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Does Your Fight Scene Pack a Punch?
Once upon a time, movie directors knew how to make an effective fight. Bodies are falling to the ground. Chairs are raised … spectators are covered with faces of horror or anger … and the punches that are thrown are enough to make us wince and close our eyes. (Gone are the big punches that didn’t fool anyone in the original movies – the sneaky cameras to hide the fact that the fist wasn’t connected; the loud noises to show the knocking punch where everyone can see it won’t knock the mosquito out of its way.)
Videographers are supported by multiple camera angles and sound effects. We feel like we are in the middle of the battle.
Writers have a lot of problems. How can you throw the reader in the middle of the action and feel every punch? How can you present the action without falling into the trap of sounding like a schoolboy excitedly describing fights, punches and punches; push and shove?
There are only two things you need to remember.
- Remember that you are a writer, not a choreographer.
- Prepare your fights with the EMOTIONAL punch.
That’s right. Simple – yet effective.
What does a choreographer do? Planning several trips, step by step. They teach people who are walking how to walk everything, then how to use the simple steps.
Most of the war scenes in the book look like a composer’s copy. You will see something like this:
Briggs planted a right hook on Smith’s chin. The other man stepped back, his hands shaking. Briggs followed suit, breathing heavily. A few more punches soon landed on Smith’s body.
Smith fell to the ground and rolled over. “Idiot!” He grunted and rolled back to avoid the kick Briggs intended. Like a cat, he jumped and circled Briggs, never taking his eyes off his enemies.
“You!” Briggs scoffed, running in for another punch and then stepping back to avoid it. “Is that the best you can do?” He grinned and laughed.
Enraged, Smith attacked. Briggs danced back and around Smith, and in two deft moves pinned him down, one arm behind him.
“Is it enough?” he breathed.
There are so many things wrong with the above and it’s hard to know where to start. In summary:
- We don’t know who has his thoughts. We seem to be looking into the distance. This means that there is very little emotional involvement from the reader. To get your readers involved, do everything you can to make sure they ‘live’ the audience. If they are hurt, so is the reader. If they lose…so does the reader.
- The author “tells” not shows. A did this then B did this so A responded and B followed this…boring! (Do you see the choreographer in action?)
- The author uses the names of the main characters: “Smith” and “Briggs”. This also tends to increase distance. The problem is that they are both men, so using “he”, even if they are not far apart, can be confusing. It is easy to avoid these problems if you have the attitude of one of the people mentioned in this article.
- The story contains tired old sayings like “soon fell two punches”; “a well-aimed kick”; “like a cat, he jumped to his feet”; “in two deft movements”. Words like these save the writer a lot of work – they roll off the tongue easily because they’ve been around for so long.
How do you avoid these pitfalls and write battle scenes that work?
You forget (mostly) physical punches and add emotional punches. Delve deep into the mind of one of the characters – especially the main character; whom the reader knows. In this way, the reader looks into the eyes of that person. They really want to succeed; he feels every blow. So, there is a lot to speculate about the outcome of this battle.
Most writers seem to feel that fighting games should be filled with fast paced action, whining and moaning and shouting epithets for action. He feels that if you stop telling the reader what is going on in the head of the main character, it slows things down a lot.
This may be so… but in the hands of a skilled writer, tension builds as the work slows down. You should remember that time-on-site is not the same as real time. Since you can’t show the reader what’s happening in real time like you can in a movie, you have to compensate by spending time in the mind of the main character. Show us the mind of a man. Show us how the person feels. Help us to “feel” as much as possible in this battle.
The easiest way to show how this works is to use an example from a published book. Here is a battle scene from ECHO BURNING by Lee Child (Bantam Press, 2001). The hero, Jack Reacher, tries to avoid the fight…
The guy was wearing a white tank top and was eating chicken wings. The wings were shiny and the boy was shiny. He was dripping chicken fat on his chin and his fingers on his shirt. There was the appearance of black tears between his pecs. It was growing and spreading into an impressive stain. But the good nature of the bar room doesn’t allow you to hang out and see this, and the boy caught Reacher looking.
“Who are you looking at?” he said.
It was said low and harsh, but Reacher ignored it.
“Who are you looking at?” the boy said again.
Reacher’s experience was, as he once said, probably nothing was going to happen. But he says it twice, so the problem is in the way. The main problem is, they take the lack of answers as proof that you are worried. That they are winning. But then, they won’t let you answer, anyway.
“Are you looking at me?” the boy said.
“No,” Reacher replied.
“Don’t look at me boy,” the boy said.
The way the boy spoke made Reacher think he might have been a foreman in a lumber mill or a cotton mill. All the muscle work was done around Lubbock. Some trades have been passed down from generation to generation. Of course the word “policeman” never crossed his mind. But then he was new to Texas.
“Don’t look at me,” the boy said.
Reacher turned his head and looked at him. Not really criticizing the person. Just to grow him. Life is an endless wonder, so he knew that one day he would come face to face with his equal. He is someone you can trust. But he looked and saw that it was not that day. So he just smiled and looked away.
Then the boy stabbed him with his finger.
“I told you not to look at me,” he said, with a thump.
It was a toe of meat and it was greasy. It left a mark on Reacher’s shirt.
“Don’t do that,” Reacher said.
The boy was full again.
“Or what?” he said. “You want to make something?”
Reacher looked down. Now there were two signs. The purchase took another hit. Three mountains, three wings. Reacher gritted his teeth. What were the three oil marks on the shirt? He began to count slowly to ten. Then the boy pierced again, before he reached eight.
“Are you deaf?” Reacher said. “I told you not to do that.”
“You want to do something?”
“No,” Reacher said. “I don’t want to. I just want you to stop doing that, that’s all.”
The boy smiled. “So you’re a yellow stomach container.”
“Whatever,” Reacher said. “Just keep your hands off me.”
“Or what? What are you going to do?”
Reacher resumed his reading. Eight, nine.
“You want to take this outside?” the boy asked.
“Catch me again and you’ll get it,” Reacher said. “I warned you four times.”
The boy paused for a moment. Then, of course, he went to it again. Reacher grabbed a finger and went in and hit it on the first elbow. He just went upstairs like he was turning a door handle. Then, out of anger, he leaned forward and hit the full head in the face. It was a smooth move, well delivered, but it was stopped at maybe half of what it could have been. There is no need to put the person in a coma, on more than four coats of oil. He moved slowly to give the man room to fall, and entered the woman on his right again.
“I’m sorry mom,” he said.
The woman nodded, confused by the noise, staring at her drink, not knowing what was going on. The older boy silently hit the boards and Reacher used the sole of his boot to half roll him onto his front. Then he poked her under the chin with his finger to get her head back and clear her airway. A recovery center, medical professionals call it. It prevents you from choking when you are outside.
Then he paid for his drinks and went back to his motel…
Of course, this scene only shows a fight that is quietly rising and shows a hero who has the strength to fight this fight to the end. You should use a slightly different strategy if you have multiple people involved and if you have a fast and furious fight with two identical attackers. But the point is the same.
Don’t let the readers see this battle from afar. Put them in the shoes of an adult, knowing their thoughts and feelings. Let the reader feel the impact of punches and feet; let them experience adrenaline (or anger, depending on the level of provocation). Then your fighting game will pack the punch you want.
(c) copyright Marg McAlister
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