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 . . . .

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: my philosophy”

  1. edgyauthor

    Love this post (and not just because it has a nod to SUPERNATURAL in it, haha). I totally agree about something else needing to go on beneath the surface when a fight scene occurs. To just concentrate on the mechanics of fighting when writing a scene like that would bore me to death!

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s like a sex scene that’s pure mechanics of Tab A, Slot B. It loses all interest unless there’s something beyond clinical description involved.

  2. beccastareyes

    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.

    It’s weird, because a couple of months ago I came to the exact same conclusions when faced with a story that demanded two flight scenes — I realized I couldn’t describe more than the general flow of the fight, but that I could describe things like how the characters felt and how their reactions played into the fight. It was such a relief to realize, hey, I don’t need to worry about specific parries and thrusts as long as I write ‘this is how it’s going, this is where the characters are, this is what they are thinking’, because I could do that.

    • Marie Brennan

      Exactly. Jacqueline Carey managed to be very effective in Kushiel’s Dart by playing the trick of having her pov character (who wasn’t part of the fight, and didn’t know how to fight) wax rhapsodic about everything but the actual movements.

    • rachelmanija

      I think, also, from the POV of the character fighting, you can get around specific terms in two ways: if the character hasn’t been formally trained, they won’t know the terms themselves; if they have been trained, they still probably aren’t thinking in technical terms, or at least not all the time. If you slow down your mental processes enough to verbalize precisely, you’re going to get hit.

  3. genarti

    I love this post, because you articulate excellently exactly what I love about fight scenes. (Which means I fully expect to love this entire series!)

    When trying to explain, I tend to devolve into waving my hands incoherently and saying “But — it’s characterization! How they move! You can write around the punches!” Yes, some authors can manage the play-by-play technique well — I’m thinking of R.A. Salvatore, for one, whom I loved as a teenager and who despite some other flaws manages to keep a whole lot of sword-vs-monster/sword/battleaxe fights dynamic and distinct — but there are plenty who can’t, and who still manage compelling scenes of violence.

    I’m also thinking of an audiovisual example: the tv show The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I remember watching the first couple of episodes with a friend, and boring her terribly (poor thing) with how excited I was by the fight scenes. Because they fit; every character acted as they should have, moved as they should have, punched or shot or ran in ways that perfectly matched that character’s capabilities and priorities and emotions, and it was such a glory to me after too many shows in which wirework and flashy jump-kicks and witty quips took the place of the physical storytelling.

    • Marie Brennan

      Play-by-play can work, especially if that’s your audience. (R.A. Salvatore, of course, is writing D&D novels; he’s said before that he’s more or less required to put a fight in every X pages, as a constraint of the genre.) But it’s far from the only way to do it, and if you the writer don’t have the background for it, there’s no reason to give yourself headaches trying.

      • marycatelli

        and then you get fight scenes that are D&D rounds and you can hear them rolling for initiative

        • Marie Brennan

          When I was writing a paper on the depiction of the drow, I read a few Forgotten Realms novels where the poor authors had to deal with the “spell slots” system of magic. Watching them try to describe that in anything other than blatantly game-mechanical terms made me feel very sorry for them.

          • alecaustin

            Hilariously enough, it was probably significantly worse for them than it was for Jack Vance when he introduced the “spell erases itself from your mind as you cast it” notion in The Dying Earth stories.

            I have stuff to say about this post, but it might take a while to get onto the page, alas.

          • Marie Brennan

            Because they systematized it in a way I don’t think he did, breaking it down into “levels” of spells and having limits on how many of each level you can memorize and so on. (I haven’t read his books, though, so I’m only assuming that was a D&D-based addition.)

            Take your time on commenting; I never object to replies showing up on old posts, so long as they aren’t disguised links trying to sell me pharmaceuticals. <g>

          • alecaustin

            They were certainly able to cast many more spells than Vance’s sorcerers were. Before going traveling, Turjan commits like… 3 spells to memory? Maybe 5? One of which is ‘The Most Excellent Prismatic Spray.’

            (I may be getting the adjectives wrong, but Gygax stole a ton of things from Vance, and not very subtly either.)

          • Marie Brennan

            Well, it ain’t much fun if three rounds into the combat the wizard turns completely useless.

            The funny thing is, I could totally see that concept working in a less narratively-clunky fashion if it were treated differently. If a wizard’s mind can contain X amount of ready spell knowledge, and going up in level means raising the value of X, and higher-level spells eat a larger portion of that value, then wizards could choose between memorizing three kickass ninth-level spells and memorizing nine less powerful third-level spells. It would actually make the question of what spells to prep far more interesting, I think.

