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22.10.2011 13:55    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Scenes      Tags: how to  write  fight scene  randy ingermanson  

In the last two months, we've talked about how to write fight scenes. I showed you the world's worst fight scene (written by me, doing my utmost to be wretched). And I showed you a scene from Michael Crichton's novel TIMELINE and pointed out where it worked and where it could have worked better.

I'll remind you that there are rules for fight scenes, laid down by me in my role as Supreme Dictator For Life.

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 now look at a fight scene by a master of the craft, Irwin Shaw, in his novel RICH MAN, POOR MAN.

It's 1945, and our protagonist, Tommy Jordache is a 15-year-old baby-faced street fighter punk. He and his friend Claude have spent their evening in a movie theater baiting a burly soldier and his girlfriend. Now, outside the theater, Tommy lures the larger man into a fight by ripping his coat. We pick up the action there:


"Nobody gets away with tearing my coat," the soldier said. "I don't care who he is." He swung with his open hand. Tom moved in and let the blow fall on his left shoulder. "Ow!" he screamed, putting his right hand to his shoulder and bending over as if he were in terrible pain.

Randy sez: Notice how Shaw modulates the pace with his choice of verbs. The fast parts of this paragraph are shown with simple past tense verbs -- "swung" and "moved" and "screamed". Then Shaw slows down the action by using those continuing action verbs "putting" and "bending". This gives the paragraph the feeling of happening in real time. Let's look at the next part of the sequence:

"Did you see that?" Claude demanded of the spectators. "Did you see that man hit my friend?"

"Listen, soldier," a gray-haired man in a raincoat said, "you can't beat up a little kid like that."

"I just gave him a little slap," the soldier turned to the man apologetically. "He's been dogging me all..."

Suddenly Tom straightened up and hitting upward, with his closed fist, struck the soldier, not too hard, so as not to discourage him, along the side of the jaw.

Randy sez: The first three paragraphs happen in real time, a nice sequence of actions by Claude, the spectator in the raincoat, and the soldier. The fourth paragraph downshifts into super slow motion. It takes 29 words to describe one punch to the jaw. Shaw is breaking the rules here. What's his game?

Shaw's game is to give us a surreal little moment before the storm. It's the pause of the roller-coaster at the top of the tracks, just before the crazy descent. It's like the slow-motion clips in the old Kung Fu TV series. That's his game.

And it works. Because up till now, we weren't sure how well Tommy can fight. Now we see that he's a dangerous little snake. Tommy is in that mystical zone, where he sees the other guy moving like a glacier, where defeat is unthinkable. Let's watch the fight pick up to normal speed again:

There was no holding the soldier back now. "Okay, kid, you asked for it. " He began to move in on Tom.

Tom retreated and the crowd pushed back behind him.

"Give them room," Claude called professionally. "Give the men room."

"Sidney, the girl called shrilly, "you'll kill him."

"Nah," the soldier said, "I'll just slap him around a little. Teach him a lesson."

Randy sez: The pace has come back to normal speed by bringing in some dialogue. It's a fairly brisk pace even so. We've got short paragraphs, verbs in simple past tense. A couple of adverbs have weaseled their way in. Now watch as Shaw accelerates the pace up to lightspeed and then back down to normal again:

Tom snaked in and hit the soldier with a short left hook to the head and went in deep to the belly with his right. The soldier let the air out of his lungs with a large, dry sound, as Tom danced back.

Randy sez: Notice the action-reaction here, with everything in sequence. Tom hits twice, then the soldier reacts, then Tom dances back. It happens almost in a blink, and then the pace slows again while the two fighters size each other up. Shaw works in a couple of beats from the anonymous onlookers:

"It's disgusting," a woman said. "A big oaf like that. Somebody ought to stop it."

"It's all right," her husband said. "He said he'd only slap him a couple of times."

Randy sez: A little irony here. The bystanders haven't figured out what we already know -- that Tom is completely in control of this fight. Now the action picks up again, but it's still in strict sequence, with the soldier swinging, then Tom, then the soldier reacting, then Tom hitting again, and then the action slows.

The soldier swung a slow, heavy right hand at Tom. Tom ducked under it and dug both his fists into thesoldier's soft middle. The soldier bent almost double in pain and Tom hooked both hands to the face. The soldier began to spurt blood and he waved his hands feebly in front of him and tried to clinch. Contemptuously, Tom let the soldier grapple him, but kept his right hand free and clubbed at the soldier's kidneys. The soldier slowly went down to one knee. He looked up blearily at Tom through the blood that was flowing from his cut forehead. The crowd was silent. Tom stepped back. He wasn't even breathing hard. There was a little glow under the light, blond fuzz on his cheeks.

Randy sez: Shaw has controlled the pace of this scene throughout, speeding up the action and then slowing it down exactly the way a real fight would happen. And you can see it all.

If you like fight scenes, this was a beauty. But it's not just mindless action. This scene gets us inside the skin of Tom and shows us his character. He's a vicious, animalistic punk, he's got fighting in his blood. And we LIKE him. More correctly, we identify with him. Even if we've never thrown a punch ourselves, we feel like we've just beaten up a bigger guy. You have to like Tommy, even if you don't like what he does.

Shaw has followed the rules, mostly, and violated them where it made sense -- to achieve an effect. Clever guy, Irwin Shaw.

 

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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