|Statue of Bruce Lee, HK. Photo: Sherpas 428|
I like fighting.
As a sport, an existential discipline, and an entertainment, the combat arts thrill me. I've spoken previously about the intellectual value of martial arts and written about allure of cage fighting. I'm also the editor, with Graham Priest, of two volumes of essays: Philosophy and the Martial Arts: Engagement and Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness.
I believe superhero comics are kinds of 'articulate violence', and my first children's picture book was about ninjas.
Look, I was even in a Jackie Chan film.
But what about the craft of portraying fighting in literature? It's one thing to deliver a ridge-hand to someone's snoot, quite another to make it exciting on the page. How can we translate combat into words?
I asked author and martial artist Alan Baxter for his thoughts on writing fight scenes.
The Art of Fight Writing
A lot of books and stories feature fighting. Conflict is, after all, an essential part of a good story, so it’s natural the conflict will occasionally take the form of flying fists. If you write genre fiction like I do, punch-ups tend to happen a lot. But a bad fight scene can really bring a book down. So that prompts the question – how do you write a good one?
I’m a speculative fiction writer and a martial arts instructor, so hopefully I have good insight on this subject. As more of my work was published, I began to develop a reputation for writing good fight scenes. I eventually wrote the Alex Caine series (currently a trilogy of supernatural thriller novels) with a career martial artist as the main character so I was able to draw on all that knowledge of fighting I have (an example from the first book is dissected below). While I would never presume to tell anyone how to write, I can hopefully share some information you can use. I call it The Art of Fight Writing.
A poorly-written fight scene can really pull me out of a story. Even for the uninitiated, a badly-written fight in an otherwise well-written book can be very distracting. It’s not the author’s fault – as writers we’re always told to “write what you know”. I’m rare among writers in that I know fighting. Most writers, thankfully, have no experience of it. The trouble is, that shows in their fiction. The majority of people draw on the only experience they do have, which is garnered from watching TV and movies, and they perpetuate that, essentially transcribing that kind of choreographed action. But the fighting you see in movies is designed for that medium – there’s a turn by turn nature so people can see what’s happening, and very little attention is paid to the nitty gritty of inside fighting, and the all-important emotional content of a scrap. With writing we have the advantage of being able to write from inside our character’s heads. We can describe emotions, fears, the tiny details that don’t show up on film. In other words, we can write a realistic fight.
In the same way that a badly-written fight scene might distract a reader, even if they don’t know why it’s bad, a well-written fight scene can have the opposite effect. A reader may know nothing about fighting, but when an author writes with knowledge, it gives the scene a certain authenticity on which the reader picks up.
My top tip, from a writing perspective? Try to keep fight scenes short, because real fights are short. Don’t labour away at it trying to get too much detail down. Fights are fast and furious things and should be written that way.
The truth is, a real fight is a lot more exciting and visceral an experience than a movie fight. When you get that vibe into your fiction, readers will respond to it and you’ll draw them more deeply into your story, and that’s what you want. Too often a poorly-written fight scene can slow a story down and drag it out when it should be at its most frenetic. The last thing you want is slow, unconvincing action in your action scenes.
By far the best way to get that from mind to page to reader is, of course, to experience fighting. And ideally, you’d experience fighting in the controlled confines of a martial arts gym or boxing ring. I know I’m biased, but I honestly can’t recommend martial arts classes enough. Apart from the obvious benefits of learning the martial art, you also get fit, strong, flexible, make friends, and so much more. It’s a lifestyle change for the better.
But even if you don’t do that, you can still act out what you’re writing to test its validity. I have no idea how many times I’ve been crashing around in my study acting out two parts of a fight scene to see if it all gels together properly. Try it next time you write a fight scene – pause, get off your chair, and walk through a few of the things you’ve written. Imagine yourself an expert and question how realistic it is.
Another consideration is that when a person is fighting, they’re in their most base, natural state. There’s no room for veneers and swagger – it’s all real and right there. Putting your characters in that situation offers excellent opportunities for character development. Trainers will tell you that you’ll learn a lot about yourself in a fight. It’s true. So readers can learn a lot about your characters that way too. Are they quiet and introverted, but fight like a furious Tasmanian Devil? Are they all bluster, but crumple to weak knees and blubbering when physically threatened? There are numerous possibilities. Fighting is a way to explore these deeper aspects of a character’s psyche. So make sure when you write that your characters don’t all blur into one under duress and only show their character at other times. Their true selves should be more clearly on show in a fight than at any other time.
I’ve written a longer work on this subject, called Write The Fight Right, which is available as an ebook, so look that up if you want more detail. But for a quick example, let's turn to Bound: Alex Caine Book 1, which opens with a scrap.
Read the scene first time without reading the bits in italics. Then go back to see how I’ve broken it down. This is the first ~500 words:
A distant roar rose and fell, rose again. Dark grey concrete underfoot, bloodstained, hard. Alex circled to the left. He peripherally registered each panel of chain-link, each steel upright, never taking his eyes from the figure in front of him. The man known as Bull Finley.
Below a heavy brow Bull stared back, cautious. But not scared. He exuded feral, predatory strength, a calm resolve. His hands, raised before his face, were calloused and rough, like Alex’s. [Here we set up both characters in broad strokes.] Bull’s energy pulsed. Alex watched the man’s shades, the aura of his intentions, shifting around him, saw purpose swell, muscles bunch. [Here I establish a hint of the supernatural in Alex’s ability.] One of Bull’s meaty hands swept within an inch of Alex’s nose, breath grunting out between clenched teeth, forward momentum carrying him through. Alex let him go by, twisted, gathered and whipped out a leg in a turning kick to the ribs. [Short, sharp action, no extraneous description. Let the reader fill in the blanks.]
