I keep seeing fight scenes where the protag and villain are dialoguing during a fight. This always seemed a little cheesy to me…how realistic is it that people could have a full conversation while in the middle of a physical fight? And, if so, where should I write dialogue in fight scenes?
Writing dialogue in a fight scene: ah, yes, let the controversy begin. There tends to be two camps on this subject. The first says it’s not realistic. The second says it is. Well, I’m going to introduce a third point of view that will hopefully make peace between the factions. Then we can all go watch an action movie.
Team Not Realistic
When you are full-on fighting, there may be words said. Small exchanges of bravado here and there during the ebb and flow of the fray aren’t uncommon. But, a thought-provoking exchange with any semblance of meaning? Mmmm, not so much. It may not even be possible immediately after the fight. Have you ever seen a professional athlete interviewed right after the game while they are still breathless and sweaty? They have a hard time making sense. And, there is a biological reason for that outside of just being tired.
How Adrenaline Inhibits Meaningful Conversation
The job of adrenaline is to ignite a biological chain of events that help save our life. And it is darn good at it. However, nothing in that chain of events helps us play chess, ace a math test, or solve a Rubix cube.
While in fight/flight mode, critical thinking skills diminish. But, that too is a function of survival. We don’t need to examine the implications of a bear chasing us. We just need to run! So, from a biological standpoint, having an intelligent conversation while we are soaked in adrenaline is difficult.
Other Reasons Conversation May Be Difficult
Adrenaline aside, there are other reasons why real fights may not be “conversation heavy.” If a person is taken by surprise, they may not have a chance to speak. Fear and panic render some people mute. And, from the point of view of the assailant, the sound of their voice is another piece of evidence that can be used against them. A conversation could earn them a conviction.
All in all, much of the time, in real fights, there isn’t conversation. That said, much of the time isn’t all the time. The only thing you can count on in a fight is that anything can happen. Conversations can take place.
Team Totally Realistic
Factual Accounts of Dialogue While Fighting
If the fight is slow enough, yes, the combatants may talk. This is especially true if one is trying to talk their way out of the confrontation. That very thing happened in 2005 in a high-profile incident that made national news. While walking to her apartment, a woman was overcome and taken hostage by a man who was the target of one of the largest manhunts in Georgia history. While captive, the woman read excerpts of the book The Purpose Driven Life to her captor. The two talked quite a bit about the reading, and she eventually convinced him to let her go.
Now, I can hear Team Not Realistic calling shenanigans saying that wasn’t a fight so that conversation doesn’t count. Well, yes, it absolutely was a fight. Fighting doesn’t look like one thing. There’s a spectrum. But, ok, to that point, let’s look at another example.
In the book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10, former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell recounts his Seal team being ambushed by Taliban fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan. While both being fired upon and returning fire, Luttrell and his teammates communicated effectively with one another. One soldier did so with a mortal chest wound, another did the same after losing a portion of his head to a bullet. Though wounded and dying, these soldiers requested ammo, back-up, and discussed positioning. They had a conversation.
In fairness, these guys were special forces, trained to think critically under the effects of adrenaline. They were not mere mortals. But the fact remains, there was dialogue during their fight.
Team Let’s Go Watch an Action Movie
Action/Adventure movies are the highest-grossing of movie genres. Avengers: Endgame is, to date, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Even adjusted for inflation, more than half of the top ten grossing movies ever are action/adventure. We eat the genre up. We also just plain eat. Studies show that you eat more while watching an action movie than any other genre at the cinema. It’s true. We love John Wick, cars that drift, and Indiana Jones running from a boulder so much that we lose track of how much food we are putting in our mouths.
We Buy What’s Not Possible
You know what else is true of action movies? They’re fake. And, we don’t care. We don’t go see them for their reality. We buy a ticket to step inside a reality the screenwriters create for us. And, if the writers of the movie are good, we totally buy into what they’re selling even if what they are selling is by no means possible. Screenwriters write fight scenes with dialogue all the time. And we LOVE it.
Do We Really Want What’s Real?
The same holds true for our writing. We establish reality for our reader. Do we really want that reality to be one hundred percent real? If so, the fights in our work are going to be pretty short. Studies show that most fights are over in under thirty seconds. It’s generally a couple of punches and that’s it. If your fight scene is set in the United States and ends in murder, statistically it will be death by firearm. That goes even quicker than a fistfight. And, here’s another reality bomb, most people do not know how to fight. So, writing any kind of fight scene where both people have a working knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, statistically, isn’t real.
Where to Put the Dialogue
In the beginning when I said, “let’s go watch an action movie,” I meant it. Action movies give us great examples of character discourse in the midst of physical confrontation. Here are a few examples of when we can write dialogue in fight scenes and a movie reference for each.
1. When the action is building
As the combatants size each other up, circle, puff out their chests, or show their weapons, dialogue between them can function as tools of intimidation. If they are engaging slowly to see the skill set of the other, dialogue makes sense. These types of scenarios are also great opportunities for comedy. The Princess Bride is a brilliant example of this in just about every fight scene.
2. When there is a natural pause
If a combatant is cornered, slowed by injury, forced to surrender, loses their weapon, or someone enters and disrupts the action, dialogue can be introduced. Don’t think that fights have to be one long slugfest. Fighting is exhausting. Because of this, fighters find ways to pause. You see this in professional fights all the time when the fighters hold on to one another. Whenever there is a momentary decline in action, dialogue can be inserted. The John Wick franchise is a great reference for realistic moments of dialogue during a fight, as well as fighting technique.
3. When time stands still
Create moments in fights when time doesn’t exist. When a character is dying, when the hero is at a “crossroads,” whenever something must be fleshed out in order for the story to continue, time can stand still either in flashback or as a result of adrenaline. In moments of duress, the brain alters time perception to lay down memories; a few seconds can seem like minutes. In these moments, insert. There is an example of just about all of these instances in Kill Bill.
Cut the Cheese
In every case when you add dialogue, don’t let it go on too long. You risk being, as the question puts it, “cheesy.” Fight scenes, and the dialogues in them, should be like a mini skirt: long enough to cover the subject, short enough to keep it interesting and leave something to the imagination. If your dialogue is in real-time, speak it out loud and time it. Ask yourself if that works with the intensity of the fight. If we are heavily engaged and fighting to the death, an exchange of more than a few seconds doesn’t make sense. We will be too busy trying not to die.
OK, the editors at WD are giving me the “wrap it up" sign. Wow, this a subject that I think deserves its own class. What do you think? Let me know in the comments. If there is something I didn’t address regarding writing dialogue in fight scenes, comment with that as well. And, please keep the questions coming. I love them!
Until the next round of FightWrite™ with Writer’s Digest, get blood on your pages.