Craft Chat: On Fight Scenes

Hi folks,

In chatting with fellow writers, I’ve realized that my love of fight scenes and my enjoyment of writing them is unique and that, much like sex scenes, plenty of people try to avoid writing fight scenes or feel like they don’t know how. So, I wanted to break down how I think about fight scenes and provide some tips.

All right, let’s go.

John Wick reloading

I know a piece of common advice is that a fight scene should reveal something about the characters involved. Okay, yes, this is the ultimate goal of a fight scene, but it’s usually not my first goal.

First thing I want any fight scene or action sequence to be is: COOL, BADASS, AWESOME. You could have a fight scene that is emotional or brings out important information about your characters, but if it isn’t cool or memorable as a piece of ACTION, then consider whether or not it needs to be a fight scene. Maybe they just need to talk it out.

Okay, so you got your badass idea. Now, I usually consider if it’s a fight scene or an action sequence. I don’t think these are actual craft terms, just ways I consider a scene working. A fight scene is going to be shorter, usually contained to a single area, and between a small group of people, usually main characters.

To stick with John Wick, and example would be when he fights one assassin in a single small area versus hunting assassins down through a crypt.

John Wick fighting in a crypt

In a fight scene, there’s more room for character revelations because there’s usually a reason these two people have ended up trying to beat the crap out of each other. In an action sequence, entertainment is more important, as is letting the hero be a total badass while destroying a bunch of minions–at least, in my opinion. If you can include some character revelations or show something about the character to the reader, then your scene is really working.

Of course, these terms are pretty fluid, and often a fight scene becomes an action sequence or an action sequence leads to a fight scene. Think Obi versus Anakin in Revenge of the Sith.

General Tips

Don’t get caught up on if you know how to fight. Sure, having a background in any sort of combat/shooting/badassery is going to help, just like if you are writing a nurse character and you are a nurse, you are going to have some insight that the average person doesn’t have. That’s one reason Fonda Lee’s fight scenes really sing. Yet, Leigh Bardugo wrote one of my favorite fight scenes of all time in Crooked Kingdom and, as far as I know, doesn’t have a background in any sort of fighting style. You can still do it!

One reason anyone can write a fight scene or action sequence is because the reader doesn’t want to be totally bogged down in the details (unless that’s part of the genre you are writing in).

For example in John Wick, the fight scenes barely last long enough to consider if what he’s doing would actually work. Rarely do we know what type of gun he’s using or what he plans to do next or the exact biological detail of where he’s going to hit the next guy. It just happens on the screen. On the page, we can balance that fluidity with more information, but I try to be careful not to lose the fluidity. My goal is always for it to look cinematic and to do the same sleight of hand as an action film. I don’t want the reader to stop and think about what’s going on–I want them flipping pages.

Basically, don’t worry if you’ve never fought someone with a knife. Imagine it, make it badass, and tap into the character’s emotions. Entertain your reader. Don’t be afraid to do some writerly sleight of hand to keep the scene moving.

One way to keep the fluidity of a scene and keep the tension is to work on pacing through short paragraphs and short sentences. Keep it punchy.

Now, I’ll break down some of my thoughts on the fight scene and the action sequence since… I love writing both of them.

Fight Scene

As I said before, a fight scene always feels more intimate to me. It’s really about these two characters facing off in this moment. A couple of things to consider (though I would recommend thinking about these things after writing the scene):

  • WHY are they fighting? Here’s where you get the emotion.
  • How are they fighting? Does one have a gun and one have a knife? Is the antagonist going to fight dirty? What about the hero? What do their fighting styles say about them as characters?
  • If they are talking, consider how to avoid monologuing and how to make it feel natural. That being said, you can also do your writerly sleight of hand. If it’s entertaining, go for it. If it’s boring or slowing down the scene, cut it.
  • Are they equally matched? If so, how is one going to win?
  • If they aren’t equally matched, how badly does the loser get their butt kicked? What kind of repercussions does this have for that character?

When the why of the scene is clear to you as the writer and to the reader, most of these other elements should fall logically into place. If you are struggling with the why consider what your antagonist and protagonist want. I know it’s an old craft point, but the character has to want something so bad they are willing to physically fight for it. That’s a pretty big desire. Similarly, the antagonist needs to want something equally as bad if they are to be matched in a fight or else, why bother fighting?

Action Sequence

In an action sequence, the environment is going to be even more important because that’s what the hero will be moving through as part of the action. Usually, a cool/interesting environmental aspect is what prompts me to write an action sequence rather than a fight scene. What the character is fighting is less important. Back to John Wick, some of the most fun action sequences are when he’s just taking out goons left and right, where we get to see how good of an assassin he really is. It’s about John Wick’s ability in that moment and environment, not about who is killing.

Once again, consider the cool factor. What makes this environment unique and how could you make some cool action moments?

Some classic if overused examples are:

  • Funhouse
  • Amusement Park
  • Abandoned Factory

I want the environment to become part of the action. Consider the tension in Alien as they are hunting down the alien through the ship. That’s as much a part of the action sequence as the actual alien. The environment can add tension, obstacles, or aid. It can also make sure your action sequence doesn’t get repetitive.

For example, in one of my most effective action sequences, the environment is a protest camp in Yellowstone National Park during the winter. Magically enraged grizzly bears are raiding the place. The tents mean my protagonist has no idea where the bears might pop out or charge through, but they also provide aid for her as there are tools laying around she can use against the bears. But, if the whole scene was just her sneaking around and attacking/being attacked, it would get repetitive, so I throw in a moment where a bear attacks and she gets trapped in an SUV that’s parked in the camp. Similarly, cars become weapons as another protagonist uses a vehicle to kill a bear. This environment also raises the stakes because, not only does my protagonist want to survive, but she wants to help all the trapped protesters.

Again, John Wick is a great example of using the environment. He’s always using the room and things around him when fighting, which provides a sense of novelty because the viewer can’t help but think, there’s no way he can kill a guy with a book.

John Wick attacking a guy with a book

Exercises

  1. Watch some action movies. Notice which scenes you get excited about. Do the same thing with TV shows–notice how a season arc might lead up to a fight scene between two characters.
  2. Write a fun fight scene. Choose two characters–your own or from your favorite media–and write the most badass, awesome, entertaining fight scene you can come up with. If it starts to expand into an action sequence, awesome. Right now, just focus on making the most over-the-top entertaining action you can imagine. Have fun. Feel cool.
  3. Try to write a specific fight scene AND a specific action sequence. Feel out the pacing, the beats, keep it cool.
  4. Write a few scenes with different weapons: a fist brawl, just using the things laying around the house, knives, swords, guns, magic. Get some practice and familiarity with how a fight scene/action sequence changes depending on the tools.
  5. Write a short piece where the focus IS action. Maybe it’s two assassins searching each other out to kill each other. A rebel unit intent on killing a colonist overlord. Think about when a fight scene vs an action sequence will be important. Fill that short story with action. Practice it.

Hope this helped, y’all! Feel free to comment or ask questions, I’m always down to chat about fight scenes. I’d like to do a part two where I diagram one of my own fight scenes and action sequences just for the fun of it, but we’ll see how long this isolation lasts.

Sending good vibes in these strange times!

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