In most genres, whether it’s mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, or horror, the characters are forced to do a certain amount of fighting. However, scenes involving physical action can become a wall of mindless mayhem.
Scenes of conflict are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be inserted into the novel as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.
For my own planning purposes, I have four levels of conflict, ranked by the escalation of action and the broadness of the conflict.
Level 1 – Quarrel – interpersonal disagreements, disputes, angry words, shouting, everyone walks away.
Level 2 – Skirmish – 1 to 5 combatants total, with one-on-one physical violence. Minor wounds, everyone walks away.
Level 3 – Melee – small gangs or squads clash, some combatants are seriously wounded, and someone may die.
Level 4 – War – full-on battle, many combatants, each side attempting to annihilate the other.
If you have no experience with combat or fighting, you don’t understand the limits of a normal athlete’s physical abilities. So, you must do the research. Think of how the human body works in reality. If your character knees a foe in the jaw, how is it possible?
Are you really going to go into that much detail to explain how Joe slapped Mary and then bent down for whatever reason, and Mary kneed him in the jaw?
I suggest you don’t include that particular assault because a knee to the jaw is a weird move if both combatants are standing. If Mary has a blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, she could have clocked him with her foot, but not her knee.
If you don’t show how such a strange hit could happen, the reader will say, “That’s impossible.” It’s a risky choice though, because going into that kind of detail bores the heck out of our readers. Our readers mind will fill in the details and if it’s confusing, they may stop reading.
We must consider what is physically possible and what is not.
After the action is laid down, the next step is fine-tuning it. The reactions and responses of your characters are what make the experience feel authentic to the reader. After you have established that Joe was somehow hit in the jaw, what happened next? Did it knock him out?
Many authors get hung up on the technical side of each fight—how they were dressed, what weapons they had, and so on.
Don’t do this for every incident. After they are armed and armored as much as they are going to be the first time, just have them meet the enemy, skirmish, and continue on. The reader already knows what armor and weapons they had.
The fight must advance the story.
- Ask yourself why the quarrel happened.
- What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative?
- And once you establish that the fight happened, did you foreshadow it well enough, or does it seem gratuitous?
In real life, conflict happens on a sliding scale. It begins with a disagreement and escalates to an all-out war. While my outline will have a note alerting me to the level of conflict that must happen, I choreograph my fights to reflect that sliding level of intensity.
Billy Ninefingers begins with a level 1 quarrel that escalates to a level 2 fight. Billy’s sword hand is wounded. Besides the fact Billy is seriously injured in this opening fight, which is the inciting incident and 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.
Just as physical attacks are in real life, Billy’s confrontation with the Bastard was over in less than a minute. From personal fistfights to waging war, actual combat is quick, bloody, and brutal.
Person-to-person combat doesn’t stretch for hours because no matter how well trained a fighter is, no one has that kind of strength.
Skirmishes may happen in bursts that take place over a length of time, but there are pauses between clashes, allowing the combatants to briefly rest and get their breath.
It may feel like an hour is passing while you are in the middle of each clash, but in reality, each one-on-one fight only lasts a few minutes. At that point, even the strongest fighters are exhausted. Exhausted people make mistakes, and someone will be injured or die.
I suggest that for your own purposes, you map your violence out. Describe it for yourself as you would a journey. On a background document, write every slap and curse word. Write every hack and slash or gunshot, and make sure each occurs at its proper point in the melee.
Then walk away from it. Let that scene rest and move on to something else. When you return to it, ask yourself how many blows and hits your characters have taken.
A typical fencing match goes until one has scored 15 hits on their opponent, and that match lasts nine minutes or less. Ask yourself how your fighter can survive the injuries that such blows would leave them with in real combat.
They most likely couldn’t.
Combatants block and defend as much as they attack. For the author, acting out each skirmish 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.
Open a new document, take what you have already choreographed and consolidate it. While a war will justify ten paragraphs of description, a skirmish won’t. Write a one or two paragraph narrative that hits the high points and end it.
In each quarrel, we have to consider that every 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.
It’s a lot of work, but I go back to the first part of that section and make sure the character’s reactions are portrayed so the reader can suspend their disbelief.
I try to show this discreetly 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 each combatant’s facial expressions and reactions.
The strongest reactions get briefly mentioned in the story, the responses that push the plot forward. The other reactions are witnessed but given less prominence, becoming part of the scenery.
When I choreograph a fight, I think of it as if I were composing a conversation. In our literary conversations, we paint the impression of their individuality without boring the reader with insignificant details.
We must approach the fight scene the same way. I keep it concise and linear when it comes to fighting, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears. Just the facts, the immediate emotional impact, and we move on to the recovery scene.
While it feels chaotic to those who are involved, violence is orderly and happens in a sequence of actions within a fundamental framework of order.
They block, dodge, hack and slash or shoot – the swiftness of the event and the emotional impact of the violence do the work of conveying the overwhelming sense of chaos.
My next post will examine how to choreograph personal disasters.