April 17, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: Anatomy of a Fight Scene

Fight scenes.

Whether it's a bully or a villain, a bad boy or a kick-ass heroine, a fight scene can be a make-it or break-it part of your story. Physical confrontation stirs the blood and gets us excited for our characters, but if it's done wrong or poorly, we feel cheated.

Writing a fight scene that works can be a difficult thing. There's a lot that needs to be understood in order to do it well, and a number of things that you should ask yourself.

CharactersYour characters are the first thing you should look at when it comes to a fight.

  • What is their emotional state? Are they experienced fighters, calm and collected? Are they nervous? How will this affect the fight and it's outcome? As they fight, do they get frustrated or angry? Elated? Excited? Scared?
  • What is their physical state? Are they injured? Again, are they nervous - is their heart beating too fast? Are their palms sweating? Are they athletic or clumsy, do they have a long reach or a short one? As they fight, is it over fast, or do they get tired? Is their breathing labored, or controled?
  • What is their fighting style - brute force, totally untrained, or all about technique?
  • PAIN HURTS. Use this. Describe the kind of pain - is it sharp? Does it take your character's breath away? Does it sting? Is it a small, ignorable pain, or a large pain that blots out everything else? How does your character act emotionally to the pain?
All those things will affect your scene, and should be thought out. If you have a big guy who uses his size to beat everyone, he's probably going to take heavy, over-committed swings (with a weapon or his fist, doesn't matter). These might be killer swings, but they waste energy, which is something a smaller, more tactical opponent would take advantage of.

If your characters are nervous or unsure, this affects the fight as well. Their hands will probably sweat, which makes holding a weapon more difficult. Thinking through details like this will help you get your reader into step with the character. Use the emotions, the mental state, the physical details. Whether you know how to fight or not won't matter, as long as you drag your reader into the scene with your character.

One suggestion I make regularly when I'm asked about fight scenes is to go find a martial arts or boxing studio, and try a lesson or two. See how it feels for yourself. And then come back and put that in your writing. It will make it even more believable. The mechanics matter little as long as you have the feeling right.

SceneryThe surroundings of your fight matter.

A fight in a traditional arena like the Colosseum is going to be a lot different from a fight in a cave, or from a fight in a small room or alley, or a crowded lunch room. Make sure your scenery is well painted, because your reader needs to be able to visualize what's going on.
  • Is the ground smooth or uneven? Are there things your fighters will trip on, or be able to pick up and use as weapons?
  • Is the area wide open or cramped? Full of people? How does this affect your character's movements?
  • Is it cold, hot, wet? Goes back to the physical state of your character. Describe the heat/cold/wet/dry, describe how it affects them and their opponent.
  • Is it noisy? Quiet? Again, affects the fight and the character. Use it.
Everything over, under, and around the fight matters. Even if you don't include it, make sure YOU are visualizing it, and if it affects your fight or your characters, you have to describe it. It also needs to follow logically. Don't include a rock in an office space, unless you have a plausible reason it would be there (like as a paper weight or decoration). I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but one little thing out of place can completely pull the reader out of the fight. Don't do it.

Writing It Out
Once you've got the scene and the fight in your head, you've got to get it on paper, which is the hardest part. If you've answered the questions above, you'll have an easier time of it, but there are other things to think about too. The best piece of advice I can give about actually writing the fight is this:

Fights are confusing. Keep your writing clean. Anytime you can simplify the writing, DO IT.

Fights are confusing, whether you're reading them or actually in them. They're usually over a lot faster than you think. If you need the fight for dramatic tension, you'll need to draw it out. If you don't need it, consider this option:
Jake and Aaron faced off, done shouting insults. Faces grim, each waited for the other to move first. Jake's foot shifted slightly, and the room grew quiet as the two boys connected. Fist hit flesh, a wet pulpy sound, and in a matter of moments it was over. Jake lay on the ground swearing, nursing a face that was already growing dark. Aaron, his chest heaving, stared at the crowd that had gathered, and stalked off.
There you go - a fight in a paragraph. The important thing here is description. You don't need to explain every punch and kick, but you do need to have the emotion. This is a very common technique, one I see authors using all the time. The mechanics of the fight don't matter nearly as much as the emotion.

Now, if you do need the whole fight, either for dramatic tension or for plot, you have to think about how you'll write out the descriptions. Keep your writing simple, use words and phrases that explain as much as possible while staying as simple as possible. The oft-given advice of show, don't tell is especially valid for a fight. Give enough of the physical mechanic as you need to show what's going on, but focus first on your character's emotional and physical state.

Details, details, details. Visualize the fight in your mind. Write down everything - what you smell, what you feel, what you see. Put yourself in your MC's shoes. What hurts? What feels good? Write it all, good and bad, and don't worry about how it sounds. Get the information on the paper. Once you do that, you can go back and tighten things, make your descriptions better, take out the unnecessary detail.

At the end of the day, remember that it's about emotion and feeling. Get that right, and you're in good shape.


Feaky Snucker said...

Great points to keep in mind!

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