Writing Fight Scenes: The Question of Purpose

[This is a post in my series on how to write fight scenes. Other installments may be found under the tag.]

All right, enough vague philosophizing. Let’s start digging into the practicalities.

For my money, the most important question you should ask yourself in writing a fight scenes is, What is the purpose of this fight?

“Who is involved in this fight?” is also a critically important question, and we’ll get to that soon enough. But the who is a matter for inside the story, whereas the purpose is a matter for both within and without.

Inside the story, we’re asking why these characters are fighting. What’s their impetus for doing so, and what do they hope to accomplish? Outside, we’re asking what the fight is supposed to do for the story as a whole. As we discussed last time, there should ideally be more than one answer to that latter question.

In The Princess Bride, there’s a lengthy swordfight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black (whose identity is, at that point in the narrative, unknown) atop the Cliffs of Insanity. If you need a refresher on this scene, go grab your DVD; we’ll wait until you get back.

Done? Okay. So, in-character purpose first.

Inigo’s primary goal is to stop the Man in Black from pursuing Vizzini et al. The likely method of accomplishing this is to kill his opponent (“You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.”) Pretty straightforward. But there’s a secondary purpose — clearer in the book, but still visible in the movie — which is that Inigo wants a challenge. He is, so far as he knows, the best swordsman in the world; it’s been so long since he met a worthy opponent that he’s gotten in the habit of dueling left-handed, just to make things more interesting for himself. So Inigo wants to win . . . but not too easily.

The Man in Black’s purpose is largely unclear at that moment in the story, beyond the fact that he’s obviously pursuing Vizzini, and therefore wants to get past Inigo. With the benefit of hindsight, we know he’s trying to retrieve Buttercup from her kidnappers, because he’s still in love with her and wants to find out whether she still loves him. He doesn’t seem particularly motivated to kill Inigo, though: his response to the line quoted above is “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.” When he gets the chance to strike, he claims “I would as soon destroy a stained-glass window as an artist like yourself,” and clubs Inigo into unconsciousness. The only person he seems to want to kill is Vizzini, and that might just be an artifact of the format they choose for their confrontation.

Interestingly, he also decides to fight left-handed, against his natural inclination. Why? Not for the same reason as Inigo. Not for any visible reason at all, really — until we look to the external purpose of the scene.

William Goldman, who wrote both the book and the film based on it, clearly wants to throw some obstacles into his hero’s path. A whole series of them, in fact, which aren’t just there to fill time; they also neatly demonstrate the various talents Westley has picked up in his years as the Dread Pirate Roberts’ valet and eventual successor. So, this scene is here to show us he’s a brilliant swordsman. (A skill which, oddly enough, he doesn’t really use for the remainder of the story, although there are moments where the threat of using it is important.)

For us to understand that Westley is a brilliant swordsman, we need his opponent to also be impressive. The chatter between the two early on establishes that they both know their shit on an intellectual level, and the work they do while chatting demonstrates its practical application. But we the audience also know Inigo’s fighting with a handicap (and still expects to win), so the fact that his survival depends on him switching to his dominant hand? Tells us this guy in black is pretty damn good. And then they get up to that wall, and Inigo’s winning . . . .

Where we discover the Man in Black was also fighting with his off hand.

It has less to do with his own purpose, and more to do with the writer’s purpose in crafting the scene. Aside from being a dramatic reveal, a charming bit of parallelism, and a moment to subdivide the very long fight (that’s something we’ll talk about more later), it hammers home the fact that Westley is just that badass. Inigo, who’s been set up as the consummate swordsman, has finally met his match.

(We should pause here to note that in many cases, it’s a bad idea to have the only (apparent) reason for something be external to the story. “Because the author needed him to” is not a satisfactory answer to the question of “why did the hero do that?” It works here because the story already has its tongue planted pretty firmly in its cheek, and also because it isn’t inconsistent with Westley’s character.)

That’s how I analyze the fight, anyway. I don’t actually know what was in Goldman’s head. So let me talk briefly about one of my own scenes. I don’t claim it’s brilliant stuff — hell, I was nineteen when I wrote it — but at least I know why it goes the way it does.

In Warrior (formerly known as Doppelganger), there’s a scene where Mirage, one of the protagonists, gets jumped by a group of four Thornbloods. Externally, the reason for it is mostly plot: Mirage needs to get captured, so she can have a Very Important Encounter not long after. But I also wanted a chance to demonstrate something important to the story, which is that Mirage, for reasons of her nature, is gifted at combat beyond the norm. There are a few fights earlier in the story, but they’re largely brief and against people who don’t pose much of a challenge; the semi-exception, a scuffle with the assassin she’s chasing, isn’t a big set-piece either. (That comes later in the story.) So by putting Mirage against four highly trained opponents, I got a chance to really flex her muscles, so to speak.

