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Q&A: Using Violence

Hey I’m pretty far along in a book I’m working on, there’s a lot of hand to hand combat mixed with swords, bows and arrows and some guns (flintlock style). I’ve been doing a good job of keeping things fresh but as I’m coming towards the end of it I’m having a hard time varying the different styles so it doesn’t get stale. I was wondering if you had any tips to help my action scenes from getting stale? Thanks!

This is going to be one of those concepts that sounds utterly bizarre at first, but violence isn’t interesting.

It might be slightly more accurate to say, violence by itself is not interesting or engaging. Real world violence, especially, is not entertaining and violence for entertainment often follows when the violence is expected to carry itself. What makes an action sequence work is the mise en scène. Violence, in a narrative, has diminishing returns. If you prefer, you could phrase it as the audience builds tolerance to violence over time, but either term works.

So, let’s unpack these two pieces.

Violence, by itself is rarely interesting. This is, probably, the main issue you’re running into. The stuff that sells a fight scene is all of the stuff accompanying it. It’s the stakes.

When writing an action sequence, the important thing to remember is why your characters are there. It can be very easy to lose track of the larger context in the moment, but that’s what keeps the reader invested.

There are exceptions to the, “never interesting,” position. With some martial artists, the appeal really is simply the spectacle. They’re putting on an impressive physical performance, that’s engaging. Cool. But, it’s not the violence, which may sound like an incredibly fine distinction until you really think about it. You don’t watch someone like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Van Damme for the story or the acting, it’s the sheer spectacle of the physical performance.  Though, Jackie Chan may be a bad example, because you’re probably watching him for the comedy beats.

I realize this might sound slightly pretentious. “No one cares about your hero punching that guy, they need to experience why he punches them.” But, the reality is remarkably grounded. Your character decided to engage in this way. You need to convey that to the reader. And yes, sometimes the reason really is because: “damn that was cool.” There are ways to make that kind of spectacle work, but in general, it’s easier to remember why your character is acting, and keep their behavior rooted in who they are, and reflect that back to the audience.


The other thing is that violence is exhausting. This is true for both the real thing, and for your audience. The more violence you use in your story, the harder it will be to keep them engaged with the material. This also applies for severity, though it’s a little easier to see at work there; include a scene that’s far too brutal, and watch your readers disconnect from the material and wander off.

Unfortunately, precisely defining how much violence your story can support is not a hard and fast system. I would say, when writing and you come to a potential action sequence, ask yourself if you really need a fight there.

There’s a weird irony with violence, sometimes, the anticipation is better than the delivery. You can tease the audience with the idea that a fight is about to break out, and then find a way to release the pressure, rather than forcing your characters into combat. The anxiety over what could happen, especially if your characters are seriously disadvantaged, can vastly outweigh the impact of just another fight scene. As with outright violence, this will lose its impact over time, but it can help you keep your audience on their toes.

Over time, violence is fatiguing. Keeping fight scenes short and to the point can help. If you’ve got a fight that’s lasting more than a couple pages, you might want to consider breaking it up, and reusing parts for different encounters.

Repetition is another concept that can kill the flow of a story. If you’re writing another fight scene ten pages later, and it’s basically the same as the previous ones, just with one or two slightly modified details, it might be time to cut it. There are writing techniques that employ repetition, particularly in comedy, but that’s about creating callbacks and payoffs, not regurgitating the previous scene with slight variations.

As a writer, violence is a tool you can use. Using it can work, threatening it can also work, but, in order to keep its edge, you need to use it sparingly. Otherwise, the entire narrative can easily bog down in an endless procession of boss fights.

Now, I’m gong to contradict myself here a little, violence can be entertaining. However, you need to understand that the violence is there for entertainment. All the violence and fight scenes you see on television are devised with this in mind. When unsupported by every other narrative aspect, they exist purely to entertain. The difference between these choreographers and most authors is that they are professional fight choreographers often with black belts in multiple martial arts. They understand how to pace a scene, what will look good on film, which actions will be visually impressive and have a vast toolkit to work from in order to bring the entertainment portion of the fight to life. Violence is not entertaining on its own, it is created to be visually interesting and a massive amount of work is put into creating functional entertainment. What you enjoy when you watch an action movie is the work of the choreographers involved, the skill of the stunt doubles, the hard work put in by the actors, the musical scoring, the set design, and everything else which keeps the movie running.

To mimic this in fiction, you must internalize this understanding and learn to do similar work on the page. The writer is the fight choreographer, the actors, the stunt doubles, the set and costume designers. You are creating a musical score in the structure and rhythm of your sentences, in your visual descriptions. You are going to do the entire work of a full set crew in order to achieve about half as much. Creating interesting violence on the page requires understanding that martial arts choreography is an art form in and of itself. And it is, you know, there are entire divisions in many different martial arts tournaments now devoted to structured competitive choreography. These are creators who agonize over every punch and kick, every physical transition, every throw, carefully putting together the scene, practicing it out over the course of months, for, at most, forty-five seconds to a minute’s worth of action.

Writing convincing and entertaining action takes a great deal of practice, and involves actively working as hard as you can to learn everything you can about violence. In knowledgeable hands, two swords of slightly different lengths could become a tense fight where the protagonist faces a significant disadvantage and a hard uphill climb in a terrific test of skill. Or, it could just be a scene about two people with two swords. The trick is understanding concepts like reach, order of operation in fight progression, the advantages provided by different sword types, the techniques used by fencers, and more to make a fight work. The smallest differences in a fight can create incredibly tight stakes, but you need to know they’re there in order to include them.

Start by sitting down with your favorite novel sequences and movie fight scenes, start asking yourself what you liked about it and why it worked for you. Look into who created it, the work that went in, and what the surrounding narrative stakes are. What are the internal stakes within the scene itself, why is the protagonist fighting at a disadvantage? What caused their disadvantage? Why is that interesting? What tools are the characters using? Are they making full use of their available options? What is the decision making process? How is that helping and hindering them?

If you’ve reached the point where the violence is boring, then move on to understanding that you need to be the one who makes the scene interesting. You first must pinpoint why the violence has become boring, and usually that begins with a lack of stakes.


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