Writing Fight Scenes: Focus
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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.]
I may have a big soft spot in my heart for the fight scenes in R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf series, which describe the mechanics of each combat in loving, blow-by-blow detail, but as I said at the start of this blogging, you don’t actually need to do that in order to write a good fight. Even if you do, you’re unlikely to detail every single move of anything but the shortest clash: you’ll pick key moments to focus on. The same is true of the less mechanical approach. But then the question becomes, which parts deserve focus?
The closest thing to a universal rule I can propose is, never neglect the end.
I don’t mean you have to wax rhapsodic about the conclusion of every single fight, but the level of detail there should probably be on par with or higher than the rest of the combat. The scene would flow very oddly if you spent three paragraphs on the first six moves, then said “when his opponent was dead, he moved on.” Maybe you can pull it off once or twice as an anticlimactic trick, but in general? The fight presents the reader with a conflict; the end of the fight is the resolution of that conflict. You can’t cheese out on that any more than you can cheese out on resolution elsewhere in your story.
The beginning of the scene is the next most likely candidate for close attention, especially if this is the first fight for these characters, or something about the event makes it stand out from the previous ones. After all, this is where you set the scene, and if the combat is more than a throwaway line about “she cut the guard’s throat in silence,” the reader needs to know what they’re looking at. Remember all those questions at the start of this series, about who and what and where? This is where you turn those answers into a story. Two fencers calmly testing one another’s defenses in a training hall makes for a very different opening from a starving street urchin leaping on a man from the shadows and trying to bash his head in with a rock. The opening sets the mood, the pace, the stakes. You don’t want to spend so long on it that we lose all urgency, but you probably don’t want to skip over it, either.
What else deserves focus? After “the end” and “the beginning,” the answer to that question gets much more subjective, varying from story to story and author to author. You can make the middle a five-page extravaganza or a five-sentence summary (though it should still be an exciting one). How do you decide which one you should aim for?
Some of that depends on your own personal comfort level with writing combat, but we can also return to a previous concept for guidance: beats. If your fight is complex enough to have more than one beat, then you want to pay attention to the inflection points, the moments where the scene changes. If Inigo starts out fencing left-handed and then switches, we need to know why; we need a clear sense of how the man in black has gotten the upper hand (tactics, skill) sufficiently to drive Inigo back toward the edge of the cliff (positioning). To pick a different example from the same movie, when the man in black runs up a rock and then leaps onto Fezzik’s back to get him in a chokehold, we have to see that happen. You can’t have the man in black dodging and then say “he got Fezzik in a chokehold,” because your reader will be left scratching her head and saying, “I thought Fezzik was huge. How does that work?” We should see how important wounds get inflicted — not every little nick (you’re free to use the classic line “he was soon bleeding from a dozen points”), but the ones that change or threaten to change the course of the fight. A slash to the arm that weakens a swordswoman’s grip, an injured knee that sends the Karate Kid into Crane stance because he can barely stand on that leg. If it makes a difference, we need to see it enter the scene.
What “attention” means is still variable, depending on the scene you want to create. It can be a single sentence, or multiple paragraphs. Similarly, the extent to which you gloss over the intervening parts depends on your purpose and how much you like writing combat. The initial exchanges between Inigo and the man in black can be written out in detail, saying that Inigo disengaged for a deft outside thrust but the stranger’s quick wrist shifted to block and then riposte; if you aren’t a fencer, then you can instead just say “they tested one another’s skill in focused silence, and Inigo discovered the man in black was equally quick in both attack and defense.” Or whatever. But you don’t need to give the entirety of that beat at the same level of detail; once you’ve established what they’re doing, you can jump to “soon Inigo found himself retreating up the rocks” and get into the dialogue. The exact steps by which Inigo was put into retreat aren’t vital to the story, since he is not yet at the point where retreat has become a serious enough problem to force a tactical change.
In doing this, don’t forget this is a story. The mechanics of movement are, ultimately, less important than what they mean. It’s important to say that Inigo is testing the man in black early on because we know he decided to handicap himself by fighting left-handed, and expects to win anyway. So if he finds his opponent is just as quick as he is, with no obvious weakness, this is going to make Inigo happy! Finally, a challenge! Then we need to see that change when he discovers this is a real challenge — one that might actually kill him if he doesn’t bring his A game, i.e. his right hand. But that goes both ways: you don’t want to give us the mechanics without the reaction, and you don’t want to give us the reaction without explaining what sparked it. You have to say enough that the reader can follow what’s happening and why it’s important; the key moments have to stand out from the surrounding narration. This is a song, and it needs dynamics.
We’re nearly at the end of this blog series. Before I write the final post, though, I want to ask: is there anything in particular you guys want to see me address, that I haven’t already covered?
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