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Posted by on Apr 28, 2014 in Action, Writing | 25 comments

5 Tips For Making Your Fight Scenes Matter

5 Tips For Making Your Fight Scenes Matter

 

During the last few fight scenes I have watched or read, I’ve been bored.

This realization baffled me a little. After all, I am a red-blooded human male. Usually I love a good fight scene as much as the next guy. If there are fists flying, guns blazing, swords swinging (and mebbe taking off a few limbs here and there) I’m probably going to be sunk deep in the exclusively-masculine awed stupor that has baffled women since the invention of cinema.

After examining the problem a little deeper, I realized where it was coming from. Aside from the fact that I’m probably mellowing in my old age, I think my recent dissatisfaction stems from the fact that fight scenes have a marvelous propensity for pointlessness.

For most of us, fight scenes are fun to write. Dialogue and descriptions go on the backburner while we think up all kinds of cool ninja moves for our characters to bash each other with. And since fights are brimming with action and movement, it can often trick writers into feeling like their story is moving along faster than it really is.

At worst, fight scenes are gimmicky cop-outs that exist for no reason but to bring in a lot of false conflict and get the characters moving around—because the writer honestly doesn’t know what else to do with them.

Like any other scene in your story, a fight needs to matter. Here are a few tips for writing a meaningful fight scene.

 

1: Keep It Short and Sweet

 

In a fight scene, there comes a point at which the tension begins sinking, no matter how much the violence escalates. You need to end the fight just before that point.

Where is that point? Usually a lot sooner than you might think. There are only so many punches thrown, sword thrusts parried, or buildings exploded before boredom begins seeping in.

In reality, a fight to the death lasts about five seconds on average. For purposes of the story, we can make our fictional fights last a little longer, but not too much. Never say in sixteen punches what you could say in three.

 

2: Make Fighting Style Say Something About The Character

 

It bothers me when everyone in a story fights the same way. Fighting style should reveal something about the character—does he fight with smooth finesse, or with brutal, overpowering force?

If your character is the Sheriff of a rural town, we’re going to be a little shocked if he attacks a shoplifter with a combination of kenpo karate and the ancient art of Qui-Jon-Ja-Re-Tononon. If this is the case, you should give us an explanation of how he acquired this unusual skill—which will also give us a valuable glimpse into the character’s backstory, and how it has shaped him.

 

3: Make Injuries Matter

 

Hollywood fights take place in a world where bullets blow up fuel tanks and concussions are nonexistant. The heroes of most modern stories can take more damage than Superman and bounce right back the next day with nothing more than a few minor aches and pains, ready to go at it again.
In the real world, being knocked unconscious means that your brain has been slammed against your skull hard enough to bruise it.

Dude. You literally have a bruise on your brain, which means that when you wake up, you will most likely be in agonizing pain with all kinds of side effects, including memory loss, nausea, crippling dizziness, etc.

Escaping unscathed from a fight where people are trying to kill you is a very nice thing to think about, but real life hardly ever works like that. Your character will have injuries. And when he does, they should impede him in a way that poses a serious obstacle to overcome in his pursuit of the story goal.

And the way he overcomes that obstacle will tell us what kind of person he really is.

 

4: Add a Ticking Clock

 

The final act of the movie Inception is practically one big fight scene in several different locations. And I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. My toes were curled. I couldn’t look away. Why?

A ticking clock. One of the oldest storytelling techniques of all time.

Cobb and his team have a mission, and barely enough time to accomplish it.

Complications happen. There are more enemies then they planned for, one of their party gets mortally wounded, and Cobb’s creepy wife keeps showing up and trying to ruin stuff.

With every obstacle, we are reminded of that ticking clock, and the growing probability that they might not actually be able to finish their mission.

Give your main character something that he has to do in a very short amount of time—and then have the bad guys show up.

The ticking clock. It’s da bomb.

