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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 21: Fight Scenes

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 21: Fight Scenes


Key Points: Fight scenes in novels aren't just bad knockoffs of movie fight scenes -- show the emotions, thoughts, and motivations. Focus on pinnacles and nadirs. Make sure the reader knows where things are and what is going on -- do your setup work. Goals can make the actions sing. Consider your character's expertise, your reader's expertise, and the moral ramifications, then decide whether to go for blow-by-blow, abstract, beautiful writing, showing the cost, and what else goes into your fight scene -- or gets left out.

[Brandon] Okay. We're going to talk about fight scenes. We can-of-worm'ed this when we were discussing violence. I often get questions from people, "How do you write a good fight scene?" Since all of us like to kill people so much, let's talk about how to do it in a fun way. Howard, fight scenes. What's the first rule of fight scenes?
[Howard] You don't talk about fight scenes?
[Brandon] No, I mean... okay, what's the second rule of fight scenes?
[Dan] Same thing, isn't it?
[Howard] Any time I'm doing a fight scene, I have to stay on-message for Schlock Mercenaries, which is, this has to end with a punchline. And so all of my fight scenes are broken into segments that have punchlines in them, it is really quite awkward.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's really strange when you do them because you have to have a laugh.
[Howard] I have to have a laugh, and it's difficult to do. What that means ultimately is the only fight scenes I'm really writing are the ones that have to be there in order to tell the story.
[Brandon] But you're writing military space opera. You have lots of wars and battles?
[Howard] It's military... military life has been described as six weeks of boredom punctuated by 60 seconds of panic. I can get away with writing a whole book and only having one or two fight scenes in it for that reason.
[Brandon] Okay. All right.
[Rob] Well, there's 60 minutes of boredom and then...
[Howard] Yes, yes.
[Brandon] Characters being bored, hopefully, not the readers.
[Howard] Exactly. Characters being bored... characters with firearms being bored? This is...

[Brandon] All right. Dan, any... what would you say... first rule of thumb on fight scenes? You got any?
[Dan] First rule of thumb on them?
[Brandon] Yeah, how do you write a good fight scene?
[Dan] Um... I don't...
[Brandon] Are you making noises with your hands?
[Dan] I am. Sorry.
[Brandon] All right, I'm going to give one. I've got one. I often say this when people ask me. The first thing I come up with is, I say, "You are not writing a screenplay." Which, if you are writing a screenplay, then this rule doesn't apply to you.
[Howard] I'm writing a comic, which is very visual.
[Brandon] You are writing a comic, which is kind of visual. But for the novel writers, we can't do what someone who is doing a movie can do. In other words, we cannot do what Jackie Chan can do.
[Dan] No one can do what Jackie Chan can do.
[Brandon] Jackie Chan can have a 30 minute fight scene which is just a blow-by-blow and it's transfixing. We'll watch it, we'll enjoy it, it's exciting. If you describe that exact same thing in a book, no matter how well you describe it, it's going to be boring. And so my advice on fight scenes -- first piece of advice -- is play to the strengths of your medium, play to the strengths of your genre. If you are writing novels, don't try to write them like a movie.
[Rob] I was going to add the same thing. I think that the key when I have been writing action scenes is to make sure that there's lots of emotion. And whether that is the attacker is really angry or whether the people being attacked are scared for their lives, just as long as there is that tension and conflict, so it isn't like you said a blow-by-blow.
[Brandon] In a novel, one of the main things we can do that they can't do in a movie is we can be more explicit with the emotions. We can show the emotions and the thoughts of characters much more distinctly.
[Howard] The result of this is the discontinuity between the big battle scenes in Return of the King the book and the big battle scenes in Return of the King the movie.
[Brandon] Exactly.
[Howard] In order to do those battle scenes emotionally the way Tolkien described them, Return of the King would have been rated X. the violence just would have been over the top because for us to experience that measure of horror, that would have been required. So they had to step it down, they had to re-translate Tolkien's work for the screen.
[Brandon] Yeah. And you as a writer... a lot of us nowadays, we've seen a lot of movies. We've essentially been raised on cinema. And so authors, and sit down and want to write a great fight scene, they imagine Jackie Chan or whatever your favorite action hero is, they imagine that and they start writing a blow-by-blow and it's bad, it's boring.

