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22.10.2011 13:38    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Scenes      Tags: how to  write  fight scene  randy ingermanson  

I rarely interfere with the writing styles of my friends if they're published authors. I don't want to mess them up. The one exception is when their fight scenes stink. That's when I step in and do a little coaching.

There is nothing in the world easier than to write a well-paced and exciting fight scene. There is nothing in the world easier than to screw up a fight scene.

You may argue that those two things can't both be the easiest thing in the world. Sigh. Don't bother me with logic here. Just step outside and we'll settle this argument like Real Men.

It may be that you'll never need to write a fight scene. If so, keep driving by -- there's nothing to look at here.

But if you think you might ever need to have your characters duke it out, then pay attention. Fight scenes are really easy, if you know the rules.

Here are the Official Fight Scene Rules:

a) Show, don't tell
b) Make it happen in real-time
c) Enforce causality
d) Show sequence, not simultaneity
e) Favor completed verbs over continuing action verbs
f) Show the fastest stuff first
g) For every action, show a reaction
h) Use interior monologue and dialogue to set the pace

I could explain all these in boring detail, but that would be Telling you. Right now, I want to Show you. So here's a Wretched Fight Scene that violates all the rules. Read it first, weep some, and then pull yourself together so we can analyze it.

After taking six or eight or maybe even ten punches and kicks to all parts of his body -- such as the solar plexus and shins and head -- Arnie was hurting quite badly, although perhaps not as badly as when Mrs. Weevil gave him a D in spelling in third grade when he KNEW "potato" had no "e" in it.

In any event, Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting that Bruce was an ambidextrous excuse for a moron, just after he saw Bruce throwing another punch at him. But none of this worked, because before he could do any of that, Bruce jumped high in the air and kicked Arnie in the eye, so none of the stuff Arnie tried actually worked because he was lying there on the ground wondering if he was ever going to see Cindy Lou Who again, who had grown up to be quite cute, even if she was a dumb mutt in seventh grade, and also he was screaming in agony.

"Want some more, you little lout?" Bruce said as he kicked Arnie in the kidneys about fifteen times and then grabbed his head and pounded it on the ground. All this time, Arnie was jabbing Bruce in places like the groin and stomach, but it didn't do any good until the end when Bruce fell over in a faint, just after Arnie cried "Uncle!"

Oh, Lordy, Lordy! Where to start on this horrible thing?

a) Let's begin with the first rule, "Show, don't tell." This is violated almost continuously. Look at the first sentence:

"After taking six or eight or maybe even ten punches and kicks to all parts of his body -- such as the solar plexus and shins and head..."

The reason this is "telling" is because those punches are all lumped together into one big glop, making it impossible to say with any certainty how many punches there actually were. Nor are we sure exactly which body parts are getting all the punishment, although we get a list of a few parts that might be getting whacked. Or might not -- who knows?

And furthermore, what's Arnie doing while he's taking all those punches? Don't tell me he's just patiently accepting them? Does he throw a counterpunch? Beg for mercy? Phone E.T.? We can't see this scene. We can't see Arnie. We're just being told about it.

The rest of the scene has numerous similar examples of telling, but let's look at some of the other rules violations.

b) The next rule is "Make it happen in real-time." When a fight is happening in real-time, you see one punch and then RIGHT AWAY, you see the response and then RIGHT AWAY you see the next punch. In real-time, when the action is falling fast and furious, you don't have time for musing like this:

"Arnie was hurting quite badly, although perhaps not as badly as when Mrs. Weevil gave him a D in spelling in third grade when he KNEW 'potato' had no 'e' in it."

If you don't believe me, I'll send Bruce over to discuss the matter with you, and we'll just see how much time you have for thinking about dear Mrs. Weevil.

c) Let's move on to the next rule, "Enforce causality." When I talk about causality, I mean that a cause should be shown first, and then the effect AFTERWARDS. If you show the effect and then the cause, it looks absurd. As in this paragraph:

"In any event, Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting that Bruce was an ambidextrous excuse for a moron, just after he saw Bruce throwing another punch at him."

So let's untangle this. What happened first? Arnie saw Bruce throwing another punch at him. But that's shown LAST in this sentence. The effect is shown FIRST, and it's a long sequence of events that I've drawn out ludicrously: Arnie ducks his head. Arnie spins to the right. Arnie kicks. Arnie shouts. Only after we see all that do we see the cause for it all.

d) The next rule tells us to "Show sequence, not simultaneity". What I mean is that it rarely makes sense to try to make two different actions simultaneous in a fight scene.

