Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Writing the Action/Fight Scene

by Jill Williamson

Fight scenes are fun, but they’re not easy. By the time I was writing From Darkness Won, the third book in my fantasy trilogy, I was skipping over all the fight scenes, saving them to write later. There were just SO MANY in my trilogy, and I was tired of trying to come up with fresh ways to have a sword fight!

But I do have some tips for how to write these. And I hope that you’ll find something helpful in what I have to share. Today, I've given some insight into what you need to know to write these types of scenes. And since no one gets it perfect on the first try, on Friday, I’m going to talk about how to edit action scenes.

When you’re writing that first scene, you really only need to know three things. Why are these people fighting? Where and with what are they fighting? And what are their fighting skills?


Why are these people fighting?

What’s the motivation for this fight? What are they fighting for? “The bad guy drew a sword” or “there’s a war on” aren’t good enough answers. Every character in your book should have a goal. And you, the author, should have a reason for including this particular fight scene in your story. It must have a purpose. It must make sense. And it must move the story forward. The stakes must justify the action.

Now, even if your hero doesn't know why the other person is picking a fight, you still need to know. And it should come out at some point in the story.

If you have two people engaged in a fist fight, you should have already planted some scenes in the book that show the tension building. Words and dark glares should have been exchanged. When these two characters meet, the reader should be ready for things to get ugly. If the fight is coming out of nowhere, the reader will likely be confused. So make sure you have a clear goal for this fight.

So, make sure that the outcome of this fight serves the story, adds new tension, conflict, or sets your character closer on the journey to his story goal. And if you don’t have a reason for the fight, there probably shouldn't be one.

Keep in mind your overall plot. Is this the best place for this fight? You want to slowly up the tension over the course of your book, building up to your ending. So save your biggest throw down for where you need that climax, which might be near the end of the book or at least near the end of a major development.

Where and with what are they fighting?

In Jeff Gerke’s book, The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction, he teaches an invaluable tool for fiction writers. He says, “The plant is when you let the reader know that something exists, that something is important, or that a character has an ability or piece of knowledge. The payoff is when you use that thing you've planted.”

This is especially true in fight scenes. The reader has to believe that your characters are capable of what you say they do. And if props show up, the reader needs to have seen that vase before it’s thrown or knocked over someone’s head.

How do you do this? Simply plan for your action scenes ahead of time. If your hero is a karate expert, say so early on. Have him coming home from the dojo and changing out of his gi. If your heroine is good with a bow, let’s see her hunting before she’s picking off the enemy as they ride horses over a hill. And as your characters enter the scene of the pending battle, set the stage with a description that mentions that vase or rock or whatever item(s) your characters might throw, trip over, or use as an impromptu weapon.

When you pick a setting for the fight, consider an odd locale. A kitchen, a bathroom, a church, a wedding. Something that will add interest, fright, or humor to the scene without being cliché. (More on what’s cliché in a fight scene on Friday’s editing post.)

And what are their fighting skills?

If your hero knows how to fight, plant it early on. Avoid the whole “he’s never shot a gun before but picks it up like he’s been shooting all his life” thing. If you do that, you’ll lose your reader. Allow your characters that human trait of failure! Maybe your hero is great at karate, but his enemy has a knife, and Sensei Bill hasn’t covered that part in class yet. Either let your character know how to fight already; show them learning and then let them get hit in the fight since they aren’t very good yet; or show them losing big time. But don’t fall victim to the cliché fighter who’s amazing without having had to learn how first.

So, what do you think of the Plant and Payoff? Have you ever done it? Do you find it helpful? Where do you have trouble in writing your fight scenes?

And stay tuned for the second half of this post, Editing the Action Scene, which will post on Friday.