[Brandon] So, what else? Emotion. What else can we do and fiction that will make our fight scenes more explosive for our readers?
[Howard] I identify the key pinnacle or nadir emotional moment in the fight scene and I use that as the punchline. Just recently in the strip, I used overthoom and doublethoom as punchlines. I used... there's Schlock with both plasguns firing saying, "Aw, it's a shame you're having such a terrible day because I'm having the best day of my life." So there was a pinnacle. And previously in the strip, three weeks earlier, I'd been describing the worst moments and those were the punchlines. All that stuff in the middle -- the cool things, scaling walls and jumping here and punching there, I left out, there's no punchline.
[Brandon] Right. Well, and it might be boring.
[Howard] It would be boring.
[Brandon] Some graphic novels can do that in a very interesting, fascinating way.
[Howard] Well, this is why comic books have so much dialogue during the fights. Because, well, all right, you drew a cool punching scene but...
[Brandon] How many of those can you do?
[Howard] Yeah.
[Brandon] You can actually get away with that sometimes. And I'll step away and say with some really... in writing, you would call it poetic language, in a graphic novel, you would say it's just a visually compelling scene. You can get away with these sometimes. You can do a couple paragraphs or maybe even a page of this is just beautiful writing. Lots of concrete detail, people are fighting, and the mud is flying into the air, and the sunlight is casting shadows, and the smoke is rising from where the shells have hit...
[Howard] But that's not a blow-by-blow. You're casting an emotional picture with those descriptions.
[Brandon] No, it's not. At that point, you're doing the descriptions... you're doing beautiful descriptions, you're not doing a blow-by-blow.
[Rob] Well, and I think, another thing that you guys have mentioned on here before, just about writing in general, is that whenever you are writing something, it needs to have more than one purpose. And so I think if you're just writing something for the blow-by-blow, it doesn't help. But if you have a fight scene and you know that there is... maybe someone is trying to accomplish something and someone is trying to stop them... and so you can have the fight scene while the other stuff is going on, or you can have a fight scene while the conversation is going on...
[Brandon] That's a great thing to do. Exactly. Having them fight during a conversation, if you can make it rational, can be a wonderful way to make it exciting.

[Brandon] Step back a moment though. When I say you don't want to do a blow-by-blow, I'm not saying that you can get away with bad blocking. We still need to be able to visualize where everybody is and what they're doing and what's going on.
[Dan] And I think that's one of the biggest mistakes. I mean, people are very quick to new blow-by-blow, but then we also forget that we are in a non-visual medium. Not comics, but novels... we don't know exactly what the room looks like, we don't know where the chairs are, and so when a character picks one up and hits the other character with it, that might come out of nowhere for us.
[Brandon] You need to set up very well.
[Howard] There have been times when I have scripted a non-blow-by-blow sort of thing and hit the punchline and realized it's confusing. I need an establishing shot, I need to put some blows in there so we can get to that point and the reader can follow along.
[Brandon] Good blocking is essential for a good fight scene. People need to be able to picture it in visualize it in their head. But you don't than just want to spend pages and pages of showing them fighting, boom, boom, boom, boom.

[Brandon] What else can fight scenes do in a book? I would say that one thing that makes fight scenes work really well is making them goal-based. This is kind of something that Rob was talking about earlier, but... because we can show thoughts and emotions, we can show what the character is trying to accomplish, and we can show progression as they step toward it or away from it. They can say, "Oh, I see that cliff over there. I'm going to try and fence my opponent over there so they stumble and fall off." You can do this sort of goal-based fighting. It worked very well in the end of the serial killer book when you got...
[Howard] Oh, don't tell me about the end, I just got the ARC.
[Brandon] When you get to the end of the serial killer book, there are some nice action sequences, and we understood the character's motivations and goals, and because of that, the sense of progression as he either achieved or failed those various goals made the fight sequences very powerful.
[Dan] Well, and it's... especially in my book and in a lot of horror where you are not dealing with action characters... any fight scene that does not have trained combatants in it, is not going to be like a movie action scene. You need to think about these other things. You have to think about the goals and the emotions, cause... if I were to go outside right now and pick a fight with somebody, that's all I would really have. I don't have training to fall back on, I'm not a good fighter, but I do know what I'm trying to do and why.
[Howard] I read a book by Steven Barnes and, I can't remember the title, but Steven Barnes is a master of several martial arts. Yes, there was a lot of blocking, a lot of blow-by-blow in there, but one of the things that he conveyed very effectively was that our protagonist does not know what he is doing and it is terrifying every time he comes up against somebody because he knows they know more about this than he does and he's going to get his head handed to him in a basket. And it was very, very well thought out and blocked out and the goal through all this was, "I want to live. I want to live. I want to live."
[Brandon] And he probably showed a lot of the blows. A good thriller will show a lot of the blows, a lot of the types of thrillers. You read a Dirk Pitt novel, you will have some good sequences which will have some blow-by-blow.
[Howard] The danger of the blow-by-blow when written by an expert is that they will describe the martial arts technique -- they will describe the particular punch style or block style -- and if you're familiar with martial arts, you've got a clear picture. If you're not, you assume the author knows what he's talking about. And if you know more about martial arts than the author or you know a different martial art, you look at the wording and you say, "That doesn't work that way. This is ridiculous." And you shut the book.