 

5: Make It Mean Something

 

All the blood, guts, and explosions in the world aren’t going to hold our attention if we don’t care about what’s happening. Every fight must have some kind of meaning, whether it’s a brawl with a drunken loudmouth in a parking lot or a final showdown with the villain.

We have to care about the character, and we have to care about his goal, even if we don’t entirely agree with it. We have to want him to win. We must understand why he absolutely must win this fight–and what he stands to lose if he doesn’t.

What are your techniques for writing a thrilling fight scene?

25 Comments

  1. Adding to #2, you should include this backstory about the Sheriff’s unusual skills before the fight. Unless he’s a side-character and it’s very early on. If you don’t mention it until the final battle, then it’s Deus ex Machina.

    My characters recently had a fight scene in a witch’s spell room. They were throwing her bottled potions and ingredients. Lots of fun. That’s one of my techniques for writing a fight scene; find the most interesting/unusual thing about the fight and have fun with it.
    Another technique is don’t write play by play, blow by blow. You will bore your readers to death (and I personally don’t even like writing like that). Focus on the emotions. A friend of mine wrote a blog post about this on his blog a few months ago and Writing Excuses did a whole podcast on it. http://insideliamsbrain.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/emotion-in-battles/

    • Excellent points all! You’re making me want to go add a couple more paragraphs to my article. 😉 I especially agree with your point regarding emotion. Fight scenes should be just as character driven as any other scene.

  2. So, I’ve got a question. After a character is injured enough to impede his pursuit of the story goal… What do you do with him?
    He’s kinda useless and wimpy, shuffling around at home in his favorite PJs and an ice pack on his head. How do you write that down time to maintain the reader’s interest?

    • Good question! It’s hard, I’ll admit. And sometimes, the character just doesn’t have any time to sit and recover from his injuries.
      You have to look at his injury as not just an obstacle to his goal, but a tool to really let your character shine in the eyes of the readers. When we see the character throwing away that ice pack, sucking back the pain, and finding a creative way to achieve his goal even with his broken ribs/cracked skull/miscellaneous stab wounds, they’re going to be rooting for him all the more.

  3. Good thoughts. (The boxing lemur is even better.) In truth, fight scenes translate much better to the big screen than books (which isn’t to say they *can’t* be done well in books), simply because of the visual element. in books, the key really is character. Readers care much more about the why than the how.

    • As soon as I saw that lemur, I knew he had to be mine. :p
      Yes! Fight scenes must be just as character-driven as any other part of the story. One of my biggest frustrations with most fight scenes is that they often instigate a break from any sort of character development whatsoever while everybody runs around wallopping each other.

      • Oh, gosh. Did I misspell walloping? I did. Fail.

  4. I really love this post! Usually I just skip the fight scenes when I’m reading because they bore me to much. I’ve only read a small number of books/series that actually make me want to read the whole sequence, and they included a good number of your tips, here. I’ll be saving this information for the future. 🙂

    • Glad to hear it! Yeah, I’ve been mightily tempted to skip the last few fight scenes I’ve come across. There are a few that still retain my attention, though.
      Brandon Sanderson. Now that dude can write fight scenes.

      • Brandon Sanderson…I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read anything by the man, but his name is familiar. Can you recommend a book by him? I’m not reading anything at the moment so I’ve got some time on my hands. 🙂

  5. “I’m probably going to be sunk deep in the exclusively-masculine awed stupor that has baffled women since the invention of cinema.”

    Okay, I laughed out loud at that and I thought you should know.

    Being, generally, one of those women (except, apparently, when it comes to Robin Hood–after all, I learned the archaic use of the word “buffet” from those books), /most/ fight scenes bore me. I haven’t seen Winter Soldier yet because of the amount of explosions in the trailer.

