Below, we’ve listed some common sins that can detract from enjoyment of a fight scene. As always, rules are made to be broken. It’s also worth understanding something, before you try though.
Why Are You Thinking? We Should Be Fighting!
When working on a fight scene, it’s best to write the sequence as it happens on the page. This way, the action is immediate and in the moment. A common mistake, though, is for the character to become distracted even when it’s just within their head. The author may insert thoughts, description, and even dialogue that slow or pad out the action. This can be very frustrating as it often can lead to the feeling that both the author and the character in question are not taking the fight seriously. After all, if the character does not believe they are in serious jeopardy then how can the reader?
Commonly, this may happen during rewrites or if the author gets distracted with making sure everything is clear. However, it’s also an easy mistake to correct. So, just be sure to stay on point and when you read over your fight ask yourself: does this feel like it’s happening right now? If not, cut the fat.
Talking as a Free Action
Fights are like sprints, they are moments of extreme physical exertion that leave us breathless with little room for chit chat. Lengthy, chunky dialogue inserted as two characters pound away at each other is unfortunately as common as it is unrealistic. Whether it’s Chris Claremont’s Wolverine flying through the air as he delivers a paragraph of text or two characters mouthing off witty banter in the middle of a sword fight, talking while entertaining can quickly become the means by which a fight sequence devolves into the ridiculous. As we, the authors, are not experiencing the fight sequence as it happens, what the characters are physically experiencing can be easy to forget.
Here’s a solution that both Starke and I recommend: talk before and talk after. If your characters must talk during limit yourself to ten syllables. That is not ten syllables per character, that would be too much. Instead, limit yourself to ten syllables maximum for all your characters who are fighting. This way, you can easily count it out and you’ll know that the dialogue itself is serving it’s place in the scene without detracting from the sequence.
Five Minutes is a Long Time
As authors we have a tendency to exaggerate for effect and those of us who are inexperienced at a specific kind of physical exertion have a serious tendency to overestimate. For reference, five minutes is a long time. It is a devastatingly long time. The average street fight, by comparison, only lasts twenty five seconds. A fight can end in seven seconds. The maximum of movements that even an experienced combatant can make before simply failing due to overwhelming exertion is eight. The more unequal the fight between two individuals, the faster it ends.
Characters who overestimate like this, especially those who are supposed to be experienced, tend to look very foolish and it undercuts the sequence. There’s a limit to how long a fight can go before the reader starts to lose interest and to sell your characters, it’s important to make the attempt to be accurate.
However, translating time into text can be very difficult and while we can count a single page as a minute in a movie script, the same cannot be said for a novel. A simple solution is to limit yourself by counting it out through the number of moves instead of guessing how long. The longer the fight extends, the more exhausted a character is going to become. If you limit yourself to eight moves per character, then you will get into the acceptable range for keeping your sequence punchy and quick.
Remember, the wider the experience gap, the faster it will end unless the experienced character has a reason to keep it going.
That’s Not Anatomically Possible
We could also label this as “spontaneously develops third arm”. This can happen during rewrites or through the introduction of a new weapon or when the author doesn’t stage it out or think the physics of the scene through entirely. Sometimes, it’s an attack that would do no physical damage were it to connect such as spinning and kneeing (a knee takes it’s power from the body driving forward to the low-line of the body or upwards into the body, it can be lifted to generate a better, quicker spin for another attack such as a spinning backfist, but is useless on it’s own, it is also a single action movement) or multiple actions happening simultaneously like two characters in a death grip punching each other without releasing their hold and you have a sequence that sounds good but makes no sense when your readers step back to put it together.
The best way to solve this is by finding a partner to walk you through it physically even if it’s just bashing at each other with nerf swords. Yes, you may feel a little silly and foolish but the more work you put into it, the better the result will be. It’s important to get a good grasp the physicality and body positions in the scene as you’re describing it and this can be difficult to figure out in just your imagination.
Intuition Does Not Equal Skill
Intuition is nice, and so is “natural talent”, but unless your character is a several thousand year old immortal or a character who is continually reborn and acting on lifetimes of combat experience, then neither of these are a substitute for actual skill. Skill is empirical. It is earned through time and practice, we don’t come out of the box knowing exactly what is needed. When this happens in a novel, it is a plot contrivance and a cheat by the author to push the character along without having to say “how” they know. In short, it’s lazy. Worse, it promotes that unfortunate idea that skill is just something some has as opposed to the reality that it can be gained by anyone who puts in the required time and effort. This promotes the idea, especially for young readers, that if they do not grasp a concept quickly then they should just give up because the only skills worth having are those that come easily. Natural is not always better and no matter how much talent someone has, it will be nothing if they don’t develop that talent into a skill that they can use.
Don’t use intuition to cheat your way past a concept that you cannot adequately explain, instead dedicate time to understanding the profession or skills you are trying to include into your character. Yes, it will take longer and may be confusing in the beginning but the end result will be much better.
Detail? What’s that?
When you write your sequences, it’s important to be clear. If the reader is not grounded in the sequence, is not experiencing the sequence, and following the sequence as it happens then the grand fight or moment in the book will become meaningless. Detail can lend clarity to the image the reader imagines and make the sequence carry through. If your characters strike at the body consider where they are striking to as opposed to just having them throw attacks blindly. Have them focus on their opponent and visualize the body, break the body down into pieces: head, throat, shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, stomach, etc. When a character is knocked back, consider what they do. Do their feet slide? Do they stumble? Think about the body and how it reacts. Think about the environment and how they are affecting it. Be specific and be clear with the sensations you are eliciting.
Make it easy to follow. Read over the sequence with your “new reader eyes”, if you have to reread it a few times to get an understanding of what is happening then a rewrite may be necessary.
Don’t Call Your Shots
Whether your character is announcing to the villains the exact way that they plan on defeating them or calling out the name of their super special technique before they unleash it, don’t do it. It may feel badass to have the character tell someone exactly how they are going to be defeated and then follow through, it tends to ring hollow. One: it discounts the ability of the enemies to adjust to the hero’s plan and react accordingly (which hurts their believability, why should I care if they can be dispatched so easily after being told what is about to happen?) and two: unless the hero is lying or bluffing, they look stupid, overconfident, or both. After all, they just told me what’s about to happen. Unless you’re working within the long anime tradition of announcing a special attack, it just feels like a waste of breath.
Respect your villains and antagonists enough to not short change their intelligence for the sake of trying to make your protagonist more often. Study up on badass boasts and figure out what makes them work. Hint: it’s usually the humor beat afterwards such as Marcus in Babylon 5 when he says “In five minutes no one at this table will be left standing, five minutes after that, no one in this room will be left standing” and after he does so, collapses and says “Great, now I have to wait for someone to wake up” or playing off Superman’s reveal that he constantly holds back his powers for fear of hurting someone in the finale of Justice League Unlimited in the final battle with Darkseid when he says “But you can take it, can’t you, big guy? So, let me show you just how powerful I really am.” (He also doesn’t succeed, but it’s a great moment). However, neither of these outline exactly what they’re going to do but both come with the threat that it’s gonna be awesome.
Say it without saying it, leave room for excitement and the thrill of seeing just what a character will do instead of them telling us what they’re going to do.