            And yes, Gygax was shameless in his stealing.

  4. veryclevername

    I’m not a writer but I do read a lot and this post has made me realize why some fight scenes(and sex scenes)turn into blah,blah,blah in my memories and make me skim to try and find the actual story again, while others completely glue me to the page. I’d known there was a big difference but I had never managed to articulate it to myself.

    Oh, I also just friended you, I saw this post on someone else’s friends list and realized that you also wrote those great Wheel of Time posts.

  5. swords_and_pens

    When I teach my “Rapier for Writers” class, I focus on a lot of this as well. I think some people are surprised at how much of the class involves talking about how to convey character and action and story and a sense of drama, as opposed to, say, actually holding & using the swords. The truth is, I can show you how a sword feels in your hand and describe simple principles at the most basic level, but I can’t teach you how to fight properly with a historical rapier, let alone write about it in convincing detail, in a ballroom with twenty other people at a con. The best I can do is help you figure out how to convey what you want to convey, possibly with a sword somewhere in the mix.

    As you say, fight scenes, like any other scene, need to accomplish something. Sometimes, that’s as simple and straight forward as physical conflict resolution, but even then, you should be learning something about the characters and world and so on. Too many people get hung up on the details of the physical exchange and forget everything else that is going on.

    On the other end, though, there is also the risk that, even if you do manage to convey all the other variables well, poor or inaccurate (or stock) physical details/sensations can end up making the fight come off as stilted or sanitized. This is the problem I have with a couple of the writers some folks like to hold up as good describers of combat. Yeah, the moves are there, but we’ve seen them all before; the action feels like its been gone over with an alcohol swab prior to hitting the page. I’m not saying it has to be blood and guts (I actually don’t like a lot of gore on the page), but it shouldn’t be simple clashing blades and standard close shaves, either. Combat is one of the most visceral things your characters can do: there should be a visceral nature or sense to the details as well.

    All in all, it’s a very delicate balance to strike. I look forward to seeing how you tackle the subject here in the coming weeks.

    • Marie Brennan

      I had a very similar situation working on plays: my actors usually had no idea how to do stage combat (and my own knowledge was on the limited side), so I had to choreograph in such a way as to put the emphasis on what the fight meant, rather than flashy moves.

      My feeling is that if you don’t know enough to get past the poor, inaccurate, or stock details, then you’re better off focusing on some other aspect of the scene anyway. Don’t tell me their blades clashed; tell me the expressions on their faces as they fought. That kind of thing. It can be emotionally visceral, to cover up the lack of physical viscera. <g>

  6. rachelmanija

    I’ve always thought that fight scenes and sex scenes have a lot in common even apart from the elements you mention: they’re intense interactions with another person in which the physical actions either reflect or contrast with the emotional reactions.

    Sparring can be very sexy to watch (beautiful bodies in motion) or to do (close contact of your hot sweaty body with the hot sweaty body of a person whom you have a crush on, is attractive in general, or with whom you spar so well together that you feel as if you’re reading each other’s minds.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, that essay I linked is on the old side; I’ve had more thoughts on the topic since then. But I don’t talk a lot about sex scenes because, well, I don’t generally write them. My plots are not usually the sort where what goes on in bed is important enough to merit page time. 🙂

  7. Anonymous

    I would tend to put things another way, but I don’t think it’s all that inconsistent:

    The depiction of a fight must be consistent with the interests of the characters engaged in the fight, and secondarily with the POV if the POV is not a participant.

    Example: If Inigo really is fighting Count Rugen because he wants his father back, Inigo’s actions need to be consistent with a driven, obsessive motivation that is not directly in the room between Inigo and Rugen. It should not be an elegant duel with sparse applause from simpering courtiers. It should not involve closed helms and brute-force bashing. It should not turn on a deus ex machina, or a slip, or a broken weapon. Neither participant should be looking to escape or to get past this adversary to the next fight/plot token. And, given that Inigo is a man of honor, on a quest of honor, he wouldn’t “cheat” (fight dirty) to win; Rugen, however, would cheat for the fun of it, and definitely to win.

  8. celestialgldfsh

    *waves* I’ve seen you around on LiveJournal, but I friended you today so I can follow along with this series. This looks like great fun.

  9. pingback_bot

    It ends schmoopily. Or with death? I don’t remember.

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  10. Anonymous

    Gorgeous cover art there.

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