Go for the Knockout:
Writing action and fight scenes
WHAM! BAM! POW! In a comic book, most of your fight scene can consist of words like that, and in a movie you don’t even need those words. But in a novel, fight scenes—or any big, complex action scene—are a lot more difficult to bring off because the writer has to describe everything that’s going on, and keep the story’s pace fast enough to get the reader’s heart pounding. Sounds tricky? You’re right. So I’m going to introduce the different aspects of writing fight scenes by level of complexity, starting with the basics—just like learning to fight.
White belt: Who’s doing what, and to whom
One of the things that makes writing fight scenes so hard is that even in a one on one fight, you have to make it crystal clear who is doing what, to whom, and when, and how. In big battle scenes with a lot of action—or in any scene where there are more than two people in the fight—this becomes even harder. It may be perfectly clear in your head, but telling the reader that while your protagonist goes staggering back after the enemy’s sword bangs into his helmet, the right flank is crumbling under the archer’s assault and the king has ordered his own bodyguard to gallop into the center formation… You get the picture.
The trick for handling this is to keep POV focused through the protagonist. Always. If your protagonist doesn’t see or hear it himself, you can’t tell the reader. Frankly, I think fights are more effective if your protagonist is only aware of the enemy in front of him, of his personal fight. There may be other things going on, but it’s OK for him not to know that the villain’s henchman has picked up a rock until he wakes up in chains, with a killer headache. And it’s perfectly OK for your protagonist to find out what went on in other parts of the battle after it’s over—unless he’s got someone reporting in his electronic ear bud, that’s how it happens in real life. In the moment, and in your scene, all the protagonist should care about is his own survival and getting his job done. Probably in that order.
But if you’re writing the kind of book where you really do have to tell the reader every step in the battle as it unfolds, then either: Your protagonist needs to be outside the fighting. (An advisor sitting on the hill beside the king, a messenger galloping around the battlefield with orders, a starship captain staring into a hologram where ship movements are clearly visible.) Or you’ll need to have multiple POV protagonists involved in different parts of the fight.
Which of these you choose is entirely up to you—but you have to set both of them up beforehand. It’s pretty easy to have your adventurous knight dislocate his shoulder right before the battle, and thus become a messenger. But if you go with multiple POVs, then you have to write your whole novel, from beginning to end, with multiple POVs—and that has both good points, and some serious drawbacks. (See my writing tip Single Spy to a Teeming Horde for more information on that.) But the gist is that every time you switch POV, you force the reader to stop caring about that person and move on to someone else, and that decreases the emotional intensity of the fight. But there are instances where seeing, not only the fight, but the whole story through different sets of eyes has advantages that can outweigh that drawback.
However, there’s one beginner mistake that has no advantages, and it kills emotional intensity even faster than multiple POVs—and that’s stopping in the middle of the fight for backstory or info dumps. The backstory dump happens most often when the villain stops trying to kill the hero so he can, not just confess, but deliver a bunch of information about exactly what he’s been doing throughout the entire novel. And your reader may need to know that…but not in the middle of the fight! Finish the fight, and later, when the police are offering a plea bargain, your villain can confess and explain himself to your heart’s content.
The info dump happens more often in science fiction, when someone stops to explain exactly how a weapon system works, why it has broken down, and what it will take to fix it. But in the midst of a fight, all your protagonist should care about is how fast it can be fixed. (In fact, it can be fun to have your engineer start explaining in great detail how the framowitz capacitors have to be inculpricated, and the protagonist interrupts her with a crisp demand, “Can you fix it? How fast?”)
But while we’re on the subject of technology, the final basic need in a fight scene is that the technology has to be correct, and the fight itself needs to seem possible. Movies are terrible about this, because they can and do show people firing guns in two different directions, at the same time, and hitting their targets. However, because reading is actually a more intimate experience than watching a movie, fight scenes in books need to be more realistic.
