Writing Fight Scenes: Where?

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

My apologies for the hiatus; I’ve been busy, and this is another one of those posts that requires me to pull together a bunch of things I don’t normally think about consciously, ergo requires more brain-power than I was able to muster for a while there. But let’s get back on the wagon, and ask ourselves the next important question: where are the combatants fighting?

As with the question of who’s fighting, this often has a simple answer that turns out to have more packed inside it than you might think. Unpacking that can be useful for two reasons: first, well-placed description can bring the scene to life for the reader, and second, it can influence the course of the fight.

So, what aspects might you want to consider in setting your scene?

I’m indebted to Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, which I mentioned in an early installment of this series, for getting me to think more directly about this issue, which previously had only been a vague sense in the back of my brain. Setting is, fundamentally, about physical detail, and that stuff’s gold for a fight scene, which is all about the physicality. Once I noticed Dunnett using it during the Amazingly Awesome Duel Scene, I went through and started tallying up what kinds of details she employed; it turned out to be practically a laundry list of every type of detail you might ever want to use.

It starts with the space. How large is it? This, of course, determines how far your characters can move. What boundaries, if any, does it possess? Walls can be both an obstacle and a tool; cliffs, on the other hand, are pretty much just a hazard for all involved. How about exits, both existing and potential? Part of the fun of setting a fight in an Asian-type society is that rice-paper screens make lousy barriers to passage. I must admit, I have a serious weak spot for fights that use their space well. In Unleashed, for example, there’s a fistfight in (I think) a very small bathroom; it consists almost entirely of elbows, as the combatants don’t even have enough room to throw a punch. In The Transporter, there’s a fight on a bus, which makes beautiful use of benches, poles, and so on. The first Pirates of the Carribean move takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach to this, when Will and Jack have their face-off in the smithy; the device of the cart catapults them into the rafters, giving the fight a three-dimensional quality not found in most duels. It’s harder to get that level of play in prose, because it depends on the audience correctly understanding how the environment fits together and where the characters are in it, but step one is definitely for you to understand the space in which your scene takes place.

Next, consider footing. There’s an episode of the TV show Highlander that features the combatants sliding all over a hardwood floor; if the tale I heard is true, that came about because they showed up to film and discovered a fresh coat of wax making the whole place slick as ice. (As a former stage combat choreographer, this makes my skin want to shudder right off my body. Talk about a freaking safety hazard.) Rocks can twist ankles, or slide out from under feet. Mud sucks, both figuratively and literally. Grass can tangle feet. Dust can be kicked up into the opponent’s eyes. Is the area flat, or inclined in some fashion? The latter both threatens footing, and potentially gives somebody the advantage of higher ground. Different styles of fighting are better-suited to a given surface; if you’re liable to slip, then you really don’t want to be doing any kind of extended lunge at your opponent.

How about obstacles and/or props? Furniture and trees, curtains and rocks, small breakable knick-knacks to throw at the enemy, free-standing candelabra to fall over and light the place on fire. Some things hamper escape, if that’s desired. Others can be used for defense, if you maneuver to put them between you and your enemy. Many can be improvised weapons, especially for a character with a sufficiently creative and bloody mind. Remember, though, that these things often fall under Chekhov’s authority; if an object is going to be important to the fight, the audience should know it’s there before it comes into play. There are exceptions — maybe the opponent suddenly snatches out a gun the pov character didn’t know was taped to the underside of the table — but on the whole, put things on the mantel before you need them.

Don’t forget to think about environmental factors, either. Lighting is a big one, even aside from the beloved trope of circling to put the sun in your enemy’s eyes — which does in fact work, under the right conditions. (Reflecting sunlight off a blade is harder to arrange, though a clever swordsman could manage it.) If it’s dim, you won’t be able to see your opponent as well, and if he sees in the dark better than you do, you’re at a real disadvantage. (True story: the first play I choreographed a fight for was Wait Until Dark, where I had to deal with a blind character, a sighted character, near-total darkness, and a knife. That was an interesting challenge.) Also consider temperature; heat makes people sweat and tire quickly, cold makes them go numb, and asthmatics will have a harder time breathing. Altitude is a serious handicap for people not used to it. Wind can fling around dust, hair, dry leaves, etc. Is there any precipitation? The opening staff brawl in Brotherhood of the Wolf is beautifully shot in rain, and shows some of the things that happen when you fight in a downpour.

