The Gospel of Combat: How Fight Scenes Feed Your Story

So you're working on a story, and there comes a point where it really ought to have a fight scene. But you're sitting there thinking, "I'm not a martial artist! I have no idea how to fight!" Or maybe you're thinking, "Fight scenes are so boring. I'd rather just skip over this and get back to the actual story." Or something else that makes you dread writing that scene, rather than looking forward to it with anticipation. To the first group, I say: the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The crucial components are the same ones you're already grappling with in the rest of your writing—namely, description, pacing, characterization, and all that good stuff. To the second group, I say: it's only boring if the author does it wrong. GIVEAWAY: Marie is excited to give away a free copy of her e-book [mobi or epub formats] to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Debbie won.)
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So you're working on a story, and there comes a point where it really ought to have a fight scene. But you're sitting there thinking, "I'm not a martial artist! I have no idea how to fight!" Or maybe you're thinking, "Fight scenes are so boring. I'd rather just skip over this and get back to the actual story." Or something else that makes you dread writing that scene, rather than looking forward to it with anticipation.

To the first group, I say: the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The crucial components are the same ones you're already grappling with in the rest of your writing—namely, description, pacing, characterization, and all that good stuff. To the second group, I say: it's only boring if the author does it wrong.

GIVEAWAY: Marie is excited to give away a free copy of her e-book [mobi or epub formats] to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Debbie won.)

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Column by Marie Brennan, author of eight novels, including A Natural History of
Dragons, the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies, and the urban fantasy
Lies and Prophecy. She has published more than forty short stories in venues
such as On Spec, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the acclaimed anthology
series Clockwork Phoenix. Connect with her on Twitter here. Her latest book is
the writing guide WRITING FIGHT SCENES (Kobo, BN Nook,Kindle).

My Gospel of Combat is that a fight is part of the story. Just like any other scene. It isn't—or shouldn't be—pure spectacle, especially in prose. Movies may be able to get away with that approach, but it's harder on the page, because words don't work very well for describing movement. If you want to be precise, you slow the pace down far beyond the speed of what you're describing. If you want to maintain the pace, you lose precision. And if you want to be precise and efficient, you have to resort to jargon. "Glissade, pas de bourrée, jeté, assemblé" quite accurately describes a sequence of ballet steps in about the time it takes to perform them . . . but unless you know what those terms mean, it's completely useless to you as a reader.

In prose, a good fight scene is not one that leaves you with a complete mental image of every attack and block. It's one that conveys story. Furthermore, just like a conversation or an investigation or a sex scene (the latter of which shares many technical challenges with a fight scene), it should ideally be serving more than one narrative purpose at a time.

(Do agents Google writers after reading a query?)

Fights are often in the story for plot reasons: kill the bad guy. Get past the guards. Suffer an injury that will be relevant later. That's fine, but not enough. Personally, I love fight scenes because they can do so much on a character level. This is violence; it's one of the most fundamental things hard-wired into our brains, alongside food and sex. What a character is and is not willing to do, when it comes down to fists or swords or guns, can reveal or change or confirm some fairly profound things about her personality. It can even play into or against the themes of a story, especially when you think about the way societies in every part of the world have built philosophical frameworks around the control and deployment of violence. Of course, there's the artistic side, too; fight scenes can be just as much about good writing—description and so on—as anything else in the story.

If the scene isn't doing anything terribly important on any of those fronts, then it doesn't deserve much attention on the page. Drop in a sentence or two to say it happened, and get on with the actual story. Or figure out why this fight matters, and make it earn its keep.

Even when the matter isn't life-or-death, violent actions can be very telling. Holly McClane decking the reporter at the end of Die Hard is part and parcel of that entire story: her role, her husband's, the reporter's, and everything that's gone on in that (very violent) movie. In Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series, Alanna sparring against her old friends after they've learned she's a woman highlights all the weird tensions that surround her position as a lady knight. The few seconds Sam and Dean Winchester spend fighting each other in the pilot episode of Supernatural tell us that these guys know what they're doing, are very familiar with each other's moves, and have a bit of sibling rivalry going on. You could try to convey all that with dialogue, but the fight is more efficient—and also more subtle, in its own way. It's the old adage of writing advice: show, don't tell.

If your scene is important enough to merit the reader's attention, then there's something important going on in it. Something that has less to do with strikes and blocks, and more to do with the progress of the story. You can get surprisingly far by focusing on the latter, instead of the former. When all is said and done, very few readers will remember the moment where the hero did the binding parry to two and riposted. What they'll remember is what that moment meant.

GIVEAWAY: Marie is excited to give away a free copy of her e-book [mobi or epub formats] to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Debbie won.)

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