Writing Fight Scenes: Dialogue

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

This is something I should have touched on before, but it only occurred to me now: what about speech in a fight scene?

In reality, it doesn’t work very well. Have you ever tried to talk while running? Now imagine that in addition to being out of breath, every second or so you encounter a jarring, unexpected impact that threatens to break you off mid-sentence. And remember that you aren’t running — a nice, repetitive activity that requires only a fraction of your attention — instead you’re making split-second decisions the whole time, and distraction could be fatal. Speech is luxury you mostly can’t afford.

Does that mean you can’t have dialogue in a fight? No, of course not. Short things that don’t take much thought, like profanity or insults, are just fine. Longer dialogue can happen in between passes; contrary to what movies would have you believe, very few fights consist of long, unbroken stretches of violence. Real combat is more likely to go in short bursts, and your characters can converse during the pauses. If one or both of them are out of breath, or trying to distract their opponent, or praying that the cavalry will show up soon, this kind of delay becomes entirely plausible.

You can, of course, go further than that. Comedies do this all the time, as do certain kinds of action movie, with the combatants tossing off witty quips right after being punched in the face. Superhero comics are notorious for the heroes and villains monologuing mid-fight. Just be aware that if you do this, you’re signaling a certain kind of unreality to the reader, and violating that expectation may be jarring to them. If the characters are talking like Errol Flynn, brutal injury isn’t really on the docket. If your story has been gritty realism up until that point, a monologue will break the mood. I won’t say you can’t get away with that — you can get away with anything, if you do it well enough — but some things are harder to pull off than others.

Sliding deliberately from one mode to another during the course of the fight is a different matter. Going back to our recurrent examples, The Princess Bride does this, and so does Dorothy Dunnett, with the duel in The Game of Kings. When Inigo and the man in black are fighting atop the Cliffs of Insanity, they start off with casual banter (“You are using Bonetti’s defense against me, eh?”) — but as the fight wears on, notice that the conversation falls away. Dunnett breaks Lymond off mid-snark, the narration saying “It was one quotation he never did finish,” as his opponent interrupts him with an attack. Later he gets out another line, but “then retired into silence.” After that, save when something briefly interrupts the fight, there is no conversation: it hammers home to us the scale of challenge Lymond is facing, that he, who barely shuts up for anything, has to save his breath for the fight.

The flow there is a natural one. The longer a fight goes on, the less energy the characters have to spare for talking, and the less attention. When you’re tired, a single mistake can be your last. Furthermore, the struggle can make people angry, build them up to the point where they’re more willing to do horrible things to one another. It’s possible for the arc to go the other direction, but I think it’s harder; off the top of my head I can’t come up with any examples, though I’m sure they exist. Fights which start out grim and end up lighter-hearted require the characters to back off for some reason — maybe because they realize the absurdity of their situation. There, the dialogue can actually be a driving force; if they get to talking between passes, they can talk each other out of fighting.

It may seem odd for me to bring up dance in this context, but the movie Center Stage actually illustrates the other point I want to make. The people behind that film made what I consider to be a good decision, namely casting dancers who can more or less act, rather than actors who can more or less dance. Because of that, the emotional climax of the movie — the point at which the heroine comes into her own and figures out what she wants — is the final performance of her summer program. I don’t mean the characters are whispering to one another onstage, or having conversations in the wings; I mean the climax is the performance. The arc of it, and the behavior of the characters as they dance, tells you everything you need to know.

Done right, a fight can be the same way. The action speaks for itself: we don’t need Inigo to tell the man in black how happy he is to have finally met someone who can challenge him, nor to say that he is first startled, then afraid, when he discovers the challenge is too much. In fact, it would weaken the scene for him to say that out loud. So if you find yourself wanting to put a lot of dialogue into your fight, ask yourself: what purpose does it serve? Is it just repeating something we already know from the narration and the characters’ behavior? Is it shoring up some weakness in the scene, that you really ought to fix elsewhere? And does it make sense under the circumstances? Dialogue can work in and even contribute to a fight, but give it a good long look before you decide.

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0 Responses to “Writing Fight Scenes: Dialogue”

  1. anghara

    If you want “done badly” *I* immediately went to that incredible (in the worst posible way) scene in the New Star Wars saga where the dude who is about to become Darth Vader and his erstwhile mentor duel with light sabres WHILE BALANCING ON FLOATING ROCKS ADRIFT IN A SEA OF FLOWING LAVA and having a perfectly coherent conversation doing it.


    • Marie Brennan

      Given the mode Star Wars operates in, I could be okay with a conversation happening under truly absurd circumstances.

      . . . if it weren’t for all the OTHER problems making that scene terrible. >_<

      • beccastareyes

        Actually, come to think about it, I remember the duel between Obi Wan and Vader in A New Hope as being interlaced with sections of them probing each other’s defenses, then a brief couple of lines, then more fighting. I remember that because it seemed to be a contrast between the way ‘modern’ fights were scripted in action movies — the ‘Duel of the Fates’ scene in The Phantom Menace being my example.

        I could make a comment about ‘special effects bloat’, since both scenes serve a similar narrative purpose in that a mentor figure for a movie protagonist gets killed by the antagonists*. I’m not sure this is fair, since the duel scene in TPM is also part of the movie’s climax, while the climactic scene in ANH is the trench run scene, which is pretty special-effects laden for its time.

        * Though in TPM, the emphasis is not on Maul as antagonist, but on Maul’s unknown master, while ANH sets up Vader as the primary antagonist and doesn’t introduce Vader’s mentor, the Emperor, until later movies. Maul is also supposed to be a deliberate unknown attacker that clues Our Heroes into brewing trouble beyond just the Naboo invasion, rather than the resolution to Vader and Obi Wan’s deeply entwined and complicated relationship, so he would have less to say to two random Jedi he’s supposed to kill, than Vader does to his old teacher.

        • Marie Brennan

          Given how awesome Jedi (and Sith) are supposed to be, I don’t mind the TPM fights being glossier than NH’s. But even laying aside the question of realism levels, no, it wouldn’t make sense for Darth Maul to be talking to Qui-Gon very much. What would he say, other than infodumping about the real threat?

          • marycatelli

            Showing off? What good does it do to be the best if no one else knows how great you are?

            Well, maybe not for him — I skipped the prequel trilogy — but other characters do it.

            In The Incredibles, for instance, nothing could be more natural than Syndrome’s monologuing. He doesn’t want to just defeat Mr. Incredible, he wants him to know it.

            Hmm. . . I also note that broke up the fight scene nicely.

          • Marie Brennan

            That fits some characters, certainly. In this particular instance, not so much.

  2. Marie Brennan

    As all right-thinking people should! 🙂

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