Fight! Part I: What Freeze/Flight/Fight Feels Like.

Fight! Part II: What Fighting Feels Like.

Fight! Part III: What Avoiding a Fight Feels Like

The other essays focus on some of the real-life elements that fighting involves, but this one is more specifically about constructing fictional fights.

Realism

Fight scenes in fiction aren’t all meant to be realistic, or to read as if they are. The level of realism (or faux-realism) is one of the major things to be determined when writing a fight scene. By “realism,” I don’t mean whether there are fantasy elements involved, like telepathy, weightless leaping, vampire swords, etc, but whether the scene is meant to be read as plausible given its circumstances.

Most fights in farce are non-realistic, depending on perfectly choreographed and utterly unlikely chains of events, like the pie fights in How Much for Just the Planet? (Star Trek, No 36) or The Great Race. If you imagine realism as a bell curve, those fight scenes are way off to the right. Way off to the left you have fight scenes in memoirs in which the authors didn’t make everything up – they’re real fights artistically recreated. Most fictional fights are somewhere between those extremes.

If you’re aiming for non-realistic swashbuckling, the characters can exchange quips as they fight. If the scene is supposed to be realistic, keep in mind that they’re expending so much energy that it’s physically difficult to talk, let alone chat, once they begin, and will get harder as they continue. If you really want them to talk in complete sentences, build some breaks into the scene while they take cover, rest between rounds, etc.

“Dark and gritty and gross” does not necessarily mean “more realistic,” though it generally means, “readers are supposed to think it’s more realistic.” I feel like I’ve read fifty books in which someone gets killed and someone else smells the stink of them shitting themselves on death. This is no more realistic than not having this happen. In fiction, it seems to be more of a signifier of “dark and gritty,” with optional manliness points, than anything else.

Speaking of bodily effluvia, a rule of thumb about blood is that there’s usually either much less than you expect or much more. People who have been shot or stabbed to death can bleed out internally or die of shock, spilling maybe a tablespoon or so of blood outside their body. Conversely, if you continue free-sparring with someone who got a small cut on their face or hands, while you’re both dressed in white, within minutes you may both look like you slaughtered a pig and forgot to step back. That is to say, if you’re fighting someone who’s bleeding, you will get some blood on you. While I’m on the subject, arterial blood really is brilliant, fake-cherry red, and is so bright that it can be hard to see on a very sunny day. Blood that soaks into cloth stays damp and red, or at least reddish, for quite some time.

Tone

Tone – heroic, comic, gritty, elegant, exciting, brutal – and realism influence fight scenes in similar ways. Generally speaking, the more harsh the tone, the more pain hurts. If the fight is a non-realistic farce, nobody’s going to get cut by a sharp pie-tin edge or anything else. If it’s heroic swashbuckling, minor wounds are there to show who just scored a point and possibly to accent the hero’s cheekbones. If it’s a barehanded fight, played realistically and not for laughs, that might be a good time to have blood from a small cut get absolutely everywhere.

Character and Physicality

I’ve already written about a character’s prior experience with violence. Now you’re putting two characters together. Looking at what they bring to the fight, and how that differs between them, can often do most of the hard work of structuring the fight.

Why are they fighting, and how does this affect their will to win? Think of the song about the fox and the hare: “He is running for his supper/she is running for her life.”

How far are they willing to go to win? Are they willing to wound? Are they willing to kill? Is there a significant difference in willingness – say, one fighter is willing to kill, and the other is barely even willing to draw blood?

Why did they fail or not try to avoid the fight? Do they both want to fight, or does one or both have some deep-down reluctance that might be exploited by the other?

How much training do they have? How talented are they? How good are they at reading each other’s level of talent and training?

Are they both fighting in the same style in which they’re experienced, or has, for instance, a skilled swordfighter been forced to fight barehanded? Similarly, are they both used to fighting in this type of situation, or is a street fighter stuck obeying the rules of a formal duel? Have they fought in this type of terrain before?

What are their body types, what does that bring to the fight, and how do they exploit their differences? Are they used to fighting an opponent with this skill level/skill set/body type?

Are there any rules in this fight? Do the characters bring their own rules to it? (ie, “You don’t kick a man once he’s down.) Is one character going to exploit the other’s sense of fairness, or pick up on and mimic it?

Mentally speaking, are they both in the same place? If one is in a sparring mindset and one is in a no-thought berserker state, that will affect the fight a lot.

What’s their physical state? Do they have any super-human skills which can come into play? Are rested and ready? Totally exhausted? Drunk? Does anyone get wounded part-way into the fight? Does anyone have any kind of disability? (There’s a fantastic scene in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint in which the hero battles a one-armed swordsman.) Does anyone have some sort of imposed handicap, ie, not really left-handed? ;)

What are they wearing? Are they both dressed appropriately, or did someone have to rush out and fight in a ballgown and high heels? Can elements of their clothing, by design (like a padded sleeve) or cunning (the cloak they happened to be wearing) come into play?

Setting

Similarly to the character questions, answering these almost makes the scene write itself.

Where are they? Are there elements of the setting they can exploit or be tripped up by? Any bottles that can be broken over someone’s head, any sun to maneuver so it gets in an opponent’s eyes, any obstacles that can be tripped over?

Are there bystanders? What are they doing? Are they an obstacle, or potential allies?

Sample Fight

You can take a look at how the answers to some of those questions play out in the scene I’ve excerpted here. I’m using one of my own scenes because I know why I wrote it the way I did, not because I think it’s perfect, so feel free to nitpick. In the meantime, feel free to tell me what you notice about it in terms of the elements I’ve been discussing.

Also, of course, feel free to discuss any other elements of this post that you care to, discuss your favorite fight scenes, etc.
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