What makes a fight scene engaging and exciting? This is something we writers often struggle with. As a martial artist of 13 years, I'm often asked how to write a leaner, meaner fight scene. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Genevieve Iseult Eldredge. I edit for Astraea Press under the pseudonym Aribeth Kingsleigh. I hold a black belt in traditional Chinese-American Goju-Ryu karate and weapons mastery. I have also studied kenpo, small circle jiu jitsu, judo, and kung-fu. But enough about me. Onward to the fray!
While there are many different techniques for writing a better fight scene, I’ve found that writers seem to face some common challenges. Based on what I’ve seen and experienced as a writer and editor, here are my Top 10 Do's & Don't's for building a better fight scene.
10. Don't: Use an Ace when a Two will do.
Blasting the bad guy with a Howitzer when he doesn’t need to be blasted with a Howitzer is overkill. Overkill is risky because it can make your hero look like a bully. Instead, make the punishment fit the crime, and you'll fulfill the reader's sense of "rightness."
9. Don't: Be afraid to hurt your characters.
That scratch the epic hero sports after the end battle? You know the one—that tiny bit of blood that serves to enhance the hero’s good looks rather than prove he had to actually fight to win. Well, it’s not as cool as it looks. While there will be times when the fight is effortless for your hero, it’s important to balance that with struggle. Readers like heroes that have to earn their victories. Ask yourself: how heroic is it if it's easy?
8. Don’t: Restrict your characters’ powers.
Don’t give your hero a power (flight, time travel, invisibility, super strength, smoldering eyes) only to take it away every time it might become useful. Instead, let your hero use the power successfully at least once, both to show the reader how it works and to display your hero’s quality. Later, instead of restricting the power, you can make its use have dire consequences—your time-traveler might end up in Jurassic Park instead of Central Park.
7. Do: Be careful in making your character an expert.
Make sure she can pass as an expert. If your protagonist is a martial artist, make sure you know enough about the martial arts to make your fight scene believable. Interview an expert, go to a dojo and ask questions—people love to talk about their interests—but don't ever fake it. Readers are smart and savvy. The second your expert does something novice, it will destroy the credibility of your fight scene, your hero, your book, you. Reader trust is delicate. Treat it with care.
6. Do: Balance your forces.
And not just because I suggest it, but because Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer suggests it. Your hero is only as strong, smart, and savvy as your villain. If your villain is weak, then having your hero defeat her isn’t very heroic.
5. Do: Keep your level of reality consistent.
If your fight scene is hyper-realistic, then keep in mind people can take a lot less punishment than Hollywood would have us believe. Any fight with a weapon will be over quickly. Any blow to the head can result in a concussion that can take weeks or even months to recover from. Likewise, if your fight scene is stylistic, keep it stylistic. Characters like James Bond and Neo and Trinity—heroes in epic-style fight sequences—can take far more punishment than normal people. Consistency is key.
4. Do: Remember, magic trumps everything.
Magic, as long as it is consistent, is a powerful “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Physics, reality, science—it all takes a backseat to magic. Gandalf shouts, “You shall not pass!” and the Balrog falls. No one asks why because it's maaaaagic! But, take care. Magic must have rules and consistency. No one likes a hero who can do everything or to whom things come easily. Keep in mind ways to limit these powerful forces. Even Harry Potter needs his wand to cast spells, and he often struggled with his magic.
3. Don't: fake the facts
Do your research. Know that your heroine’s katana is meant to slice not to hack, and that the .44 Magnum has too much recoil and muzzle blast that it’s generally not used for law enforcement. Does that mean that your hotshot cop protagonist can’t carry a .44 Magnum? Nope. What it means is that you should address that his carrying the Magnum is unique—something that can aid you in the fight scene and character development. Win! The key is not to fake it. Always, always, preserve the readers’ trust in you.
2. Don't: Be afraid to experience.
When in doubt, act it out. If your hero’s opponent is taller, get someone who is taller, and walk through the fight scene slowly and safely. Go to museums, pick up swords and try on armor. Get a feel for what it’s like to swing a long sword, a claymore, a polearm. There’s a big difference. Writing an epic battle? Try LARPing. Throw yourself into the fray to see what it’s like. What town doesn’t have a rod-and-gun club? Interview weapon aficionados. People love to talk about their hobbies and interests. Use that as a resource! The best way to understand a weapon is to seek out an expert who can instruct you in its safe usage.
1. Do: Use short sentences and short paragraphs
Describe only what is essential. I can tell you from experience that in the thick of a fight, you don't have time to notice that "his eyes were blue, the color of wood smoke and he had a salt-and pepper beard lightly dusted with--" Um, no. Unless you’re telescoping time in your scene, you don’t really notice fine details when you’re under attack. In addition, long paragraphs signify to the reader that more time is taking place—a fact that can slow your fight scene down to a crawl. Longer paragraphs take longer to read and thus, they tend to leech tension. Short sentences increase tension, and tension is of the utmost importance in a fight scene. No reader will put the book down in the middle of a tense fight scene where the hero’s life hangs in the balance. And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Keeping the reader reading.
So, that's it, folks—10 Do's and Don't's of a Writing a Better Fight Scene.
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And a “thank you very muchness!” to Astraea Press for having me. Check out the newest AP releases at http://www.astraeapress.com/.
Check out these great Astraea Press titles with complex characters, original plots, and you guessed it fight scenes.