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.