Monday, 31 January 2011

Better Fight Scenes

If there's one thing that I am qualified to talk about (well, actually, that would be the history, but if there are two) it's fight scenes. From fencing (8th place, since you ask, in a slightly stronger field than last year) to formal training in an assortment of martial arts that has included various forms of karate and kung fu, jujitsu, aikido and Historical European Martial Arts Systems, not to mention all the bits and pieces I have picked up from friends, I have a bit of experience with this stuff. Here then, are some tips for better fight scenes that have almost nothing to do with what I have learned.

  1. The way a character fights should reflect that character's physique and personality. That three hundred pound ex-linebacker is not going to be using many aikido moves. Big people should fight in big ways. Little people should be subtle, or sneaky, or downright vicious. That ex special forces guy of yours will not fight fair, but that ex-boxer might.
  2. It's not a question of martial arts. Although many people do martial arts these days, if you say that your character did martial arts' technique X (or indeed X guard. I've flicked through a specialised BJJ tome on this one and I still don't get it) then you are assuming that your audience has the same knowledge base you do.
  3. The philosopher David Hume once argued (broadly) that if a cause is sufficient to produce an effect, then it will probably do so immediately. Aside from the flaws in this, and the fact that I have mangled the argument a bit, it applies to fight scenes too. If your character has the capacity to win, then why is it taking them a thousand words to do it? What changes?
  4. The last minute save can be overdone. Have you ever had someone else shoot someone who is about to kill your main character? If so, you have just repeated one of the oldest cliches going. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does tend to undercut the feeling of the struggle being in any way real, or of the potential for anything bad to happen.
  5. Pay attention to how things start and end. People have this clear cut idea of fights starting with everyone knowing what is going on and ending with someone incapacitated. In practice, many start with a conversation, and end with running away, vague embarrassment all round, or lots of other people breaking it up. Even Roman gladiators didn't fight to the death as much as people seem to think they did, while the European duel in the last few hundred years was primarily only to first blood.
  6. It is an interaction between two or more people, but that doesn't mean you spend half of it on dialogue. You'd be amazed at how little in the way of witty banter I manage when someone is throwing themselves through the air with a sabre aimed at me. Let the physical interaction do the work for you.
  7. Don't do it for the sake of it. There's a thing in thrillers, urban fantasy and so forth where you can end up feeling 'oh, I've had a lot of dialogue, it's time for someone to hit someone'. I'm as guilty of it as anyone, and obviously good structure demands a reasonable balance of different scene types, yet every fight scene should have a purpose beyond exciting the reader.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Ooooo, thank you, Stu. This is a fantastic list and it will become a checklist, of sorts, when my characters must face-off.

Donna said...

Thanks! That's really helpful. I will take another look at my battles.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

The MC in my medieval fantasy romance is a sword weilding princess. I don't have a lot of fight scenes, but I have one short main one. I researched as much as I could but I'm not that confident in it. Then again, I'm not sure how many women would really know the difference. My lack of knowledge is what's keeping me from writing more scenes.

stu said...

I'm glad it was of some help. Wendy, if you have a particularly urgent desire to know your way around medieval sword techniques, try the works of either the German sword master Talhoffer, or the Italian Fiore dei Liberi (both have lots of fun pictures). The HEMAS' Schola Gladiatoria mob tend to be a good place to get ideas.

For a quick concept for more authentic medieval swordplay, remember that there are very few separate parries in it, but rather lots of counter cuts and angulation, where you try to judge the angle of your blow so that it both stops the opponent's stroke and hits them.

There is also a lot of grappling, and even blade grabbing things, since people tended to wear gauntlets, and in any case, medieval edges weren't exactly razor sharp. They were often more about battering through, or simply about the thrust. I've done medieval dagger work where you grab the blade for the disarm.

Tessa Conte said...

Great advice! Say, have you read my No Fear Blogfest post? (it's a fight scene) ; P