Bull’s exhalation finished its escape in a rush, his face registering shock more than pain. [Emotion, not just physicality.] Alex pressed the advantage, following in, hands a blur of strikes and counterstrikes. Bull blocked well, but not well enough, his upper lip and nose flowered scarlet. [Again, not slowing down with flowery descriptions or technical terms. Just action.]
His intent changed, a slight desperation entering his mind. Alex saw the shades move, felt the man’s desire to grapple, take the fight down to the hard stone floor. He disengaged, slipped out of reach even as his opponent made the conscious decision to grab. That surprised expression again. Confidence to surprise, surprise to concern, concern to fear, fear to defeat. A journey Alex had seen play out time and again. His opponent’s eyes widened slightly, the corners of his mouth twitching downwards. Surprise to concern. Alex smiled inside. So it begins. [This paragraph enhances the hint of Alex’s extra abilities and also reveals his style of fighting, his emotional strategy.]
For several seconds they circled, the roar rising, falling, rising, falling. Bull’s bulky frame heaved with his breath. Alex, leaner, more athletic, waited. He was calm. Bull looked for an opening, a gap that wasn’t there. Alex feinted in and out, his opponent flinching, lips tight. Concern to fear. [The pace of the fight rising and falling in concert with the nebulous crowd to give shape and environment to the fight.]
The tension grew. Alex drew his breath in deep, sank his energy low, gathered himself. A deliberate drawing away, taunting his opponent to follow him in, to attack. Fear brought with it a lack of focus, lack of patience, a desperate desire to take back control. That desire pulsed off Bull like a wave. [Here we explore the nature of a psychological advantage in a fight and Alex exploiting that.] Alex moved in and to one side exactly as Bull made his assault. A clumsy move, all physical strength, no breath, no finesse. The man closed the gap to where Alex had been, launching fast punches. Alex exhaled, struck back across Bull’s arms, drove a knee up hard and sharp. The big man’s nose and ribs cracked almost simultaneously, pain escaping in red and black waves. As his opponent stumbled, Alex whipped in one last punch and a kick to finish him. [Again, let the reader fill in the gaps. Only give enough information for direction, not excruciating detail.] Broken and unconscious, Bull collapsed against the chain-link fencing as though his skeleton had been removed.
Alex turned away as the dull roar boomed into his ears. He honoured his opponent by not relishing the defeat as he let the rest of the world back in. The stench of steel and concrete, blood, sweat and popcorn. The glare of overhead halogens, the stamping of hundreds of feet on wooden stands, hundreds of throats screaming approval, baying for blood. A loud, brash voice burst over loudspeakers and Alex walked past the man with the microphone, as he always did. [And here we establish more of Alex’s credo as a fighter, more of his character, and move on into the greater story.]
Now go back and read the scene again pausing to read the notes in italics. Hopefully it gives some shape to all this.
From a technical perspective, consider this example of tight writing versus loose writing. Fights and action should always be tight.
The verbose fighter:
Bob clenched his fist tight and threw a long cross to Bill’s chin. Bill dodged backwards, using a sweeping forearm block to intercept the punch. As he moved he lifted his knee and drove a sidekick towards Bob’s ribs. Bob leapt backwards into an orthodox boxer’s stance, his left hand checking the kick down harmlessly to the ground.
The succinct fighter:
Bob threw a heavy punch. Bill dodged back, blocking, tried to thrust out a kick. Bob danced back, slapping the kick aside.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either paragraph above. But the first one uses a lot of description, setting up details for the reader to visualise the fight. That fight has hardly started and already it’s close to sixty words, and it’s pretty boring.
The second paragraph says all the same stuff, but like a fight it’s quick, sharp, alive. At around twenty words it’s a third as much to read as the first one. It gives the writer room to keep the pace up, but also to include more emotional content as the fight progresses, more adrenaline, gritty in-fighting, the five senses and descriptions of movement and the environment they’re in – all essential components.
Imagine each of those examples expanded out to five times the length to cover the whole fight and think about which will give the reader a more visceral and realistic experience of what the characters are going through. Hopefully this combined with the Alex Caine excerpt above gives you plenty of examples to draw from.
Other than those generalities, here’s a checklist of some other things to consider to get you under way:
- People fighting are never still.
- There’s nothing rhythmic and ordered about fighting.
- A good fighter is always aware of their surroundings.
- When you fight, you can never plan ahead; fighting is constantly responding to chaos.
- Something unexpected is likely to happen almost immediately.
- The best block is not being there.
- A smaller, skilled fighter can dominate a bigger, less skilled opponent, but they are always at a disadvantage.
- Sight. Touch. Sound. Smell. Taste. Use them all.
- When a person is about to fight they get what’s called an adrenaline dump. When adrenaline dumps, a person’s fine motor skills go out the window. Their vision narrows, affecting the use of peripheral vision, and their memory is shot. The more experienced the fighter, the better they are at dealing with the adrenaline dump.
- Getting hit, properly socked in the jaw, is a shocking experience.
- It’s not unusual for someone who’s had a fight to remember very little or even nothing of it.
- The more a fighter trains and the more they fight, the better they are at controlling adrenaline and fear and using them to their advantage.
- All fighters are scared.
- One clean crack that really rings the bell means it’s usually game over.
Finally, for realism, remember the old martial arts adage:
“When two tigers fight, one limps away, terribly wounded. The other is dead.”
And if you ever get the chance, ask me about The Knockout Myth. Or read the ebook I mentioned earlier.
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes supernatural thrillers and urban horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He’s the multi-award-winning author of several novels and over seventy short stories and novellas. So far.