Writing Fight Scenes: Introduction

This month’s SF Novelists post is a bit different, because it’s the launching point for a series I’ll be doing over here on LJ for the next indeterminate amount of time.

At Sirens this past month, I did a workshop on writing fight scenes, and promised those who weren’t able to attend that I’d be posting the material online. That begins today, and will be continuing for a while. Check out the aforementioned post for sort of an anecdote-cum-mission statement, then head behind the cut for a bit more about me and why I’m interested in this subject, plus an outline of how I’m going to approach this.

It probably goes back to seeing The Princess Bride at the tender age of six. Inigo Montoya was always my favorite character; I pretty much don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to learn fencing, and it’s also his fault I studied Spanish. For years the only “fencing” I knew was what my friends and I figured out with wooden dowel rods, but in high school my local rec center offered a free class, and me and several of those friends started taking it. The instructor attempted to teach us FIE style, but we wouldn’t stay linear for love or money, nor would we leave our off-hands out of it, so finally he said “screw it” and began teaching us period rapier-and-dagger styles instead. (Which is what most of us wanted anyway.) He also taught us the basics of stage combat: how to slap and punch and kick someone without actually doing them harm.

This all fed into a pre-existing fondness I had for fight scenes, both in books and in movies. As a teenager, I was a big R. A. Salvatore fan, with all those lovingly-detailed duels, and also a fan of action movies. Learning to fence, and learning to do stage combat, got me thinking about what makes such a scene cool. And, as detailed in my SF Novelists post, I made use of it when I got to college. Getting down into the practical guts of fight choreography fed back into my writing, especially the doppelganger novels (the first of which I wrote while in college), and it’s informed my thinking ever since.

So that’s where I’m coming from: my background in the topic is as a writer, a fight choreographer, and a fan. Because of that, I’ll be drawing from a wide range of examples as I write this series, including my own novels, plays I worked on, and books and movies that illustrate my points. Examples go better when you the audience are familiar with them, though, so here are a few key ones I’ll be bringing up more than once:

  • The Princess Bride. I mentioned imprinting on it, right? The duel between Inigo and the Man in Black atop the Cliffs of Insanity is a very useful example for fight scene structure; I may also reference the fight with Fezzik, and Inigo’s confrontation with Count Rugen. If you have for some reason never seen this movie, drop everything and go watch it now, you poor, deprived soul. 🙂
  • The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett. It contains the single best third-person omniscient fight scene I have ever read in a book. Hands down. It is also a fantastic book, one I’m loathe to spoil for people, but as it makes a very good illustrative example for how to do a fight scene on the page, I’ll probably be referencing it during this sequence. I highly recommend the series. Her prose is a little opaque — she tends to write around things, and you have to read between the lines to see what she isn’t saying — but it’s absolutely worth the effort.
  • My own first novel, findable either as Doppelganger (the old title) or as Warrior (the new title). I include this because, as the author, I know what I was trying to do, and why I used certain techniques to do it; I can go “behind the scenes” in a way that isn’t possible with the previous two sources.

What I’ll do, in all likelihood, is divide this series into three rough stages. The first will be theoretical in nature, talking about the role a fight plays in the story. The second will be about the structure of the fight itself: practicalities of deciding what happens, and how. The third will be about getting the fight onto the page: craft-level issues of what to say about the combat. Each of those stages will probably have multiple posts. We may or may not have a running “sample scene” that gets developed during the course of the series; I did that for the workshop, and may repeat it here.

I’m not sure how long the entire series will take — how many posts, and how often they will happen. Two a week sounds like a good thing to aim for, but we’ll see how that fares through the holidays. Anyway, I’ll group them all under a tag, so you can find the whole set easily if you want.

You are welcome at any point to ask questions, offer examples, correct me where I’m wrong, or hash out any scenes you’re working on yourself. I’m more than happy to give any help I can.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Introduction”

  1. erdedrache

    Sounds very interesting. I look forward to reading more.

  2. la_marquise_de_

    I will point the marquis that way. He’s my usual source for fight scene accuracy, and he’ll be interested in your take.

  3. blackcoat

    Perfect timing for me, thank you. I’ve got plenty of experience fighting, but as I’m just starting on this whole writing thing, I’m struggling to maintain pace and tension.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s tough to do with a scene that consists primarily of physical activity. Hopefully what I have to say will be useful to you.

  4. temporaryworlds

    Fight scenes are something I’ve always struggled with, so this will be very helpful to me 🙂

  5. Anonymous

    So glad you’re doing this – I look forward to hearing more!

  6. artemisgrey

    Yay!!!! I’m still so bummed that I missed this at Sirens. I love me a good fight scene… too much time spent around SCA folks and Highlander games competitors… I too am a R.A. Salvatore fan. I still go back and read through his fight scenes just because they create such a vivid picture. Can’t wait to follow the posts on this subject!