Internally, there are of course two sides, Mirage and her opponents. Her goal, as I conceived of it, is primarily to get away. Four-to-one may be normal movie odds, but it’s pretty bad in real life, and so her best bet is to escape. In pursuit of that, she is willing to kill, maim, or otherwise incapacitate them in any way she can, while trying to get to a door. The Thornbloods, by contrast, have been told to bring her in alive. This handicaps them in multiple ways: they show up with staves and bare hands, rather than the blades they’d rather be using; they can’t risk injury that might kill her; and they can’t let her escape. Furthermore, there’s a character detail in that the group is being led by a woman who really detests Mirage. She’s masked, so Mirage doesn’t know it’s her until the fight is over, but it does color the way I conceived of and wrote the scene.

Why does the question of purpose matter? On the internal level, it determines what the characters are willing and unwilling to do. You probably won’t kill your best friend if the goal is just to make her give back the diary she stole from your dresser; on the other hand, if the guy you’re fighting murdered your entire family and you want him to pay? Very few holds barred, there. On the external level, it determines how you put the fight on the page, and how it will end. Mirage’s need to escape and not get surrounded meant the fight would be very kinetic, moving all over the room; the handicap on the Thornbloods meant she wouldn’t be permanently hurt; the plot reason behind the whole thing meant it would end with her being captured; and the desire to show off Mirage’s skills meant the whole thing got a fair bit of page time (about four pages all told).

Know why you’re doing this fight. Know why your characters are doing it, too. Having to articulate those answers to yourself may give you interesting ideas for how it should go, or make you rethink why you’re bothering in the first place. “Because it would be cool” is not inherently a bad answer — that’s at least partially the answer behind every fight scene I write — but it probably shouldn’t be the only one, unless you know you’re writing for the sort of audience that will eat it up.

Feel free to discuss other examples (your own work included) in comments. The tension between the different purposes can be really fun to explore.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: The Question of Purpose”

  1. oneminutemonkey

    It struck me recently that my stories rarely, if ever, feature actual fighting. Most resolutions come about through trickery, surprise, magic, or talking. (Or sex. But I’m not ashamed. :> )

    These essays of yours are fascinating. I love your deconstruction of the Inigo-Westley fight.

    • Marie Brennan

      I tend to have a lot of talking, too — especially in the Onyx Court books. But it’s fun to shake things up now and again. 🙂

  2. alecaustin

    One of the (many) things I like about this series of post is that it’s letting me pause and unpack some of the things that I tend to take for granted about writing fights.

    For instance, with regards to your previous post, I tend to write fight scenes that are central to the story I’m telling. In fact, in most of the novels I’ve drafted, I’ve thought of the story’s structure in terms of major set pieces (typically fight scenes and other high-intensity, emotionally charged moments) joined by bridging material, and the bridging material is usually what I have to ask these kinds of questions about (“Why is this here? Why can’t I just have them show up without spending more than a couple of lines on the transition?”). Why the fight scenes are happening is usually more or less self-explanatory, and they typically advance character and the overall plot at the same time – often by being somewhat more dialogue heavy than strict realism would allow.

    LJ tells me that my post was too long with the fight scene analysis included, so I’m breaking that out into another comment.

    • alecaustin


      I’ve been poking at one of my troublesome books (Kythe the Shadow – 60,000 words of blood, vengeance, and politics, with with paired protagonists who are kind of horrible people) in order to dig out material for a more comprehensive reply on my own LJ, and in so doing I found a fight that lends itself well to the kind of analysis you do in this post.

      Alt (the protagonist) has just been warned that one of his rivals in the Magister’s guild and a pair of bully-boys are headed for his garret in order to ambush him. Alt has broken the laws of his guild by tending to a childhood friend who showed up half-dead on his doorstep, and his rival will probably be able to find evidence of that; he’s also not in great shape physically and is outnumbered 3-to-1. Seen in that light, heading home is not the smart play.

      On the other hand, Alt needs information – he doesn’t know how his erstwhile mentor learned about what he did – and he grew up in the gutter, where backing down from a fight is a sign of weakness. He’s also armed with a vial of pure sodium (forbidden him, since he’s not an alchemist) which he can teleport into other people’s veins to set them on fire (really forbidden, since that’s combining the secrets of two guilds he’s not a part of, and grounds for execution). So he can put up a good fight, assuming he’s willing to make himself a wanted man… and since he’s on the verge of that anyway, he doesn’t have much to lose.

      Alt’s objective is to gather information and demonstrate to anyone who’s paying attention – his rival, his former mentor, the world at large – that he’s not someone to take lightly. His rival (Blaine) and his two bully-boys are under orders to take Alt alive, so they can squeeze him for information, but their agenda changes very quickly once Alt demonstrates he’s a mortal danger to them.

      From a story perspective, this fight does a bunch of things.

      One, it shows Alt using sorcery for the first time – the second thing that happens once the fight starts is Alt turning one of Blaine’s bully-boys into a crispy critter.

      Two, it demonstrates that Alt is used to violence but out of practice, and won’t hesitate to kill to defend himself.

      Three, it demonstrates both sorcery’s limitations and Alt’s limitations as a sorcerer – the first thing that happens in the fight is him getting hit the head with a truncheon, which means that when he tries to kill the second bully-boy, his concentration slips and he sets his victim’s sleeve on fire instead.

