WRITING A FIGHT SCENE
Guest Post by Steve Goble,
author of 'Pieces of Eight'
Every crime writer eventually will need to craft a fight scene. Even if you write cozy mysteries with little action, you still may need to deliver a scuffle, or a chase, or perhaps a rush to escape a menacing suspect. Fight scenes happen.
I write historical mysteries featuring a pirate named Spider John, plus a new hard-boiled detective series, so I write a lot of fight scenes. Here are some nuts-and-bolts tips for writers who might find such scenes intimidating.
NO SPEECHES: Once fists are flying or baseball bats are swinging, the time for dialogue is over. Full sentences, accusations, questions and answers can come later. If you are throwing punches or ducking a sword, you simply don’t have time or breath to explain why you were caught ransacking a desk or how the attacker has mistaken them for someone else. In a fight, the most a person is likely to express is a grunt or two, or maybe a word like “stop” or “wait” or a, um, colorful action verb. Focus on survival, not speeches.
MOST FIGHTS ARE BRIEF: Unless the battle involves trained combatants accustomed to taking a punch, a struggle between a couple of people ought to be over fairly quickly. A solid punch to the jaw will drive any thoughts out of most people’s heads and give the attacker a chance to finish things up. Boxer Mike Tyson explained it well: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
If weapons are involved — bats, swords, bullets, hammers, whatever — the first good blow is probably going to end the fight. A boxer, soldier or cop who has experienced violence and is mentally prepared for the pain and damage will do better, of course, but even then, no one takes multiple serious wounds and keeps on fighting. So don’t go on for pages.
ANTICIPATION: Some fights come out of nowhere, and catch your characters by surprise. But if the characters can reasonably expect to see violence, use that to build suspense. How do they prepare? What are their fears? Have they been in a fight before, or is this all new to them? Draw things out, draw the reader in. Now is the time for vivid scene-setting, engaging dialogue, deep introspection. Have your character anticipate what is to come (and then, of course, hit them with something else).
FIGHTS ARE CHAOTIC: A knock on the head can mess up your vision, and you may not see the boot aimed at your stomach. Combatants who are rolling around on the floor may not notice the arrival of cops. A detective fighting for his life will not suddenly notice the date circled on a wall calendar and thus solve the mystery. During the fight, focus on the fight. Clarity and vivid description can come later.
USE THE ENVIRONMENT: Improvised weapons are great. Is the fight in an alley? Drive someone’s head into a brick building. In a bar? Swing a bottle or fling some beer. In a bedroom? Throw a blanket. You know what they say about desperate times and desperate measures.
The environment can create obstacles, as well. Your hero might rush his opponent only to be foiled by ice, mud, Legos, a cat or anything else that creates uncertain footing. Sidestepping a blow can be difficult if you are standing next to a table or fighting in a hallway.
BE A CHOREOGRAPHER: It is extremely helpful to draw a rough map of the room or terrain where the combat will take place, and then play out the scene on paper. I use miniature figures designed for Dungeons & Dragons to choreograph fights. It is a great way to assure you don’t have your hero move to his right after you’ve told readers there was a chair in that spot.
This technique will help you see opportunities, too. “Hey, that last move put the bad guy near the fireplace. Maybe my heroine can shove him in ...”
I highly recommend this practice if you are writing about multiple combatants. Once upon a time, I simply lost track of how many villains my beleaguered hero was fighting. I felt the chapter was confusing so I grabbed some gaming miniatures and choreographed it — and that’s when I realized my hero Thord was bent over and catching his breath, totally unaware that the sloppy author had left one attacker unscathed. I’ve mapped out fight scenes ever since.
THE NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING: This next bit comes long before you start writing a fight scene. The most important elements in any fight scene are these: Who is fighting, and what are the stakes?
If you’ve created characters your readers will love and cheer on, if you’ve given those characters goals worth fighting for, well, you can be forgiven for a bit of dialogue uttered by a man who ought to be quite winded, or for missing an opportunity to have someone grab a rotary saw blade and turn it into a flying Frisbee of death. If your characters are flat or the situation they face just isn’t compelling, the best fight scenes won’t save your book.
If you are a writer you know these things already, of course. My point is this: Don’t be intimidated by fight scenes. If you create beloved characters and tell a compelling story, you’ve taken care of the hard part already. Go forth, and knock ‘em dead.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steve Goble is the author of The Bloody Black Flag, the first Spider John mystery novel. A digital producer for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the USA Today Network in Ohio, Goble edits news copy and helps manage website and print production, along with social media presence, for ten USA Today Network sites in Ohio. Previously, he wrote a weekly craft beer column called "Brewologist," which appeared on the USA Today Network websites.