Crafting a fight scene

Fights, battles, combat, we love these things. Look at our movies, our TV shows, our comic books, even some of our sports, and well, our novels. Violence, like it or not, is a part of our culture. Some depictions are brutal – look at Saving Private Ryan or Gladiator. Some are funny – Jackie Chan has made a career of this. A lot of novels contain one or more fights and how you deal with them is important.

One thing to remember is that there is a difference between a fight in a movie and in a novel.  In a movie it is truly visual. All parties involved have to choreograph each step, each punch, each slice otherwise the actors or the stunt people could needlessly end up hurt (or worse). Each person rehearses over and over again. You can see it on the screen the painstaking effort that went into a good fight. But while it can be fun to watch Jackie Chan spend 20 minutes on a particular fight, using everything he can lay his hands or feet on that doesn’t necessarily translate well into the written form. Do you really want to dedicate an eights to a fifth of your book for one fight scene?  The Battle for Helms deep was how long in the Two Towers? But it was what? Four or five pages in the book.  Enough to get the feel for the battle but you didn’t have to see every orc slain or every arrow shot.

For me I like to describe any major action, such as kicking someones legs out, or the actual knife thrust that scores. You don’t have to describe every punch, jab, or movement. Keep the basics, keep it flowing.  They danced around each other, jabbing and ducking, looking for an opening. Not my best prose but you get the picture.

It’s also good to know and describe where everyone is and their surroundings. This way as the reader follows the fight the two people fighting in one room don’t magically wind up in another room (that is unless they drag the fight from the kitchen to the living room).

While I don’t necessarily choreograph each move and counter move I do try to keep track of it. As a GM for many moons I have to help craft, manage, and moderate combat. I took this idea to some of my fight scenes.

I have a simple stat card for each participant, almost like a mini character sheet. A few basic stats, and a few moves they would use. Using a map and figures can help, especially as you are trying to describe how they move, circle, approach, or withdraw. Then with a couple of dice I make some rolls, and determine how each party would react. I jot some notes and this way the fights are rarely one sided and when your hero takes that wound that nearly drops them it adds tension to the fight.

Yeah, it’s geeky, it’s nerdy, but it works for me.  For the rolls I use 2D6.  The higher the better. This way your protagonist and antagonist have a chance to succeed and fail. Let’s face it – if your hero is Chuck Norrisesque and can’t be hurt and with one roundhouse takes out a small village, that isn’t interesting. While my heroes often win they usually come out of it more like Indiana Jones. Sure they beat the bad guy, but they also have cuts, bruises, bullet holes, or all three.

When writing your fight scenes use active languages, make it exciting. Give your heroes a challenge. If they have nothing to lose then there isn’t much to gain.  It’s also a good idea to hit your thesaurus up for different words for punch, kick, thrust, smash, so you don’t use the same verbs constantly. I know I’m guilty of that.

This post came out from the first draft of a fight I wrote today. As always please comment below and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to reach out to me!

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