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?