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t know if I would use him as my model anymore; I’d have to go back and re-read his books to see what I think of those scenes now. Maybe they would hold up, and maybe they wouldn’t. But certainly he’s a big factor in how I got interested in the subject.

  7. alecaustin

    Been looking forward to this.

    Fight choreography is a nice (and different) angle to come at things from. I suspect that Salvatore is a bit of an influence on me as well, though mostly via The Crystal Shard and maybe the Dark Elf books, because I stopped reading him after those.

    I should tell you some of the sillier stories from my FIE fencing classes sometime – I managed to break not one, but two swords in the course of matches with my friend Claire.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I mostly only cared about the dark elf books. But the ongoing duels between Drizzt and Entreri were certainly thrilling to my thirteen-year-old brain. 🙂

      Fencing stories are welcome! My own (admittedly small) class is notable for being populated solely by lefties, making me probably the only right-handed fencer in the world who feels weird facing off against another right-handed person.

  8. Anonymous

    I’m looking forward to this. I write fight scenes like pulling teeth (which means that I mostly try to avoid writing them), so anything to ease up on that part of the writing process is very welcome.

    • Marie Brennan

      I may be offering false advertising, in that my advice might not make writing those scenes easier. I think there’s a lot of stuff to juggle in them, and that ain’t a cakewalk. But hopefully this will make them more interesting, so the work is less troublesome.

  9. Anonymous

    I will freely admit to being a grouch about fight scenes. My favorite is also from The Princess Bride: When Count Rugen’s soldiers (try) to block Inigo in pursuit of the Count. I’ll pause while you find that on your DVD (it’s scene 24, at approximately 1:21:30). That is realistic and convincing. (Although the other epic fight scenese in that film also betray that the choreographer knew something about how fights with lethal intent are structured…)

    Too many fight scenes — particularly in martial arts films — ignore lethality. Hopefully, Our Gracious Hostess won’t in this series… because she didn’t in Doppelganger. One of her other examples — not so much.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, like I need to cue up the DVDs to know what you mean. 😛 I mean, really, sir.

      There is one glaring flaw in Dunnett’s scene, which I presume you’re referring to. I’ll mention that in due course. Realism is a topic we’ll be addressing anyway; true, most fight scenes are not realistic. Neither is most dialogue. They’re both artfully crafted so as to heighten their effect.

      • rachelmanija

        There is a difference, though, between crafting to give the impression of realism and crafting in which it’s not intended to be realistic at all.

        The Princess Bride is an interesting example of a movie in which the fights are playing with multiple levels of realism/non-realism: everything is physically possible, but not exactly likely except in a fairy-tale. Some characters don’t play by fairy-tale rules; some do, and then change their minds.

        • Marie Brennan

          Oh, indeed. (Throwing a knife into your opponent’s gut: not fairy-tale legal.)

          And since I operate in the spec fic arena, and particularly the fantasy one, there’s also the factor that “realism” in the context of the setting may not be the same as realism in the real world. The fights in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn came across very clearly as attempts to render wire-fu stunts on the page, with a magic system to explain why that was possible.

          • rachelmanija

            Oh, that sounds so cool! I may have to check that out now. (Is it otherwise good/up my alley?)

          • Marie Brennan

            I didn’t warm to it; while I respect Sanderson for trying to do the wire-fu thing in prose (something I’ve wondered more than once how to do), the actual magic ended up feeling very video-game-y to me. And I never really got attached to any of the characters, which is the major way I get invested in a story.

        • marycatelli

          physically possible

          Well —

          My sister has her students analyze movie scene for accuracy. There’s the scene where the sword gets thrown into the air and then comes back down much later. One student calculated the speed with which it would have to launch (and, of course, land).

          Not possible.

  10. greybar

    This makes me think of the “old masters” such as Zelazny and Vance who (IIRC) also tended to have both fencing and martial arts experience. I remember Zelazny writing about Corwin “parrying in quarte” or somesuch and having no idea what that meant but my brain made it up and it felt right. Ah here it is thanks to Google: “His blade flashed forward, and I parried in quarte, attacked in sixte.”

    Getting to the adding to plot aspect, that also makes me think of the fight scenes that are desperate because our hero is completely outclassed. Such as Corwin fighting Benedict – there it is all about “how can I not be butchered before I blink”.

    • Marie Brennan

      And then you get the scene — I wish I could remember what it was from — where some guy is supposedly disengaging with a broadsword. Sometimes the old masters had the experience, but didn’t remember that what they knew doesn’t apply to all weapons . . . .

      (A disengage is a tiny, tiny flick of a movement done in fencing: you drop your tip just under your opponent’s blade and back up on the other side. Try doing that, subtly and with speed, with a blade that weighs three times as much. Uh-huh.)

