Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Writing Fight Scenes Without Melodrama

By Joyce Scarbrough, @JoyceScarbrough

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I still remember the first fight scene I ever wrote, way back in the day. Complicated, overdone, I actually used ten or so pewter gaming figures to go through it step by step to get the action down just right. I don't think I let a single punch or sword thrust escape my notice, and you can imagine the horror of that scene. (Thankfully I got better at it). Today Joyce Scarbrough visits the lecture hall to share her tips on writing fight scenes to spare you from crafting any ghastly monstrosities.

The valedictorian of her high school graduating class, Joyce Scarbrough is a Southern woman weary of seeing herself and her peers portrayed in books and movies as either post-antebellum debutantes or barefoot hillbillies á la Daisy Duke, so all her heroines are smart, unpretentious women who refuse to be anyone but themselves. Joyce writes both adult and YA fiction and has four published novels as well as several short stories available as Kindle downloads. Joyce loves hanging out with other writers and stays active in the Mobile Writers Guild as well as her regional chapter of SCBWI. She’s lived all her life in beautiful LA (lower Alabama), she’s the mother of three gifted children and a blind Pomeranian named Tilly, and she’s been married for 31 years to the love of her life—a superhero who disguises himself during the day as a high school math teacher and coach.

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Take it away Joyce...

My books tend to have a lot of fight scenes for some reason. Considering that I’ve never been in a fight myself, maybe letting my characters duke it out is a non-violent means of dealing with my own repressed aggression issues. Whatever the reason, fight scenes are easy for me to write.

I’ve seen lots of online articles and blog posts about how to write epic battle scenes, sword fights, or action movie brawls, but not much about good ol’ fisticuffs between teenage rivals or dead girls with “super zombie strength.” Those are the kinds you’ll find in my books, so let’s look at how I write them without descending into melodrama.

1) Less is more

Actually, this is true for any emotionally charged scene, not just fights. If the scene is already intense because of what’s happening, you don’t need an abundance of expressive language. Be selective about what you describe in depth and make it count for the most impact. Here, more than ever, show what the characters are feeling by what they do in the fight and let their actions develop their character even more. What incited them to fight in the first place? Do they fight fair? What makes them stop?

Here’s an example from my first novel, TRUE BLUE FOREVER:
Mickey stopped and looked from Wade to Jeana. “What is he talking about?”

She moved so she was standing between them, her hands on Mickey’s chest. “I already told you, Mickey. He was saying awful things, taunting Billy Joe about being in love with me since we were kids.”

Wade laughed. “Yeah, he loves her all right. That’s why he wanted to kill me for the bruise on her arm.”

Realization registered immediately on Mickey’s face. He grabbed Jeana’s hand and pushed up the sleeve of her uniform.

He did this to you?”

She closed her eyes and nodded, and she felt the rage surge through Mickey’s body like an electrical current. He moved her aside and when she turned around, the two boys were rolling across the Corvette’s hood.

Wade was bigger than Mickey and managed to hit him once in the eye and a couple of hard shots to the ribs, but Mickey was so incensed that the first blow he landed squarely sent Wade reeling back against his car, already barely conscious.

But Mickey didn’t stop. He just kept beating on Wade, holding him over the Corvette’s hood with his left hand and hitting him over and over with his right, until Jeana was truly afraid for Wade’s life. She caught Mickey’s arm in mid-blow and was almost lifted off the ground from the forward momentum.

When Mickey looked at her, her tearful eyes pleaded with him. “Don’t hit him anymore, Mickey. Please.”

Mickey looked at Wade’s bloody face and glazed, unseeing eyes. He let go of his shirt, and Wade slid off the Corvette like a rag doll, falling to the blacktop in a crumpled heap.

2) Don’t be afraid to throw in some humor

Especially if there’s humor in the rest of your book (and there’s ALWAYS humor in mine), don’t be afraid to add some snarky thoughts or funny comments from the combatants to temper the violence. Sometimes you can even mitigate clichés this way.

Here’s how I did it in AFTER ME. The POV character is a dead girl named Jada who has—to quote Liam Neeson—“a very particular set of skills.”
I had always laughed at movies where the good guy whips five or six thugs at a time, but I knew without a doubt that I could’ve easily handled three or four more besides Dougie and his two buddies. And I didn’t even need them to dance around stupidly while they waited their turn to get their butts kicked.

Dougie grabbed my left arm and twisted it hard enough to dislocate it. I laughed in his face and punched him in the gut with my right hand, laughing harder when it lifted him off the ground several inches. All the wind came rushing out of his mouth in one big oof, and he fell to his knees with his arms wrapped around his belly, his eyes bulging like an astonished trout.

The other two guys were startled enough by what I did to Dougie to make them freeze for a few seconds, then I guess their clueless male egos took over because they each grabbed one of my arms and tried to pull me toward the car.

“Let’s go!” the taller one said. “We got a little party planned for you. Pete, go help Dougie up.”

“Nah, Pete,” I said. “Don’t bother.”

3) Less is more again. (The Sequel!)

