The first symptom of a poorly written fight scene is: too much violence. Characters flail away at each other in a multitude of fancy ways, the body count rises, the gore gushes, and it all blends together in an emotion-numbing jumble until readers are tempted to skip to the end to find out who wins so we can get back to the story. The writer who doesn’t know what he really wants from the fight covers it up with technical details and mayhem. Watch a Transformer movie if you don’t know what I mean.
And love scenes? Same thing. Lots of graphic description of body parts in motion, but strangely unsatisfying. Watch “Fifty Shades of Vanilla” as one reviewer called it. Love and fight scenes cover two primary human activities: taking life and creating it. Let’s see how to make the best of connecting to the basic (note I didn’t say ‘baser’) instincts of our readers.
What Does the Reader Want?
What many writers aren’t picking up on is that the major content of any fight is emotion. Think about real life. A fight happens only after everything else has failed, and the emotions of the participants reach the point where they boil over. Writers who don’t know how to control the suspense in their stories think the secret to a good fight scene is the moves made by the fighters. It isn’t. The secret is in the emotions: empathy, fear, suspense.
Think of a fight scene as a short story in itself. All the usual writing techniques apply: an empathetic protagonist, a hated antagonist, objectives that clash, and, above all, a carefully orchestrated back-and-forth of power to increase the suspense.
Romance writers are far ahead on this one. Don’t just jump into the fight. It’s an old acting precept that it’s sadder watching someone trying not to cry. Same with fights. If your character doesn’t want to get into the fight in the first place, you can create a lot of tension through the suspense that happens before the first blow is struck. The first conflict is “Will there be a fight?” With love scenes, you really need at least a little sexual tension between the characters. If it’s a foregone conclusion that they’re going to hop into bed, you’re missing out on the chance for a lot of suspense.
How close does he get? The first act of violence is always intrusion into the victim’s bubble of safety. This sets up the characters’ intentions and starts the suspense. What does the villain intend, and how does the hero react to that?
He stuck his face forward, and she could smell his breath, rank with garlic and cheap wine. She stumbled back, her hand groping behind her for support. He straightened and moved towards her, laughing.
And I suppose that could be the start of a love scene as well.
Think of all the subtle ways of threatening someone: walking around behind him, making a sudden move to startle him. That horror-movie standby: just being where you’re not expected to be. One of the most effective ways of intimidation I have ever seen was in an improv scene by an actor who was a former biker. He talked in a calm, cool voice, but all the while he was “grooming” his victim: picking lint from his shirt, straightening his tie, dusting his shoulders off. Every move he made said, “I am completely in control of your body.” Frightening.
In the next installment, we’ll go into the technical versus emotional details of “the fight”.
26 thoughts on “How to Write a Fight (or Love) Scene”
Excellent points, Gordon. I hadn’t ever equated fight scenes with love scenes, but I can see here that they’re very similar. Looking back on scenes I’ve done, I think I’ve been successful for all the reasons you list. Great post!
Yeah, well I wish I could write as well as I tell other people to!
Pretty darned good post – thanks for the hints.
Thanks for the kind words. The second half is even more fun (IMHO, of course)
As a lover of Bruce Lee’s balletic fighting style, or at least the movie versions of it, there are some fights I love watching for the sheer beauty of the movement. In general, though, I totally agree that fight scenes and love scenes bear an eery similarity to each other, especially that bit about personal space. Moving into someone’s personal space can be /the/ most sensuous part of a love scene.
Haven’t watched a Bruce Lee movie for a while, but I seem to recall he always did a good job of setting up the expectations of the audience before the fight started. I mean, we really cared whether he won or not.
Before writing I read part of the “The Art of War.” It REALLY helped improve the quality of my fight scenes. I am no fighter nor war-monger but fighting was vital in my dolphin story, which has many altercations with sharks and other even nastier marine beasties. Sometimes the sharks win and dolphins die. Sometimes dolphins win and surviving sharks clean up the dead and dying of their own kind. It’s nearly always a fight to the death. As a confirmed pacifist I was amazed at how much fun it is to write a good fight scene.
My mother once said, “You know if Tui writes a book, at least you can guarantee there will never be anything bloodthirsty in it.” WRONG.
I’d guess that, since you are writing dophin-vs-shark battles, you aren’t going to fall into the trap of using too many technical terms 🙂
True, its just ripping flesh and bashing and darting and dodging and blood pouring and teeth snapping.
Sounds perfectly lovely.
Does your mother know what she created?
Excellent points, Gordon. For me, the emotions and tension leading up to the love scene or the fight are usually more interesting and reveal much more about the characters than the actual acts. Love the example of the biker. Wow, that’s chilling.
And even once you get into the action, it really helps if you use the personalities of the fighters (or the lovers) to influence the fight. For example, is this person likely to cheat? Is it in this character’s personality to make a certain kind of mistake?
Nobody’s quoted “All’s fair in love and war” yet? 😉
Gordon, I agree with you about graphic battle scenes (whether violent or sexual). I read a fair amount of epic fantasy, and I’ve gotten to the point where I practically skim the big battle scenes. I find the interactions between characters — verbal sparring and seduction among them — a whole lot more compelling.
Great post, by the way. 🙂
Maybe when we were twenty we were more interested in that sort of thing. Well, maybe fifteen?
If there is one thing worse than a fight scene – or a love scene for that matter – being too detailed with physical description, it’s incorrect or just plain physically, unbelievable descriptions.
Good post, Gordon.
I think that’s just the extension of the “more detail is better” scenario. Except written by someone who doesn’t even have the knowledge to do the details right. At least the interminable Transformer battles are beautifully choreographed.
Great points, Gordon, and I agree. For me, emotion is the most important part of writing. Here’s the problem, however: Look at the success of TV shows or movies with graphic violence and sex? It’s the nature of our world today–a sad commentary, actually. Without graphic violence or sex, many people consider the book they’re reading or the program they’re watching boring!
I guess we write for our audiences, and accept the financial consequences 🙁
But then we feel really good about ourselves, don’t we?
Excellent points, Gordon. I always say fight scenes are something I have a tough time with because I don’t know enough about the technicalities. What this post has done for me is make me realise that focusing on thought and feeling instead was not a bad idea. I was on the right track all along. 🙂
It never occurred to me to doubt that you would be on the right track, Yvonne!…(but then, I had to say that, didn’t I? 🙂
I mean, “It never occurred to me to doubt.” Isn’t there any way we can edit these things?
I can edit it for you, but you have to be really, really nice to me. 😉
Naw, you can leave it up as an object lesson in proof-reading before you hit “Send.”
Oh sure. Wait until AFTER I correct it for you to say that 😛
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