Writing Fight Scenes: One-Two Punch

Fighting is a fairly alien concept for me. I’m not particularly active, I don’t nurse many grudges and my form of anger is insanely passive aggressive. I’m not one to throw a punch.

I’ve been in precisely one fight in my life, I was in the 4th grade and this other kid in my class was being a jerk. I don’t remember why he offended me, I was 10. My brain hadn’t developed, maybe I was the jerk, I honestly have no idea.

Being in the fourth grade my fight consisted of me just grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and spinning. Not the most exemplary method but it seemed to work. Though I suspect what mostly threw him off was that it was a girl who was attacking.

I’ve taken a few kickboxing classes, watched a lot of action movies, and read a lot of adventure stories. What this basically amounts to is that while I have second-hand experience and accounts, I have never really had to bare-knuckle it out – which I think I’m confident in saying, is something I share with most writers.

There are a few ways of writing fight scenes. Most writers tend to fall into two categories:

  • “ohh I passed out and missed the whole fight”

This is one way an author can avoid writing a battle scene – if the main character can’t witness it then how can it be written?

There’s a lot of hate for this type of writing. It’s usually one of the first cited examples of bad writing.

I think it can be used adeptly. The real skill is to maintain a sense of suspense and action even though you’re not explicitly showing the fight. This is something that I’ve only seen used effectively in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. Often the lead-up to the battle is described in full but just as the action begins to ramp:

He did not recall hitting the ground, but when he looked up there was only sky above him

(page 690)
A Game of Thrones –
George R.R. Martin

  • Professor Descriptor v. Tiny Detail

I think this often occurs when someone like me writes a fight scene. Sometimes when a particular subject is unknown, the instinct is to research styles and postures to death. Showing off how much we studied and learned is a natural side-effect to this research. What happens is that a simple fight scene that should have lasted a few minutes for the characters becomes pages of detail.

Detail is never really a bad thing when it comes to writing. Where it becomes slightly poisonous is when it’s used as substance rather than style – becoming ‘look how much I know about 14th Century French dueling styles’ rather than ‘see this awesome fight scene’.

Adrenaline and battle rage are two interesting concepts that some writers forget about. When instinct, fear and aggression takes over the civilized mind. Fights are usually not finessed, gentlemanly or pretty.

An overly descriptive battle could be used effectively if it was from the point of view of someone separate (visually or emotionally) from the battle or fight.  A person viewing from the sidelines, or the viewpoint of someone who is severely emotionally detached would have a completely different tone than someone in the fray.

Think of the performance in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’ boxing match is visually exciting to watch, but from the character’s point of view it is something as simple as making tea. In his mind there is little effort, he knows the outcome because he has planned it.

When I get stuck, I tend to reread fight scenes from novels and take inspiration from them. I enjoy Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy because his fight scenes are hectic, messy and exhausting. Often lacking in detail but filled with urgency.

One of my favourite fight scenes he’s written is from the first chapter of The Blade Itself (the excerpt of the first chapter is available online):

Aaaargh!” Logen grunted and squealed and kicked out as hard as he could with his bare heel, kicked a bloody gash in the Shanka’s head, but it wouldn’t stop biting, and the harder he kicked, the more his hands slipped on the greasy root above. There wasn’t much root left to hold on to, now, and what there was looked like snapping off any moment. He tried to think past the pain in his hands, the pain in his arms, the Flathead’s teeth in his leg. He was going to fall. The only choice was between falling on rocks or falling on water, and that was a choice that more or less made itself.

Fight scene are fascinating because any problem with them usually boils down to telling instead of showing. Something that it probably the first adage that writers tell each other. Once you determine whether you are telling or showing, you have to decide if you are comfortable with your choice. If you can make a dramatic fight scene by being overly distanced and descriptive – then throw the rules out the window and do just that.