Friday, March 14

Put Up Your Dukes: Writing a Fight Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A quick shout out that I'm over at Pub(lishing) Crawl today, talking about how festivals and conferences can make you a better author. Pop on over and say hello after you're through here. 

Ages ago when I was writing my very first fight scene, I had trouble keeping track of who did what and where they were. I used little pewter figures and moved everyone around and wrote step by step, imagining the fight in my head as I had my "characters" act it out.

While this was a useful way to keep track of the movements, it made for a pretty boring scene. I focused way too much on the mechanics and not enough on the story.

This is a common problem with fight scenes.

Fight scenes are fun to watch because they're fast, they show off athletic skill, and they usually have some serious cool moves. Reading a description of the same scene doesn't create the same excitement or enthusiasm.

Let's look at a short (two minutes) fight scene from The Matrix Reloaded.



Now let's see the same scene described. (I pick it up at 1:08)
"He's still only human."

An agent stepped forward and kicked at Neo. Neo ducked backward and the agent's foot whooshed by. He kicked again, but Neo blocked with his forearm. Kicks flew, Neo blocked, so fast it was all a blur. The agent switched to punches, but still Neo blocked, almost as if he wasn't even trying. He slapped every punch away. Then the agent grabbed Neo's fist and held it right in front of his face.

"Hmmm," Neo said. "Upgrades."

He grabbed the agent's arm and trapped it under his own. The other two agents rushed in, throwing punches, but Neo dodged them all. He spun, grabbing the agent's arms and bending them behind their backs, dancing out of the way of every punch. One darted forward and Neo kicked him back, then turned and punched the middle agent. The agents flailed like windmills but Neo was too fast, moving before their punches could land. Two swung at once and he slapped them away.

He knocked another set of punches away and leapt into the fray, jumping high and kicking at the agents as he passed over. The agents flew across the room and crashed into the walls. One fell onto the stone steps.

Neo landed and looked back, hands up and ready to deflect the next flurry of agent attacks. An agent grabbed Neo's arm and flung him upward. Neo grabbed a post and swung around it, kicking the agent with both feet and sending him flying. He smacked into the wall in a cloud of dust and fell face first to the floor.

Neo fought the remaining two agents. One tried to slam him to the ground but he flipped around his arm, kicking the other away before landing back on his feet. The last agent threw a punch and Neo ducked, circling around to the side, dodging every swing. He back flipped out through the door as the agent tried in vain to hit him.

Neo stopped and turned, sending the final agent flying with a well-placed roundhouse kick. He slammed into a lamppost and collapsed to the street. The lamp's glass fell and shattered all around them.

Neo scanned the area. A crumpled sheet of newspaper blew around the empty alley.
How many of you actually made it through the entire passage without skimming? And that was just forty-five seconds of footage. (from 1:08 to 1:53) Imagine trying to write a longer fight and how tedious it would get if you tried to show every punch or action.

When writing fight scenes, describing the blow by blow gets repetitious fast. Within a few lines it turns impersonal, and then confusing, and before long readers don't care anymore and they skim ahead to the next line of dialog.

Things You Can Do to Make Fight Scenes More Compelling for Readers


1. Use the point of view character

Fight scenes often fall flat because the author pulls away to describe the scene from afar, but being inside the POV is where the drama is. What he feels, thinks, how he sees the fight has much more impact that the physical punches.
"He's still only human."

Really? Neo smirked. That was more than these clowns.

The first agent charged and kicked at his head. Neo ducked backward and the agent's foot whooshed by, way closer than they normally got.

"Hmmm," Neo said, shifting to a defensive stance. "Upgrades."

They came at him all at once, arms swinging, legs flying in a blur. Neo spun, deflecting every punch.
It won't win any awards, but it's more interesting to read because we see the person behind all those punches. Keep your point of view character in the fight so it's more than just a description of punches. This scene will continue for a bit (I won't drag this on by describing it further) using the same mix of action and internalization and keeping it personal the POV character. 

(Here's more on POV and description)

2. Remember the goal

Any goal-less scene lacks drive because the reader doesn't see what the point is. They don't know why the protagonist is doing what he's doing. Fight scenes are even worse because the fight is rarely the point--it's the result of the fight or the reason for the fight that matters.

In this snippet, the goal is stated before the fight even starts--the people at the meeting need to escape, and Neo will hold off the agents. Readers know going in why the fight is happening, but throwing in a small reminder during the fight can remind the reader why the fight is important.
"The meeting is over, retreat to your exits. Agents are coming."

"Agents?"

The steel door dented inward.

"Go."

The door cracked and shattered. Three agents advanced.

"Hi fellas," Neo said.

"It's the anomaly. Do we proceed?"

"Yes."

"He's still only human."

Really? Neo smirked and stepped forward, blocking the door. That was more than these clowns.

The first agent charged and kicked at his head. Neo ducked backward and the agent's foot whooshed by, way closer than they normally got.

"Hmmm," Neo said, shifting to a defensive stance. "Upgrades."

They came at him all at once, arms swinging, legs flying in a blur. Neo spun, deflecting every punch. Get them out of there, Morpheus.
It's doesn't take much, but a few words here and there to shows what Neo is trying to do and keeps the scene moving from a plot standpoint. As this fight continues, you could break it up with Neo keeping in touch with his people or trying to decide if they had enough time to get away. Or he might just try to put the agents down as fast as possible.

(Here's more on crafting stronger character goals)

3. Make the stakes clear

If there's a fight, it's because of something, so let readers know what's at stake if the protagonist loses or things don't turn out in his favor. High stakes will make readers care and keep the tension high--something you want in every fight scene.
"The meeting is over, retreat to your exits. Agents are coming."