      But yes, we’ll be discussing jargon, its uses and misuses. It’ll be interesting to hear when people followed it, and when they didn’t.

      • blackcoat

        This actually brings up a point that I struggle with. I have enough training that I can picture exactly what everyone involved in the fight is doing. But, when I think “He’s standing in hanmi, the attacker thrusts in with a knife held in a reverse icepick grip, then traps the arm with katate dori…” I wonder where I lose my audience. But! These scenes I’m currently writing? In first person, and if I were recalling a fight to someone else, that’s how I’d describe it. It wouldn’t occur to me, until they asked for clarification, that I wasn’t explaining it clearly when I used my technical jargon…

        • Marie Brennan

          I’m of the opinion that less jargon is almost always the better route to go — though not universally. There are occasions when it serves the story well. But even then, only in small doses, because most readers won’t understand it.

  11. aulus_poliutos

    Good topic. 🙂

    I come more from an epic background (the Illiad and Song of the Nibelungs were among the first books I read) and sword fighting, but like you, I love writing fight scenes. A lot more than some emotional father/son conflict dialogue, I can tell you. 😉 So it will be fun to compare notes, so to speak.

  12. rachelmanija

    Oh boy oh boy, this will be AWESOME!

  13. rachelmanija

    Are you going to get at all into the internal/emotional experience of fighting, and balancing that against what’s literally happening?

    I have noticed that in American movies that depict scenes of war there’s been a big movement away from the “objective view,” in which you can see exactly what’s happening in a battle, and toward the “subjective view,” in which you see just disconnected flashes of movement, an arm with a sword, a burst of light. I am much more a fan of being able to see what’s going on (and not get nauseated by shakycam.)

    Similarly, I’ve read fight scenes where you can follow what’s objectively happening, and ones that are so interior that you really can’t. One of the most interesting issues for me in writing fights, because I do like to know what’s happening, is doing that when the characters aren’t trained fighters or are in a berserker state or otherwise aren’t following the action closely themselves.

    • Marie Brennan

      Point of view is one of the big issues, yeah. Boy howdy would the duel in The Game of Kings be different if we were solidly in the head of one of the participants — even moreso if that took the form of first-person pov.

      I almost made this a very long comment, but I’ll rein myself in for now; pov will almost certainly get its own entire post.

      • rachelmanija

        Okay, I will stop pestering you after this, but which duel are you thinking of?

        • Marie Brennan

          The formal one: the trial by combat at Flaw Valleys, before everybody goes to Hexham.

          (Being roundabout so as to avoid spoilers, at least for the time being.)

          And hey, the comment threads are there so people can pester me. 🙂

  14. aszanoni

    Thanks so much for sharing this series!

    I’ve noticed this sometimes when copy-editing… the author who has the fight scene in mind, but who isn’t really clear on how it’d actually work out in practice. [Or who loses track of physics.] I’m a SCA fencer myself. :>

    Anyway, heard about this through Twitter. Thanks again, Swan-Tower.



    P.S. I got to say Hi to you in passing at WFC.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Thanks so much for sharing this series!

      Welcome! It’ll be handy to have input from other fencers (more experienced than I am) when it comes time to talk about the practical mechanics.

  15. alpheratz

    Hello, I came over from the SF Novelists post! I’m delighted that you mentioned the swordfight scene from The Game of Kings, which immediately became my favorite fight scene ever when I first read it a couple months ago. Will you be recommending other books that have good fight sequences?

    OMG you have a Lymond tag; how I have to add you.

    • Marie Brennan

      Welcome! If you’ve read the whole Lymond series, I can add you to the filter for that tag; I was doing a close reading (and book-blogging) of The Game of Kings, but it has spoilers up through Checkmate, hence being behind a filter.

      I’ll probably mention other good fights, yes — not sure which ones. I just sort of grab examples as they come to me. 🙂

      • alpheratz

        Ooh, yes, I would love that. I have indeed read the entire thing. It’s pretty cool that you filtered out the spoilers – I spoiled myself for some stuff (mainly the chess game in Pawn; goodness, your icon is appropriate!) reading other people’s meta because I couldn’t summon the patience to wait until I was done, and while I don’t regret it, it would be been a different reading experience. My friends refused to spoil me for the last two books. 😀

        • Marie Brennan

          Ooh, I’ll have to read through your posts. I had a hilarious time reading the posts of when she went through the series for the first time; watching people encounter that story makes for a great spectator sport. 🙂

          • alpheratz

            Hah, I know exactly what you mean. I’m pretty sure everyone was secretly laughing at my pain and I look forward to laughing at someone else’s in the future. 😀

  16. shakatany

    Hi I’m over from SFNovelists and am here to be your padawan as writing a fight scene is akin to actually participating in a fight…I’d be wiped out before I began.


  17. leatherdykeuk

    Splendid. I like putting fight scenes in my novels but have to force myself into non-technical terms

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