[Brandon] What do you guys think of abstracting out fight scenes? Some authors, Robert Jordan is one of them, like to make things a little more abstract and say... okay, they pull back and do a wide shot and say, "this happened." The fight scenes will usually be very quick.
[Rob?] And the mode of battle turned.
[Brandon] Robert Jordan does a little bit more focused. He gives all of his fighting... all of his sword forms... he names them, like Boar Rushing Down a Hill or something like this. "He fell into Boar Rushing down a Hill" and that gives you a kind of abstract image of he's charging through and cutting people down.
[Howard] With a name like that, you can get away with the abstraction.
[Dan] I actually greatly prefer abstracted fight scenes. When I get into a book that is really giving me a lot of detail on how the combat is going, I just zone out cause it bores me.
[Howard] Boar Rushing down a Hill is one thing. Shodokan kata 5...
[Dan] Now let me give the counter example. My favorite fight scene in any book ever is the poison knife fight in Dune. And that is a very direct, blow-by-blow fight, but we get every single thought that they have, we know all of the strategy behind... not even the moves, but the moves behind the moves, and the clothes he is wearing. It is hyper detailed, but I love that for whatever reason.
[Howard] And it is a metaphor for the political machinations that were similarly multilayered in that book.
[Dan] Like Rob was saying, it serves about 10 purposes.

[Rob] I just finished reading, and this is the opposite of what Dan is saying... oh, I lost my microphone.
[Brandon] I knocked it off with a furious punch to the face.
[Rob] I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Susan Collins...
[Brandon] No spoilers, cause it's on my desk to read.
[Rob] Okay. Well, basically, the premise of the book isn't a spoiler. It's basically that all of these teenagers are brought in for kind of a Battle Royale. Last one standing gets to live, everyone else gets to be murdered by the rest of them. And it's from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl. So you would think going into this, this is going to be a horribly violent book. I mean, only one of them is going to survive. And there is a lot of violence, and there is a lot of death, but it doesn't ever dwell on it. It is a lot of her in the forest trying to survive and then something will happen and it will be really quick and we know exactly what happened and sometimes there might be a page, sometimes there might be three sentences. So Susan Collins very much abstracts, or just ignores, the actual violence of it. And I think that's partially because it's a YA and she's trying to get away from the gore...
[Howard] That's... you have to do some of that in YA. I'm careful not to do that kind of thing because I believe that any time we depict violence, we need to see the cost. And we had that podcast about violence and the moral ramifications...
[Brandon] We're not talking about violence, we're talking about fight scenes.

[Dan] One other really good use of the abstract fight scene is when you want to specifically convey confusion. And this has been used really effectively in a lot of movies. Go watch Platoon or Apocalypse Now -- you cannot tell who is shooting at who at any part, and that makes it a lot scarier.
[Howard] Or Transformers.
[Dan] Which is, I think, an accidental use of confusion. But I can't think of any books off the top of my head... I remember in our writing group, we came across a fight scene like that a while ago that you weren't sure what's going on but neither was the character. And it made it more effective because of that.
[Brandon] Since we're throwing out effective ones, I'm going to go for a book that has some of my favorite fight scenes which are very effective and very detailed and that's Ender's Game. And in that case, they're not abstracted out. And if you look at Ender's Game, what's going on is... and this is how I like to write my fight scenes... you're showing the characters being clever by manipulation of their surroundings and their tools. And so it's less... a fight becomes a problem-solving exercise instead of a great action sequence.
[Howard] And so you have to couch it in terms of this is what the character knows, this is what the things that he knows do, and now let's synthesize something from that and do something different.
[Brandon] I think that works very well for fight scenes... as looking at them problem-solving wise... what do we have, how can we use them? But... any final words on fight scenes before a brawl breaks out between the Wells brothers?
[Dan] My fight scenes, again because I'm not really ever talking about trained fighters, are entirely focused on the characters trying not to fight. The scene you described at the end of the book -- that's basically a "get away from the bad guys" scene that reads like a fight scene because there's violence in it.

[Brandon] All right. Writing Prompt? Write a fight between two people who have never been in a fight before.
[Dan] And have to use their environment cleverly.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Thanks for listening.
Tags: abstracted, blow-by-blow, fight scenes, writing excuses
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