Writing Fight Scenes: my philosophy
[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]
So you’re working on a story, and there comes a point where it really ought to have a fight scene. But you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m not a martial artist! I’m not an SCA member! I have no idea how to fight!” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Fight scenes are so boring. I’d rather just skip over this and get back to the actual story.” Or something else that makes you dread writing that scene, rather than looking forward to it with anticipation.
Don’t worry, dear reader. I’m from the Internet, and I’m here to help. <g>
To the first group, I say: the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The important components are the same ones you’re already grappling with in the rest of your writing, namely, description, pacing, characterization, and all that good stuff.
To the second group, I say: it’s only boring if the author does it wrong.
You see, my Gospel of Combat is that a fight is part of the story. Just like any other scene. It isn’t — or shouldn’t be — pure spectacle. Movies can get away with leaning on spectacle, because they have lots of techniques they can use to make the stuff exciting: wire-fu, changing camera angles, a thrilling soundtrack, and so on. On the page, it’s harder, because words don’t work very well for describing movement. If you want to be precise, you slow the pace down far beyond the speed of what you’re describing. If you want to maintain the pace, you lose precision. And if you want to be precise and efficient, you have to resort to jargon. “Glissade, pas de bourrée, jeté, assemblé” quite accurately describes a sequence of ballet steps, in about the time it takes to perform them — but unless you know what those terms mean, it’s completely useless to you as a reader.
So in prose, a good fight scene is not one that leaves you with a complete mental image of every attack and block. It’s one that conveys story. And, just like a conversation or an investigation or a sex scene (the latter of which shares many technical challenges with combat), it should ideally be doing more than one thing at once.
Fights are often there for plot reasons: kill the bad guy. Get past the guards. Etc. That’s fine, but not enough. Personally, I love fight scenes because they can do so much on a character level. This is violence; it’s one of the most fundamental things hard-wired into our brains, alongside food and sex. What a character is and is not willing to do, when it comes down to fists or swords or guns, can reveal or change or confirm some fairly profound things about her personality. It can even play into or against the themes of a story, especially when you think about the way societies around the world have built philosophical frameworks around the control and deployment of violence. And, of course, there’s the artistic side; fight scenes can be just as much about good writing — description and so on — as anything else in the story.
If the scene isn’t doing anything terribly important on any of those fronts, then it doesn’t deserve much attention on the page. Drop in a sentence or two to say it happened, and get on with the actual story. Or figure out why this fight matters, and make it earn its place in the story.
In the SF Novelists post I used to launch this series, I talked about working on a production of Troilus and Cressida, staging a fight between the hero and his enemy Diomedes. That fight revealed ugly things about both of the participants: Diomedes was the kind of untrustworthy bastard who would cheat (pull a knife) the moment he started losing, and Troilus was the kind of violent bastard who would enjoy beating a man to death. This didn’t mean as much in Diomedes’ case; he’s Troilus’ enemy, therefore the villain, therefore expected to act in an underhanded manner. But Troilus? He was supposed to be the hero. Except this is Troilus and Cressida, the play without a moral center, in which everybody is some flavor of bastard. Sending him dark-side fed into the overall message of the play. Had Troilus come close to the edge, but then decided not to kill Diomedes, it would have been a different kind of pivotal moment: one in which he chose to reject the self-serving amorality of those around him, and hold himself to a better standard. And that’s different yet from the Doctor (of Doctor Who) forgoing the chance to kill someone; in the Doctor’s case, it’s a confirmation of what we already know about him as a person. But all three of those are dramatic moments, because they force the character to a crisis point, one with non-trivial stakes riding on its outcome.
Even when the matter isn’t life-or-death, violent actions can be very telling. Holly McClane decking the reporter at the end of Die Hard is part and parcel of that entire story: her part, her husband’s, the reporter’s, and everything that’s gone on in that (very violent) movie. Alanna (of Tamora Pierce’s novels) sparring against her old friends after they know she’s a woman highlights all the weird tensions that surround her position as a lady knight. The few seconds Sam and Dean Winchester spend fighting each other in the pilot episode of Supernatural tell us that these guys know what they’re doing, know each other’s moves very well, and have a bit of sibling rivalry going on. You could try to convey all that with dialogue, but the fight’s more efficient.
So. If your scene is important enough to merit actual time in the novel (or on the screen or whatever), then there’s something important going on in it, that has less to do with strikes and blocks, and more to do with the progress of the story. You can get surprisingly far by focusing on the latter, instead of the former, though we’ll talk in due course about how to do both.
In the meanwhile, stay tuned for the next post, in which I will discuss the most important question to answer for any fight scene. Until then . . . .