Fight Scenes: The Waltz of Death

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You are thinking you need a fight scene in your novel. The most important question is “Why?” Your novel and the specific situation in a particular scene must demand some sort of physical interaction between characters. But don’t think that the physical is the end-all of the scene; instead, a fight scene is an opportunity to reveal character as the characters interact in a physical way. As with any scene, there should be a beginning, middle and end and somewhere in there, a pivot point where the story changes direction.

Let’s Fight: Basics of a Fight Scene

First, a fight scene must move the novel or story forward. The outcome of the fight must matter on a large enough scale, and yet on a small enough scale, too. That is, not so big that the story ends abruptly, but enough that something important changes. What is at stake (other than dying) and why is it important to the story?

It’s all about character. The stakes of the scene should be rooted in character, the fighters and/or the observers. It must reveal something about your character as the scene progresses. (beliefs, what is worth fighting for, fears, cowardice, courage, what the character is willing to do and what s/he won’t do, etc.). It can’t just be whacking each other over the head. It must matter to the story and to the character, both internal and external arcs.

Make it hard for the characters. Give the characters equal skills, so the fight relies on character qualities for its outcome. Be realistic here. For example, a child or teen may not be as strong as a burly man, but they may be faster. Think about how different skills can offset the opponent’s strength. You’ll ultimately have to figure out how the underdog might defeat a stronger foe; but it must be hard and must be believable.

Final Showdown. Hero must barely survive and must run out of options as the fight progresses.
In the final showdown, the Hero must go beyond his normal abilities, face some fear or do the unthinkable or impossible to survive. This isn’t a waltz. It’s a waltz of death. Maybe the death of a hope, a fear, an alternative, a love.


How to Write a Fight Scene

List possible actions. If you are doing a sword fight, they can thrust, jab, parry, dodge and so on. Are there alternate weapons, alternate settings, alternate methods? If so, list these and then rank them in order of danger or what is at stake. You’ll start the fight with the gentlest, most benign fighting and move toward more deadly methods. Rank not just weapons, but also settings and other methods of fighting. For example, settings may be more dangerous if the fight is in a swamp (deadly footing), a rainstorm (visibility and footing), an alley (dark, close quarters), etc. Be sure to consider all variables and start with the easiest and work up to the hardest. It may mean that one fight escalates through all these stages, or it may mean that early fights in a series of conflicts are easy leading up to the major battle at the climax.

Choreograph. Create a waltz of death, of characters coming against each other, one gaining an advantage, only to be thrust back giving the second character a temporary advantage, which is also countered. I can’t be more specific because choreography will depend on whether your characters are fist-fighting or using some historically accurate weapon. Whatever the specifics, you must think about the beats or distinct actions of the fight itself. Get up from the computer, move around and try to mime the actions of the scene. Even if your character is riding a horse or a dragon, try to act it out.

Emotions. Brief moments of emotion are essential or the scene becomes a boring slash-and-bash affair. The way the characters join the battle are times for developing character, character relationship and the emotional arc of the novel. When there’s a set back–a sword tip reaches in to draw first blood–take time for a mental reaction. Keep it short, of course, (No long flashbacks) but make sure the reader knows the POV character’s reactions at all times.

Keep it intimate. This is not the time for a panorama description, where you pull back and look at the battlefield from overhead. Well, OK, do that, but immediately get back to the front lines where your protag is being battered. I NEVER want to know the specifics of a battle, believe me. But I will follow a battle scene if I am worried about a character. Make the character interesting and lovable before you put him into a fight and I will follow that character anywhere.

Importance of Sensory Details. Through it all, remember that good writing comes alive through the use of sensory details. For a fight scene, it may be the clash of swords, the cry of someone injured, or the smell of blood. But especially remember the kinesthetic details, what it means for the human body to move in space. The swing of the sword, the feel of fist connecting with chin, the exhaustion of dodging an attack for an hour and how your legs ache and you just want to sit and get a drink. What does your character’s body feel as the fight progresses? As usual, try to include at least three different senses, don’t get stuck just on what the character sees.

9 Comments
  • Marzio Ombra
    June 11, 2012

    Great advice, it applies to sex scenes just as well.

  • Jo S. Kittinger
    June 11, 2012

    Darcy,
    I thought this was a excellent post! I had never seen tips on writing a fight scene before, so this was very helpful. Thank you for freely sharing your wonderful insights on writing!
    Hugs, Jo

  • Beth MacKinney
    June 13, 2012

    Awesome post, Darcy. One of the best writers of fight scenes that I’ve read is John Flanagan (Ranger’s Apprentice series). His fight scenes are phenomenal and are well worth studying for anyone who wants to write truly great fight scenes.

  • Darcy Pattison
    June 14, 2012

    Great suggestion, Beth!
    Darcy

  • Martha Ramirez
    June 15, 2012

    AWESOME Post! I needed this. Thank you!

  • R. J. Larson
    June 15, 2012

    Great post, Darcy! I was reconsidering an upcoming scene as I read your list. Solid characters that evoke reader empathy are critical to any book. Otherwise, action scenes are flat and seem pointless–no pun intended. Also, if writers have personal resources, such as friends or relatives who study and participate in martial arts, fencing, and war games (even if the writer practices these skills) then it’s a good idea to gather feedback from these resources to sharpen your choreography and emotional impact.

  • nicole evelina
    June 16, 2012

    Great, post Darcy! Thanks for sharing your insights. I will be tweeting and bookmarking this post.

    I’ve also found reading combat manuals to be very helpful. I write in a time period for which we have precious few records (450-550 AD) but even reading the early medieval combat guides can give you an idea of what is realistic. I like to start with my imagination, then tailor to scene to historical fighting combinations.

  • Helen Henderson
    June 17, 2012

    Good point about using more than one sense. Helen
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  • Amanda Borenstadt
    June 17, 2012

    Great post. So very helpful. So, I get what you’re saying, that a fight scene should do more than one thing. It’s not just about smashing somebody. It’s about character, the overall plot, and pacing.

    Very valuable post! :)