Writing Techniques: Fight Scenes and Clarity

kerzoro said to howtofightwrite:

What would you say at the writing techniques to write a fight? I’ve received (what I feel is valid) criticism that my action scenes need to be punchier and feel too passive, but I’m not 100% what that means, or how to translate that to paper.

What your critique partners are telling you is that you’ve got issues with passive voice which is a common problem for new writers. Passive voice is an overuse of the subject acting on the verb rather than the verb being acted upon.

Passive Voice 

She was chased.

Active Voice

He chased her.

Now, both passive and active voice have their uses in writing and can be applied to great effect under the right circumstances. Some writing advice will tell you to rid yourself of passive voice entirely, never use “was”, “were”, “felt”, “is”, etc. While the advice is useful in encouraging you to practice your active voice, it can result in your writing falling out of balance. Passive voice is excellent for framing within a scene while active voice is solid for action. Overuse of active voice can lead to reader fatigue. You want to find a balance between the two which creates a solid rhythm.

However, this is basic advice you can get from any writing blog. Many blogs will tell you that the key to writing a good action scene is to use active voice, make your sentences shorter, raise the tempo of your sentences so the pace quickens and tension increases. These are all good techniques and well worth the effort to develop. 

To really succeed at writing action sequences, you need to look beyond surface prose and dig deeper. This involves learning about both real world combat and action created for entertainment. Both have different purposes, but one informs the other by providing you with more options and ways to structure your scenes. 

The major failures of most action sequences revolve around lack of clarity.

Clarity of Understanding.

Clarity of Visual Image.

Clarity Setting Reader Expectations

How” and “Why” Create Worlds

If you don’t understand what’s happening in your narrative and why then you cannot write your story. Narratives are built on cause and effect. Actions happen and a result occurs, these actions large or small build your story. Fight scenes, down to individual actions, are the same way — action happens, result occurs.

If your critique partner is telling you that your fight scenes should be punchier, you’re not just lacking in sentence structure, your imagery and stakes are also suffering.

The problem for most writers when they sit down to write fight scenes is they don’t really understand the material they’re working with. Whether this involves the reasons and motivations for conflict (why does the bully start a fight with a male protagonist in a bar?), or the mechanics of violence itself (what happens when you punch someone?). Despite consuming violent media for most of your life, if you’ve never considered the mechanics of violence in depth, choreographing violence in your narrative is difficult.

Make no mistake. When you are crafting a fight scene in your narrative, you are choreographing a sequence like one would performance art. When a critic stresses the importance of realism, you shouldn’t chase the real world blindly. You failed to set appropriate expectations for your reader and abide by your own rules. No reader really cares about the real world, they care about suspension of disbelief. Learning how things work helps build suspension of disbelief.

For example: if your amazing military general understands nothing about troop movements, military structure, supplies lines, army bureaucracy, the role of spies, interaction with the ruling governing body, etc, then both your character and your world building will suffer. As a result, your suspension of disbelief also suffers.

The goal is not to mimic, duplicate, or import a real world individual or military wholesale, but rather to learn how and why different militaries throughout history (successful and unsuccessful) worked the way they did. From how and why, you can create. Your way doesn’t need to be the best way, the most perfect way, it can be the way that evolved because these individuals had access to these resources to create this culture.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about world building on a post about writing techniques for fight scenes, the answer is: your character’s culture and the resources they have access to defines how they fight just as much as their personality. How they choose to fight defines their portion of your action sequence. Violence is an expression of identity.

The Parry, Parry, Thrust, Thrust Conundrum

Many fiction writers treat all swords as the same. In reality, less than half a centimeter of distance can be the difference between victory and defeat with bladed weapons.

Why is this piece of information important?

If your answer was: whoever has the longer weapon wins. Well, you’re wrong.

Understanding a weapon’s designated use, it’s strengths and limitations works as a means of setting reader expectations which builds your narrative’s stakes. 

A character taking a scimitar into a narrow alley is going to be different from a character taking a rapier into the same narrow alley. In fact, a character with a rapier might choose to lure the character with the scimitar into a narrow alley because they feel choice of terrain benefits them.

