fight: you’ll recall that the guard is going to thrash around (bashing the assassin into all those lovely antiques) and eventually the table gets kicked over. I’ve set all that up while the assassin is sneaking, so it’s already done by the time the action gets more intense. Finally, I’ve given the guard a little humanity—he’s not just a faceless nobody whose death has no weight.

(When the fight is over and the man is dead, I’m inclined to have the assassin pick up the phone and see that the guard has written “Daddy hopes you’re feeling better. I’ll be home real soon and bring you a”. Is that too much? Depends on the story.)

The point is that I expanded the simple action of sneaking in order to give it more prominence in the reader’s mind. By comparison, the actual fight should probably be short and punchy…although I might draw out the “thrashing” part, with the guard being considerably bigger and stronger than the assassin, and smashing through the museum exhibits like a dying bull in a china shop. The details would depend on the overall tone of the story—gratuitous destruction of antiques is pretty flippant, and wouldn’t fit into a serious piece. It would also depend on the role of the scene within the story; even serious pieces sometimes need a touch of black humor for comic relief.

Reactions

One last note before I end: the summer I was a student at Clarion West, Roger Zelazny recommended to the class that we write fights as one-third action and two-thirds reaction. For every sentence describing what the characters were doing, he suggested we put in two sentences describing how the characters felt about it.

Don’t take this as a hard-and-fast formula, but it can be a helpful rubric if you think one of your fight scenes is falling flat. Fighting is a primal experience, stirring up wild emotions, desperate thoughts, and psychological baggage. Fights reveal who a character is beneath all the niceties. Mostly, you’ll be concentrating on how your viewpoint character is affected, but you can show other characters’ reactions as well. In many cases, it’s the feelings that make a fight memorable—the exact sequence of punches, gunshots, sword stabs and parries won’t stick in the reader’s mind as strongly as the emotional impact of the fight.

Done Now

This posting has taken up all the wordspace it can handle, so it’s time for me to turn the soapbox over to commenters again. Next time, I don’t know what I’ll talk about. Are we ready to take a crack at the skill of writing dialogue? Check back in a month.


[1] Yes, of course I just stole a lot of these details from Wikipedia. I don’t feel guilty about that; this is just an off-the-cuff example in a blog post. However, if I were writing a real story in which I portrayed a character as an expert in eighteenth century arts and crafts, I’d have to do a heck of a lot more research. Thinking you can get away with superficial knowledge is a recipe for disaster.

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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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