"Agents?"

The steel door dented inward.

"Go."

The door cracked and shattered. Three agents advanced.

"Hi fellas," Neo said.

"It's the anomaly. Do we proceed?"

"Yes."

"He's still only human."

Really? Neo smirked and stepped forward, blocking the door. That was more than these clowns.

The first agent charged and kicked at his head. Neo ducked backward and the agent's foot whooshed by, way closer than they normally got.

"Hmmm," Neo said, shifting to a defensive stance. "Upgrades."

They came at him all at once, arms swinging, legs flying in a blur. Neo spun, deflecting every punch. Get them out of there, Morpheus. He couldn't hold them off all day.

He caught a glimpse of Trinity before Morpheus dragged her away. For her, maybe he could.
Obviously I made the last part up, but protecting his friends and the woman he loves is all part of Neo's character in the movie, so it's easy to assume that would be on his mind if this were a book. It also raises the stakes from protecting friends to protecting someone he cares deeply about. It makes it more personal. As this fight continued, any time the agents got the upper hand Neo might think about what would happen if they beat him and find renewed strength to keep on fighting. 

(Here's more on raising the stakes)

4. Use the senses

Fight scenes can easily focus on the visual and forget the other senses, but those senses help bring the fight to life. Don't forget to add smells, sounds, the textures, and even the physical pain or exhaustion of the characters, or what they're feeling. Emotions can be a powerful element of a fight scene.
"The meeting is over, retreat to your exits. Agents are coming."

"Agents?" Fear tightened his words.

Bang! The steel door dented inward.

"Go."

They ran. Neo braced himself as another bang shook the door, then another, and another, until the metal cracked and shattered. Three agents advanced.

"Hi fellas," Neo said.

"It's the anomaly. Do we proceed?"

"Yes."

"He's still only human."

Really? Neo smirked That was more than these clowns. He stepped forward into the light, blocking the way.

Silence for a heartbeat. The first agent charged and kicked at his head. Neo ducked backward and the agent's foot whooshed by, so close bits of gravel and sand stung his cheek.

"Hmmm," Neo said, shifting to a defensive stance. "Upgrades."

They came at him all at once, arms swinging, legs flying. Neo spun, deflecting every punch, every kick, ignoring the sting and the pain as the blows landed in a blur. Get them out of there, Morpheus. He couldn't hold off these guys all day.

He caught a glimpse of Trinity before Morpheus dragged her away. Scared--for him, for all of them.

Okay, maybe he could.
A little can go a long way, and aim for just enough to flesh out the scene but no overpower it. Too many can slow the pacing and bog the scene down. You might decide to use different senses as the fight plays out, starting more visually and then getting more visceral as Neo tires or gets beat up.

(Here's more on describing emotions)

5. Have a point to it all

The most important aspect of a fight scene is what you want the scene to convey to the reader, and how it serves the story. If the point is to show your protagonist has bad ass skills, then have him exhibit those skills. If it's to show how he backs down and runs when things get tough, then show just enough of the fight to show things getting tough, then have him back down. It's not about the punches it's about the reasons those punches are being thrown (or swords being swung or guns being shot--whatever your fight scene entails).

Also think about how long you want to let this scene run. If you find yourself slipping back into pure descriptions of punches and nothing personal, that's a red flag that the fight might be over and it's time to wrap it up. Let it do what it needs to do and the get out.

(Here's more on writing action scenes)

When you know why a fight scene is there, it's easier to know how to choreograph it and what to show, because you'll know what matters to the scene. You can describe the elements that show those larger reasons and help move the story forward.

How do you feel about fight scenes? Do you read every punch or do you skim? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

21 comments:

  1. Okay, this is just eerie. I was taking a break from writing a fight scene that I was having trouble figuring out how to handle, and here fight scenes were the topic of today's post. How do you DO that? :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have gremlins spies. They find out who's struggling over what and report back to me.

      Delete
    2. I totally believe that. I've stared at a blank page for two days, afraid of the upcoming fight scene.
      Thanks!

      Delete
  2. I wrote a fight scene a few days ago that needs help. It's about to get an upgrade. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! Thanks for the examples and tips!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great examples! You have such a nice touch with words.

    Those gremlim spies of yours would be exhausted by the time they reported back to you with all the areas I struggle with.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feed them well, so they don't mind the extra work. :)

      Delete
  5. Hi Janice
    Great post. I love it when you take a scene like that and slowly improve it. It's a great way to make it applicable for us. I sometimes use the sequence you go through when editing my own work and it helps it stick.
    Cheers
    Mike

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, I have a lot of fun doing that. It's similar to how I write, actually. Sometimes it's easier to focus on one element at a time and bring that element out in every scene.

      Delete
  6. Great post. As a playwright, I find dialogue easy to put together but struggle with writing action (and there are several fights in the novel I'm working on). I'll keep the link to this article for reference. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Just in time for my last big fat comb over!!! Nicely done Janice. BTW the gremlins eat a lot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Yes, they do, but they're worth all those munchies.

      Delete
  8. I've only written one fight scene. I struggled with how much to add, and had to delete the whole "Twister" feel to it. Like, left foot did this, right hand did that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's easy to fall into that as we try to figure out who's doing what. It's not bad for a first draft, but that's definitely something to edit out on draft two.

      Delete
  9. O.O you totally caught me skimming.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoot! I must have hit pause on that video a hundred times writing that.

      Delete