Anyone who’s ever fired anything, or fought anyone, knows that you’re not likely to hit something you’re not looking at. I used to belong to live role playing group, fighting with foam rubber swords—it’s useful to do that kind of thing, just to pick up some basics. Like the fact that the moment a swordsman’s gaze shifts aside, even for a second, you can hit him anywhere you want. (Even if he’s so much better than you are that he’s glancing at the practice fight going on beside you while he fends you off—because there’s no way you’re getting a hit on him if he’s paying attention.) This in turn means that if a second opponent can get behind your protagonist, even if your protagonist is greatest ninja who ever lived, then your protagonist is toast.
In fact, if it’s at all possible, I’d advise testing the things your protagonists do, at least in slow motion. If they’re tied back to back, and you have them stand up by pushing against each other, get together with an adventurous friend and give that a try. (My brother and I discovered that it’s harder than you’d think.) Go to a range and fire the gun your protagonist is using, or put some hay bales in the back yard and shoot a bow.
If you can’t do this yourself—or if your protagonist is a truly great marksman or a hotshot archer—check YouTube to discover what is possible for a master and what isn’t. (And you should probably bear in mind that some YouTube videos are faked.) But I’ve seen a guy on YouTube shoot an arrow, accurately, while doing things I’d have sworn were impossible. The American Ninja warriors do things I didn’t think anyone could really do. Watch people who do parkour, or jousting, or pick locks.
And then, even if you did see it on YouTube make sure that what’s in your fight scene also sounds plausible, even if you have seen people actually do it. Nothing pulls a reader out of a fight scene quicker than thinking, “No one could do that.” And not everyone has seen that YouTube video you saw.
Finally, please don’t have your protagonist go on fighting after a wound or injury that would actually stop someone in real life…which is just about anything beyond a few bruises, a mild sprain, or a slight cut. I once attended writing panel stocked by medics, who said lots of derisive things about the “John Wayne shoulder wound” and the “Nancy Drew concussion.” It’s just a flesh wound… According to the medics, your whole body is made of flesh, and there’s no part of it that you can poke a hole in that doesn’t matter. A lot. As for a concussion, if anything knocks you out for more than a few moments you’re going to be days to weeks recovering. If you’re knocked out for hours or days, you can make that months to years for a complete recovery.
Brown belt: Pacing your fight
As with every scene in your novel, the building blocks of a fight scene are the obstacles—and in terms of story structure, in a fight scene your antagonist isn’t the obstacle, he’s part of the plan. I’m assuming your protagonist isn’t foolish enough to go into his fight without some sort of plan for winning it—even if he’s just been surprised by an ambush, and is coming up with plans on the fly. The obstacles are the things that go wrong with your hero’s plan, and leave him scrambling for solutions. The broken plan, the “OMG, it’s all gone south! How can he possibly win now?” moment, this is where most of the tension in a fight scene comes from—not the action itself.
And one of the reasons your hero will need to make a plan is because, going into any fight scene, the hero should be the underdog—or at least, the hero and the antagonist should be evenly matched. If your protagonist has superior force on his side winning doesn’t make him look heroic, it looks like he’s picking on the little guy. You can pull off a scene where the hero cockily assumes that he has overwhelming force on his side…and then the bad guy outwits him and turns the tables, and your hero has a little learning moment. If you don’t mind seeing egg on your hero’s face, this can work not just for humor, but also as a good plot obstacle and a great moment of character growth.
The brown belt stage is also where writing technique starts to come in. There’s a writing myth that in fight scenes you should use all short sentences, to create tension. I use short sentences. Writing fight scenes, and sometimes in other scenes. Even fragments. They have a lot of impact. But using nothing but shorts is a problem. Your fight scene will sound choppy. And too abrupt. Particularly in a long fight, you should probably write with close to the normal sentence variation for most of the fight. (See what a relief that change of pace was?) Only in moments of extreme tension will you want to drop into multiple short sentences, and then only for a very short time. You also don’t want a lot of long rambling sentences in a row, because that can slow the pace down. But writing an action scene is much like any other writing—you have to listen to the pacing your sentence length produces, and make judgment calls.
