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Monday, August 22, 2005

Writing Fight Scenes

I love martial arts movies and action flicks. So naturally I'd write action scenes.

I discovered that it takes a slightly different writing style. These are some of the things I learned, although this list isn't exhaustive by any means.

Action-Reaction

A fight scene is always Action-Reaction. He punches, she staggers back. She kicks, he blocks and swings a fist at her. Watch out for putting your reaction before your action:

She staggered back when he slammed his fist into her shoulder.

The rule of thumb is to have each action-reaction have its own paragraph, although that’s not always possible. Sometimes the sentences are too short for their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to the writer how to format it:

He swung a roundhouse punch.

She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.

versus:

He swung a roundhouse punch. She bent backward and felt his knuckles swish past her nose.

Short sentences = fast reading flow

Use short sentences and phrases to make reading flow run faster. Long, descriptive sentences slow the reading pace. In a fight scene, you want your reader to be skimming the page, rolling with the punches, swinging with the kicks. Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase or a sentence for each move, at most two short sentences. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action gallop along:

He paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to his left. He turned, lashed out blindly, felt his fist connect with muscled flesh, heard a soft “Oomph.”

Vary sentence length

Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other:

He punched. She ducked. He kicked. She twisted.

Or

He turned at the sound of running feet. A body ran into him as he stood there. He hit the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.

Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:

Running feet. He turned. A body ran into him, throwing him into the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into his bare arms.

Be creative, be efficient

Be creative with your sparse prose. Since you only have a sentence or so for each move, you need to be innovative with how you describe it. Use imaginative verbs to convey more than just the action. “He crunched his fist into her face” paints a vivid picture of both the blow and the pain it causes.

Most readers can extrapolate from what you’ve written so that you don’t have to describe every nuance of motion. Even a simple phrase like “a flying roundhouse kick” will convey powerful images of a graceful martial arts student in mid-flight. You don’t have to describe the arc of motion, the angle of the foot, the twisting of the torso. Give your readers credit and let their imaginations fill in for you.

Momentum and moves

Martial arts fighting is usually about momentum. The next move flows from where the last one ended. If your heroine swings a roundhouse kick, where is her weight when she lands, on which foot? Is she straight up or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum. If she kicked in a clockwise motion, her next kick will also probably be clockwise.

I am not ashamed to admit I’ll often try to act out fight sequences (not very well) in order to figure out momentum and balance (just make sure no one can see you :-). I will mimic a kick and observe how my weight shifts, or what area of my body is exposed.

Use variation. Lots of punches will look the same after a while. Vary hand blows with kicks. However, make sure each movement will naturally follow the previous one in terms of momentum and body balance. If she steps into a right handed punch, it will be difficult for her to follow with a right front kick because her weight will be on that foot, but a left front kick would follow easily.

Watch lots of fight scenes on TV and in movies. Granted, they are all choreographed, but it allows you to observe the flow of momentum and get ideas for moves. Be wary of the more unusual moves--they’re sometimes a bit too unrealistic or too difficult to describe. Remember, each move should only take up a sentence, and phrases need to be short. If a really cool move is so complex that you can’t describe it in a sentence, maybe it needs to be simplified or cut out of the scene.

There’s also several reality fighting shows on TV these days that give you a better idea of the rhythm and flow of a true spar. It’s definitely not as pretty as a choreographed fight scene. The writer can choose to mimic the nature of a real fight or to suspend reality and describe a smoother flowing fight. Most readers will follow either method.

If you have any other tips and tricks, please e-mail me! I can always use more ideas and I'd love to add to this list.

5 comments:

  1. Hey Camy,

    I actually take a martial art so writing fight scenes with kicks and punches in them is a little easier for me.

    I do act out some of my scenes, but sometimes I'll grab someone to act it out with me so I know who is doing what. It really helps especially when I have the whole scene in my head and I'm trying to figure out how to write it down.

    You're advice really helped me! I noticed I had a couple sentances when I said things wrong like "His fist pounded into her chest, after she avoided his iron kick."

    Thanks!
    Victoria

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  2. That's awesome! I used to take martial arts but haven't done it in a while. These days, I watch mixed martial arts on TV to see what unscripted fights look like.

    I totally try to act out some of my fight scenes! In figuring out the fight scene at the end of my book Deadly Intent, I accidentally jabbed my finger in my husband's eye! Oy! Poor guy!

    I'm glad this article helped!
    Camy

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  3. i love your blog!!! you helped me so much. forever thankful naomi c. bradford.

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  4. So awesome! Writing a huge fight scene and this helped so much! any advice on how to keep a story moving forward? I hav a small problem with over detailing:-)

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  5. Thanks Naomi!

    Anonymous, pacing is always hard. One thing I do is step away from the manuscript for a few weeks and then go back over it. I'll usually be able to pinpoint where I've let the prose lag and be able to delete what isn't necessary.

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