Saturday, June 30, 2012

Technical Topics - Fight Scene

I was thinking about how we do fight scenes.  I'm kinda writing one.  Though not quite.

It's more an ambush scene.

So, anyhow,  I've gone back to look at a particular fight scene.  This one occurs early in My Lord and Spymaster.  Adrian and Sebastian meet Jess in an alley.  Violence ensues. No surprise.

Now, unlike those guys who write car chases for the movies, I'm not just fitting in 8 minutes of special effects.  I'm trying to tell 'story' with this fight action. Story leads up to the fight, lies inside it, and continues afterwards.
The little scenelet here is not really 'about' the fighting (though fighting might be the whole point in another sort of book.)  My goal, in writing this fight scene, is to show Sebastian's reaction, rather than the details of fight.

Writing fight scenes or furious action scenes of any kind, the technique includes short, easy sentences and lots of Germanic-origin words. Lots of white space. You try not to get bogged down in description. And, of course, the POV character thinks and acts like himself all through the action.  You use all your POV tricks to make this happen.

So let me look at a fight scene.


"Behind you! Sebastian!" Adrian's shout.

He saw them then. Silent as beetles, two men scuttled toward him.

More followed, slipping from doorways and corners. Under cover of the rain and fog, the pack had stalked in, unseen, converging from three directions. They were Irish, from the Gaelic they tossed back and forth. They carried knives and clubs and chains. These were vermin from the dockside, deadly and cold as ice.* They'd sent the girl as a honey pot to hold him while the gang closed in. She'd smiled at him while she was planning to watch him die. **

"Run from me." He let her loose. "Run fast."

But she backed away, wide eyed, breathing hard.*** "How? Nobody knows I'm here." That was shock in her voice and fear. She turned in a circle, looking for a hole in the net closing round them. And he knew she was no part of this. No decoy.

"More of them down that way. A baker's dozen." Adrian dropped out of the fog, into his usual place, taking the left. They were two against that many. Long odds.

He picked a target--one in front, where his friends would see him die--and threw.^ The bravo collapsed with a sucking, bubbling neck wound. The familiar stink of death rose in the alley. He pulled his second knife.

The thugs hesitated, sending glances back and forth, fingering blade and cudgel. Attack or retreat. It could go either way.

Then one man broke ranks and lunged for the girl.

She was fast as a little cat. He'd give her that. Cat quick, writhing, she bit the filthy arm that held her and knocked a knife aside and wrenched loose. She skipped back, clutching a long shallow cut on her forearm. "Not hurt. I'm not hurt."

attrib colorblot
No tears, no screams. Pluck to the backbone. She was also damnably in his way. He shoved her behind him, between him and Adrian. Protected as she could be.

If this lasts long, she'll get killed
. "Mine on the right." He threw and his blade hit badly and glanced off a collar bone. ^^ One man down. One wounded. That would have been two dead if he'd had the sense to stay sober. "Waste of a knife. Damn."

His last knife was in his boot. Not for throwing. This one was for killing up close.

He forced his mind to the pattern the attackers wove, trying to spot the leader. Kill the leader and the others might scatter. Adrian danced a path through the bullyboys, breaking bones with that lead-weighted cane of his. ^^^

No way to get the woman to safety. She stayed in his shadow, using him as a shield, white-faced. She's been in street fights before.

Then he didn't think about her at all. Chain whistled past. He grabbed it and jerked the man off balance and drove his knife through a gap in the leather waistcoat, up under the breastbone, to the heart.

For an instant he stood locked, face to face, with the man he'd just killed--a thickset red-head with pale skin and vicious, gleeful, mad blue eyes. Outrage and disbelief pulsed out at him . . . and drained away. The eyes went blank.

Then the dead bastard thrashed, rolled with the knife, and took it down with him as he fell.

No time to get it back. A crowbar cracked down on his shoulder with a bright, sour, copper pain. He fell, dodged a boot, and rolled away as Adrian took down his attacker.

The girl screamed.

Up. He had to get up. He was on his feet, shaking his head, trying to see through a black haze. The girl was stretched between two men, being dragged away. He staggered through madness and confusion, fog and pain. Adrian was swearing a blue streak.

Under the chaos, he heard a monstrous racket of wheels on cobblestone. A goods wagon rounded the corner.

The girl tore loose, leaving her cloak behind. She reeled straight into the path of the horses and slipped on wet cobbles. She had a split second to look up and see hooves. Her face was a mask of raw terror.

He launched himself toward her. Too late. He knew he'd be too late.
The driver wrenched on the reins. Horses reared and squealed.

Frantic, she jack-knifed away from the striking hooves. She was so close to scrambling to safety . . .

attrib onceandfuturelaura
She slipped on the rain-slick cobbles. The wagon skidded. Iron rims shrieked on the stone. The wheel hit the side of her head with a soft, horrible thud. She whipped around, and wavered upright for an instant, and slumped to the dirty stones of the street.

Gaelic broke out. Shouts back and forth. Limping, dragging their wounded with them, the gang retreated.

He stepped over a body and ran to the girl.

She lay huddled on her side, as if sleeping, covered with blood and mud, her pretty dress torn halfway off her. Her hand lay upcurled on the cobbles, open to the falling rain.


