When I was a kid, I consumed action movies like a certain Brazilian Soccer team crashed in the Andes consumed the…. no, wait, shit, even I can’t go there…
OK, I watched a lot of action movies. If someone was getting beaten, shotgunned through a strategically-placed plate glass window or blowing something up, I was there. My favourite action film star of all time was Bruce Lee, and my enthusiasm for his stuff skyrocketed when I read that he choreographed all his own fight scenes (and that his kicks tracked so fast they had to shoot in high speed then slow down the film so the audience could see the blows). So today I’m going to talk about how I write a fight scene.
I love writing fight scenes. Perhaps it’s because I’m a boy. Perhaps it’s because a fight scene is a realm of pure physicality – you’re really working with visuals. There’s not much dialogue, there’s not much internal monologue or thought processes, there’s simply fist meeting face. That’s the good stuff.
So, top 5 tips for writing a fight scene:
- Begin at the ending, young grasshopper. The most important part of the fight is the finale – the moment where Ali knocks out Foreman is the moment that brings the audience to their feet, not the great uppercuts or body blows that preceded the final punch. It’s the image of the KO that stays in people’s minds, long after the rest of the punches have faded. I’ve found the easiest way to choreograph the scene is to know exactly how it’s going to end. “Hans Gruber falling out the window” or “Mr Han impaled on a spear in his own room of mirrors”. Then look at starting positions and start bridging the gap. Doesn’t have to be some overly-dramatic Karate-Kid style Crane Kick (making the fight appear ugly and childish and completely without finesse might very well be the point of it), but you need to have a picture-perfect idea of where this biffo ends up.
- Dance like there’s ass in your pants. Choreography is all important in a fight scene, particularly if you have multiple combatants and a lot of moving parts. Planning a punch-up is a lot like planning a novel – there will be several pivotal points around which the fight moves, several “swings” where momentum shifts or the downward spiral begins. Once you have an idea of how it will finish, try to map out these “pivot points” of your fight. These are like key plot points in your novel plan (if you use a plan), the skeletal structure of the conflict. Once you have the skeleton, start putting meat on the bones. If it helps, you can even storyboard these moments (draw stick-figures if you’re not good at illustration). Go to a comic book store and check out how an illustrator short hands them – every panel in a comic book fight scene will probably be one of these pivotal moments, simply because they don’t have the space to show all the details. An absolutely superb fight scene choreographer is Katsuhiro Otomo – his stuff in Akira is brilliant.
- The Intimacy of Violence. A fight scene will feel more personal, more real to your reader, if told from one person’s PoV (doesn’t have to be 1st person). This might not be possible in a huge Pelennor Fields style epic battle, particularly if there are multiple key moments happening in different parts of the battlefield that one person simply can’t participate in. But try to stay in one person’s head in each scene. 3rd person omni is a really impersonal mistress when it comes to a fight scene. It makes the conflict (and the risk associated with it) seem distant somehow, like you’re watching it on a television rather than actually living in the moment. In a life-threatening situation, with horses screaming and the stink of blood and shit hanging in the air and sharpened chunks of metal flying about, your reader should feel the same sense of threat that the participants feel. One good trick (and this isn’t always possible, depending on the structure of the narrative) – write the fight scene from the PoV of the person losing it.
- Understand physicality. The best way to see how fights work is to actually watch them. It may not be your cup of tea, but it’s worth the experience. And I’m not talking about watching Hollywood blockbuster fights where people take 30-40 punches before they fall over. Watch UFC and other kinds of sport-fighting – boxing, muay-thai, and so on. Watch a lot of it. You’ll begin to understand the way the human body moves and reacts under duress. The way even professional fighters can seem clumsy and unco-ordinated. The way a beaten fighter seems to shrink down on himself, change from a towering giant to a frightened little boy lost in the ring. The way sweat sprays off skin when it gets hit, the way muscles look when they move. The way it really only takes one good punch/kick to end things. The human body is a lethal weapon – it only takes around three pounds of pressure to break an open jaw. It only takes one punch and a fall onto concrete to kill someone. Once you’ve got a basic understanding of that, you can decide how much you want to ramp up the “hollywood’ aspect of your brawls. If you want your fight scenes to turn stomachs, keep them brutal and short, as most real-life fights tend to be.
- Talk a good game. The language of your fight scene should reflect the mood. Short sentences. Quick cuts. Spit and blood and snot. If people are trying to kill each other, long flowery sentences won’t cut it. There is an urgency to most conflicts. It’s primal and it’s involuntary. When someone is trying to cave your face in, your pulse beats faster, your breath comes quicker.
Consider the following words: Fist. Punch. Kick. Hook. Knee. Stab. Shoot. Cut. Gut. Spit. Blood. Teeth. Slap. Crunch. Break. Rip. Tear. Hurt. They’re all one syllable. Imagine trying to speak while you’re out of breath. Imagine trying to type when your knuckles are swollen and bleeding from the other guy’s teeth. That’s where you want to be.