Writing Fight Scenes: Beats

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

One thing you may not know, if all your experience of fights comes from reading books and watching movies: they are short.

The SCA fencing practice I used to attend would sometimes stage melees, where everybody would get divided up into groups and set against each other en masse. One time they arranged two tables with a gap in between, and declared the gap to be a doorway, that one group (consisting of about five people) was defending. The goal of the other group (equal in numbers) was to get past them to the back wall.

From start to finish, how long do you think it took?

Less than twenty seconds.

(And that’s counting the time the attackers spent advancing, before they closed with their opponents.)

Fighting is kind of like being a soccer/football goalie guarding against a penalty kick. Do you leap left or right? There are physical clues that will tell you which way to go, but you have only a fraction of a second in which to spot and analyze them, before you have to choose. Left or right? If you’re good, your odds of choosing correctly are better than 50% . . . but sooner or later, they’ll slip one past you.

Sooner or later, a decisive blow will get past somebody’s defense. And it’s probably going to be sooner.

There are times when you want to replicate this in your story. Near the beginning of The Bourne Identity (film, not book), Jason Bourne takes down a pair of cops in less time than it took me to type this sentence. Because the usual convention of fiction is that combat lasts a long time, the effect of a quick takedown is to say, this guy is really badass. Mind you, in prose, the duration of the actual moment and the length of its description aren’t correlated much at all; you could gloss over a knock-down drag-out match in half a sentence, or spend a whole paragraph detailing the three lightning-fast moves that lay the opponent out. But if you want badass points, make it short. (There’s a non-combat-related bit in The Ringed Castle, one of the later books in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, where she spends maybe two or three sentences telling us that what with one thing and another, a handful of characters got themselves from England to Russia. Her not telling us how they managed that — in the sixteenth century, when that journey was not what you’d call easy — makes them seem 300% more awesome than if she’d spent a chapter on it.)

But it’s a convention of fiction that important, set-piece fights can last a really long time. Fair enough; our purpose is to be dramatic, not realistic. So how do you make a fight scene long, without boring the reader?

The answer is, beats.

(No, not the actual blows. Nor the fencing trick where you flick your opponent’s blade aside to open their defense.)

I picked up this term in an acting class, where our textbook defined a beat as “the period in which you pursue one objective until it is either won, lost, or interrupted.” In the context of the author’s argument, an objective is simple and immediate; a single conversation could have the objectives of “get him to pay attention to me,” “present my request,” “convince him to grant my request,” etc., on the way to the larger-scale goal of whatever the request is supposed to accomplish, and each objective could have multiple beats, if the character changes strategies along the way.

For the purpose of a fight scene, we can consider a beat to be the span of time in which the participants are pursuing a certain goal, using certain tactics, with certain stakes. When one or more of those changes, the beat ends, and we move on to the next one.

Since examples make everything go better, let’s return to the familiar scene of Inigo’s duel with the Man in Black atop the Cliffs of Insanity.

(I could swear I broke this down once already somewhere. But if so, I can’t find it — so I guess we proceed.)

You could count the conversational prelude to the duel as one or more beats, but we’ll start where Inigo says “begin.” From there, I would count it thus:

  1. Salute: the tap-tap-swipe they exchange.
  2. Silent testing: basic back-and-forth.
  3. Conversation: the chatter about styles, until Inigo does the flip.
  4. Shift: the Man in Black gains the advantage.
  5. Reversal: Inigo switches hands, and takes the advantage for himself.
  6. Reversal #2: the Man in Black switches hands and disarms Inigo.
  7. Pause: the various stunts in leaping down, and the brief conversation that follows.
  8. Climax: silent again, but this time it’s serious, because the Man in Black is winning.
  9. Desperation: Inigo (inexplicably) grabs the hilt in both hands, and then drops his blade.
  10. Victory: the Man in Black talks to him and then clubs him into unconsciousness.

You could subdivide it differently if you wanted, combining some of these beats, or breaking them into smaller parts. The point is, there are dynamics. The scene does not proceed at the same pace, or even in the same direction, the whole way through.

This is important, not only because it breaks up the monotony that would otherwise threaten, but because it creates opportunities for the thing I’ve been harping on since the beginning of this series of posts: story. We see multiple sides of the characters throughout the course of this fight. We see caution and flamboyance, desperation and control, and the double surprise that both men decided to handicap themselves at the start — which, as I said back in the post on purposes, shows us that both of them are amazing swordsmen.