37 comments:

  1. I. Love. This. Post. :) Thank you, Jill!

    One thing I've found with fight scenes is that they can exhaust the writer too. :)

    Do you recommend practicing with / looking up info on different strategies that your hero uses? I do that sometimes, as we own some throwing knives and a bow. I also have to practice other things that I'm not sure will work, like running with my hands 'tied' behind my back. :)

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    1. Yes. Fight scenes can be tiring. If they don't come easy, I could take a few hours writing a fairly short scene. And yes! I have a great book called Medieval Swordsmanship. Here's a link: http://tinyurl.com/chloems I learned lots of fun stuff in this book. And I also got my husband to act out things with me to see if they would work. This is something I will cover on Friday's post. But it's kind of fun to act things out and learn how it really feels--to some degree. :-)

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  2. I really love this post, but I would also be interested in something about magical fights because that's my MC's main weapon.
    Thanks for posting, Ms. Williamson!
    ~Sarah F.

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. That's interesting, Sarah. I think the same principles would apply. In my Blood of Kings book, I invented the magic of Bloodvoicing, which enabled those gifted to train to become bloodvoice warriors. I had to think through all the potential possibilities of what that type of magic might allow, then show how my character was bad at it. It was really fun to have characters getting thrown a thousand feet into the air and to have their minds forced from their bodies. All that to say, take some time to brainstorm all that can be done with your type of magic, including the limitations, then decide what skill level your characters have.

      Maybe I can write a post about this subject sometime too. :-)

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  3. What a great post, Jill! That concept of plant/payoff is something I recognized, but it's not something I had verbiage for. If that makes sense :) I've noticed J.K. Rowling is really great at "planting" things that become useful later. It's best, of course, if you can plant without it FEELING like you're planting. Sometimes in books/movies it feels like they might as well have neon arrows pointing at a bit of foreshadowing.

    Looking forward to the editing post!

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    1. JKR is amazing at plot. She does a great job of sending you back to reread things when you realize that you've figured something out.

      Yeah... Try to avoid those neon arrows.

      "Gee, Brian," Kim said. "You sure are good with a bow. I mean, if anyone ever attacked our village, we'd be safe as long as you were here."
      "Well, shucks, Kim," Brian said. "I'm only good because my dad has been teaching me for years."

      LOL

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    2. So how DO you avoid neon arrows? I thought foreshadowing would be easy until I started to write ;) And does anyone else have the problem of being in the middle of a fight scene and suddenly realizing that you need to use a payoff you haven't planted because you didn't realize until that moment you would need it? I'm still working on my rough draft, so it's not like I can't go back and change things (I've done that twice now), but it is annoying.

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  4. I am gonna need that editing! It's probably just as cliche to claim both combatants are the best in the world, isn't it? Without much other reason, my combatants have thin skin. An entire army has thin skin...

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    1. Yeah, that's a bit cliche, unless you're writing a story about some sort of fighting contest. Still, the reader will always identify with a person who has an Achilles heel of some kind. Think of Indiana Jones. He is awesome! One of the best action heroes in film. But he hates snakes. He becomes completely paralyzed when snakes are around. And we love him all the more for it. So give your hero something that makes him human, you know, because your readers are human? Even if he's an alien being from the planet Sarkon, give him a weakness.

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  5. Great post! I never thought about having fight scenes take place in strange places. I haven't written that many, though, so there's probably a reason for that. :D

    In my novel, there are two fight scenes in the beginning, both of which happen because my MMC got angry and attacked first. (I never said he was wise.) Other than that, another thing you might want to take into consideration is sparring. In my WIP, Common Denominator, the beginning takes place exclusively in an underground training facility they're trapped in. One of the kids (he's 18) is a black belt, so he and my MMC have a couple of sparring sessions, to pass the time, but also so my MMC knows some self defense. Those types of fights are more likely to be "choreographed." The person teaching will probably be talking the other person through the maneuvers as they spar.

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    1. That's interesting, Becky. And it sets up nicely that your MC will know how to fight.

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  6. I love writing fight/action scenes! And I love working through the motions myself, to make sure that it works. ;) But you're right, after you write a couple in the same novel, it gets more and more difficult to make them sound unique and exciting!

