Having just finished reviewing the latest action sequence in my current writing project, I decided today’s Into the Action should take a look at the art of writing fight scenes in a novel. Now, obviously, this won’t be a huge topic of interest for all of my followers but, as someone whose own writing delves into this regularly, I’d be doing authors like me a disservice if I didn’t take some time to look at it. Deciding how to go about writing scenes involving direct physical conflict is not something to take lightly, as it can determine a lot about the flow, pacing, and message of your works.
The first thing I want to emphasize in this article is the need to ensure that combat is not trivialized when it is written about. I don’t mean in terms of writing style exactly or space set aside for it. What I mean is that any scene with physical violence should have repercussions. As with any other kind of action, violent action should never be added simply to be there. It should have meaning, it should either advance the plot or provide important characterization, and it should have after effects appropriate to the violence. It can be tempting, at times, to take a modern action movie approach to an action scene with characters walking through a hail of bullets and gunning down mooks without blinking an eye. In certain styles of writing, this can be appropriate and even necessary, but those should be rarities, not the norm.
The point of that screed really comes down to the idea that violence, like any other plot point, should have weight and dramatic heft to it. Even sports combat has dangers and stakes and, if used, should be held in the same serious regard. Boxing and MMA are painful and dangerous activites. Even the purely for-entertainment matches in televised professional wrestling carry high physical costs. I’m not advocating bending the rules if your works are more cinematic in nature. Just don’t forget them entirely.
Now, with that in mind, how much or how little detail should you put into a fight scene? Well, that’s really an a question without any one answer. The obvious consideration is that the more detail you put into a fight scene, the more important you make that scene. It’s like any other type of scene you could write: the length and detail should be somehow connected to the scene’s importance in the plot and characterization. No matter how well written it might be, the reader doesn’t want to see an extremely detailed one-on-one fight with, say, a faceless minion of your main villain. No matter your inclination, don’t be afraid to be brief with combat when necessary.
Something that goes hand in hand with detail is clarity. In fact, there can be a struggle at times between these two things. Going into greater detail in a fight scene can sometimes lead to description that is intricate enough to lead to confusion among the average reader. Make sure to carefully read over your fight sequences to ensure they retain a clear flow of action regardless of what details you include. If you don’t think you can adequately describe a sequence of maneuvers, don’t try. Rethink either that part of the fight scene or try to simplify it to the essence of the action.
For example, if I write a sequence of two combatants engaging in a series of technical holds and counter-holds, citing very specific martial arts techniques, that ends with one throwing the other, I could look up and detail each of those maneuvers, but it would probably lose any reader who didn’t have extensive knowledge of the martial arts in question. Instead, I could simplify it by concentrating on broad motions or simply stating something like ‘Emi and Rogers came together, each trying to find an advantage in their grapple. Hold met counter-hold and throw met with reversal until, finally, Emi got a solid grip on Roger’s lapels and hurled him over her shoulder onto the concrete floor.’
I understand this article may seem a little jumpy in focus and perhaps rambling, so let me try to summarize the basic points to be this:
- Length and detail of your fight scenes should match the importance of the fight to the plot or characterization.
- All fight scenes, no matter the importance, must have a clear flow of action and be understandable by your target audience of readers.
- When in doubt, let clarity trump detail in all situations
Questions? Comments? Input? Suggestions? Add them below!