We all know (instinctively at least) that conflict, of one kind or another, is at the core of every good story. Whatever the protagonist’s goal may be– to get the girl/boy, to vanquish evil or simply to get through the day in one piece –there is always something or someone who will seek to prevent it from happening. In fiction, as in life, conflict between two characters often leads to fisticuffs. It can be an exciting moment in your story where the tension finally erupts and your audience are beside themselves with anticipation of what the outcome will be… Or it can be tedious, pedestrian, predictable and downright boring.
I am thinking particularly of fight scenes in novels, short stories and other forms of written fiction, since fight scenes in film and theatre are (at least to some extent) more a matter of choreography than writing. As a reader, I often find that even in the best books, it is badly written fight scenes that can really ruin my enjoyment of the story, whether it’s a quick wrestling match between two minor characters or an epic battle between ten vast armies of elves, dragons, wizards and goblins. It’s not that I think fight scenes are unimportant (sometimes they’re necessary) or unexciting (well-written ones can be thrilling); they’re just difficult to get right.
So, first things first. Ask yourself if you really need a fight scene. If it doesn’t help the story to move forward in some concrete way then the answer is probably ‘no’. Some reasons you might want to include a fight scene include:
- You need to kill off a character (‘need’ being the operative word; only kill a character off if it is necessary to help the story progress)
- You need to release tension between two characters and create a turning point in their relationship. Although it might not be a good philosophy to live your real life by, physical altercations in fiction often help to clear the air between two characters. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Family’, Captain Picard and his brother have a constant simmering tension between the two of them until they have a good old punch-up in the middle of the vineyard. Alternatively, a fight could change your characters’ relationship from restrained dislike to open enmity.
- Organised violence might be a central part of the story. For example, The Hunger Games centres around an annual televised battle to the death; thus, characters are expected to fight. War and spy novels are also likely to include such fights where violence is ‘just part of the job’, rather than personal.
If you’ve decided that you’ve got no choice and that you must include a fight scene, there’s a few things you should be aware of. You probably know the first commandment of writing: ‘Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell’. Well, if you’ve ever tried to write a fight scene for a novel or short story, you probably know that it is blooming difficult to write a fight scene and fully observe this rule. Even in written fiction, a good fight still needs to be ‘choreographed’: each character moving to attack, defend and respond to the other characters movements. It’s difficult to accomplish this in words without resorting to a simple description of who attacked who and how, and for this reason I would be inclined to keep it as short as possible and keep the technical details to an absolute minimum. Even though it might lack the details of who struck who and how, this will help to preserve the excitement and pace of your fight scene. What you really want to capture is the sense of chaos and brutality involved. Which of these do you think is the most exciting?
Enough was enough. Willy had really done it this time and John was going to teach him a lesson he would never forget. He reached back with his right hand and punched Willy squarely in the nose, drawing blood from his nostrils. Willy said, ‘Ow! Why did you do that man?’ and clumsily karate chopped John’s left shoulder with his right hand.
Something snapped inside John. His hand flew towards Willy and touched his nose with a crunch. Blood was on his hand and all over Willy’s shirt. Spluttering with fury, Willy launched himself towards John, his hands launching out aimlessly.
Another thing to consider is the thoughts the protagonist who is involved in this fight. Internal dialogue allows you to maintain that character-driven quality which separates a good story from a boring one and it also helps to break up tedious descriptions. However, beware! In a fight, it is unlikely that characters have time for long drawn out and complex thoughts. The pace of the scene must still be maintained. For example,
John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. A karate chop? Really? What did he think this was, a ’60s TV drama? Doesn’t he realise that in the battle for life and death, one must keep a cool head or else they will be overcome by their rage and will surely be defeated? This is just like that time in high school when I got into a fight with Tom over some girl we both fancied. Gosh, what was her name again? I can’t even remember, I just remember how embarrassed I felt for him, even as we were fighting.
That’s too much internal dialogue for a fight scene. I don’t care if your character is the most introspective and reflective of all God’s creatures; there is supposed to be a fight happening while he’s having these thoughts. Writing lengthy internal dialogue like this makes it seem like either 1) the fight has been temporarily postponed for a moment of reflection or 2) John has become so consumed by his own thoughts that he doesn’t realise Willy is now bludgeoning him to death with a hammer. Instead, something like this would be more appropriate:
John laughed inwardly at Willy’s pathetic retaliation. His rage was his weakness.
See how much shorter that is – and yet it communicates almost exactly the same idea: John’s confidence that he will triumph over Willy because Willy is ruled by his emotions.
Ultimately, a fight scene is like any other part of your story: it is there to move the plot along by what your characters do and think and say. The reason fight scenes are so tricky is that they are such complicated physical acts with very little rational thinking or dialogue involved and it is easy to make them boring. The bottom line, then, is that fight scenes should be used as sparingly as possible and be sure to keep them snappy. Only include what is necessary and as far as possible, focus on the characters as people rather than a technical blow-by-blow account of the action itself. A good fight scene should be like a pressure valve; quickly and decisively releasing the tension which has already been building up for a long time. Get it right and your reader won’t be able to put your book down, at least for a few more pages.