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    1. Yeah... I was worried that I was starting to repeat myself. I did have fun acting them out. I never did get to make my wasters, though. I bought all the wood for them. I just never found a willing carpenter to help me. :-(

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  7. Thanks for posting this! It was extremely helpful- I've just started work on my first fantasy, in which I've planned a lot of fight/action scenes, and I'm also in the process of writing a historical fight scene from the War of 1812 (hard, since my obsessive nature makes everything be correct down to the last shot :P). I find swordplay particularly difficult to write, and historical battles even harder. This will definately help. I do enjoy writing them because of the challenge, but I've always though they were a little UNbelievable or too cheesy.
    Thanks! :D

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    1. You should check out the book Medieval Swordsmanship. I found it really helpful. There are also a lot of folks on YouTube teaching sword fighting stuff. Some of them know more than others though...

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  8. Fight scenes *are* hard. I have no idea how my characters managed to get me to write 8 in my novel.
    Definitely looking forward to your Friday post!

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    1. LOL! Those characters really want to rumble, huh?

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  9. I've needed this! I'm writing my first spy novel, so I need these fight scene tips!

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    1. Yay! Spy novels are awesome. My first book was a spy novel. :-)

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  10. Thanks for the tips, Jill! My current WIP doesn't have many (if any) fight scenes but I've had to write them in the past and may have to again in the future.
    I'll be back for more on Friday! :)

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  11. Thanks, Ms Williamson! It's really helpful, though i still have some questions...
    I had a problem describing the sequences of the fighting action, like I'm writing about two guys locked in a fight. How do I describe it without making it boring, too tedious for the reader, and yet delivers a clear image?
    I tried describing my swordfight into a bloddy tango...but I just don't think it's clear enough, and failed to give the necessary excitement and adrealine...
    Thanks very much anyway!

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  13. As a magical fantasy writer, fight scenes are difficult for me. It's really hard to find different ways to describe the magic the characters are 'throwing' at each other. Do you know of any blogs or books that can help with magical battles?

    Can't wait for the next post :)

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  14. It seems to me that most fight scenes are broken down into individual moves and combinations that the opponents use against each other - in other words, all fight scenes will sound similar, because the fighters are using the same moves. What changes is the setting, the purposes of the fighters, the injuries and the results of the fight, as well as how the protagonist feels about it.

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  15. A WEDDING!?

    Wow.

    :) Thanks, Jill! This made a lot of sense and I think the fighting scenes are fun, too! :)

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  16. Thanks so much! This is very helpful!

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  17. i find that when i write a fighting scene that i say it as if im the spectater and i like to build up the anger for the end of the fight is that bad or not?

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    1. I don't know, Matt. I'd have to read it. I think it's important to stay in your point of view character's point of view, if that makes sense. But building up anger is a good thing.

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  18. Layla speaking. This will be a great help to me though I already knew a little bit. I am writing a novel that is filled with action. Thanks for posting this.

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  19. I do find this post very helpful, thank you so much!!! I have several different stories where there are fight scenes and definitely needed that information. What if none of the characters had lessons but had a reasonable explanation to be fighting, whether with their fists or say a tin tray, etc. Would that work?

    Btw, totally love this blog! ;)

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  20. Is there a guideline or steps for fight scenes like the one article about action sequences you wrote?

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  21. This article was great! But there's one problem. My fight scenes only last about a paragraph or two because I don't want to bore the reader. I always have my awesome ending but I think i'm whizzing by events too fast.
    Any advice?

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  22. My MMC is a tough guy. He's the one who keeps me writing these grueling action scenes. Fortunately, he prefers hunting deer, and that's something I LIKE to write about. :)

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  23. I enjoyed this post very much!
    MY question, Im struggling on whether fight scenes are better emphasized in third person of first person. Your personal/professional thoughts?

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  24. i have a fight scene in a library!

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  25. Please help- my heroine is invincible unless killed with one move or underwater and good at unarmed combat. she is on a enemy ship where she needs to find a document and recover it with a fight. i can't think how this can happen- I've got writers block.
    a very troubled twelve year old.

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