This one choice transforms a character from passive into active. The character makes decisions based on the information they have available. They may make the wrong choice, but the choice itself creates an active participant. You cannot make educated choices without knowledge. The more knowledge you have, the more information you have, the smarter and more interesting your setting becomes.

Take these two characters discussing the use of a specialty weapon — a lasbow, which shoots psychically generated lasers bolts.

Suits you, Nathan’s warm thoughts filled her. You could’ve killed that spino with a carefully constructed shot.

Yes, she grit her teeth, but lasbows require more concentration, expend more energy, and bolts fly only so far as imagination and focus allow. A plaspistol just needs a charge.

Here, we see the character lay out the strengths and drawbacks of a lasbow before we see the weapon in combat. We know a lasbow is different from a regular bow. While a lasbow can strike a target at any distance with devastating effect, it is not fire and forget. The wielder must maintain the shot from start to finish. This is a significant weakness in frantic melee if the wielder is not shooting from a defensive position. If the difference between life and death is losing concentration, that might be a little worrying.

Now, let’s see the lasbow in action.

Together, the rexes lumbered into the canyon. Humans perched on saddles atop their massive heads. The rexes were armored in saurohide and plasteel pieces reconfigured from ancient dragon and carno armor.

Leah raised her bow. The rexes’ large nasal cavity allowed them to locate prey from across great distances. Some bonded raiders learned to utilize this sense to locate caravans and other enemies. Probably how they found us. A sharp whine filled her ears, the buzz of electricity. And riding reconditioned fly-bikes. Six humans rode two per vehicle. One driver, one gunner, bikes with built-in weapons were difficult to come by without a technician. Surprise. Distract. Overwhelm. Simple tactics; terrify and distract with the tyrannosaurus while the bikes and raptors cut the enemy to pieces. Effective against the inexperienced.

Patterning the mental signature of the rex rider on the left, Leah generated her bolt by drawing two fingers through the air. The bolt burst to life in a crackling, snapping hiss of blazing yellow. She fired. The bolt shot through the trees, searing away fronds and leaves.

The rex rider sensed her touch. Their rifle raised, eyes scanning the canyon.

Female. She caged the woman’s mind. No alarms. The bolt pierced through the center of the rider’s helmeted forehead, sliced through the brain, and vanished.

The tyrannosaur’s rider slumped, corpse held in place by saddle straps.

The rex bellowed in agony.

Surprise shook the human minds. Too late. They were committed.

Leah smiled. Let’s go.

Multiple important details occur in this scene. 

  1. The enemy is defined and the main character, Leah, instructs the reader regarding the raiders’ intended tactics. This builds anticipation for the battle to come. 
  2. The preemptive strike with the lasbow is launched, but Leah also cages the mind of her target to keep them from psychically warning the others. Tactics.
  3. Strategy is also at play, Leah waits until the raiders advancing force is in too deep and cannot retreat when they realize their enemy’s strength. She kills the rex’s rider rather than the rex to create a battlefield wild card, cutting off the only easy escape route.
  4. Leah’s confidence at the end of the scene builds the reader’s sense of security for the coming battle.

A character’s actions can be multi-pronged while the effects of those actions have multiple outcomes. If the world you create is convincing and works off its own logic, you don’t have to worry about it matching reality. If you understand how different kinds of violence work, you can create clear images within your scene that are advanced beyond punches and kicks.

The reason why I generally suggest looking at films rather than novels for your action sequences is because films have the advantage of being choreographed by professionals. As a writer, you’ll never be able to really make use of the same visual spectacle, but the important point is a fight scene choreographer’s business is choreographing fight scenes for entertainment. Whether you’re watching Spiderman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Heat, you’re given the opportunity to see a martial artist’s mind at work constructing action in the service of a greater narrative. As a creative who lacks similar experience, you can review a lot of good and bad fight scenes from the famous to the unknown. You can see what worked and what didn’t. You’ve been consuming film fight scenes non-critically for most of your life, now it’s time for you to start learning about the choreographers who created them, figuring out how they work and why.

I’m not suggesting you mindlessly copy, but carefully consider. Each action sequence is an expression of all your characters.

– Michi

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