Writing: The First Rule of Fight Scenes


Writing: The First Rule of Fight Scenes

…is, of course, you don’t talk about fight scenes.

Okay, sorry. I’ve been waiting all week to do that one.


I wanted to devote a few minutes to writing fight sequences, because it’s something I try not to do consciously. Now, make no bones about it, it’s something I’m fairly GOOD at doing. However, I still stand by the fact that you’re better off approaching them as you would part of any other scene–get in, get out, describe what happens.

There’s no special art to it. In fact: you shouldn’t be spending too much time worrying about it.

But Emily, you say. Your book. It’s, like. MOSTLY fight scenes.

To which I reply: is it? Really?

It’s not. There are a few scenes where my characters actively trade blows, but for the most part, the scenes you’re thinking of are scenes of coersion, scenes of internal conflict, scenes just before or just after quite a lot of fighting. And those actual fight scenes, when they happen, are short. Because there’s not much to them, other than fighting, and ain’t nobody gonna wanna read twenty pages ’bout blow-by-blow combat. If you want that, try Kung-Fu For Dummies.

Because here’s the thing. Actual, raw, blow-to-blow fighting SHOULD be a fairly small percentage of your story, even an action-adventure type story. And when it happens, it should happen like action happens–nasty, brutal, short and quick, with a long build-up and a release point like a fire hydrant on methamphetamines.

Because fighting in and of itself isn’t–can’t be–a plot device.

And a story–even action/adventure–is still about carrying on the plot.

Look at it this way. Your fight scene is like the whitehead on a particularly nasty pimple. It’s a symptom, rather than the disease itself. It’s happening because tensions have been mounting underneath the surface–all that tasty conflict (Man vs. Man, Man. Vs. Himself, you pick it, we write it) has been ramping the fuck UP.

Think about the knife fight between Paul and Jamis in Frank Herbert’s Dune. That fight scene happens because we–and Stilgar, the sietch leader–need to SEE Paul prove himself against a Fremen, need to SEE proof that Paul can become Muad’dib, the Fremen hero, who can kill a man in cold blood when it’s required. It’s a turning point in Paul’s character arc, a moment in which he begins changing to fit his new destiny and the new and brutal ways of this Fremen life. The actual fight, though it’s one of the more memorable things in Dune, is about two pages long, maybe three.

The plot isn’t actually ABOUT the fight. Ever. It’s about what the fight PROVES–what’s at stake if your character loses, if he wins. We remember the knife fight because of what happens before and after–the disposing of Jamis’s body, the meeting it marks between sietch and city-people–rather than the fight itself.

Back to my pimple analogy. The actual fight is merely the moment that whitehead bursts, leaving you with a big red spot on your face and no way to cover it so that guy you like in first period doesn’t think your’e gro-oooss, ohmigawd.

What matters isn’t the pimple bursting. The pimple’s been there for days, getting redder and redder, grosser and grosser.

What matters is the conflict that led up to the fight–the thing that caused the pimple to grow in the first place. After all, if you had some sort of magical plot-exfoliant, it wouldn’t have happened at all, would it? And Derek from English would have asked you to go to prom with him. (Keep dreaming, sweetheart.)

On a purely practical level–save to resolve some element of it, a fight can’t advance your plot much by itself, either. Why? Not a lot of talk happens, in fighting. Not a lot of resolutions get made. If you’re writing your fight scene well, your characters are usually too busy for conversation or introspection. The result of a fight might advance your plot, but the fight itself? Best keep it short.

So, to recap: a fight in a story proves something in your plot, or resolves something. It isn’t plot. There’s too much action going on during it for your plot to grow.

You can learn something about a character through it, I suppose. (Jamis, in Dune, is ambidexterous). Or, through a character’s loss or knowledge gained, you can create more plot points. But these aren’t things that’re dealt with WITHIN the fight. They’re dealt with after, when your character has a few seconds to catch his or her breath.

So it’s best to keep your fight scenes short and sweet. Describe what happens (And this is advice I would SHOUT at you, if I could–describe what happens. Don’t get all purply prosy about it. Give a blow-by-blow account. Fighting is fast and confusing enough without you bollixing it up with Your Darlings). Leave the significance, the purple prose, and the ch-ch-ch-changes for directly after the fight, when there’s time for reflection.

Otherwise, your characters obviously aren’t busy enough.


One thought on “Writing: The First Rule of Fight Scenes

  1. I love this. The first time I tried to write a serious fight scene, I went back to a book where I remember it being done particularly well. In my mind I felt like the action was pages on pages of epic fight, but it was over in a couple of paragraphs. It was all build-up.

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