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FightWrite™: NaNoWriMo Fight Scene Guide

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch helps get the bones of our fight scenes into our NaNoWriMo drafts—and reminds us that the NaNoWriMo journey is a messy one for a reason.
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November is National Novel Write Month—also known as NaNoWriMo. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get that manuscript out of your head and onto the screen. You aren’t writing a finished product. You are putting the pieces and parts of the monster on the table. Sewing it together, shocking it to life and putting it in a sports jacket will come later. And, when you find yourself arranging the bones of a scene with a brawl, here is FightWrite’s quick and dirty guide to NaNoWriMo fight scenes.

(FightWrite™: Fighting Monsters)

But before we go further, remember that a writer’s job first and foremost is to serve the story. Serving the story is like cooking: you should only include ingredients that make that particular creation shine. If I’m making a hot fudge sundae, I’m not going to top the thing off with a hot dog wiener. Don’t get me wrong, I love hot dogs. I also love hot fudge sundaes. But the only place I want them both at the same time is in my stomach.

A fight scene, just like everything else in the manuscript, must serve the story. The job of a fight scene is to keep the story going by providing a backdrop, catalyst, or an opportunity for symbolism. A fight scene cannot be in your work simply because it is awesome. Hot dogs are awesome, too. But not if what you are making is a hot fudge sundae.

I say all of this because it relates to the quick and dirty fight scene guide that we’re about to jump into. Remember, we are assembling the pieces of our manuscript monster. For our NaNoWriMo fight scene, we will have three parts: the bones, the ligaments and the muscles. After I introduce each, I will use them all in an example.

Fight Write: How to Write Believable Fight Scenes

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The Bones: What needs to happen

Bones provide a frame for our body. Without bones we’re just skin puddles - which may be the grossest thing I have ever said. For our NaNoWriMo fight scene guide, the bones are what needs to happen in the scene to further the plot. This is why your fight scene has to have a purpose that serves the story. That purpose is the framework for the scene.

The Ligaments: The injury goal

Ligaments connect bones together so that they can maintain the frame of our body. In a fight scene, the ligaments are the injury goal, what one character wants to do to the other. Even if the injury doesn’t happen, it will explain how the characters are moving. A character who means to stab will move differently than one who means to shoot. The ligaments in our fight scene have to hold together the bones. In other words, we can’t have an injury goal that doesn’t support the framework of what has to take place.

The Muscles: The moves that get you there

Muscles are for movement. After looking at what has to happen and the injury goal, consider a few basic movements that meet that goal while also serving the needs of the story. That is underlined because if character A needs to live and have a black eye for the next scene, character B shouldn’t hit them in the head with a mace. Getting hit in the head with a mace is devastating. It would likely kill character A, which stops the story.

Here’s an example of how the bones, ligaments and muscles work together for our NaNoWriMo fight scene rough draft. We will look at one of the most iconic fight scenes ever: the battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. If you haven’t seen the movie, everything that follows is a spoiler.

The Bones: Luke needs to find out Vader is his father.

The Ligaments: Slashing/stabbing

The Muscles: Luke goes for Vader’s chest, Vader blocks, Luke extends his arm, Vader cuts his hand off.

You can, of course, write more than that if you’d like. All you really need is enough for you to piece the scene together in edits. Honestly, you could leave it just like that and move on to the next scene. But, if you wanted to write a quick bit of action, the bones, ligaments, and muscles will give you something to build on.

Hoch, 11:5

For this scene, let’s say I haven’t figured out all the dialogue. That’s not a big deal. I’m going to write down what I know has to be there and then use filler in places where I feel like something should be I just don’t know what.

Vader advanced. Luke blocked the strikes, the force of each blow pushing him backward onto the raised walkway.

Vader rushed in, pushing Luke to the ground. He pointed down at Luke with his saber, “fda;ldjfladjlfjdalkj”

Luke parried the saber away from his face and the fight resumed. In the midst of the melee, Luke extended his arm and Vader relieved him of his hand. Luke cried out in pain.

“Join me slkjdflkjdalfkj,”Vader said.

“I won’t join you, alkjdalfkjaldkjfdl” Luke screamed back.

“Obi Wan didn’t tell you about your father.”

“He said you killed him.”

“No, Luke, I’m, like, totally your dad!”

And…scene…

Again, in the edits you will flesh all this out more. Maybe in the first edit you clean up the movement. In the second edit you add sensory details, whatever your process is. If you don’t have a process yet, just know that without getting something on paper, nothing else can follow. Don’t allow yourself to get so bogged down in a scene that you run out of gas for everything that follows.

I hope this helps you through your NaNoWriMo fight scene. And, remember as you write, you aren’t bringing the monster to life. You’re just assembling it. Keep a note by your work station that reads, “Just get the bones on the table.” That’s all you have to do, add to the framework of your story monster. You can shock it to life later.

On a different note, here in the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of the month. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for this crazy job I get to do. Without you writers, and the amazing Writer’s Digest, I wouldn’t have it. Ok, that’s all. I’m not crying. You’re crying! Stop all this nonsense and get back to writing!

Until the next round at FightWrite™ on WD, get the bones on the table!

FightWrite: What You Need to Know Before Writing Fight Scenes, Battles, and Brawls

Join expert instructor Carla Hoch in this video course to learn the three most important points for writers to consider before writing fight scenes, battles, and brawls! Using historical examples and real-world expertise, Carla will guide you through the entire process of determining why, where, and who—essential elements for the writer to understand in order to make the scene work properly.

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