    I haven’t had much need for writing my own fighting scenes, but these tips make a lot of sense. It seems like #4 might also help you with #1…the character is going to be in more of a hurry, so you’ll have to be too. It could be that the reason Robin Hood fights get a free pass is because they’re good at #1. The style is different, so it dwells more on the important turning points of the fight than all of the blows in between. #2 made me think of /Heirborne/, actually, if I’m allowed to mention it. And #3, this: http://www.users.totalise.co.uk/~leiafee/ramblings/realistic_injuries.htm

    That article changed a huge chunk of how I treated the physical part of /Forest of Lies/’s showdown.

    • Good points! And I’m glad you thought of Heirborne–I put a lot of thought into those fight scenes. 😉
      Also, that’s a fantastic article. I can’t believe I haven’t stumbled across it before.

  6. I was just wondering how I should do my climactic fight and I didn’t think I could make it long enough. Thanks for saying that you should make it short and sweet and not make it long. That helps a lot!
    I really enjoy your blog!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoy it.

      And yep–when in doubt, shorten. 😉 Usually it’s not an issue of making it “long enough”–fight scenes especially can almost always be pared down.

  7. One of my big things is, I never include an injury that I myself haven’t experienced. Being clumsy though I have had quite a few, from sprained stomach mussels, (battle with a vine that nobody would deal with so I did) to concussions to your average bumps and bruises.

    I don’t enjoy writing fights. Most of my end up sounding something like “I lived, My sister lived, the cat lived, But the snake did not.” But I do enjoy writing the emotional turmoil of the recovery. The frustration of ‘I should be able to do this, so why can’t I!!!’

    I personally dread it when a battle take places in one of my stories to the point I have yet to finish a actual book. Arguments sure, but when it comes to actually fighting, forget it.

    Thanks for the tips I love your Vlogs.

    • Well, emotional conflict is usually a lot harder to write than physical conflict, so kudos for that. The trick with a fight scene is to combine both… have a physical fight that is also emotionally engaging.
      Thanks! Glad you like ’em. 🙂

  8. Since I am a delicate female who cannot even stand the thought of blood and therefore cannot comprehend the fascination males have for the loss of life and limb, I view fight scenes as a necessary evil rather than as plot filler. I enjoy writing the tension that leads up to one, but once the characters stop talking and start exchanging blows, I zoom out into a somewhat detailed summary of who fights who, how, and who eventually comes out at top, only including the most necessary action.

    These are some great tips, though – I definitely keep them in mind as I plunge into the battle scene that I’m rapidly approaching in one of my books.

    Oh, and thanks for the follow on Twitter. My siblings and I love your videos, and were wondering if you had any other online presence – and I was particularly curious about your writing. You’ve got a great blog here!

    • Heheh, yeah… it’s a guy thing, definitely. Although I do know a few exceptions…
      Thank you! Makes me happy to hear. 🙂

  9. I agree, the best fight scenes are those that are integral to the plot, move it forward, and, also, are ones where we are invested in the characters.

    Actually, along with my self, I know a lot of girls who love fight scenes/battle scenes in fiction(movies, TV shows, books, etc). I’ve thought they were awesome ever since I was little(especially when I got into Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia), and I really enjoy writing them as well as watching/reading them(the book series I’m writing is about a science fiction/fantasy war). Also, I’m in Taekwondo and I very much enjoy sparring/fighting. Enjoying fight scenes isn’t strictly a guy thing- it’s just something certain people of both genders enjoy.

    • Yeah, quite a few of my female writerly friends are just as much into the fight scenes as I am. One of them may or may not have actually defeated me with a foam Nerf sword, at one point…

    • I don’t like fight scenes (okay, some /Lord of the Rings/ gets a pass), I’m quite squeamish, and yet my sport of choice is foil fencing.

      So.

      Yeah, not sure what the deal is there. Fencing has no blood, I guess? Unless you’re Hamlet…

      (The second sport of choice, in case you’re wondering, is archery.)

      • “I don’t like fight scenes. My two favorite sports are ways of killing people.”
        No, nothing confusing about that at all. :p

  10. Thanks for all your great posts! I really enjoy reading them, they’re very inspirational, and very entertaining. 🙂

    • Thanks a bunch! ^_^

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