You need to have a clear sense of these things before you can communicate them to the reader. How to do that communication is its own question, and indeed, at this point we start moving away from the opening questions and into the practicalities of actually writing the fight. I have one more thing to say about dealing with the setting of a fight, but it involves pictures, so I’ll split that off into its own post (which will hopefully follow more quickly than this one did).

As always, the comments are open for discussion. What details of the environment did I miss? What neat illustrative examples can you suggest? Any questions for your own works in progress? Have at it.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Where?”

  1. leatherdykeuk

    When I was duelling, manouvering for the sun was always done, similarly for higher ground etc.

  2. marycatelli

    Hmm. Do innocent bystanders count as environment?

    The fighting thing I use most often in fiction is the heroine carefully ensuring that she is standing so that the hero can draw his sword without worrying about hitting her. (Partly, of course, because you can have a lot of situations like that even before the fight breaks out. Then, the swordsman will doubtlessly evaluate the environment before even the threat of violence arises, just like a practiced writer can’t read a passage without mentally copy-editing it.)

  3. aulus_poliutos

    This goes not only for single duels but for entire armies. Just ask the Roman legions who got stuck in the Teutoburg Forest and couldn’t set up any defensive formation because of those damn trees. 🙂

    There’s a psychological aspect, too. The Romans had managed to turn the German forests and moors into bogeymen long before the battle, and now they had to face the Germans, the impossibility of reacting like they had trained a hundred times, and their fears of the alien landscape.

    For a single duel, you could have your claustrophic MC fight in a dimly lit dungeon. He’d not only have to deal with the lack of light, the low ceiling and maybe some pillars getting in the way, but also with his fear of dark, closed spaces.

  4. rachelmanija

    I would add: how familiar are the characters with the environment? Is one very familiar, and one in completely ore even relatively unknown territory? (The classic guerilla warfare scenario, and also, IIRC, your set-up in Wait Until Dark.)

    • full_metal_ox

      Important safety tip: if you’re a blind person dealing with a sighted home invader, don’t forget the refrigerator light.

      • Marie Brennan

        And if you’re the set guy for a play in which a blind person deals with a sighted home invader, don’t forget the towel to block the refrigerator door open.

        Otherwise the home invader’s actor will have to think very fast and get his coat off in time to make that part of the scene work.

    • Marie Brennan

      That too, yes; I’ll add it in when I polish these up for my site.

  5. ajpursell

    Unleashed, for example, there’s a fistfight in (I think) a very small bathroom;

    Casino Royale has the great bathroom fight too.

    • full_metal_ox

      Anyone looking for a go-to source for inconvenient fight venues and exploitation of the environment could hardly do better than old-school Kung-Fu movies, particularly Shaw Brothers; the locales often serve to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the martial styles involved.

      Here, for example, is the climactic fight from Martial Club, in which the hero and his opponent have it out in a gradually narrowing alley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWlLAki99Gw

    • Marie Brennan

      That is a indeed good one, though less spatially confined than the one in Unleashed.

  6. full_metal_ox

    Swan Tower? You’ve been linked on ; subject to the mods’ approval, it’d be really cool if you’d cross-post your essays there.

  7. Marie Brennan

    Welcome! Feel free to dig back through/comment on the old posts.

  8. stevie_carroll

    A story I really want to go back to editing at some point has a fight scene, mostly involving swords, in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. That was interesting to plan out, especially as the more rational of the combatants is an anthropologist in his day job and really doesn’t want to disturb the artefacts.

    • Marie Brennan


      <—- ex-archaeologist and anthropologist



      • stevie_carroll


        At least one plot thread in the novel would have been moot if he could only have brought himself to destroy one particular artefact the first time he saw it. Then again that might have caused other problems…

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