Fight scenes. They’re the coolest. Stakes, character, action, it all comes together when we break out the fists (and magic, and guns, and swords). But how can we fit this all on paper?
I’d like to preface this post with the fact that I have not studied a ‘correct’ way of writing. I just write what I know, and if the reader is affected in the desired manner, then the writing is good.
So let’s talk about fighting.
Fighting is many things. It means more based on the stakes of the fight, but that’s involved in the setup so we’ll ignore it. How can we write the actual fight?
I use four mediums for inspiration when crafting fight scenes, adjusting the level of involvement as it fits my needs. Each one has its own style, benefits, and downsides. Let’s go!
- Real Life
They say to write what you know, and this is it. I took martial arts for several years, and fought with people long before I gained that discipline. And while my actual fights never evolved beyond angry scratching and wrestling, I did learn from them.
The takeaway from untrained fighting is that the bigger, madder person will win. Adrenaline. Rage. These cloud our vision and change the way we perceive the world. We taste blood. We feel no pain. We don’t strategize. When the chips are down, we revert to animals, and animals can fight better than people.
Trained fighting is simple. It taught me that any move can be blocked, there are loose limits to human possibilities, and most importantly, it takes only one blow to end a realistic fight.
Fights based in real life are visceral, short affairs, rarely elegant or flashy, but can be quite interesting if the human perspective is thrown in. Include the anger, the disorientation, the fear of permanent damage, and the fight will grip your readers by their throats and pull them into the pages.
In movies, the flashier, the better. Stakes are usually high, but as mentioned before, you should have the stakes set up when the first punch is thrown. Here we look at Star Wars, The Matrix, and any number of high-powered fights. Star Wars has some of the best fights in cinema, and that is for three reasons. The stakes is the largest one. Think of the inner turmoil during the Emperor’s throne scene. That is stakes and conflict. But there are two other reasons. Kendo and laser swords. Hooked.
Heck, let’s pull back and look at Jackie Chan! His fights are (usually) humanly possible, but more focused on fun and flashy events. This fun can transition to the page just as well. It can stretch human limitations for the sake of an awesome jump, or fudge logic for an emotional confrontation.
Are you not entertained?
While there are Anime fight scenes that rival movies or even surpass them in their spectacle, that is not what I’m talking about. I’m featuring the Dragon Ball Z’s of anime, the Shonens (and Shonen parodies) that have the fighters talking more than fighting. Sounds boring, right? Yet this is something I love to include. Let me explain.
When Tanaka-san uses the new technique of Harabunmatsudatsu and spends five minutes explaining it, that’s a little much. But the point is still there. He’s thinking! The hero or villain can find ways to invalidate their opponent’s attacks, some twist of an ability or a newfound resistance. Explaining this might slow down the action, but it turns fighting into a meaningful chess game, one with lives hanging in the balance.
Using these techniques and explanations well can draw the fans into your made-up techniques of battle, and create suspense regarding the use of certain abilities versus others. However, it does slow down the action if used excessively. Use at your own risk.
Well, duh. But really, when I read a book about a great battle, sometimes I run into a section that doesn’t explain everything. The Hobbit, for example (ignore the movies). We are never shown what happened to Fili, Kili, or Thorin, as the main character was unconscious. Yet the same book spends a full chapter on a riddle game. Sometimes, the combat isn’t important. There is no need to shoehorn in a protagonist that can fight with the fury of his ancestors.
If the fight can add anything to your story, weigh the used pages. With the possible immersion, action, awe, and development from the fight be worth the space? In most cases, the answer is yes. But it is sometime no. A book about a relationship gone south or survival on a desert island might not need a fight. In those cases, the conflict is emotional, or against nature itself.
Make sure you need the fight scene. Then give it your all, and make it fit your story.
See you around!