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22.10.2011 13:48    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Scenes      Tags: how to  write  fight scene  randy ingermanson  

Last month we talked about fight scenes and I showed the most wretched fight scene ever typed. (I wrote it myself, and it stinks like skunk stew).

This month, we'll look at a better fight scene from a novel and analyze its strengths and weaknesses.

To do that, we need some way to measure good and bad in a fight scene. I'll remind you of the Official Fight Scene Rules that I gave last month. Actually, these are my rules, but I have no doubt that all right-thinking people agree with me.

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

Let's take an example fight scene from a real novel. We'll look at Timeline, by Michael Crichton. This scene is on page 235 of the hardcover edition of the book. I'll do a running commentary on it as we go, explaining where Crichton follows the rules effectively and where he violates them effectively. Yes, he breaks the rules, but it's for a reason.

First, a little background. Our protagonist, Marek, has time-traveled back to 14th century France with some friends. He and a friend Chris have been finagled into a joust. Chris is a terrible fighter and has been unhorsed and is lying on the ground in a stupor. His opponent, the 14th century knight Sir Guy Malegant, is about to kill him, but fortunately Marek has dispatched his own opponent and has come to rescue Chris. Marek and Guy are now fighting with swords:

Marek swung his sword desperately. Behind Sir Guy, he saw Chris begin to move. Marek would have shouted to him to stay where he was, but he had no breath to speak.

Marek swung again, and again.

Randy sez: There's a problem here. Marek is swinging his sword again and again, but what's Sir Guy doing? We don't see any response. So this segment feels a little surreal. Is Marek making impact? Being parried? Missing like a fool? We don't know. Better to show Sir Guy's responses. Rule (g) is being violated here. Let's continue with the action.

Now Chris was pulling at his helmet, trying to get it off. Guy was still ten yards from Chris. Dancing backward, enjoying himself, parrying Marek's blows easily.

Marek knew he was almost at the limits of his strength now. His swings were increasingly weak. Guy was still strong, still smooth. Just backing and parrying. Waiting for his chance.

Randy sez: This is no longer in real time. Crichton has reverted to telling, rather than showing. He's violating rules (a), (b), (e), and (g). And that's a GOOD thing. Crichton's goal here is NOT to show us every thrust and parry. At this point, he wants Marek to back Sir Guy up so he'll trip over Chris. So Crichton NEEDS to "tell" here, rather than "show." This is one of those rare cases when a fight scene actually needs some "telling." Nothing is really going to happen until Sir Guy trips over Chris, so it's best just to summarize. Continuing on with the fight:

Five yards.

Chris had rolled over on his stomach, and he was now getting up. He was on all fours. Hanging his head. Then there was a loud retching sound.

Guy heard it, too, turned his head a little to look--

Randy sez: Crichton is wrapping up the "telling" part. He's maneuvered Sir Guy into position to trip over Chris, so with the final paragraph shown above, Crichton switches back into "showing" mode. The fight scene will now resume as real action again:

Marek charged, butted him in the breastplate with his head, and Guy staggered backward, fell over Chris and went down.

Malegant rolled quickly on the ground, but Marek was on him, stamping on Guy's right hand to pin the sword down, then swinging his other leg over to pin the opposite shoulder. Marek held his sword high, ready to plunge it down.

The crowd fell silent.

Guy did not move.

Slowly, Marek lowered his sword, cut the laces to Guy's helmet, and pushed it back with the tip of his blade. Guy's head was now exposed. Marek saw he was bleeding freely from his left ear.

Guy glared at him and spat.

Randy sez: Crichton has now given us a nice sequence of actions and reactions. It's well done, and has the rhythms of a real fight, with one exception which could have been done better. That paragraph with Malegant rolling on the ground has a slightly out of focus pace, because of those verbs "stamping" and "swinging" which slow things down. And Sir Guy just lies there like a lump of Gumby, doing nothing. Why isn't he fighting back?

You may think me an arrogant varmint for daring to rewrite Michael Crichton, but I'll take a stab at it. Yes, I'm arrogant. I've rewritten better writers than Mikey. Here's how I think it could have been done a bit better:

Malegant rolled quickly on the ground. Marek leapt forward, stamped on Guy's right hand to pin the sword down, and swung his other leg over to pin the opposite shoulder. Sir Guy arched his back and kicked uselessly. He spat at Marek. Marek raised his sword high, ready to plunge it down.

Randy sez: A little better, no? You be the judge. If I'm wrong, it won't be the first time. Ditto if I'm right. I think there are still problems here. Marek gets Guy immobile just a bit too easily. So I think this should be broken out into a longer sequence to make it more plausible. But enough is enough.

OK, let's wrap up here. This sequence comes at the end of a fairly long scene in which Crichton did a brilliant job of bringing jousting to life. It's a strong scene, and Crichton made a smart move in breaking the rules in order to get through a dull spot in the action and push Sir Guy into position to be tripped.

It's OK to break the rules, as long as there's a good reason. But you need to have a good reason.

If anyone doesn't agree with me, well . . . step outside and you can discuss the situation. With Marek. I'll sit there quietly throwing up on the ground.

Next month, we'll look at another fight scene, one of my favorites, from Irwin Shaw's book, RICH MAN, POOR MAN. See ya then!


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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