Why? Because a fight scene is chock full of all different sorts of actions, each of which takes a different amount of time. If one action takes a tenth of a second and another takes two seconds, the action will feel distorted if the author asserts that they happen simultaneously.

In our example, we've got this gem:

"Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting that Bruce was an ambidextrous excuse for a moron"

You can spin to the right pretty quick. You can kick pretty quick. But how long does it take to shout that bit about the ambidextrous excuse for a moron? (And what would that mean, anyway?) All this action CAN'T happen simultaneously. So it's a heinous crime to say that it does.

e) On to the next rule: "Favor completed verbs over continuing action verbs." In other words, use simple past tense verbs such as "kicked" or "punched" or "shouted" rather than those pesky participles such as "kicking" or "punching" or "shouting".

The reason for this is simple. When you say "Arnie kicked Bruce," you imply that it happened quickly and it's now over. Which is what the camera would show. When you say "Arnie was kicking Bruce," you imply that it's going on and on and on. But a kick happens in a few tenths of a second, so your mind has no option except to see the kick happening over and over and over again. Or happening in super Slo-Mo. Either way, it's not much like a fight any more.

In this paragraph, we've got the worst of all possible worlds, because we're mixing completed verbs with continuing action verbs:

"Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting"

Such horrible writing is enough to make grown men cry.

f) On to the next rule violation: "Show the fastest stuff first." What that means is that when you sequence a group of events that are happening at roughly the same time, show those that happen fastest before you show those that happen slowest. Look at this segment:

"none of the stuff Arnie tried actually worked because he was lying there on the ground wondering if he was ever going to see Cindy Lou Who again, who had grown up to be quite cute, even if she was a dumb mutt in seventh grade, and also he was screaming in agony."

Obviously there are multiple problems here, but note this: we show Arnie ruminating about Cindy Lou Who (which could take a couple seconds, given what a slow wit Arnie is) and THEN we see him screaming in agony (which he should be doing pretty fast, with all the kicks he's getting.) If you're going to show these, it's better to show him screaming first and THEN show him ruminating.

g) The next rule is extremely important: "For every action, show a reaction." This means that if Bruce punches 6 times and Arnie jabs back 6 times, then you need to shuffle them together, rather than lumping all the punches together and then all the jabs. Look at the text:

"Want some more, you little lout?" Bruce said as he kicked Arnie in the kidneys about fifteen times and then grabbed his head and pounded it on the ground. All this time, Arnie was jabbing Bruce in places like the groin and stomach

So Bruce is performing a whole bunch of actions all lumped together, and only then do we see any of the reactions from Arnie, which are also all lumped together. The net effect is to smooth out the fight sequence into a bland oatmeal of muffled actions. You can't see a scene like this in your head. Oh, sure, you see SOMETHING. But it's nothing like what the author intended.

h) The final rule is: "Use interior monologue and dialogue to set the pace." Pace is important in a fight scene. It's utterly unrealistic to show a nonstop flurry of actions and reactions.

Real fighters will exchange a series of punches or kicks or whatever. Then they'll back off and look each other over, catching their breath and watching for weaknesses. A real fight has ebbs and flows in the pacing. You show the faster parts of the scene by short sentences that show ONLY the actions and reactions. You show the slower parts of the scene by longer sentences that show actions and reactions INTERSPERSED with interior monologue and dialogue.

Your goal in a fight scene is to make it take just about as long to read as it would take to happen in real time. You do that by controlling the pacing.

In the fight scene shown, we have blocks of both interior monologue and dialogue tossed in at the very height of the action.

The example I've given does not even deserve an F. It's too horrible to merit a grade at all. It's also too horrible to even try rewriting. The most merciful thing we can do is forget it ever happened. (Go ahead, forget all about Arnie and Bruce right now.)

Next month, we'll study a good fight scene from a real novel and see how the author used the rules to control the scene.

 

How To Write a Fight Scene -- Part 1

How To Write a Fight Scene -- Part 2

How To Write a Fight Scene -- Part 3

 

 


About The Author

 

Randy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist and the award-winning author of six novels. He has taught at numerous writing conferences over the years and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the largest electronic magazine in the world on the craft of writing fiction, with over 11000 readers.

 

Randy is best known for his "Snowflake Method" of designing a novel. The "Snowflake" page on his web site has been viewed more than 514,000 times over the years.

 

Randy believes that prepublished novelists fall into four distinct stages, Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. Each of these stages has its own unique needs. Have you been a Freshman longer than you think you should? Or are you stuck in a Sophomore slump? If you'd like to move up to that pesky "next level," check out Randy's acclaimed lecture series, Fiction 101 and Fiction 201. Don't settle for where you are! Take action today.


 
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