Arts Entertainments

Does your fight scene have a big impact?

Long ago, movie directors mastered the technique of creating a compelling fight scene. Bodies crash to the ground … chairs tip over … viewers are treated to close-ups of terrified or angry faces … and the blows thrown are enough to make us wince and close our eyes. (No more of those prissy punches that fooled no one in the early movies: sneaky camera angles to hide the fact that the fist didn’t really connect; hard punches to suggest a knockout punch when anyone could see that he wouldn’t let go of a mosquito from its flight path.)

Viewers enjoy multiple camera angles and sophisticated sound effects. We feel like we are in the middle of that fight.

The authors have it much more difficult. How can you throw the reader into the middle of the scene and feel every hit? How can you show the action without falling into the trap of sounding like a school kid enthusiastically detailing a fight, blow by blow? kick by kick?

There are only two things to keep in mind.

  1. Remember that you are a writer, not a choreographer.
  2. Pack up your fights with an EMOTIONAL punch.

That is all. So simple, yet so effective.

What does a choreographer do? Plan a series of movements, step by step. He / she teaches the people performing the movements how to perform each one and then how to put them together in a smooth routine.

Too many fight scenes in the books look like a choreographer’s notebook. You will see something like this:

Briggs planted a right hook to Smith’s chin. The other man staggered back, arms flailing. Briggs used his advantage, breathing heavily. In quick succession, he landed several more punches to Smith’s body.

Smith fell to the ground and rolled away. “Bastard!” he grunted and rolled again to avoid a well-aimed kick from Briggs. Like a cat, he leaped to his feet and circled Briggs, never taking his eyes off his nemesis.

“Let’s go!” Briggs scoffed, diving for another punch and then ducking out of reach. “It’s the best you can do?” He feinted and laughed.

Enraged, Smith attacked. Briggs danced back and around Smith, and with two deft movements set him down, one arm raised behind his back.

“Did I have enough?” panting.

There are so many things wrong with the above scene that it’s hard to know where to start. Soon:

  • We have no idea who the point of view character is. It seems that we are watching from a distance. That means there is very little emotional involvement from the reader. To really engage your reader, do your best to make sure he or she ‘becomes’ the point-of-view character. If he gets hurt, so will the reader. If you lose … the reader too.
  • The writer is “counting” rather than showing. A did this and then B did the other, so A did this in response and B followed up with this … boring! (Can you see the choreographer at work?)
  • The writer uses character names a lot: “Smith” and “Briggs.” This also tends to increase the distance. The problem is that both characters are men, so the constant use of “him”, although not so far apart, can be confusing. It is easier to avoid these problems if you are deeply in the point of view of one of the characters.
  • The excerpt is full of tired old expressions like “in quick succession he landed two more hits”; “a well-directed kick”; “like a cat, he leaped to his feet”; “in two skillful movements”. Expressions like this keep the writer from doing a lot of work – they slip off the tongue so easily because they have been around for so long.

How do you avoid these traps and write a fight scene that works?

You forget (for the most part) the physical hits and add the emotional hit. Get into the point of view of one of the characters, preferably the main character; the one with which the reader really identifies. In this way, readers look through the eyes of that character. They desperately want me to win; they feel every hit. Therefore, there is much more emotional investment in the outcome of the fight.

Most writers seem to feel that fight scenes must be filled with quick movements, grunts and groans and shouts of epithets to telegraph the action. They feel that if you stop to tell the reader what’s going on in the head of the main character, it slows things down too much.

That can certainly be the case … but in the hands of a skilled writer, the tension actually increases when the action slows down. You must remember that time on the page is not the same as actual time. Since you can’t actually show the reader what’s happening in real time like you can in a movie, you need to compensate by spending some time in the main character’s mind. Show us the thoughts of the character. Show us the emotions of the character. Help us to “feel” our way in the fight.

