Not many stories pass without some heavy conflict or a fight scene or two to maintain some pace and action, and bolster the reader’s interest, but writers are not always sure how to write fight scenes, and if they do, the result often doesn’t work so well.
When we think of these conflicts, we think of something that’s fast paced, dynamic, tense and full of action. This also means the characters have to be dynamic, too. But if fight scenes are not well written or don’t engage the reader, they may lose interest or they might skim read to get back to the story.
The thing with fight scenes is that they either work or they don’t, and there are a number of reasons they don’t, such as being so contrived that they’re almost laughable, or sometimes they contain stilted dialogue more akin to something from an old black and white noir movie. Worse still, they’re rammed with clichés. That’s because writers have simply copied what they’ve seen in movies, so it’s best to cut these bad habits before they take hold.
Things to avoid in your fight scenes:
- The hero always wins, despite overwhelming odds against him.
- The hero is never injured despite being punched or kicked or he falls from height. He always gets up without a scratch.
- The bad guy always finds the time to explain himself during a tense fight.
- The hero triumphs over his enemy in the end, with otherwise unseen or unheard combat skills, when in previous fights, this had not been apparent.
- Contrived/stilted dialogue
The worst one from this list is having a the bad guy always explain things during a tense fight. This happens in movies all the time because writers assume their audience is dumb and they need exposition to tell the reader, so what we see is the bad guy telling the hero what he’s going do to him and how he’s going to do it and for some inexplicable reason, he explains why, for example:
“I’ve waited five long years to kill you. And I won’t make it easy. I’m going to make you suffer...” or, “I knew you would turn up. It was me who blew up Jane’s house, so I knew it would bring you running right into my trap...”
If it was real life, the attacker isn’t going to stop and give you a speech about how he’s going to knock your teeth out and put you in hospital or why he blew up your house. He’ll just get on with it and kick the hell out of you.
Dialogue should be fast and dynamic and carry emotion and mood of the scene, so avoid stilted, forced exchanges. And avoid telling the reader the obvious, for example:
Dave ran through the alley and came across a wall. There was nowhere to go.
"Thought you could get away, huh?" John said. "Now you’re trapped and I have you where I want you."
"What are you going to do to me?"
The reader knows that Dave is trapped, so no need for John to say it or enforce it with the statement that he’s got Dave where he wants him. This is cliché. And Dave’s question is also a cliché.
Forced with the reality of someone attacking you, and no doubt fearful, you don’t ask your attacker what he’s going to do. You run like hell and fight like a cat to get away.
So why do writers fall into this cliché-ridden trap? Because they imagine fight scenes are just like they see in the movies. They’re not. Writers haven’t done enough to inform the reader throughout the story, so when the fight happens, the writer feels as though the reader needs all that backstory and the explanation during the fight, and so the scene ends up being an info dump.
The other problem is that writers are rather biased with their own characters during fight scenes. The main character – unless they’re an ex-Navy seal or ex SAS, are not going to be expert fighters, so don’t have your character defeat every single enemy with one punch or an expertly executed karate high kick. This doesn’t happen in real life.
In truth, real life fights are scrappy, messy affairs, most often in an un-coordinated, arbitrary way. It’s not the boxing ring. Real life fights are anything but controlled or co-ordinated, and are often done in silence - there is no talking, no chit-chat, no blow by blow explanation.
It’s also worth noting that in any fight, your main character will be on high alert – adrenaline will be pumping through their body, which in turn will make them panicky or jumpy and may make them lash out defensively or instinctively. Adrenaline makes us do rash things under extreme pressure or fear.
One important thing to remember is that your protagonist is not a superhero. That means he or she will come off worse from a fight from time to time. Your main character cannot win them all. If they do, your reader will get bored because there will be no tension, drama or sense of danger and it just won’t be believable. For example, what if your main character was a seemingly ordinary housewife looking for her missing dog, yet she can miraculously high kick her way through a vicious gang of dognappers as though she’s been trained by the best army in the world.
It’s not real life. The best fight scenes reflect real life, not Hollywood perceptions.
Most main characters are ordinary people put into extraordinary situations. They are Mr or Miss Average, so unless your protagonist is a trained martial arts expert, a skilled marksman trained in special ops, or has expert munitions knowledge, then most characters will be just ordinary people.
So when they’re confronted with conflict, it’s how they behave and react that makes them and the fight scene realistic. But how do you make fight scenes dynamic yet convincing?
In Part 2 we’ll answer that question of how you can make fights scenes realistic and we’ll look at the factors that can make them work so well rather then being a let down for your reader.
Next week: Creating Realistic Fight Scenes - Part 2.