Long ago, filmmakers mastered the technique of creating a persuasive fighting scene. Bodies bang to the floor .. chairs are thrown … spectators are thrown close to horrible or angry faces … and the pounds thrown are enough to make us close and close our eyes. . its flight path.)
Many camera angles and sophisticated sound effects are worn by filmmakers. We think we are right in the middle of that fight.
It’s much harder by authors. How can you throw the reader in the middle of the scene and feel every punch? How can you show the action without falling into the trap of sounding like a school child detailing enthusiasm for a fight, punch with punch; kick to kick?
There are only two things to keep in mind.
- Remember you are a writer, not a choreographer.
- Pack your fights with an EMOTIONAL punch.
That’s it. So simple – yet so effective.
What do a choreographer do? Plan a series of movements, step by step. He / she teaches the people doing the movements how to do each one, and then how to put them together in a smooth routine.
There are too many fighting scenes in books like a choreographed notebook. You will see something like this:
Briggs put a right hook on Smith’s chin. The other man reeled backwards, his arms a windmill. Briggs followed his lead, breathing hard. One by one, he landed a few more punks on Smith’s body.
Smith fell to the ground and rolled out. “Bastard!” he grunted, and rolled again to avoid a well-aimed kick from Briggs. Like a cat, he jumped to his feet and turned around Briggs, not taking his eyes off his nemesis.
“Come on!” Briggs was joking, sticking in to land another punch and then stepping backwards. “Is that the best thing you can do?” He feinted and laughed.
Attacks, Smith made an attack. Briggs danced back and forth around Smith, and in two faithful movements he was on the ground, one hand up behind his back.
“Was that enough?” he panted.
There are so many things wrong with the scene above it’s hard to know where to start. In summary:
- We have no idea who the character of the view is. We seem to have been watching it from afar. This means that the reader has little emotional involvement. To really engage your reader, do everything you can to make sure he or she becomes the character of the view. If it hurts, the reader does so. If he loses … the reader does so.
- The writer is “telling” rather than showing. A did this then B did that and A did this in response and B continued with this … boring! (Do you see the choreographer at work?)
- The writer uses many of the names of the characters: “Smith” and “Briggs”. This usually adds distance as well. The problem is that both characters are men, so the continued use of “he” can be confusing, though not for long. These problems are easier to avoid if you are deep in the opinion of one of the characters.
- The excerpt is filled with tired old sayings like “one after another he quickly landed two more punches”; “well-aimed kick”; “like a cat, he jumped to his feet”; “in two deft movements”. Phrases like this save the writer from a lot of work – they roll the language so easily because they are around for so long.
How do you avoid these traps and a fighting scene that works?
You forget (for the most part) the physical punches and add an emotional punch. Go deep into the view of one of the characters – perhaps the main character; the one that the reader actually recognizes. In this way, readers look out through the eyes of that character. They desperately want to win it; they feel every punch. Therefore, there is much more emotional investment in the outcome of the fight.
Most writers seem to feel that fighting scenes have to be filled with rapid movement, grunts and moans and a shout of epithets to telegraph the action. They feel if you stop telling the reader what’s going on in the main character’s head, it makes things slow down too much.
That can be for sure … but in the hands of a skilled writer, the tension really builds when the action is slowed down. You need to remember that time on the page is not the same as real time. Since you can’t really show the reader what’s going on in real time as you can in a movie, you have to compensate by spending some time in the main character’s mind. Show us the thoughts of the character. Show us the feelings of the character. Help us “feel” our way into the fight.
The easiest way to show how this works is to use an example from a published book. This is a fighting scene from ECHO BURNING with Lee Child (Bantam Press, 2001). The hero, Jack Reacher, tries to avoid the fight … and the tension builds beautifully until he is forced to confront.
The man was wearing a white shirt on top of the tank and was eating chicken wings. The man had greasy wings and a slob. He was dripping chicken fat from his chin and fingers onto his shirt. There was a dark teardrop shape right between his pecs. It was growing and spreading into a brilliant stain. But the best bar room etiquette doesn’t let you lie on such a scene, and the man caught Reacher staring.
“Who are you looking at?” he said.
It was said low and offensively, but Reacher ignored it.
“Who are you looking at?” said the man again.
Reacher’s experience, they once say, was that nothing may happen. But they say it twice, then trouble gets in the way. A fundamental problem is, they take a lack of response as evidence that you are worried. That they are winning. But then, they won’t let you respond, anyway.
“Are you looking at me?” said the comedian.
“No,” replied Reacher.
“Don’t look at me, boy,” said the man.
The way he said made a boy think of Reacher that he was perhaps a foreman in a lumber mill or a cotton operation. Whatever muscle work done around Lubbock. A traditional trade of some kind that has been passed down through the generations. Certainly the word cop never came to his mind. But then it was relatively new to Texas.
“Don’t look at me,” said the comedian.
Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really to antagonize the guy. Just size him up. Life is capable of surprising surprises non-stop, so he knew one day he would come face to face with his physical equivalent. With someone who might be worried about him. But he looked and saw that this is not the day. So he just smiled and looked away again.
Then the guy jabbed him with his finger.
“I told you not to look at me,” he said, and jabbed.
He was a meaty forefinger and covered with grease. It left a definite mark on Reacher’s shirt.
“Don’t do that,” Reacher said.
The guy jabbed again.
“Or what?” he said. “You want to make something out of it?”
Reacher looked down. Now there were two marks. The purchase jabbed again. Three jobs, three marks. Reacher gritted his teeth. What were three greasy marks on a shirt? He started counting slowly to ten. Then the guy jabbed again, before he even reached eight.
“Are you deaf?” Reacher said. “I told you not to do that.”
“You want to do something about it?”
“No,” Reacher said. “I really don’t. I just want you to stop doing it.”
The man smiled. “Then you have a piece of yellow-bellied shit.”
“Whatever,” Reacher said. “Just keep your hands off me.”
“Or what? What are you going to do?”
Reacher resumed his count. Eight, nine.
“You want to take this outside?” the man asked.
“Contact me again and you’ll find out,” Reacher said. “I warned you four times.”
The man paused a second. Then, of course, he went for it again. Reacher grabbed the finger at the entrance and knocked it at the first hill. Just folded up as it was turning a door handle. Then, because he was irritated he continued and headbutted the guy full in the face. It was a smooth move, well delivered, but backed up to half of what it could have been. It is not necessary to put the vowel in small, above four fat marks on a shirt. He moved speed to give room for the man to fall, and leaned into the woman on his right.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said.
The woman nodded vaguely, disoriented by the noise, concentrating on her drink, unaware of what was happening. The big man fell silently on the floorboards and Reacher used the bottom of his shoe to roll it on his forehead. He then bent him under the chin with his toe to pull his head back and direct his airway. The recovery position, paramedics call it. You stop choking while you’re out.
Then he paid for his drinks and walked back to his motel …
Of course, this scene only shows a fight that is quietly escalating and shows a hero who has the ability to quickly end a fight. You will need to use a slightly different approach if you involve several people and have a quick and furious fight with two fairly matched attackers. But the principle is the same.
Don’t let the reader watch the fight from afar. Get them into the skin of the main character, faithful to his thoughts and feelings. Let readers feel the impact of fists and feet; let them experience the adrenaline (or irritation, depending on the level of motivation). Then your fight scenes will pack the kind of punch you need.
(c) copyright Marg McAlister