The easiest way to show how this works is to use an example from a published book. Here’s a fight scene from Lee Child’s ECHO BURNING (Bantam Press, 2001). The hero, Jack Reacher, tries to avoid the fight … and the tension wonderfully rises until he is forced to face off.

The guy was wearing a white tank top and was eating chicken wings. The wings were greasy and the guy was lazy. He was dripping chicken grease from his chin and fingers onto his shirt. There was a dark teardrop shape right between his pecs. It was growing and spreading into an impressive stain. But the best bar etiquette won’t let you linger on such a show, and the guy caught Reacher looking at it.

“Who are you looking at?” he said.

It was said in a low, aggressive voice, but Reacher ignored it.

“Who are you looking at?” the boy said again.

Reacher’s experience was, they say it once, that maybe nothing will happen. But they say it twice, then trouble is on the way. The fundamental problem is that they take the lack of response as evidence that you are worried. That they are winning. But they won’t let you answer anyway.

“You are looking at me?” said the boy.

“No,” Reacher replied.

“Don’t look at me boy,” the guy said.

The way he said boy made Reacher think that maybe he was a foreman at a sawmill or a cotton operation. Any muscle work done in Lubbock. Some kind of traditional trade passed down from generation to generation. Certainly, the word police never came to mind. But then it was relatively new to Texas.

“Don’t look at me,” said the guy.

Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really to upset the boy. Just to evaluate it. Life is infinitely capable of surprises, so he knew that one day he would come face to face with his physical equal. With someone who might worry him. But he looked and saw that this was not the day. So he just smiled and looked away again.

Then the guy hit him with his finger.

“I told you not to look at me,” he said, and hit.

It was a fleshy index finger and was covered in fat. It left a definite mark on Reacher’s shirt.

“Don’t do that,” Reacher said.

The guy hit again.

“Or what?” he said. “Do you want to do something with it?”

Reacher looked down. Now there were two brands. The purchase hit again. Three hits, three marks. Reacher gritted his teeth. What were the three fat marks on a shirt? He began to slowly count to ten. Then the guy hit again, even before he was eight.

“You’re deaf?” Reacher said. “I told you not to do that.”

“Do you want to do something about it?”

“No,” Reacher said. “I really don’t. I just want you to stop, that’s all.”

The boy smiled. “So you’re a yellow-bellied piece of shit.”

“Whatever,” Reacher said. “Just keep your hands off me.”

“Or what? What are you going to do?”

Reacher restarted his count. Eight nine.

“Do you want to take this out?” asked the boy.


“Touch me again and you’ll find out,” Reacher said. “I warned you four times.”

The guy stopped for a second. Then, of course, he tried again. Reacher grabbed the finger as he entered and snapped it on the first knuckle. He just folded it up like he was turning a door handle. Then, being irritated, he leaned forward and butted the boy in the face. It was a smooth movement, well executed, but it backed off perhaps half as long as it might have been. No need to put the guy in a coma, more than four grease marks on a shirt. He moved a step to give the man room to fall and stepped back toward the woman to his right.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said.

The woman nodded vaguely, disoriented by the noise, concentrating on her drink, not realizing what was happening. The big man silently struck the floorboards and Reacher used the sole of his shoe to turn him half face down. Then he nudged him under the chin with his toe to pull his head back and straighten his airway. The recovery position, paramedics call it. Prevent you from drowning while you are away.

Then he paid for his drinks and walked back to his motel …

Of course, this scene only shows a fight that quietly escalates and shows a hero who has the ability to bring a fight to a quick conclusion. You will have to use a slightly different approach if you have multiple people involved and if you have a fast and furious fight with two more even attackers. But the principle is the same.

Don’t let the reader see the fight from a distance. Put them in the shoes of the main character, aware of their thoughts and emotions. Let readers feel the impact of your fists and feet; let them experience the adrenaline rush (or irritation, depending on the level of provocation). Then your fight scenes will have the kind of punch you want.

(c) copyright of Marg McAlister

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