In many books, the characters are forced to do a certain amount of fighting, whether it is a marital dispute, neighborhood quarrel, war, or a kickboxing tournament. Unfortunately, some authors don’t understand how important it is to choreograph the scenes of disagreement and disputes.
These scenes are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be carefully planned and inserted into the novel as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.
Scenes involving physical action can be a morass of mindless mayhem, if not well-choreographed to begin with. It takes time, but over the course of several hours, you can put the skeleton of your fight scene on paper. What is physically possible and what is not? The next step, after the action is laid down, is fine tuning it, so the reactions and responses of your characters are natural and real.
But there is a larger consideration for your battle: Scenes involving fighting are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. The battle must advance the story. Why did it happen? What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative?
I mentioned this in my last post on literary violence: In Billy Ninefingers, besides the obvious fact that he is seriously injured in the fight, which is the core plot point of the book, I had two other goals with that fight scene:
- I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
- In the resolution of that scene, I demonstrated that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.
There are two sorts of fights, verbal and physical. Both have commonalities, although words are the weapons in the verbal dispute.
Many authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight—how they were dressed, who hit who with what words or weapons, and so on.
Just as if the physical dispute were a verbal dispute, we map the violence out as we would a journey, with every slap, curse word, and gunshot occurring at its proper point in the melee. If physical violence is involved and you are not a martial arts aficionado or a weapons specialist, these are necessary elements of the combat scene that good, responsible research and an author’s diligence can resolve.
What we have to consider in each quarrel is that each character in the fight is, and must remain, a unique individual. There should be no blurring of personalities, which can happen when an author focuses too intently on the action of the fight scene, writing it as if they lived it. For the author, acting out the action ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense, but you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper. It’s far too easy for the author’s voice to intrude in these scenes, as the author is so wrapped up in the emotion of the event they don’t see that the characters have fallen silent, and he is the one doing all the shouting.
If the dispute is verbal, the words hurled back and forth must be the words that character would use. Each character has habitual mannerisms. In real life, they wouldn’t all react the same way, so they can’t all be superheroes in your fight scene. You must go back to the first part of that section, and make sure you haven’t lost the individuality of the characters in the chaos. Each character’s reactions must be portrayed in the action sequence in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”
I try to show this in small, unobtrusive ways by sitting back and visualizing the scene after the choreography is laid on paper. I replay it in my mind as if I were a witness to the events and look for the facial expressions and reactions of each combatant.
The most important reactions get briefly mentioned in the story, the reactions that push the plot forward. The others are witnessed but given less prominence, becoming part of the scenery.
When I choreograph a fight, I think of it as choreographing a conversation. In real life, people miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn and sometimes mumble. In our literary conversations, we want to paint the impression of their individuality without boring the reader with minute details.
We must approach the fight scene the same way. When it comes to fighting, I keep it concise and linear, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears. Just the facts, the immediate emotional impact, and we move on to the recovery scene.
In so many novels, battle scenes are long, drawn out, convoluted passages detailing blood and guts, but which make no sense. I don’t like books where the fights are senseless and too chaotic to follow, because I know that isn’t true to life. Violence is orderly and happens in a sequence of actions, within a fundamental framework of order.
I have been married four times, so trust me, I understand disputes and how they can escalate out of control. But I also have personal experience with physical violence. I played hockey for four years as a young woman, and I also took martial arts as a young adult. From my personal experience, I know that each fight is comprised of a specific sequence of events, despite the fact it appears to be chaotic.
- the inciting incident – what triggers it
- the response – what each combatant does and how the opponent responds
- the resolution – how does it end?
- the aftermath
It is the swiftness of the event and the emotional impact of the violence that conveys the overwhelming sense of chaos.
Once you have the order of events, who did what and what the result of that action was, you must add the emotion, the sense of fear, the feeling that things are happening too swiftly that is the true chaos of the battle.
Every character’s emotions and reactions are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author, visualize them this way, but the difference between success and failure as an author is the ability to commit their uniqueness to paper. Many authors don’t succeed at this—they either fail to give enough subtle clues to the reader, or they are too specific. The fine line between enough and too much is where the author’s artistry comes in.
Their actions as they interact with their environment and each other illustrate the world they exist in. Each scene, especially a fight scene, is your opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters without resorting to an info dump.
We are painters with words. We give the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework to hang his imagination on. We use our words sparingly and with intention, giving the reader the idea and the atmosphere of the conflict as if painting the scene in the style of the impressionists.
Credits and Attributions:
Dutch: De dood is fel en snel: Ruzie in een pub, English: Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, painting by Joos van Craesbeeck, ca. 1630 – 1635 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.