So What Makes A Good Fight Scene?
All good drama hinges on conflict, and nothing fires up a conflict like a bloody brawl. We normally associate violence with mysteries or thrillers, but even an arch literary drama may play out its conflict with a fight scene in the climax. No matter what genre you're reading, your heart should quicken when a fight breaks out in the pages.
As a connoisseur of thriller fiction as well as a writer of the same, I've long been fascinated by the art of turning a fight into words. Some authors excel at it, while others produce limp scenes that accomplish nothing. When I started writing the Mara Cunningham series, I figured that my experience as a student of the martial arts would help me in depicting fights on the page. But it's not easy! There are guidelines to follow and detours that you want to avoid.
I've come up with what I think are three commonsense guidelines for making good, thrilling fight scenes, regardless of the genre you read or write. I lay them out below.
Up The Tension
This might go without saying, but a good fight scene must be tense. Tension is a function of uncertain outcomes and high stakes. One might think this would be easy enough to accomplish in a fight scene, but many authors weigh their stories down with plodding brawls that leave the reader bored.
First, consider the stakes of the fight. Putting the hero's life or liberty in danger is a typical practice: a silent assassin, a kidnapper with a coil of rope. Yet not all fights have to be so dire. The Three Musketeers features a duel early on where d'Artagnan fights, not for his life, but to impress his new friends in the musketeers. Since d'Artagnan has dreamed of being a musketeer his whole life, letting his friends down would mean abandoning his quest. It's a light subject for a fight - in other stories it might seem trivial - but in the swashbuckling histories of Dumas it gets our pulses racing.
Second, what makes the fight uncertain? An author who's too much in love with his protagonist may love showing him off as an untouchable force of nature. But if every fight is a fait accompli, why even write them into the story? The hero may be destined to triumph over outrageous odds - the teenage girl vs. the hulking serial killer, the Special Forces commando vs. the alley full of armed thugs - but that destiny shouldn't be obvious to the reader. The reader should see only the things that make the fight uncertain: the size and strength of the opponents, the fear of future reprisals, the viciousness of their weapons. Then, when they win, it makes their triumph all the more satisfying.
Strike The Right Tone
While a fight scene might plausibly appear in any genre, the tone of a fight will differ widely from one style to the next. The fight that caps off David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a tense struggle between two feuding family members. It's rich with drama, but would feel out of place in one of Lee Child's thriller novels - too slow, too focused on relationships rather than action.
A good fight scene must blend in with the tone of the novel you find it in. In a romance novel with swashbuckling rogues, one would expect fight scenes to be light, energetic, and acrobatic, with the hero's ardor for his love mattering more than his martial precision. In a grimmer work of medieval fantasy - such as George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series - martial precision matters most of all. The merits and flaws of each weapon and fighting style must be taken into account.
Feed the Readers, Don't Suffocate Them
To place the characters in danger, as mentioned above, requires a vivid description of the forces arrayed against them. We need to tremble when the psychopath stalks the housewife through her home, even though we know she survives in the end. We need that thrill of uncertainty in our gut when our ex-Special Forces hero faces off against the villain, even if the hero knows a hundred different martial arts techniques to kill a person barehanded. As readers, we get this when the author uses concrete sensory details to instill in us a sense of uncertainty.
Readers need detail; however, they don't need overwhelming detail. Knowing that a blow cracked the heroine’s third floating rib doesn’t enhance a fight scene: a bolt of pain shooting up her side is enough. There may be time to discuss the technical merits of a Colt 1911 vs. an AMT Hardballer, but not in the midst of a scene where one is being used. Anything that drags the reader out of the visceral sense of conflict and forces them to think like a student being lectured defeats the purpose of a fight scene.
Touch Gloves and Come Out Swinging
Of course, fight scenes have been with us since The Iliad. I've always loved fight scenes that follow the rules laid out above, and I try my best to make the fight scenes I write follow the same rules. But I know I'm not the only thriller writer on the block. Others have been at this for longer, and entertained thousands more readers, than I have.
Do the fight scenes in your favorite novels follow these rules? Are there any key guidelines that I missed? Please let me know in the comments!
When he's not working at his day job, teaching jiu-jitsu, or blogging about pop culture, John Perich can be found writing gritty crime thrillers set in New England. Learn more about him and his work on his website, PeriscopeDepth.com.