On Kicking Ass: How To Write a Fight Scene
Header image via Afonso Lima
This may sound strange, coming from a person who writes for a living on a site dedicated entirely to the craft of writing, but sometimes words fail us. We’ve all found themselves in situations where there’s nothing left to say. Somebody presumes to put hands on you and yours, and they aren’t hearing any arguments. So what then? How do we communicate when our differences can’t be resolved with a conversation? If you’re writing a Broadway musical, your characters will likely break out into song. But if you’re writing pretty much anything else, it’s time for a fight scene.
Obviously, I am not advocating using violence in your real life. Unless you really need to, I guess. That’s another article. But violence has been making conflicts more epic, and thus our stories more interesting, for as long as there have been people to tell them. Even if the fight is nothing more than the emotional exchange of snarky remarks, all of our most memorable fictions feature a contest of wills in one form or another. While it’s certainly possible to write dialogue that has just as much punch as actual fisticuffs (Raymond Chandler comes to mind), this article is about the physical application of force, and the best ways to represent it in words.
Before you fire the first shot, there’s a lot of homework to do. Violence scares and excites us on that primal level because we know it can strike suddenly, without warning or reason. That may be the plight of your characters, but you are the writer, and you have to know everything. The most random act of aggression has a motivation, even if it makes sense to no one but the perpetrator. Maybe your reader doesn’t need to know all of that, but you can only show so many pointless acts of violence before it ceases to have any impact. Give us just a bit of information, a reason to care about the outcome of the scuffle, and even a slap-fight between two toddlers can be riveting. One way you get the reader’s sympathy is by laying out the stakes. Ironically, only in a fight scene are “life and death” not big enough to hold our attention. After all, once you’re fighting, the threat of dying is already implicit. But what happens next? If the hero falls, will his wife’s murder go unavenged and his son be left an orphan in a harsh wasteland? Pose that question before the gauntlet is thrown, and your reader will not just read on to find out, but pick a side. People love to root for things. What is the World Cup if not a socially acceptable battle where the soldiers only pretend to die?
So let’s say you’ve done your research. You know the stakes, the strengths and skills of your combatants, the battleground, and the ultimate outcome. The dogs of war have been set loose. What kind of fight scene do you need? I find that most fictional fights fit into one of three categories that I totally made up: trouncing, dueling, and battling. These only apply in a literary, storytelling sense. If you want tactical advice, check out Nathan Scalia's article on guns, or also the rest of the internet.
Trouncing, Dueling or Battling?
“Trounce” is an old word that describes a severe, almost embarrassing, defeat. Stories that feature a lot of fights usually have at least one trouncing. It’s typically used to show the audience just how tough a certain character is, maybe by showing how easily they beat up some other bad ass. You see examples of this at the beginning of every action movie, like when the Black Widow takes out a bunch of Russian gangsters while cuffed to a chair. Once that scene is over, there is no doubt in your reader’s mind that this character is a capable combatant who is not to be trifled with. That character becomes a reference point—every other wannabe badass in the story is measured against that scale. The Hulk seems much more intimidating when we can see certified badass Black Widow’s fear of him. In all its forms, trouncing is a brief, quick-paced fight in which one side is clearly outmatched. But you can’t trounce everybody, unless you’re Bruce Lee.
When writing about personal combat, it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving an exhaustive blow-by-blow. It looks really good in movies, but describing every block and jab uses a lot of words to say very little, and slows the pace of the scene until it no longer feels visceral and exciting. If your combatants are going to exchange more than a few punches, take a look at how comic books render a fight. By their very nature, they can only show you the highlights—only the most devastating blows or clever dodges get featured in the panels. The rest of the skirmish is left to your imagination. Try to limit yourself to the turning points in the struggle, and summarize the rest. Be sure to punctuate your scuffle with plenty of physical indicators as well. Don’t just tell us where the punch landed, but also how much it hurt. Without reminders, that stunning spin-kick will have no impact on the reader.
A duel is usually (but not necessarily) between two characters. The sole point of their encounter is the fight that will ensue. Someone’s honor has been tarnished, and they can’t allow it to pass unrebuked. Whatever may be the source of their disagreement, it can only be resolved by crossing swords. The motivations for duels tend to be very personal. The size of the fight is irrelevant, what matters is the size of the conflict. It doesn’t have to be two gunslingers meeting at high noon to throw down. Even a decades-long feud between families is a duel if they’re only killing each other because Anse Hatfield and Randall McCoy can’t get along. A duel is rarely about anything larger than the fight itself. If it is, then you are talking about a battle.
Battle occurs when two opponents clash over a cause. It could be something epic like vast armies fighting a war to decide the fate of the world, or as simple as a retired hitman who decides to protect a little girl from the mafia. Frequently the participants do not want to fight, but they must for reasons beyond their control. A good battle is basically an argument made dramatically large, both sides making their points in blood. Take the Viper vs. the Mountain from Game of Thrones for example. On the surface it appears to be just a duel about vengeance, but it takes place as part of a trial, with both champions representing different causes. The Viper represents Tyrion, a good man shouting about honor and justice at the Mountain, standing for a kingdom that has become a monolith of malevolent indifference. It’s Man vs. Society in a ring with pointy sticks, and it turns out to be a trouncing as well. Hat-trick for Martin.
But if you are writing one of those massive engagements that will have to be filmed in one long tracking shot once you sell the movie rights, there’s basically two ways to go about it in prose. The first is good advice in any war: just keep moving. If your battle is huge, then it will be made up of hundreds of smaller fights, each with its own small victories, losses and reversals of fortune. Jumping from one point of view to the other is a good way to communicate the scale and the chaos of the conflict. William C. Dietz is an author with a particular talent for describing fields of war, and his Legion of the Damned series is full of the most poetic descriptions of tanks and starships annihilating each other you will ever read. But even as his characters are knee deep in the dead, Dietz never lets the reader lose sight of the big picture. War is hell, but reading about it doesn’t have to be. The second approach is to not mention the fighting at all—just show us the aftermath. Show us blackened skies and roads pock-marked with tank fire and the imagination will do all the heavy lifting. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance, is one big book of aftermath. The cause of the destruction is barely alluded to, and even in the present we rarely witness the violence as it is occurring, leaving us alone with the consequences.
Of course, combat is a highly fluid situation, and no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. These certainly aren’t unbreakable rules, but they are tried and true practices that work. If you can think of any other helpful pieces of advice, or just have an example of a really well-written fight scene, let me know in the comments below.
To leave a comment