Last week, we discussed how to set the stage for a proper fight scene, from sizing up your actors to choosing and designing a setting the fight will take place in. This week, we’ll dive into the anatomy of a fight and how to write one so that it’s exciting and keeps the reader turning the page.
The first thing we need to talk about is bad fights scenes. I read a lot of amateur fiction, be it fan fiction or web novels and while there are some writers out there who can write a damn good dust-up, a lot of otherwise good writers struggle when the time comes for combat.
A lot of the problem, especially in fan fiction, comes from trying to transcribe visual media. What goes in your eyes first and foremost are the obvious bits: the punches thrown, the jumps made, etc. This results in what I call ‘and then’ storytelling during the fight. To wit:
–He leapt on a table and then kicked one guy in the head, and then jumped down and then did a leg sweep that knocked another guy down–
It doesn’t have to blatantly use ‘and then’ and it usually does include some dialog, but that’s beside the point. It’s the worst thing a piece of writing can be; not misspelled, not grammatically flawed—BORING. You’re just listing the order of things that happened and maybe what was said between. There’s nothing kinetic or engaging or descriptive here.
Most writers are not helped by common wisdom that tells you not to use comma separated clauses (i.e., ‘He leapt on the table, kicking one guy in the head in the process). It might make sense in normal prose, but not when you want to keep the scene moving in the reader’s mind.
What ‘and then’ storytelling gives you is a skeleton; an outline of what needs to happen in the fight. This is valuable, but like a bowl of pasta without oil or sauce, it’s not enough to satisfy. Luckily, I’m here to show you hope to make this into a meal.
First up, description.
Let’s get this out of the way: it is inevitable that at some point you will have a character just plain punch or kick someone. It might even happen as part of a fight scene. But if you want a good fight scene, you should keep vanilla fighting moves to a minimum.
For example, try not to just have someone punch someone in whatever body part. Describe the move; did they wind up? A quick jab? What did it do to what it hit? How did the target react? Don’t answer all of these questions for every attack, but try to answer at least one and add more depending on how big of an effect it has on the fight. A shot to the gut that doubles someone over, setting them up for a crashing elbow across the back deserves more words than a quick jab that has little effect (see what I did there?).
It’s also important to mix up that attacks. Only in a truly righteous ass-beating, where one party isn’t really putting up a fight at all, will you really see someone just repeatedly throwing punches or kicking over and over again. When people fight they move around, they shift their weight, and most importantly, they use whatever is at their disposal as a weapon.
This doesn’t just mean smashing a bottle over someone’s head. It also means headbutts, shoulder slams, elbows and shoves. And when someone gets hit, they flinch, move to protect sensitive areas, and block. When you walk yourself through a fight scene, you need to map out all of this just like you’re choreographing for a movie. And just like in a movie, you can cut around and manipulate time to make it ‘look’ more exciting while reducing the amount of the scene you’re actually writing out. Here’s an example:
–Bill tripped Joe to the ground and fell with him, raining blow after blow on his head while Joe desperately tried to protect his face with his forearms. After a number of bruising hits, Joe managed to roll onto his shoulders, getting leverage to send a knee into Bill’s ribs, knocking the enraged man off him.–
There we have a sequence where I glossed over maybe a dozen punches while still making it clear what’s going on. I also paid special attention to show how Joe was able to take those blows, and how Joe positioned himself for the counter attack.
In the middle of it all, pay lots of attention to motion. Fighting is motion, and a good fight scene doesn’t stay in one place. Make sure everyone fighting is always in motion; trying to get to an advantageous position, being pushed or knocked away from a blow, rolling to avoid being hit—there are millions of reasons, but it’s imperative that you know what they are for the people in the scene you’re writing.
This is also where you want to employ those obstacles you set up from the first article. Maybe someone crawls under a table to avoid the violence, maybe someone gets slammed up against the bar. For added atmosphere, explore the effect this has on the object: are glasses knocked off the bar? Does a table someone fell on give way under the weight?
Using this can lead to changing that environment in interesting ways. If a glass fell off the bar and broke, there is now broken glass for someone to slip on or get their face ground into.
Now as to your combatants, I’ll let you in on a little secret of mine. First, know that fight scenes get exponentially harder to write proportional to the number of people fighting until those numbers are big enough to count as an army unit. Keeping track of so many people in space and time is something even veteran Hollywood choreographers try minimize if they can help it.
So how do I manage it? I don’t. Instead, when the time comes for a huge showdown, featuring the whole main cast of The Descendants, I cheat and visualize each main character, or set of characters working together as part of their own, personal scene. Often, I’ll split them up across a large area too, but this isn’t always the case, such as the club brawl in Beer Money.
How I do it is that I map out everything in my head as I described above, one character at a time, and then break each fight into chunks like a clip from a movie, switching which character I’m following based on what’s the most interesting thing going on at the moment. For the nerdy among us, imagine rolling initiative for each character and playing out their turns, step by step. That’s a good description of how I do it. For Rune Breaker, I’ve been known to actually roll the characters’ initiative because they are basically D&D characters.
It will help your writing a lot, now that you know these steps, to pick an action movie with a lot of combat and watch for these elements in them. In making a movie, someone needs to map everything out, because if things don’t happen right on their marks, it will either look fake, or become very dangerous. Keeping this mindset, as well as attention to characterization and motives, is the key to writing an enjoyable and engaging fight scene.
You may have noticed that I didn’t talk too much about powers in this and there’s a reason: when dealing with powers, be they magic spells, superpowers, or futuristic weapons, there are very few situations in which you shouldn’t treat them as just one more weapon/advantage a person’s packing. Describe them in the same way you would any other action taken.
The exception here is when the power is limited in some way, or can’t be used except under specific circumstances. In these cases, you want to avoid a very specific trap a lot of writers fall into, and that is reminding the reader that something cool could be happening right now, but can’t.
And the reason for this is the exact same reason you should never wave meat in front of a bear. The reader wants to see the coolest, most interesting, most engaging thing possible every second. Doling that out in carefully controlled portions is what we call suspense and is good. Pointing out that you’re doing that is not good because it’s very, very irritating and eventually, they will be come sick and tired of you.
I like to call this a case of blue macguffin for reasons that are hilarious and juvenile. You see it all the time too, especially in games where you get an awesome item that you can only use once, meaning you’re always saving it for later until it’s no longer exciting, but clutter.
So make it clear to the reader early on that this power/item is only coming to come up in dire circumstances and please, please stop mentioning how the hero can’t use it in every paragraph of a fight.
And finally, never be afraid to show off your characters. A lot of writers hold off on letting characters use their skills in the most interesting ways possible, not for in character reasons, but because they’re afraid of accusations of Mary Sueism. There are a lot more criteria for being a Mary Sue than being good at what you do. As long as they’re a well rounded character with non-trivial flaws, and who isn’t always instantly loved/right, it’s perfectly okay for an allegedly legendary swordsman to wreck house in a fight with some mooks and look badass doing it.
And trust me, if you’re following the tips in this article, they will look badass to your readers.