Writing Fight Scenes That Work

“Point of View solves everything.” – Elizabeth Bear

These notes are from the titular panel at WorldCon 75. The panelists were Elizabeth Bear, Jack Campbell, Sebastien de Castell, I. Simes-moderator)

How To Start A Fight (in a story)

By establishing what each opponent could gain or lose, we establish the stakes and make the reader care about the fight. Preferably by giving the reader a favorite, someone they want to win and someone they actively want to lose. – Jack Cambell

Fighting starts with two or more people with diametrically opposed goals. The fight is typically triggered by a change or ramp-up of the time line or a ticking clock’s time running short. One of the best fight scenes in writing is from Watership Down, in which Bigwig faces General Warren to save the baby bunnies. – Elizabeth Bear

Making the readers care and the stakes high isn’t about scale, it’s about the characters and the consequences. – Jack Campbell

In real life? Whoever is willing to risk more usually wins. In a bar fight, if one person isn’t afraid to go to the ER and the other is, the one who is unafraid is going to fight far more aggressively. – Sebastien de Castell

In The Princess Bride, the most important part of the sword clash on the Cliffs of Insanity wasn’t the fight itself, it was the introduction of Inigo and Wesley before the fight, establishing their rapport, and the fact that, had circumstances been anything other than they were, these two should have been friends. – Sebastien de Castell

Rules of Fighting (are they breakable?)

In stories, the cliche is for the honorable hero to pause and kick the sword back to their worthy opponent. What rules are necessary to the fight and which ones just seem unlikely?

Physics! (of course) is unbreakable in most settings. But if you change the expected rules of the fight, there need to be consequences. Just remember who the characters are informs their expectations. When two people agree to a no-rules fight, that means something different to a street girl than to a noble.  – Jack Campbell

There are expectations. – Elizabeth Bear

  • With the rules of war, in the modern day, we have expectations for the treatment of prisoners of war and avoiding civilian casualties.
  • In bar fights – eye gouging is not expected. If it starts off a fist fight, weapons are not expected.
  • In a fight for dominance – in a story, you usually end up with some sort of adventuring group deciding who’s in charge. It’s part of their ‘cute meet’ story.
  • In a fight for survival – there are no rules.

Fights need to follow the rules of motivation! – Sebastien de Castell

Remember the period you’re in and the expectations of that time and place.

  • Classically, most duels were not fought to the death.
    • It was easier to run or burn down your enemy’s house.
    • Also, duelists to first-blood were known to dip their blades in dog shit and hope the wound will go septic.
  • The story of David and Goliath is not what modern westerners think it was. Slings were well-respected battle weapons for shorter ranges.
  • There is only one recorded instance of gunslingers meeting at high noon. ONE.

How To Write Realistic Fights

Most people want to avoid fights. – Elizabeth Bear

  • When you write a fight, use the character’s point-of-view.
  • Don’t give the reader the blow-by-blow, complete Dungeons and Dragons initiative by initiative actions.
    • These can be hard to follow and are about actions, not motivation
    • Think about talking to a soldier or martial artist who’s actually been in a fight. They’re typically not going to remember the blow by blow, just the major actions.
  • The fight needs to be visceral
    • Showing how the body is feeling and the character is reacting emotionally can let us know how the fight is going

There are some weapons that can create a sort of distance. Physically and emotionally. – Sebastien de Castell

  • One can write a character who fights more intellectually, with snarky narration and emotional distance – when they’re not fighting for survival. If they’re trained enough, dueling or wrestling sort of fights can qualify.

Do The Characters Need To Know Why They’re Fighting?

If you want the reader to connect with the characters, they need an immediate goal they’re trying to achieve by fighting. – Elizabeth Bear

Never use a fight scene just for fun. A fight scene needs to be a physical manifestation of an emotion. For the protagonist or the antagonist. But, it can’t just be on a physical level. – Sebastien de Castell

Sex, fighting, and conversation scenes are all alike. Something has to change — knowledge unearthed, opinions voiced, character growth — during any sort of scene or the scene needs to be cut. – Elizabeth Bear

How Long Should A Fight Be?

As long as it needs to be.

In Indiana Jones, there’s the scene where Indiana just shoots the guy with the sword. It works because of the reversal of expectations, making it funny. Reversal of expectations is what keeps readers excited. – Elizabeth Bear

Fight scenes should have beats, a certain ebb and flow, like classical music.  The main character should make mistakes. They’re reacting to the circumstances, they don’t necessarily have time to plan the best course of action. – Sebastien de Castille 


Remember: Everyone in the fight needs to rationalize to themselves WHY their actions are acceptable.


Stay tuned! Monday, I have a bonus post of “Injury Mechanics: A Brief History of Hurting People” where you can find out just what sort of damage it makes sense for you to inflict on your characters.

 

 

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