By David Sharp
Even in the most literary of works, sometimes a character has had enough and it’s time to throw down! You’re ready to treat your reader to some high octane action after the last few chapters of subdued drama. And what comes out is something like this:
|You are no match for my foreshadowing technique!|
Suddenly, you realize something you’ve never noticed before. Fights are boring. It’s one thing to see one in a movie with dramatic music and gritty sound effects to back it, but even a movie can only get away with gratuitous violence for so long before the audience needs something else to sustain it. So, how do you do it right?
Well I’m no expert, but I have found myself in that very predicament. I mean, I wasn’t writing Fight Club. But my characters started mouthing off and the next thing I knew, I was backed into a corner with only one way out.
So here’s what I learned:
1. Fights are not Choreography: Don’t Write a Blow-by-Blow. This is what proper fight scenes are not. There are only so many synonyms for punch, and even if you had an endless supply it’s bound to get monotonous. However exciting it may be in your mind, it’s not going to translate to ink and paper.
|You may recall I told you to put the toilet seat down.|
a. The Beginning: Fighters size each other up. Something ignites them into action.
b. Rising Action: Stakes are raised. Something important is on the line. Maybe the protagonist is at a disadvantage.
c. Conflict: There is a flow to the violence. There are shifting advantages and disadvantages. Use these to create tension. Will the hero win? If so, what will it cost him? What will he gain?
d. Climax: There is an action by one of the combatants that secures the victory. Is it the hero? The villain? Maybe one of them pulled some kind of trick at the last moment. Was that trick foreshadowed in an earlier scene?
e. Resolution: What are the consequences of the fight? Were any bystanders hurt? If so, does the hero have a lingering guilt to carry away? How does this change your characters’ situations? If it doesn’t advance the plot, you don’t need it.
3. Fights are an Experience: What did the character feel? What ran through his mind? It’s all sounds and feelings and stimuli mingled together. More interesting than the action is the thoughts, the emotions and the background. Are there bullets whizzing by? Is there a smell? Are there scattered sensations of bystanders shouting or running away? Does the hero suddenly remember he left the gas on?
4. Fights are Characterization. One thing an altercation is great for is showing different angles of your characters. Is your hero a coward? Maybe your character has a little too much moxie. Does your character crack jokes like Spiderman? If so, is it to cover a sense of fear, or is she just that confident? Fights can also describe the growth of a character. Maybe a fearful protagonist shirks violence at the early parts of a story, but learns to take bolder action later on. Or maybe a belligerent character learns the value of walking away.
|I say, my good man, the only reason I'm trying to remove your|
head is because I resent my overbearing mother, don't you know?
5. Fights are about Inner Conflict. Frequently, the outer circumstances of fiction are mirrors of the characters’ hearts and minds. Laying into a mouthy drunkard may signify that the character sees a darker part of himself in his opponent. Alternatively, going fisticuffs with a rival in romance could really be about your character’s jealousy and a desire to be more worthy of his lady’s eye.
When we put it all together, our fight scene might look more like this:
The Bar Fight
After my last comment about his mother’s hygiene habits (or lack thereof), I saw his fists form into balls, and I knew that negotiations had failed. With agility that belied his massive size, he rushed at me. I had seconds to brace myself for a bone-shattering impact. To top it off, I had to pee. I guess that sixth beer wasn’t a good idea. Oh, well. Live and learn.
Armed with nothing but a half empty bottle and facing a six-foot-two engine of impending doom, my mind latched onto the first emergency procedure it could grasp. Stop, drop and roll. Hey, it was better than nothing. I let my muscles go limp, dove into the floor and vaulted at his legs with all the grace of a bowling ball. The impact wasn’t pleasant. But while his left knee had come to a dead stop in my solar plexus, his top half was still moving at top speed. I’m no physicist, but I can tell you the result was about 250 lbs. of lean muscle sailing over my inebriated head and into a table of –very surprised— barflies behind me. Hard to remember more than the clattering of chairs on the floor and light glinting off droplets of cheap alcohol as they flew in a fine mist through the air.
As I found my feet, the bartender was yelling something unintelligible at me and reaching behind the counter for what was probably a blunt object. The big guy was still trying to shake off the jet-lag of his recent flight. I figured it was time to exit stage left. On my way out, a glossy eyed regular gave me a smile. “Where’d you learn a trick like that?” he asked.
“I been little more than a speed bump most of my life,” I said, “Why stop now?”
That scene is a lot more about our down-and-out protagonist and his self-deprecating attitude than the actual violence itself. The wanton carnage takes a backseat to other, more interesting elements. Now we need to take that momentum and use it to advance our plot.
Have you ever written an action scene? A car chase maybe? A duel with swords? How were you able to make it exciting?