* We've done a description of the alley in the chapter and a half before this so we don't have to describe the setting any.  We do have to sketch of description of the oncoming villains, because they are a new addition.  Having sketched them in right first,  we don't need to talk about the setting or the combatants during the actual fight sequence. This is a Good Thing.

** This fight scene serves several story purposes. One purpose is to show Sebastian that Jess is honest. In the fight scene we travel from Sebsatian suspecting her to Sebastian admiring her.
Because Sebastian changes his mind, the fight scene is also a transformation scene. Important stuff happens that could only happen under this sort of challenge.

attrib filmhirek
*** A fight scene is not just blows and weapons and footwork.  When appropriate, it's facial expression and body reaction.

^ We don't say, 'Sebastian is a skilled fighter'. We show him well-armed.  We show him planning and thinking like a skilled fighter.

^^ Fights are not just about skilled moves, perfectly executed. There's also one klutz screwup after another and good, solid, well-planned actions that don't work.

^^^ My fight scenes are wordy and internalized, rather than fast, brutal and explicit.  That's because I'm writing historical love stories aimed at women.  I figger at least some of them do not want to hear the details of blood and gore.  The '8-minute-car-chase' school of writing may not appeal.

What suits my purposes will not suit everybody.  Learning to write fight scenes involves comparing the flavor and technique of many styles.

Oh.  I said it's good to use all the POV tricks.  Here's the ones included.

-- Internal Monologue: If this lasts long, she'll get killed.

-- Self-directed comments that do not quite become Internal Monologue: No time to get it back; Up. He had to get up; Too late. He knew he'd be too late.

-- Specialized knowledge only the POV character can have: Adrian dropped out of the fog, into his usual place, taking the left.

-- Word choice that sounds like the POV character talking: fast as a little cat; damnably in his way; pluck to the backbone; the dead bastard thrashed.  Sebastian calls Jess, 'The woman' because he doesn't know her name yet.

-- Decision by the POV character, provided without buffer: He picked a target; he threw.

-- Judgement and assessment made by the POV character: That would have been two dead if he'd had the sense to stay sober; Kill the leader and the others might scatter.

-- Sensation is POV-directed and POV-immediate: he stood locked, face to face, with the man; disbelief pulsed out at him; a bright, sour, copper pain.


  1. Excellent detailed tutorial. Story and character can't be halted for the sake of a few cool moves.

  2. Now I'm going to pick a fight with my characters and see if I can write the scene--much helpful, particularly the concept that it's a transformation scene.

  3. AND it occurs to me that this is all good advice for a hot scene too... Maybe even better advice for a hot scene.

  4. If you collected all of your writing advice and put it into a book, I'd buy it. Yes, even though I can get it on your blog for free. You explain everything so well and in a way that instantly makeshift think about how I can apply it to my own writing.

    Thanks for all the excellent writing advice (and excellent books too)!

  5. Exactly. We move our characters through a story arc of change and discovery. Through a relationship arc with the other characters.

    We can do this in talking heads and a comfortable room. We can do it when our POV character is in solitude.

    That quiescent time can fine-tune complicated realizations and discoveries. (cf Pax in the garden at the Palais-Royal, thinking about why he's going to turn himself in. Jess on the rooftop about to make a big jump, recognizing that she's afraid.)

    But moments of high danger and drama give us access to what might be called macro personal change and self-discovery. (cf Annique and Grey fighting with the garotte and coming away with a more accurate understanding of one another.)

  6. Hi Sandy --

    I am so unproductive. Where am I going to find time to put together a writing book?

    And you know, there are just a lot of them out there already.

  7. This was a terrific post and incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for sharing!

  8. I sure hope you find it useful. These high-energy, highly emotional scenes can do so much for our characters. We just kinda ... funnel the characters through them.

  9. Thanks Jo. I have a couple of fight scenes in my story, but since it's not "that sort of story" they're really hard to write. You've made me realise I just need to stay in POV and let them do what happens.
    I needed that.

  10. Hi Jill --

    Very much so. If the protagonist almost gets hit by a car or almost drowned or most falls over a cliffside, writers know they're supposed to stay inside his head while this is happening so we get his reaction to the drama.

    Somehoworother, as soon as you say 'fight scene' people back away to Omniscient Narrator and start describing where the kicks are connecting and who jumps into limber rabbit position or raises a claymore. Bruce Lee is 'about' the fighting technique. A Romance story ... not so much.

  11. NOW I know how to fix that fight scene that just wasn't working.
    Thank you.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Wonderful info, Jo!

  14. Anonymous3:29 PM

    Hi Jo. That was great. I liked that scene when I read it in the book. But I love the way you disect it. Thanks so much.

  15. Hi Lil,

    When you say something might have helped you in your writing, I am just so touched. Thank you.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Hi Ella Quinn --

    I don't have to tell you -- the scene we see is never the scene the reader sees.

    I talked to folks who've been in genuine fights. They say it's all confusion. Perception is choppy and select. You get little images flashing by, not an overall picture. And real fights are brief.

    I have compromised between reality and what-I-need. As always.

    This is the submission draft. I hope I got some of the awkwrdness out in the edits.

  18. Hi Zan Marie --

    I hope you find it useful. No matter how peaceable we ourselves may be, our characters can get a little violent.