The toddler’s napping, the dishes are (mostly) done, and I’ve noticed this topic has been floating around threads and posts of late so here are my thoughts on the topic.
First of all I have to confess a slight arrogance to this post, not because I have any particular superiority on the subject, but simply because most of the other articles I see posted about the web don’t in my opinion cover fight scenes well. Sure you can find lots of tidbits and basic advice but I feel like no-one is covering the subtexts of fight scenes. I don’t mean like a superanalysis of the symbols and deep meaning, but just focusing on the story/writerly aspects of fight scenes.
So this post won’t be giving you advice about realism, authenticity or how to choreograph in prose. But I will be diving as deep as I can into the more literary mechanics of fights (without passing out)
What’s in a fight scene?
It may be wise to discuss before diving any deeper, what actually is a fight scene. I mean the answer is relatively obvious and not something you probably need me to tell you, but I think sitting down and clarifying helps to further develop one’s understanding.
My thesis is that a fight scene is a scene (wow great insight Thomas) that pits two or more characters against each other in a visceral and immediate conflict. Whether the weapons are fists, guns, swords, giant mech warriors or Pokemon the conflict pushes the characters directly against each other. I want to differentiate fight scenes from other situations like action sequences, and acts of violence, both of which may have some aspects in common but in my argument to not have the participants in direct conflict. For example in a chase scene one character may wish to fight, but the other wants to get away, the chase may well end in a fight but the chase part the characters goals are not equal in opposite in aggression.
Now that I’ve defined fight scenes it may be useful to have a short bit on movies vs books. Fight scenes tend to work well in movies, they create a visual spectacle, with choreography, shots, editing, acting not to mention the mere visual fact of seeing human beings rumble seems to automatically create tension in our hearts. I suspect many people enjoy movie fight scenes so much they want to recreate that sense in their writing, however fight scenes in books is a considerably different kettle of fish, so different its almost not a kettle and not fish we’re talking about (pot of monkeys maybe). In short I think its a mistake to try and capture film fight scenes in prose.
Despite that in explaining what I think good written fight scenes require I’m going to use some movies examples EVEN THOUGH I just poo pooed the idea, but focusing on the writerly parts.
Let’s get into it!
A Tale of Two-Three Fight Scenes
The first important part of fight scenes is looking at how the fights of your story actually tell a story of their own. In a certain not well known movie called THE MATRIX you will find some of the best fight scenes out there. Of course this is in part because of the all the cool visual movie stuff, but they are also written in my opinion extremely well.
It’s a little hard to separate the fight from all the general action sequences, but in my opinion there are three fight scenes:
Neo vs Morpheus
Morpheus vs Agent Smith
Neo vs Agent Smith
If you look at it that way you can almost see a story told by the scenes themselves. The first fight shows Neo’s (I know Kung Fu) potential, and also shows his Mentor Morpheus not being too sloppy himself. When Morpheus fights Agent Smith we see just how strong The Agents really are, along with Morpheus’ belief in Neo’s potential, so much so he sacrifices himself. And finally when Neo fights Smith we see Neo embracing his ‘oneness’ and Smith finally being defeated.
My point is not that the fight scenes tell the whole story of The Matrix, but that in themselves do have thematic progress that supports the overall story. When I noticed this I also realized that this sort of ordering of fight scenes or similar is fairly common.
Also my point isn’t that you need to go away and craft your novel to have some sort of hero’s journey progression shoved into your fights, but rather that the positioning and order of the scenes should be intentional and designed for maximum literary oomph.
Another way the above fights are skilfully written is careful attention to stakes. The consequences of the 3 fights is quite different and steadily more dramatic. If Neo lost his fight against Morpheus (or more accurately failed to hit him) the consequence would be a little lost hope that Neo was indeed the one. Morpheus indeed does lose his fight, the stakes being the potential death of a liked character and disruption and pain for his crew. Getting pretty serious here. The final fight has the highest stakes, our main character’s (and hope along with him) life is at risk, and if he wins the fight this pretty much means the turning of the war, as it will be the first time an Agent of the Matrix has been defeated (other than the bad-ass “dodge this” moment, but that can’t happen every time).
What I find in boring stories with lots of fights is there isn’t really any attention to varying or dynamic stakes. Often the hero is simply physically threatened by the fight, which tends to lack tension due to plot armour (i.e. the fact we know the MC isn’t going to die randomly). Stakes don’t necessarily have to be mortal or even melodramatically high to make a fight exciting, they just have to have to make an important difference to the story going forward. The best fights would have a significance for either person winning. One of the best written fight scenes for this is the Mountain versus the Viper in The Song of Fire and Ice Series (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT FOR THE BOOKS AND SHOW)
In this scene if the Viper wins this will mean the freedom of Tyrion a much loved and falsely accused MC, it will be a major blow against the Lannisters, a group of villains who for the first few books have it all too good, and the Viper will have revenge against the Mountain. If the Mountain wins then Tyrion is sentenced to death, and all the Viper’s goals will be in smoke and audiences will die a little inside themselves. Even though neither The Viper or The Mountain are main characters themselves, and there are no nuclear bombs waiting to go off, the stakes are high because its the distance between the two consequences that make the fight so tense. A poorly written fight scene feels boring because the tension is between a main character getting defeated and killed, or the plot advancing when the main character wins, and almost universally we know the MC isn’t going to get whacked so really its just a matter of waiting for the plot to move forwards.
Stakes aren’t necessarily established in the same scene as the fight either, good fights aren’t just about how well that scene is written but by how the other material supports it.
Beats (not pun intended)
Something that took me a while to get my head around in general is story beats. My understanding of a story beat is simply a small step or movement of the plot conveyed by some action (almost always by a character of said story). A simple plot will have relatively clear and straightforward beats/actions, whereas a complex plot may have multiple characters engaged in multiple beats/actions.
I think a mistake many writers make is considering a fight scene to be a single story beat, which they certainly can be. But a good fight scene can contain multiple beats within itself, which are shown within the specific action. An obvious example of this is the opening fight scene of Logan. In this scene Logan attempts to prevent a gaggle of crims from stealing the wheels off of his limo.
The fight begins with Logan getting blasted by a shotgun and falling. He then attempts to talk to the men, and gets beaten back, finally deciding to pop his claws only to show himself to be so old and busted his claws barely work and the guys beat him to the ground. Finally Logan goes berserk, and gets the upper hand, tearing the men apart. Morality aside the fight has nice clear beats to observe, Logan making attempts to talk the men out of their pursuit and fighting them, Logan failing to fight them, and finally giving into the rage and killing several of the group. Most fights are slightly more subtle and carry different themes and steps, but when it comes to ‘choreography’ this is what a writer should be focused on. It’s good advice to not try and compile a blow-by-blow of a written fight, but often the advice I see floating around the blogosphere doesn’t really have anything to fill the blanks.
So in review this is my key advice:
- Have the fight scenes tell their own tale, supporting the overall story
- Establish stakes beyond just the main character might die, ensure there is a clear consequence for either side winning and avoid plot armour making one outcome obvious
- Design your fight to include story beats, or movements of plot that develop character, and move the story of the conflict back and forth
Fight scenes in my opinion are a great way to develop and release tension in a story and make the conflict simple and all the more compelling for it.
What are your guys thoughts on fight scenes?
Do you have any killer examples of great written fights?
How about any duds?
And lo the boy awakes – so long!