Writing a Fight or Action Scene
Some of these ideas can be used to write other scenes, especially romantic action scenes but without the fighting unless you are into that, no judgement here. Like sex scenes, fight scenes are often added to a story to make it more interesting but if you do not engage the reader prior to the scene or make the scene a pivotal plot point either as an emotional arc or an informational plot device, you will leave the reader uninterested and too often they will skip over your finely crafted scene because it doesn’t do anything. The best scenes do both, advance the emotional arc of the story and divulge information, possibly backstory that explains current problems or obstacles. Don’t forget pacing.
For this class, I want to focus on fight scenes. Now I’m not a fighter, unless you count arguing with teenagers or trying to get a toddler to go to bed, and if you don’t think those are epic battles then you have never tried it. When most people think of fight scenes, they usually think of a major military battle or at the very least a bar fight, but truthfully, a fight scene can be anything in which you have two opposing forces. Man battling to survive a hurricane. Mother arguing with a teenager about smoking. Young parent trying to coax a toddler to bed. Two rival schools preparing for the big match (choose your sport). Armies facing each other across a battlefield. A pair of gun fighters face to face on a dusty street. No matter your venue, somethings remain the same. Emotions, stakes, the heat of battle and the aftermath.
Before you start your scene, there are some things you might want to research. Are you a soldier? If not, weapons and special tactics are things you may want to look up and study prior to your battle. Is it not that kind of fight? Okay, what kind of fight are we having? A barroom brawl will differ greatly from a regimented military action, at least at first. So, these are the questions you should ask before you write your scene.
- Who is fighting whom?
- Why are they fighting?
- Who has the most to lose?
- What is at stake?
- Who is your main fighter/POV character?
- What are they feeling?
- Is this their first fight or are they a seasoned warrior?
- Weapon of choice?
- Moves, choreography of the battle.
- Win or lose how does this affect your character?
As a panster I didn’t write all of these down, but I did my research as I was writing. In Titanium Blue I had to learn about IEDs (improvised explosive device or homemade bombs). In Red Steel I learned about drones and firefighting and blowing all kinds of stuff up, that was fun. It’s great having sons who can help with these things. The more involved I get in my series, I’ve realized the importance of making plans ahead of time.
Another thing to think about is what is happening just prior to the fight. Even if you don’t write that scene, you as the author should know what the characters are doing just before going into battle. Writing that scene might be what makes the reader care about the characters before the big battle.
In the case of the young parent maybe it’s the father taking care of his son while his wife gets ready for date night. By the time he gets the child down to nap, he’ll be too tired to go out. That might start another fight.
Maybe a couple are out to dinner and are mugged on their way home. The woman has been taking self-defense classes. Maybe you mention the classes at dinner. “Wow, those exercise classes are really paying off, you look great,” he smiles at her over his wine glass. “They’re self-defense classes, and I feel great.” She grins at the spark that lights his eyes at her admission. “I bet you have some scary moves.” She winked and sipped her wine.
By setting things up ahead of time you allow the reader to believe the girl can whip two big guys and make it home safely. Think about your favorite books, movies or television shows, what happens before everything goes sideways?
- What kind of fight/battle?
A barroom brawl, a military battle, a gunfight at the OK Corral. All of these will be different. What about the ancient Greeks versus Star Wars? What is different? What is the same? Whether you are using light sabers or clubs, a battle will be loud, dirty, intense and emotional.
- What kind of weapons?
Are you riding into battle on a Sherman tank or are you a dragon-shifter and you are the weapon? Are you shooting a Colt single action or a Barretta 9 mm. Knowing your weapons doesn’t mean you have to describe everything it can do. Don’t let your research show, read this article by Ava Cuvay “Ack! Tuck In My Research!” https://ffprwa.com/ack-tuck-in-my-research-by-anna-cuvay/?fbclid=IwAR3rkHE41qgEe50NKxigsnGg4DDcpvnEsK0_g8bfSpeOcJ-wT7D-TxKxYRY
- Who is fighting?