And speaking of pace, the most important part of writing any fight scene is that, even in the midst of a hail of bullets or crashing swords, you have to be willing to stop the action every now and then to tell the reader about your protagonist’s emotions. New-agey as it sounds, fight scenes that work are all about the hero’s feelings. And when you’re in the midst of writing furious action, stopping to describe your hero’s physical reactions and emotions feels like your lightning fast protagonist is suddenly wading through molasses. But when you’re reading, hearing about how the sword hilt was slipping in his clammy hand, and he desperately wanted to run, get away, hide. He might have done it, if he’d dared to turn his back on the man who paced toward him, sword at ready, a cocky grin dawning as he saw the fear… When you’re reading a fight scene, those moments of physical and emotional connection, when you’re drawn inside the embattled protagonist’s body and heart, are what make the fight come alive—it’s those moments that let the reader live that fight with your hero. And if you leave them out, if your fight scene is nothing more than a description of who’s doing what and to whom, the reader won’t care.
Black belt: Fighting with finesse
First, there are minor fights and major fights—and the rules for each of them are different.
In a minor fight, it can sometimes be about nothing except whether your hero will win/escape. In an action novel, there may be a number of these minor fights…but those fights aren’t the ones that matter.
A major fight can also happen in other places in the story, but if your climax is a fight scene then it’s always a major fight. And in major fights, the victory can never be primarily about the physical act of winning. Even if the bad guy has your hero out-gunned, if your hero wins just by out-fighting the villain it will be profoundly unsatisfying. In the end, the hero has to win because of some quality of character. It can be courage, cleverness, self-sacrifice, or something else, but the source of your hero’s victory must always come from within.
In fact, the resolution to any fight, major or minor, doesn’t have to be physical. With a minor fight, it can be a lot of fun to set the reader up for a physical conflict and then resolve it some other way. To pull an example from my own recent work, in Scholar’s Plot my two heroes and a sister come home to find a gang of four thugs kidnapping their houseguest. The hero realizes that while he and his friend fight two of the thugs, the other two will make off with their victim, and there’s no way he can stop them. He’s trying to figure something out when his sister starts screaming for help. Neighbors come boiling out of houses all up and down the street, and the thugs are forced to abandon their victim and run. Both my macho heroes feel sheepish, and it’s a really fun scene—because I set things up for a traditional fight and then turn the reader’s expectation on its head. You can’t do this too often or readers will come to expect it, and you’ll lose the surprise. And you generally can’t go for humor in the climax—which brings us to the climax, where your fight scene matters most.
The best fights, the fights that make the story they’re in unforgettable, are fights in which something more important than winning or losing is also taking place. These fights are always the climax of your story, and the things that make them matter usually hinge on the hero making a difficult choice, and then doing something the reader doesn’t expect because of it. What they do will also generally involve personal growth for the protagonist, or the theme of your story, but it’s always something that shows that this fight is about more than just winning. One example that comes to mind is in the movie Serenity, where Mal doesn’t kill the Operative in the final battle—he defeats him by showing him the truth, just as Mal is showing the whole universe the truth. Another is in the (old, but really good) movie Witness. Harrison Ford wins his fight, not by killing the corrupt cop who’s been murdering to conceal his crimes, but when the little boy rings the alarm bell that will summon the pacifist Amish to come and bear witness, to see the enemy and identify him, too many of them (as Harrison Ford points out) for the villain to kill them all.
These are fights I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten every fight in every James Bond or Jason Bourne movie.
Fights like these, memorable fights, are very hard to bring off—it takes a while to earn a white belt, after all. But if you can write with clarity and make your fight believable, at least you can get beyond the Wham! Bam! Pow! level. And if you bring your readers into your protagonist’s mind and body, and let them live that fight through your protagonist, then your action scene will score a knockout. And a knockout means you’ve won.