      And Four, after interrogation at knife-point, Blaine gives Alt the information he needed in order to figure out which of his friends betrayed him.

      The sad part is, this is a comparatively short and simple fight, as far as Kythe goes. The next one runs for two chapters, is divided into two successive segments, shifts from a long-range engagement to an indoor melee, transitions from high-speed supernatural wire-fu into down-and-dirty brawling, and concludes with Alt beating someone’s skull in with a brick.

      (Can you tell I like fight scenes? I really like fight scenes. Sometimes to the detriment of other things, like – in the case of Kythe – actually making my protagonists sympathetic to most of the people who’ve read it.)

      • Marie Brennan

        He’s also armed with a vial of pure sodium (forbidden him, since he’s not an alchemist) which he can teleport into other people’s veins to set them on fire


        ow ow OW.

        You have a very cruel imagination, sir. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      the bridging material is usually what I have to ask these kinds of questions about (“Why is this here? Why can’t I just have them show up without spending more than a couple of lines on the transition?”).

      Heh. Yeah, we each have our own preferences. For me, I guess what I gloss over are sex scenes; I have yet to write a book where I feel such events merit more than a quick fade to black.

  3. leatherdykeuk

    Very good post, thank you. Every fight scent I write is acted out beforehand except for one. In ‘An Ungodly Child’ Harold is pretty good with a saber, but the angel he’s fighting is way better with a celestial flaming broadsword. Cue Harold’s mum with a polearm.

  4. elaine_thom

    This makes me want to dig out some fight scenes I’ve read and analyze why they work or don’t work for me. I think the ones that don’t work are the ones that concentrate on mechanics and forget the characterization and story elements. Off hand, I’ve been rereading CJC’s FORTRESS books, and FitEoT’s first on stage armed conflict she concentrates on the goals, with the action being noted as how they relate.

    OTOH, I recall a duology by Paul Zimmer with dreadfully boring fight scenes because it was mostly moves. I’ve heard he does great fight scenes because he knows that stuff cold (through SCA), but it sure didn’t work for me. I dumped my copies so I can’t check, but that’s how I remember them.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, knowing how to do it and knowing how to write interestingly about it are not the same thing (in any field, not just martial arts).

  5. aulus_poliutos

    OK, looks like I need to get that movie. I’m obviously the only one who’s never seen it. 😉

    As I said, I can count the movies I have seen on my fingers.

    • Marie Brennan

      Aw, man, now I’m annoyed I gave spoilers!

      You absolutely need to see it. I can’t pick a favorite book or favorite song, but it is undoubtedly my favorite movie.

      • aulus_poliutos

        Don’t worry about spoilers, I don’t mind them.

        I’m the sort of reader who may check out a summary of a book on Wikipedia before buying it. 😉

  6. pameladean

    I just wanted to say that, despite the fact that I hope never to write another fight scene, I am really both benefiting from and vastly enjoying these posts. A lot of your points are easily transferable to other kinds of scenes, and in fact the thought of writing a dinner scene as if it were a fight scene, while hardly original, is teasing me even as I type.


    • Marie Brennan

      Some of the later points won’t be as transferable, but yeah — the ways of thinking aren’t necessarily different, especially across scenes that are about the playing out of a conflict between two or more participants. (Which is quite a high percentage of fiction scenes.)

      Heck, I’m reminded of the comment I made toward the end of book-blogging The Game of Kings, that the trial is the verbal equivalent of the duel scene.

  7. Anonymous

    Love it! Happy New Years!

  8. Anonymous

    Just downloaded A Star Shall Fall. Enjoying it already. 🙂

  9. Anonymous

    Those combined definitions sound right. Though I’ll add, I think this varies from genre to genre.

    Yesterday, I was standing in the bookstore, trying to decide if I was going to buy a book I had spotted. It’s right up my alley, and on a topic that I’ve wanted to read for a long time: James Polk and the roots and effects of the Mexican War. So, non-fiction. Apparently it was a Times bestseller. Whatever. So I’m trying to decide if I’m gonna drop $18 when I’m broke (and already buying other books *CoughcoughHeyercoughcough*) and so I flip it open and read the first line. “Wow,” I think, “when did it become non-fiction trope to have the first sentence be a catchy moment?” (in this case, the exact time that the cannons roared over Washington to announce the inauguration of Polk). It’s gotten to be so standard in this type of book that it actually really caught my attention, and not in a good way.

    So! For me, this is a very well timed LJ post. I think the conclusion is exactly right – I want an opening paragraph that’ll get me “in” – by it’s tone and word choice, it quickly launches me in to whatever it’s discussing, whether that’s a place, a person, a time (that’s the one I aim for with the diary – though the new one has two “first” paragraphs, which made it rough…) or even a conflict (though I’m usually with you, conflicts are usually pointless if I don’t know the players yet – though Doppelganger started with a sort-of conflict, if I recall correctly, and that worked really well) I want to feel instantly like I know what the author is trying to do – and that, I think, is synonymous with author confidence, because if the author has a little talent and knows what they are trying to do, they’ll be able to full this off, as long as they just jump in feet first, the same way the reader wants to.

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