Not just is this the Greeks against the Turks or the Jedi Rebellion against the Empire, or some random mom at the food court struggling with her two-year old, but is this the hero/heroine fighting for their lives or for those they care about versus an abstract battle from history or the future? What is at stake? Why does this fight matter, not to the world but to the characters in your story? The Civil War told in history books has little meaning until you put a face to it. When you see a young slave woman, spying, risking her life for her freedom or brothers fighting against each other on opposite sides of the battlefield. Make us, your readers, care. Let us have skin in this game, even if it is just sympathy for the hero/heroine.
Use what is familiar to all to convey what might be unfamiliar.
- Where? What is the weather, the terrain or setting like?
Everything has an affect on what the POV character can see and know. If he is miles from the battle and he is rushing to the frontline because his lover is fighting each mile will seem like hundreds. Time will slow down. He will be anxious. If he is on horseback versus being in a starship, what he sees and hears as he nears the battle will be different.
If he is driving over mountains or across the dessert, steam-powering across the ocean or soaring across galaxies, each terrain will offer their own obstacles or advantages. Plot your scene as if it were a movie happening in your head.
If you are building your world from scratch, design a map. If it’s a real place use Google maps, even if you’ve been there, just to keep it accurate.
- From whose point of view do we see the battle?
If you are the hero rushing to the rescue your view of the battle will be different than the lover who is in the midst of the fray. Think realistically of your POV character’s limitations. You may want to give more than one view of the battle.
Perhaps you are neither character but an observer or maybe you are the antagonist. We often think of the antagonist as the villain in the story, but most villains see themselves as the hero, unless they are just bad for the sake of being bad. (But even cartoon characters have a backstory.)
In the battle of the OK Corral, The Earps versus the Cowboys. History has made the Earps the heroes in the story, but the truth is a little more complicated. The Earps were probably just as bad as the Cowboys, but they had badges. Many have described them as bullies. Some of the Clanton and McLaury ancestors (the Cowboys) claim they weren’t outlaws like history portrays them, just poor cowboys who got on the bad side of a group of bullies with connections.
So, depending on who is telling the story, from where, and what they have at stake, these can intensify your scene and make the reader feel what your character is feeling. You might try writing the scene from different POVs to see which one you like best. Even in the young parent with the toddler, who has the most at stake? The exhausted parent who wants a break or the kid who doesn’t want to miss anything, maybe is afraid of the dark?
Write a battle scene from a character’s POV who is far from the action.
Write the same scene from the middle of the action.
Try writing a variety of ideas: a sporting competition, an epic battle or a two-person fight. Feel what is the same and what’s different about each type of fight.
Remember you are limited by what your character can experience from where they are. The farther away from the action, the time seems longer but more intense (maybe, depending on your emotion). They could be viewing the action from a monitor. What are they feeling? How are they reacting? Are they a new recruit excited to go to battle, too green to realize they should be afraid? Are they a commander strategizing up to the last moment of arrival?
What is the difference when they are in the middle of the action? Does the green recruit cut and run? Does the commander go in guns blazing? Use your senses, set the scene. Let us smell the gunpowder, hear the roar of the lions, feel the slice of the saber. Okay, maybe not quiet that much but you get the idea. Make me care.
Note1: Know your terrain whether you are in a fancy ballroom or on a battlefield, know the location of your main characters, chart their movements. Know what is where. If there is a window or door, a tank, a fire breathing dragon, where is it. Even if you do not describe it in the story, it may be relevant to how the person is able to see in the dark (because the streetlight shines through the window) or he has to go around a building which offers shelter but also obscures his view of his partner. You get the idea?
Note2: If I have a difficult scene whether it’s a fight scene or not, I’ll sketch out a rough picture of the setting and move my characters like pieces on a board game. Remember you don’t have to give us a play by play, but we need to get a feel of movement.