For another example, go back to my original SF Novelists post, and the fight I choreographed for Troilus and Cressida. The prelude with the guns is a beat; the gentlemanly boxing is a beat (possibly subdivided at the point where Troilus starts to get the upper hand); Diomedes with the knife is a beat; Troilus kicking his ass once he’s disarmed is a beat; the final murder is a beat. Those shifts show us things about not only the characters’ relative skills, but also their morals. Those latter parts are what make the fight a story.

If you want to see how this works on the page, take a look at one of my other perennial examples, Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings. The duel in that book is very long — both in pages and in-story time; in fact, one of its few flaws is that she claims the whole thing lasts twenty minutes, which is seriously implausible — but the shifts that happen along the way make it riveting from start to finish.

So when you set out to write a fight scene — a big one, important enough to the story that you’ve decided to spend a lot of words on it — you should spend some time thinking about the dynamics. How can the action rise and fall? Are there places where you can build in a bit of breathing space, time for dialogue or reconsideration? What decisions will the characters make, when things don’t go their way (or do)?

(If you’re thinking to yourself, “huh, those aren’t much different from the questions I have to answer when I’m writing non-fight scenes,” give yourself a cookie. That’s the whole point.)

This stuff — the arc-level stuff — matters more than the individual moves. But sometimes the moves matter too, and those will probably be the subject of the next post.

0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Beats”

  1. leatherdykeuk

    Yes, this.
    But it’s generally only writers who fight who realise the speed of a fight. The longest duel I ever had was around forty seconds, and that included the testing defences section. Quickest was under a second from the referee’s ‘begin’.

    • Marie Brennan

      One of the funniest things you can do in sparring is to skip the whole “testing defenses” bit and just go straight for them the instant you get the signal. <g> Everybody’s so used to having a few seconds to get settled, they’re often not ready for sudden action.

      • mindstalk

        *thinks about implications for RPG rules*

        • ninja_turbo

          In D&D, I’d call it a use of a full attack — and if you wanted to get even more crunchy, give characters only half of their Dex bonus to AC the first round, and then the rest later. Alternatively, let any character get a sneak attack bonus on a flat-footed opponent if they use a full attack on the first round of combat.

  2. aishabintjamil

    I took an amazing on-line workshop a couple of years ago with a gentleman named Rory Miller, called Violence: A Writer’s Guide. The point of the workshop was to give us an understanding of real world violence, so we could make informed decisions about how much reality we wanted to use when we wrote our fight scenes. He pulled the handouts from the class together after the fact into a little e-book called Violence: a Writer’s Guide, which is available over on Smashwords. It’s great background, especially to help you decide if the fight involves a lot of posturing (what he calls monkey dance) or is coldly professional, get the job done with the least possible risk to the person doing it, or is reactive because the character has just been jumped by the villain. Those are three very different scenarios, and will want entirely different choreography/arcs.

    • maratai

      I’ve read the ebook and agree that it’s seriously excellent; I can’t for the life of me remember how I learned of it, but I was glad I found it.

    • misslynx

      That sounds really good – I think I’m going to hop over to Smashwords right now and pick it up.

      This whole post is pretty timely for me, actually, as I just wrote the first major fight scene in the novel I’m working on, and it was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I got through the scene, but wasn’t all that happy with the results, so I’m definitely going to be revising it a lot. This series of posts, and the e-book, should help with that.

  3. ninja_turbo

    Oh, melees

    A lot of the question of speed in combat comes down to morale, dedication, and stakes.

    In sparring, SCA, WMA or otherwise, the ‘will you really die’ stakes are low, so going for an all-out attack isn’t too terrifying.

    In a high-stakes tournament or bout, fighters are more likely to behave the same way they would in a deadly conflict — testing defenses and attacking only when they can cover themselves.

    One way to highlight character is how cautious or aggressive they are — highlight the fact that a fight could have already been over, but the more skilled fighter is very cautious, and being methodical. Or have a seemingly challenging fight end in the blink of an eye as an aggressive fighter puts all their bets on a one-shot that works — or conversely, show the folly of that fighter by having their one-shot fail and get that fighter killed/defeated right away.

    As I think I’ve said before, I love this series, . It’s always fun to get a chance to geek martial arts.

  4. livejournal

    March 23, 2012 Links and Plugs

    User referenced to your post from March 23, 2012 Links and Plugs saying: […] Brennan on Writing Fight Scenes: Beats […]

  5. Anonymous

    This is terribly teasing of you. But I suspect you know that. 🙂

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