If you relate every single blow and kick in overly-descriptive detail, most readers are going to get bored and roll their eyes before skipping the rest of the scene. It’s bad enough having to watch movie fight scenes that go on and on, but imagine reading something like this.
Todd threw a right hook that connected with Justin’s chin, sending him windmilling back until he slammed against the wall. Todd charged at him again, pummeling his midsection with lefts and rights until Justin finally fell to the ground and managed to roll away and avoid a kick to the ribs.

With cat-like speed, Justin leapt to his feet and began circling Todd, his eyes boring into his nemesis.

“You want some more?” Todd sneered. “Come get it!” He danced closer and feinted a few jabs, ducking back to taunt his opponent.

Infuriated, Justin lunged and tried to throw a roundhouse punch, but Todd blocked it with his forearm then slammed both fists across Justin’s back, simultaneously lifting his knee to greet his face with an unwelcome embrace.

Oh, geez. That was painful for me just to write.

4) Keep them short

Besides getting boring, if the fight goes on for too long, it’s simply unrealistic. Fight scenes should be fast-paced and over quickly if you want them to be believable. My husband used to be a Golden Glove boxer and was in excellent shape at the time, but a three-minute round of constant punching would still wear him out. (He solved this problem by frequently knocking out his opponents early in the first round so he wouldn’t get so tired.) The average Joe (or Jill) certainly can’t fight at full tilt for more than a minute or so.

Okay, so that’s how I do it. And since boxing is known as The Sweet Science, I think it’s apropos that writing emotionally charged, memorable fight scenes should be considered a fine-tuned skill as well.

About After Me

After she’s murdered by a sexual predator, 18-year-old Jada Gayle must stay among the living until she finds and stops the Internet stalker who killed her. When the Afterlife Admissions Office assigns the now “transdead” Jada to a foster home back among the living, she assumes the identity of a homeless teen and is expected to simply fit in as she hunts down her killer and others like him.

Complicating things even more, Jada discovers that an addendum to her termination agreement was inadvertently left out of her paperwork and means she now must learn to deal with normal human emotions. How can a dead girl be expected to feel anything when life had left her so empty? Then she meets Lew Stanton—captain of the chess team and computer whiz who makes her dead heart beat phantom rhythms in her chest. As if it’s not bad enough to have the hots for a nerd, Jada’s new friend Annalee likes him too.

While Jada deals with all this unwanted teenaged angst, the man who murdered her is closing in on more young girls. Jada thinks she has plenty of time to handle her predicament until the night she gets a terrifying message: I HAVE YOUR FRIEND.

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  1. Excellent article, and great advice! I also love writing fight scenes. I've read more than a few that have disappointed me, and I'm determined not to let that happen with my readers.

  2. Awesome advice!

  3. Wow, this opens my eyes to how truly horrendous some of the fight scenes I've written are!! Less is more, great advice, and thanks for showing how to be more effective!!

  4. Hi, Joyce,

    You do offer fine advice! In my YA novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, there is only one fight scene which is near the climax of the book. Like you, I believe in keeping it short and simple, less is more, using violence only where it's actually needed.

  5. Terrific writing, Joyce! Less is more has always been my mantra, whether for fight scenes or love scenes, and you use those three little words to perfection.

  6. Thanks for the great advice I'll put it to good use in the future.

  7. Excellent advice! I'm bookmarking and sharing this post. Thanks Joyce :)

  8. Nice post. Appreciate the "less is more" type advice. True for all sorts of scenes, doesn't it?

  9. I so agree--less is more! Always in my perspective I find myself skipping whole paragraphs otherwise

  10. Great advice to keep them short! We saw the last Transformers movie in the theatre, and I swear, the last half of the movie was one giant fight scene. It got old. Almost laughable.

  11. Great article, Joyce. I haven't written any fight scenes yet but at least I'll know how to do it now. I've skimmed many a redundant fight scene but you've certainly demonstrated that you've mastered the art.

  12. Oh wow, I loved that little snippet with Jada.
    I don't read YA, and I don't normally click on links to Amazon, but I just bought After Me. I opened it to browse, and couldn't stop reading.

    And I love the advice on writing fight scenes, too. :)

    1. Thanks, Veronica! Jada kicks butt quite a few times in AFTER ME, and I had a ball writing every scene! :-)

  13. Great fight advice! My YA anti-bully novel EAGLEBAIT contains a doozy of a fight in chapter 1. I think it repulsed adult readers but the kids loved it. Nice excerpts!

  14. Great advice, Joyce. I tend to throw in some "snarky" humor into my fight scenes, too.

  15. I loved True Blue Forever and can't wait to get my copy of After Me! Liked the advice of using humor in a fight scene.

  16. Good advice! I tend to spend more time on the dramatic build-up and the aftermath because you're right- it's sooo boring to read a long fight scene! I think people's imaginations are better at filling in the blanks of a fight scene than we give them credit for :)

  17. Enjoyed this article. I found your comments about your husband to be right on the money. As a black belt I often think movies are overdone. I do write long "fight" scenes, though their duration is due to the amount of combatants, as in battle. The actual pairings in these battles are over swiftly. However, I like to explain the actual feelings and thoughts of my fighters deeper than these examples. I like the reader to understand the sound of a fist (and the result, like a broken nose). Results are important, because that is a part of the outcome. In example 1, where was he hitting him? The stomach is far different than the face. Some places kill- fast. Now the fight becomes a murder.
    Thanks again for your perspective.