I write violent fiction.
As a kid, I loved action movies and heroic fighting fantasy novels. I read The Iliad and The Odyssey when I was eleven and told my mom I preferred The Iliad because of the fight scenes. To this day, when I sit down to watch a movie, I will always choose the movie with the explosion on its poster over any other choice.
I am not an expert fighter and I have little real world experience facing real violence–that’s probably why I enjoy the canned stuff so much. When I think about my fixation with such grim things, I feel humbled and embarrassed. But when I write, my brain turns to my roots, and I write fight scenes. Lots of them. And they’re my favorite parts of the things I write.
These are the words I keep in mind for writing fight scenes that read fast and furious.
A fight scene is no good unless you can play it in your head and see it like your favorite movie. This isn’t a real fight, where action is closely packed and it’s hard to tell what’s going on over the dust and swearing. Readers demand clarity. Every pronoun and direct object needs to be clear, signaling what’s happening to who and with what. There should be a clear visual experience to your fight scene and a good sense of momentum. As you write, keep in mind why the opponents are fighting, and let that color what’s happening. Like every scene you write, the conflict needs to be set up, supported and resolved–it’s like a tiny three act play spelled out in violence. Ever watch Rocky? Every fight is its own perfect scene, building hope and fear and a solid visual resolution.
Here’s the end of a boxing match in a project I’m working on:
Billy Ray staggered away, fighting to get his air back. For a moment, he looked like he would puke, but he managed to straighten up. Pure rage crossed his face. Rani heard Black’s voice in her ear, an echo of yesterday’s training: “Don’t ever fight angry. That’s not what the game’s about.”
No one had told Billy Ray this.
He charged Black, fists flailing. Black was ready. One fast straight punch to Billy Ray’s unprotected jaw and his head whipped back, his body arched backward, all of his momentum snapping back on him like a broken rubber band. He lifted right up off his toes, clearing the ground.
For one long moment his body hung in the air. Then he landed with a thud that shook the ropes on the ring.
Pure movie theater action. There’s time for Rani, an observer, to reflect on the fight and what she’s learned from her boxing instructor. That observation only underlines our low opinion of Billy Ray’s boxing abilities. As he is hit, there’s a clear focus–we see Billy Ray flying through the air as if a camera has zoomed in on it, and we’re not distracted by the presence of the referee or Black or the crowd. We focus on that moment and watch it play out until its final denouement when he lands. Take that, villainous boxer!
Just because a good boxer should stay unemotional doesn’t mean a good writer ought to. Your goal as a creator is to inspire an emotional response in your audience, to make them feel what your characters are feeling. Bring in tiny details that focus on your character’s deepest emotions and sensations. A great example of this is a moment in the movie The Hunger Games. It’s a not exactly a fight, but it’s a great example of the use of small details within action. In a scene about halfway through the movie, Katniss is attempting to shoot a net bag full of apples, hoping to spill them and cause a small explosion. She shoots and makes only a small hole in the bag. Then she nocks an arrow for a second shot. The camera zooms in on the arrow, pulled back against her cheek. Her lips form a tiny ‘o’ as she exhales. It’s a very, very small moment, but it suddenly reminds us that she’s a very skilled archer taking this shot very seriously.
It’s also important to bring in elements of your character, little things that you’ve introduced at other points in the narrative, to tie your action into your character’s larger character arc. Fight scenes need to matter. There are a lot of movies that have fight scenes that make me yawn. They play out as brainless action, not matters of heart, and do nothing to advance the bigger story. The Hunger Games (both the book and the movie) does a great job using action scenes to advance character relationships. For example, in the film’s final fight scene, the last tribute antagonist, Cato, attacks Katniss and Peeta while they are sheltering from muttations. (There’s a lovely arc to this battle, BTW.) Cato grabs Peeta and holds a knife to his throat. Katniss has her bow ready, but can’t think of a way to shoot Cato without causing Peeta injury or death. But Peeta signals a perfect solution: to shoot Cato in the hand that’s gripping the knife at Peeta’s throat. An inch off, and Peeta will be killed. We’ve seen Peeta brag about Katniss’s shooting ability before. We’ve seen his ironclad belief in her. And now we see it at its unflinching strongest. It’s the perfect resolution to this scene, great action tying into real character relationships.
I wiggle when I read fight scenes. I catch myself moving around, internally blocking the fight choreography. If I can’t figure out how I’d perform an action, I have to go back and re-read and re-enact the moment. I’m angry if I can’t! I believe that every fight scene should be enact-able. Sure, not everyone can manage the super-heroics of your best fighter’s fights, but we should be able to figure out how we’d do it if we had that character’s abilities.
For this reason, I really believe in avoiding jargon as much as possible. It’s important to research your weapons and your martial arts styles, but don’t let that research dominate your story. Talk about body parts moving, not the kata you learned in your latest karate class. Here’s an example from my story “Mother Bears,” a Pathfinder Web Fiction from last April:
The jolly roger seemed to laugh as her knuckles connected with Gorg’s face, splitting the skin over his cheekbone with the force of the blow. He screamed and dropped to his knees—not incapacitated, but going for his boot knife. Jendara lashed out with her heel, launching the man backward across the room.
Anybody could act out that scene–it’s just that easy to read and envision.
In the end, your fight scene has to bring all these elements together and have language that sings. As you’re reading over your fight scene, pay attention to your sentence lengths. I find that in most fights, when my protagonist knows what she’s doing and she’s feeling in control of her actions, short sentences with a strong punch underline the action. Fragments can strengthen this feeling, or spin the fight in a new direction. A fragment can underline a mistake or a power shift. It’s like a sharp exhalation when you throw a punch–or take one. When things really fall apart, long tumbling sentences can give the dreamy sensation of action that’s moving fast while your POV character’s brain is stalled out and scrambling to catch up (and trust me, in real life, there are definitely moments when the hormones and adrenaline are hitting the body but the brain is out of touch).
Here’s an example from my novel, Dark Depths (forthcoming from Dagan Books):
Fury colored Lohra’s vision red. On the ground, short sword swinging, she ran. The toe of her boot connected with the white wolf’s muzzle and sent it flying with a sharp bark. Paws hit Lohra’s back, driving her to the ground. She felt hot breath on her neck, a spattering of carrion-scented saliva. She twisted her arm up, wedged it between her body and a furry neck. Pushed. With a grunt, she flipped the second wolf onto its back, her forearm braced against its throat. She snarled at it, catching its own rage.
For an instant, their eyes met. They shone clear blue in a strangely orange-furred face. They were intensely human.
Man, I still get the shivers when I read that fight scene, but of course, I know what happens next! I hope it gave you a hint of what I meant about using sentence length to give your fight scene a good sense of action.
I’m writing a new novel right now, another Pathfinder project. And trust, me there’s a lot of fight scenes going into it. I’m enjoying writing each and every scene–and I hope that when I finish this book, I’ve learned a few more tricks for making those scenes sizzle. If you have any other pointers or recommendations for favorite fight scenes in books, short stories, or movies, please let me know!