Writing Right: Fight Scenes Do's and Don't's
Fight scenes! Many writers dread writing them, and who can blame them? Writing a good fight scene is an art in itself.
Here are some of my best pieces of advice. Caveat: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Also, for every single thing I've said here, I will bet you, dollars to donuts, there is a best-selling author who does exactly the opposite. The key is: use and adapt what works for you, your style, and your book. Writing is about constantly, constantly making smart decisions and breaking rules in purpose.
And now, without further ado, my Top 10 List of Do's & Don't's
10. Don't: Use an Ace When a 2 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! No One Likes Captain Awesome
Aragorn’s ceremonial scratch on the cheek is bogus. No one fights off 1,000 Uruk-hai and gets a single scratch. No one. Make your heroes earn their victories. Ask yourself: how heroic is it if it's easy?
8. Don’t: Restrict Your Chara’s Powers
Don’t give your hero time travel only to take it away every time it might become useful. Instead, let him use the power successfully at least once to show he's heroic. Later, instead of restricting the power, you can make it have dire consequences.
7. Do: Be Careful in Making Your Chara an Expert
Make sure she can pass as an expert. If your hero is a martial artist, make sure you know about the martial arts. Interview an expert if you must, 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, and all your hard work.
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 good 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 that people can take a whole 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. All that flying is great in Crouching Tiger because it's part of the style. Consistency is key.
4. Do: Keep your Magic Consistent
Readers will believe in magic--as long as you keep the rules that govern it consistent. Gandalf shouts, “You shall not pass!” the bridge crumbles, and the Balrog falls into the center of Middle Earth. The next time Gandalf shouts, "You shall not pass!" your villain should check to make sure he's not standing on a bridge.
3. Don't: Fake the Facts
Do your research. Know how a katana cuts, how many times you can fire that SIG Sauer, etc. Know the training involved in handling each weapon, the types of wounds it causes, and the mindset of the culture it comes from. A samurai of feudal Japan is going to think and act much differently than Vin Diesel in a Fast & Furious movie, and a knife fight is going to be more brutal and deadly than a fistfight.
2. Don't: Be Afraid to Act it Out
When in DOUBT, Act it OUT. If your hero’s opponent is taller, get someone who is taller to act out your scene with you--safely. Go to museums, Ren Faires, and dueling Meet-Ups, pick up swords and try on armor. Get a feel for what it’s like to swing a katana, a claymore, a polearm. There’s a big difference. How many times can you swing those suckers without getting tired?
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 woodsmoke, and he had a salt-and-pepper beard lightly dusted with--" Really? All that in half-second before the guy punches you in the face? No. Long paragraphs signify to the reader that more time is taking place, slowing your fight scene down to a crawl. They take longer to read and thus, they tend to leech tension. Short sentences increase tension.
And that's it for now. My Top Ten Do's & Don't's to writing a great fight scene!
Until next time... slán go fóill!
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See some of my fight scene advice in action in Circuit Fae: Moribund, in September 2017
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