How to Write a (Good) Fight Scene

07/18/2018

Next time you're in the theater watching the latest superhero movie, wait until you reach the pivotal fight scene-the big show down. The one with the highest stakes. The fight that the whole movie has built up to-and then glance around at your fellow movie-goers. Chances are, they're all looking at their phones.

Why? Fight scenes are supposed to be the emotional high of a story-and superhero movies spend mega dollars making sure their fights scenes deliver on the action. So why are we bored?

Turns out, the fundamental reason we like to watch fight scenes, has absolutely nothing to do with the fight.

Human beings are tribal animals. We evolved to live and work in small groups. Intense conflict, like the situation surrounding a fight, brings major changes to people's lives. Within a small tribe, any social or hierarchical change will affect every member of the tribe-including you. We may live on a global scale now, but our brains still act as if we're in a tribe.

What interests us about fights isn't the fight-it's the result. Forget the body count and the gore and the blow by blow-that's all window dressing. A way to keep your reader in suspense. Once you understand the fundamentals, you can deliver your readers some truly epic fight scenes that they'll be talking about long after they put your book down.

There are three things a fight scene can give us information about:

(1) It can tell us something about the characters who are fighting.

(2) It can tell us something about the world we're watching.

(3) It can change the social hierarchy.

However, you can have a fight scene without any of these things. In many superhero movies, the writers don't want to weaken either of the two main characters, so there is no clear winner and no change to the social hierarchy. The first movie's fight scenes might be great because we're just learning about our character's abilities, and fight scenes show us that, but by the second and third movie we've already discovered all their superpowers so there is nothing new to learn. This also applies to the world our story is based in: In the original Matrix movie, each fight scene introduced new concepts and changing situations that informed the watcher about the world the story was based in or the abilities of the characters they were looking at. By the second and third, the moviegoers already had all this information, and the fight scenes fell flat despite being more costly to produce. We end up looking at something that looks like what we care about, but doesn't deliver on any of the things we actually care about.

Another thing that a good fight scene must do is fit into the plot of the story. Just like every other scene in your book, a fight scene must advance the plot in some way. A truly epic fight scene must also keep the reader in suspense about what is going to happen next-the biggest bomb or gun in the world means nothing if your hero is invincible. If the blows don't seem to do anything because your hero is too strong, then why should your readers care about the fight? Your readers must believe there is a very real threat to someone they care about. So, a good fight scene not only has to inform us, as in the first three points, but also contain the following elements:

(4) A sense of real threat and vulnerability.

(5) Changes.

(6) Victory and/or defeat.

(7) Advance the plot of the story in some way.

A truly great example of a fight scene which incorporates all these elements was in The Princess Bride-the epic swordfight scene. Next time you're watching it, pay attention to the actual blow-by-blows of the sword. Even the actors are going through the motions-no one had any sword fighting lessons-they weren't even trying. Yet, this is always a top pick for favorite scene within a favorite movie. Let's break down what this fight scene delivers:

(1) It can tell us something about the characters who are fighting.

We learn about both Westley and Inigo. When Inigo fulfills his promise to throw the rope down and let Westley reach the top of the cliff alive, we learn that honor is very important to Inigo, and that Westley is willing to take great risks to fulfill his goals. We learn about their preferred fighting styles, and about how much study their skills took to master.

(2) It can tell us something about the world we're watching.

There is no animosity between these two characters-the whole fight is treated as a business necessity. If anything, we get the feeling they enjoy each other's company-they converse politely, and learn about each other's backgrounds. But, we get the impression that they have both fought and killed many times throughout their lives with little emotional investment. This is the world they live in.

(3) It can change the social hierarchy.

Inigo was widely accepted as one of the greatest swordsmen in the world, but then he was defeated by Westley. There are many points in the fight scene where one character or the other could easily win-a sword is dropped or set down and the other is defenseless. Neither goes for the kill in these situations and, in fact, they politely wait for the other to retrieve their weapon (usually with a bit of flourish), because they are enjoying the simple pleasure of a worthy opponent. They're showing off to each other-posturing. Even more than a clear defeat based on a lucky moment could reestablish hierarchy, they want to figure out the pecking order based on skill and ability, and they do.

(4) A sense of real threat and vulnerability.

Both men are fully prepared to kill each other, and both have the ability to cause serious harm or death in this fight. The suspense of what will happen-the tension of the unknown, is palpable.

(5) Changes.

After an initial testing-each-other out stage, Inigo reveals that he is not left handed, switches hands, and immediately gains the upper hand in the fight. Sometime later, just as Inigo is about to defeat him, Westley reveals the same advantage, switches hands, and begins to defeat Inigo.

(6) Victory and/or defeat.

Westley is the clear victor. He chooses not to kill Inigo as a professional curtesy, but he could have, and Inigo knows it.

(7) Advance the plot of the story in some way.

This fight is the first of three confrontations Westley must have before he can get Buttercup away from her captors and hope to save her. From a classic storytelling structure viewpoint, this scene fits into the sixth step of The Hero's Journey "Trials, Allies, and Enemies" where the hero must face a series of challenges to achieve his goal. For more on The Hero's Journey, see my blog post here:

Now that you understand what is truly important in a fight scene, dust off that manuscript and take a look at your action sequences. See if you can match up the different elements to the requirements in this post, and think about how you can add necessary elements for a truly fanboy-worthy scene.

*Special thanks to StoryBrain's channel on YouTube, from whom I plagiarized most of this.