Well, Mel, at the risk of giving you a “non-answer,” I’m not sure there’s any one way—or any one set of rules or guidelines—to writing successful fight scenes… just as there’s no one way to tell a great story or write a moving poem or choreograph a beautiful waltz. Different writers have different styles, voices, and approaches, and each writer’s unique skill-set infuses the way he or she writes fight scenes.
I would say this, however…
It is essential that a well-written fight scene capture the speed, violence, motion, pacing, and energy of the fight itself. I’ve read scripts where the stage directions of fight scenes are stark and straightforward, like this…
Roger levels his knife at Ned’s throat.
You son of a bitch…
He lunges. Ned blocks. Roger stabs again. Ned ducks… Roger fakes to the left… then grab’s Ned’s arm and hurls him into the icy water.
Others are more descriptive, using the fight’s emotional intensity to bring to life its choreography…
There, looming in the doorway, stands Gilbert… his hulking frame silhouetted in the sickly moonlight.
Where’s my baby?…
And as three months of hate and rage gurgle out of her throat, Cindy launches herself forward… a lioness… her gaunt skeleton smashing into Gilbert’s bloated torso. She claws… bites… scratches… every point of contact a searing memory of what this monster did to her daughter.
Wait… I’ll tell you…
He tries to toss her aside, but it’s no use. Gilbert’s fists are liquid… his pleas futile… Cindy is nothing but a seething burst of vengeance.
For someone struggling with writing fight scenes, I’d first suggest studying the scripts of fight scenes you really admire… as well as some recent and seminal action/fighting movies, like the Jason Bourne movies, The Transporter movies, James Bond, The Matrix, etc. Here are some links to movies with great action and fight scenes (courtesy of the Internet Movie Script Database)…
The Bourne Ultimatum, by Tony Gilroy, George Nolfi, and Scott Z. Burns
Highlander, by Gregory Widen
Alien, by Walter Hill and David Giler
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, by Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung
As for me, here are some hints and tips I like to use when writing my own action and fight scenes…
• AVOID ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES. You want your fight scene to read as fast and energetically as the actual fight… and adverbs and adjectives are descriptive words that slow down the action. Thus, try to use the most kinetic verbs possible.
Jack runs speedily across the stage, leaping into the air and bringing his elbow down painfully into Lance’s shoulder…
Jack races across the stage… lunges… and smashes into Lance’s shoulder…
• USE SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. Full sentences can sometimes seem long and “formal,” rather than reflecting the quick and frantic pace of a fight.
Claude punches, his fist arcing through the air toward Raymond’s face. Raymond ducks and returns the blow. Blood spurts from Claude’s cheek. Claude howls, sending his skull headbutting into Raymond’s already battered nose…
Claude punches. Raymond ducks… swings… connects. Blood sprays. Claude howls… reels… and smashes his skull into Raymond’s nose.
• DON’T BE AFRAID OF USING SOUND EFFECTS LIKE A COMIC BOOK. Comic books often plant fun action words like “Bam” and “Smash” and “Crunch” in their frames. While overdoing this can be cheesy, using it sparingly can work to great effect. For instance…
Grace inches through the mine shaft, her eyes searching the darkness for movement. Nothing. Suddenly, the yeti leaps out of a crevice, shrieking as it claws at Grace’s throat…
Grace creeps into the shaft. All is still. She inches closer… stops… was that a noise? She waits. Nothing. Takes another step and—
WHAM! The yeti’s claws CRUNCH into Grace’s spine. Fangs tear into her flesh… claws slice at her belly… and as the yeti’s jaws close on Grace’s throat—
THWAP! Her axe finds its mark.
• DON’T FORGET DIALOGUE. There’s rarely much speech in great action scenes, but without dialogue to break up stage directions, even the fastest, most action-packed fights can appear dense and overwhelming on the page. And no matter how brilliant your fight scene may actually be, if it’s not fun and fast to read, it’ll never make it to the screen. So I like to sprinkle in dialogue—even if it’s just grunts and moans—to make the scene easier on the eye. Like this…
Katherine’s sword clatters to the floor. She dives… but not before Conrad’s blade plunges into her leg. She howls in agony… writhes… and kicks. Her boot crunches into Conrad’s gut. He reels… she wrenches his dagger from her thigh… lunges… and drives the knife into his neck. Conrad screams. His fingers claw at Katherine
’s face, bloody spittle spraying from his lips. Katherine drives the knife deeper. And slowly… slowly… Conrad crumples onto the cold bricks.
Katherine’s sword clatters to the floor. She dives as–
Conrad’s dagger plunges into her leg. Katherine whirls and–
BAM! Her boot crunches into Conrad’s gut.
(Yanking out the knife)
I warned you…
CRUNCH! The blade smashes into Conrad’s neck. Blood sprays from his lips.
Sorry, Dad… I can’t hear you…
She twists the knife deeper and… THUD. Conrad’s lifeless body hits the bricks.
I’ll be honest, Mel… fight scenes—while they often seem fast and visceral—are often one of the toughest things to write. They not only have to be incredibly economical in their conveyance of action, but they have to deliver the emotional goods as well. When I’m writing a fight scene or action scene, it usually takes many drafts—nine, ten, sometimes more—before I feel good about it. But I try to keep these hints and tricks in mind… and I’ll often refer back to fight scenes from other writers, scripts, and movies I admire to use as a guide.
I hope this is helpful… good luck… and feel free to post more questions in the comments sections… or email them to WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, here’s the awesome Bourne Ultimatum spoof that Matt Damon and Guillermo did last year on Jimmy Kimmel Live!…