So I was talking to Eric about the fantasy story he’s (still) working on and the topic comes up about fight scenes. He tells me he’s been having issues working through them because, in general, he finds fight scenes to be dull affairs. At first, this would seem not to make sense. After all, if you’ve ever been in a fight, or close proximity to one, they’re anything but dull. Fantasy, Sci-fi, Action, even Horror all have a pretty big dose of fighting to add drama and excitement to a story. But that’s just the first impression.
When I actually stop to think about it, most of the fight scenes I’m recalling were things I’ve seen on a screen, not read in a book. A blow by blow martial arts fight, with details, is incredibly tedious and, at the end of the day, it’s much more exciting to watch someone do a back-flip face kick than to read about one. I frequently hear this complaint from people that they don’t like particular action movies because “it was just a bunch of fighting”. So if a fight scene on screen, where it only takes moments and you actually get to see the physicality, is boring, how do you make writing one interesting? I’ve got a couple of ideas.
First of all, I think its important to only actually describe a fight when it matters. Fighting guard #6 on your way to the top of the evil wizard tower? Perhaps you gloss over that as quickly as possible. There is no significant difference between guard #1 and guard #10. They all have equivalent meaning. Now, when your protag gets to the top of the tower and meets up with the wizard, we expect a fight. Why? Well, there’s the assumption that the wizard and the hero are proportionately matched so the outcome might be in doubt. Unlike the guards. There is little chance guard #8 will luck out and defeat the hero. Sorry guards, you are just there as an example of the hero’s proficiency. Generally, we know what the villain can do. Somebody’s gotta be a punching bag to show that the hero also has chops. This is why guard is a bad career choice.
Now, I’m aware that I’m talking in very simplistic hero vs. villain terms and good stories aren’t that simple. But that’s up to plot, character development, etc… to solve. I’m just talking about the straight up fighting side of things. For that, all you really need is two people (or groups) in opposition.
We also expect a fight when the hero comes into conflict with the main villain because that’s where plot turns happen. If the hero wins, the villain has to alter their course. If the villain does, the hero must change plans. Moments when these main characters come into conflict divert the story direction. Guards are speedbumps. They might slow a hero down, but they’re not going to alter the course of the story. We don’t care about serious details on speedbumps, but when we change direction, the whole thing moves somewhere else, well, that’s worth some detail.
So, rule one of writing fighting; Only bother with serious detail when it’s significant characters involved and the results move the story into a new direction.
So that’s when to detail, but it still doesn’t tell us how to make a bunch of traded blows exciting. I’ve gotten several compliments on my fight scenes so it seems I’m doing something right, intentionally or not. So went back and looked at every fight scene I’ve ever written to see how I’ve handled them. I discovered something really interesting. I have, never, ever, written a fight scene under normal conditions. I have land bound guys fighting opponents who can fly. I have people fighting someone invisible. I have someone fighting someone poisonous, super fast, invulnerable, blind, or multi-limbed. I have fights in knee deep mud, on cliffs, or ice. In every single scene I’ve ever done, the protagonist has to deal with something else in addition to the opponent. Something that makes it more than just two guys hitting each other. Something that makes them think or have to behave differently. I immediately started looking for examples of this in movies and other writing and, lo and behold, this happens a lot. From Errol Flynn fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham on a staircase all the way up to a ridiculously outnumbered guy fighting with only a hammer in Oldboy, it generally improves a fight scene.
So, rule two of writing fighting; Add something else to the fight to make it abnormal.
I’m sure there are plenty of other things that can jazz up a fight scene, but these two should be sufficient to, at very least, keep your reader from nodding off or skipping past your fight scenes.