Writing the Fight Scene (A Balticon 2022 Panel)

These notes are from the titular panel at Balticon 2022. The panelists were D.A. Xiaolin Spires, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Brandon Ketchum, and Wen Spencer, with John Appel as moderator.

The panel description was as follows: A good fight scene can improve the pacing of your novel, raise the stakes for your character, and add immediacy to your writing. But how do you do it well? How do you determine what weapons your character would use and how do you convincingly portray that? Short of studying martial arts for ten years and achieving a black belt, how do you research the combat skills so essential to a pulse-pounding action scene?

7 Things To Remember When Writing A Fight Scene

  1. Emotionally set the fight up – wrap the action with the POV character’s emotion
  2. Keep the pacing fast
    • short sentences, brief descriptions, keep the poetic moments far and few between
    • set up things with explanations before the first hit
    • Keep comments and observations to fragments to prevent slowing the pacing
  3. Pay attention to what you’re trying to accomplish: a duel? A Battle? An argument? Fun banter?
  4. Use the fight to show the character’s personality
    • Skilled and emotionally detached? Fights with clinical precision
    • Mean? Fights dirty, makes the fight hurt, gets in extra hits when they’ve already won
    • Straightforward? Tries to punch through any obstacle (physically or metaphorically)
    • Hates fighting? Runs away. Judo throws attackers away and flees.
  5. Add the character’s internal dialogue, evaluations of the other fighter(s). Add the POV character’s visceral reactions
  6. What sort of weapons are being used? Different ones have different fail points
    • Improvised? Describe the location on the way in, so describing the item doesn’t slow the fight
    • Named weapons?
    • Differentiate weapons based on caliber or blade type
  7. Don’t forget about the effects of the fog of war
    • Character thinking next move ahead, but perhaps not paying attention to the long game. Strategy lost to the visceral here and now

Ways to Differentiate Fighters of Different Skill Levels

  • Untrained — typically untrained fighters fall on either side of the spectrum, they’re often too timid, or they come out flailing and use up all of their energy too soon. Lack of skills has them telegraphing their moves.
  • Skilled — typically more calculated moves, tactical use of the environment (get the sun in their eyes, etc). May choose to take a hit to get the win
  • Show the try-fail cycle — especially with reoccurring villains, show the heroes running away, then stalemate, then winning as they grow and learn.

What Pulls Readers Out of a Fight?

  • Long descriptions of world-building to explain the spell the character is casting… while falling to their death
  • Super fancy moves — that don’t actually have that real-world level of effectiveness. See:
    • Snapping necks
    • choking people to unconsciousness cleanly
  • Ignoring the environment — rocky terrain is hard on ankles
  • Not showing the physical drain (energy and injuries) on the body
    • If they’ve got torso or head wounds, they’re gonna need an ER or something
    • But with realistic pacing — gut wounds take a minute
  • Ignoring physics

Iconic Fight Scenes

  • Inigo versus Westley in The Princess Bride
  • The last fight in Dune written by Frank Herbert
  • Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
  • The Moon Knight
  • The hallway fight in Daredevil
  • The stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde

Now, I’ve shared notes on fight scenes before, but is there anything major you think the panelists missed?

3 Comments

  1. Have you predetermined how a fight turns out?
    One thing I would recommend is to use D&D melee round rules. Initiative, whether the character hits, whether the other has defenses, just how bad is the hit?

    Note, for those who don’t know, that D&D was, originally, the wargame “Chainmail”, with magic and monsters added. Wargames have been taught for over 200 years in every military college in the world, to teach officers to be how to run a battle. An immense amount of thought has been put into their development… and you can use it.

    My late wife and I were working on a scene where a group is ambushed in a dark street. People got hurt, badly, who we didn’t expect to be touched. Others worked better than we expected, all on rolls of the dice. The readers of the scene said it was the best they’d read.

    Chance is 100% guaranteed to take control of a fight – use it. The ancient military aphorism of “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is true down to street fights and ambushes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know it works for a lot of people, but I’ve found I can see it sometimes in the writing — to the story’s detriment. Everything ends up being very round-robin and turn based, with the focus being on the stage directions and not on the character’s emotional state or viscereal reactions. So, definitely, it can be a tool to randomize a fight and make it less predictable, but make sure you’re still focused on the characters, and not just the fight actions.

      Like

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