Tag Archives: writing fight scenes

How the Written Universe Works: Choreographing Violence #amwriting

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.

toolsScenes 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.

level 1 confrontation LIRF06052022If 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.

level 2 skirmish LIRF06052022If 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.

level 3 melee LIRF06052022Don’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?

level 4 war LIRF06052022In 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:

  1. I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
  2. 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.

Author-thoughtsPerson-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.

combat - fencing LIRF06052022A 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.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021I 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.

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur, London Film Museum, via Wikipedia

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.

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Crafting Action and Violence #amwriting

I am well acquainted with how the human body moves when fighting, either with weapons or bare-handed. I know this personally as I was the goalie on a women’s hockey team in my late teens. Also, at the age of nineteen, I married the bass player in a heavy metal band. We were divorced several years later, and while we remain good friends, some aspects of those years were difficult to live through.

crafting violenceThe human body moves in many ways when fighting, some of which are effective, and others not so much. In the 1990s, I studied Shao Chi Chuan, a gentler form of martial arts. I write about people who fight, and I draw upon my personal experience.

But let’s talk about literary violence. Random gore and sexual violence have no place in the well-crafted novel. The keyword here is random.

Blood and sex are sometimes a part of the more profoundly moving stories I have read. Those scenes showed meticulous plotting, and the incidents were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.

At times, those passages are difficult on a personal level to read. However, if they are moments that change everything, they do have a purpose. Events that change the protagonist’s life for good or ill must be crafted, and transitions must make them fit seamlessly into the narrative.

I rarely read horror, except that which is written by Dean Lappi. The violence is all the more frightening in his books because it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. All the things that make you feel squeamish are not random, not inserted for shock value, or just to liven things up. The characters are multidimensional, and the world they live in can be terrifying.

If you are writing horror, reread the works that inspired you. Follow their lead and plot your novel well.

I want to make this extremely clear: If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself five questions:

  1. Is this scene necessary, or am I just trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  2. What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  3. Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  4. What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  5. Why was this event unavoidable?
Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Suppose the choices the protagonist has made prior to this point do not make this scene unavoidable. In that case, the violence is gratuitous and doesn’t belong there.

Some books open in the middle of the action, and I have done this on occasion as a prologue to show a backstory event. However, this kind of opening can confuse the reader, who is at the disadvantage of not knowing what is going on.

When you open a novel with the characters already thrust into the middle of an action scene, it should introduce the characters and show the root of the crisis. The key is to make it clear that it is a backstory event, and you should make it character-driven.

Whether it is shown in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story.

I love stories about good people solving terrible problems. The first incident has a domino effect. More things occur that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger.

Their peril might be physical or emotional. While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.

Fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal

Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution should be held just out of reach. If it was resolved too easily, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did they take the bait?

As in real life, emotions run high. The situation is sometimes chaotic, but the protagonists believe they can resolve the problem if they can just achieve “the one thing.”

Despite their growing doubts, the characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Scenes form the overall story arc structure, but please, don’t waste the reader’s time with pointless banter. Each conversation or event must show something new and propel the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown.

In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the motives of the characters. Like a flower gradually opening, the reader gains information at the same time as the protagonist does. The reader may see clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know will affect the plot in the future.

Those clues are foreshadowing, showing why the forthcoming action is unavoidable. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.

The midpoint in the novel is a place where a watershed moment should occur. It launches the third act and makes the characters’ struggle more difficult.

At this point, the protagonist and allies are becoming aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals.

Through experiencing these (sometimes) violent events, the protagonist suffers a crisis of faith. They fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled.

Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint catastrophe, another disaster occurs, the event that launches the final act. This event is where someone who was previously safe may die.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. Also, you must remember to give the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping.

This requires planning on the part of the author. We consider how each battle or catastrophe will be unavoidable. We must also ask ourselves how surviving it will change the characters for good or ill.

Incidents that raise the very real specter of possible failure elevate the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.

Our task is to design the action scene so that it fits naturally into a narrative. This is a critical skill we must develop if we want to move our readers emotionally.

In the next post, we’ll discuss contrasts, and how the transition from conflict to quiet and back again can make or break your narrative.

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#amwriting: personality and the fight scene

I am in the process of getting one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers, ready for publication. This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard makes an appearance, although not in the opening chapters.

The book opens on a sunny day, and my characters are wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re nervous about the trail they are on. Through their casual comments, we learn that the world they live in is dangerous, and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work my characters do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

The second scene is the setup for the inciting incident, the moment we meet the first antagonist, Bastard John. When he enters the scene, it is one of the few times when the Bastard will be in such a place that we can see who he is as a person. The inciting incident makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

At this point, an argument ensues, which turns violent. Scenes involving fighting are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. There must be a reason for the fight, one that goes beyond the need for livening things up. When it comes to fighting, I keep it concise and linear, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

Most authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight–how they were dressed, who hit who with what weapon, and so on. These are necessary elements of the scene that good, responsible research and an author’s diligence can resolve.

But there is a larger consideration to your battle: you must have a good reason for the conflict. No one is going to stick with a novel where random, convoluted battles happen for no good reason. They hack, they slash, blood flows, the winner walks away–but why did it happen? What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative? 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:

  1. I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
  2. In the resolution of that scene, my intention was to demonstrate that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.

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 to 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. 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 must be portrayed in the actions sequence in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

Consider the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the irresistible chemistry aside and think about their mannerisms, their habits.

That sense of uniqueness is what we must give our characters through their habitual movements and speech, and it is crucial we maintain those differences when we describe a fight scene.

Our bodies, as well as our faces, are in constant motion. You can show this in small, unobtrusive ways by sitting back and visualizing your scene as if you were the witness rather than a participant, making it real in your mind before you commit it to paper.

In conversation, 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.

Every character’s mannerisms 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 personalities 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.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions, we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions as they interact with their environment and each other illustrate the world they exist in. Each scene is your opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters without resorting to an info dump.

Especially when describing a fight scene, the author must give the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework to hang his imagination on. We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the idea and the atmosphere of the conflict as if painting  the scene in the style of the impressionists.

I love it when I can suspend my disbelief and become immersed in the story, getting wrapped up in the fight because the battle is crucial, and the good people must win.

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