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Offline NorthernLights

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Fight Scenes 101
« on: Fri, Sep 12, 2008, 06:57 PM »
Thoughts and hints from the Hive Mind  

Fight Scenes 101  

Quote
Introducing Fight Scenes

There are a wide variety of action scenes and fight scenes that you will come across in your time as a writer. Some are easy to write. Person A walks into a room, doesn't see person B and is therefore surprised when Person B knocks them unconscious. Some are vastly more complicated. The purpose of this course is to help you perfect the simple ones - once you have them down, the complex ones are a snap.

Fight and action sequences aren't easy. They do require practice. Sometimes, they require you to go the extra yard and try something for yourself. By this we do not mean attempting some of the gymnastics that are by definition involved. We are not athletes or trained gymnasts and our back wouldn't thank us if we tried. But what you can do is walk through the steps. If you've stepped forward on your left leg, how easy is it to then kick with your left? If you're balanced on one leg, how practical is it to throw a right hook?

Other ways you can practice: Pay attention to the fight scenes you see in TV shows and films. You can learn a huge amount about what the human body really can and can't do in them. Watch professional wrestling from time to time. As fixed and as fake as it is in sporting terms, the gymnastics involved with the moves, particularly the high-flying moves, are real and it is a very real resource when it comes to seeing how the human body reacts in a fight.

Lastly, it doesn't matter if you don't know your round house kicks from your thrust-parry-ripostes. The chances are your readers don't know that level of detail either and so will be confused if you just toss jargon at them; and if by chance they do know some form of martial arts (from fencing to judo to rapier work to karate) and you get your jargon wrong, you may either annoy them or cause them to laugh (this is something we have learned the hard way and would not wish the experience on anyone else).

The three most common types of fight scene are:
One on One
Many on One
Many on Many - a mêlée or major battle, in other words

All of the 'step' essays are broken down into two main sections. Firstly, the primary explanation, which is usually between three and four paragraphs. Then secondly a few quick tips. Anything that shows up like this:
Introducing Fight Scenes

is an example of what the essay is discussing, or is something for you to try.

The first four 'step' essays are written from the point of view of writing One on One fights. Step 5 introduces the idea of more than one opponent, while Step 6 deals with the biggest sorts of fight scenes. The last essay, 'Other Types of Action', deals with anything else you may come across while writing action.

So. You have your hero, you have your villain. They need to have some form of confrontation and the chances are, that confrontation needs to be a fight of some description. But where do you start?

Step 1: Location, Location, Location

Your physical location will have an effect on your fight so before you start writing, you need to be sure that you know your way around the location and have thought about any potential obstacles.

If your characters are fighting in any kind of room, there may furniture that has to be considered - you can't have your characters just randomly walking through a table unless their name is Kitty Pryde. If this is a sword fight, then you also need to consider things like ceiling height. If it's a low ceiling, or if there are dangling light fittings, such as chandeliers, then it's probably not realistic to have two characters swinging their swords over their heads.

Ceiling Height Experiment

Stand in the middle of the room you're currently in and hold your arm straight up above your head. This is your reach. See how far away your hand is from the ceiling. Now repeat the experiment, but holding a piece of wood that is roughly three feet in length (which is a reasonable length for a sword). This gives you the clearance you would have for a sword fight in this room.

Also something that needs to be considered is what kind of ground the characters are standing on. Sand or grit is far harder to move around on as compared to solid earth; a fixed rug is easier to move on than a polished wood floor. We aren't saying that all your fights should take place on something solid, firm and non-slip (that would be boring), but it is something that needs to be factored into your scene if you want it to sound believable.

A third thing to be aware of is whether or not your ground is level, and for that matter, whether the ground is stationary - for example, if you're writing for Pirates of the Caribbean, you may well be writing a fight scene on the deck of a ship which is generally anything but level or stationary!

Tips:

    * Pick a location that you're familiar with. We don't mean limit yourself to places you've actually visited (that would be dull and restricting in the extreme). We do mean locations that your favourite show uses regularly. The more familiar you are with the location, the easier it is to fix it in your mind for writing. Once you're confident with your scenes, you can move on to less familiar and/or complex locations.
    * Draw a plan of your location. It doesn't have to be high art, but it will help you keep the location straight in your mind, particularly if you're dealing with a complex location.
    * Mark onto the plan the movements you think your characters are likely to make. Again, this will help you keep the location straight in your mind, it will also help you to avoid having your characters suddenly walk through obstacles.

Step 2: Weapons and Weaponry

There is two types of fighting, armed and unarmed. Some of the time, your fandom will dictate what sort of fight you're writing - if you're writing in Highlander then you probably have a sword duel - but other fandoms - for example Buffy - have more flexibility and choice.

If you're going for armed combat then weapons choice comes into play. What you choose has to make sense, based on your location and based on your characters. Is it realistic to give a small character a big weapon? How practical is it for someone who's under five foot to wield a sword that's as long (or longer) as they are? Does that weapon exist in the time period you're writing for?

Research is a sad fact of writing, and when choosing weapons for your characters to use, it is definitely worth doing some just to make sure you're not making obvious mistakes. To make life easier, we have created a basic weapons database which contains data such as the date the weapon was first used, the length of the weapon (extremely useful for swords) and, with guns/muskets, the relative accuracy.

Beyond the obvious, there are other types of weaponry available to you in your scene, so even if you start off with unarmed combat, there is no reason why it has to finish unarmed. This category of weapons includes bottles, books, handfuls of dirt, chairs, tables...in fact, just about anything that isn't nailed down can be used as a weapon.

One other thing to consider when picking weaponry is the relative strengths and weaknesses of your characters. An honourable character is unlikely to do something as inherently dishonourable as throwing dirt into the face of their opponent. An experienced, trained fighter will be much more aware of their surroundings and so be more open to improvisation and using whatever comes to hand. Someone who is trained but who has little or no experience is much more likely to stick to their training only. Someone with no training at all may either improvise out of desperation, or they may freak out and cling to whatever their weapon happens to be (in which case, this is entirely likely to be a very short fight).

Tips:

    * Know your characters and know your fandom. This makes it a lot easier when it comes to choosing weaponry.
    * If you're writing for Highlander, it is definitely worth while learning some of the technical terms when it comes to swords and parts of swords - this is possibly the one fandom out where the majority of readers do know their jargon.

Step 3: Language

This can be split into two sections, dialogue and description. We will deal with dialogue first.

In fight dialogue is something that is common to many fandoms:

"Slayer."/"Slayee."
"You cheated!"/"Pirate!"
"Just because I don't like to fight, doesn't mean I can't."

Particularly if one of your characters is a smart mouth, you will need to be able to put in suitable dialogue as you write otherwise you will have that character acting out of character. As this will depend entirely on your characters and the fandom you are writing for, we have only two pieces of advice on this point. Firstly, writing out the fight 'grunts' (and this particularly applies to fandoms such as Power Rangers) is not a good idea and may conceivably reduce your readers to giggles. Focus on proper dialogue and the action and leave the 'hiyahs' to your reader's imagination. Secondly, mid-fight is not the place for a thirty-line soliloquy. Your dialogue should be kept short and snappy (see the three examples above).

Moving onto the description, word choice for your description is important. Fighting and action is a very visual subject matter. It works very well on screen in film and TV, but it can be hard to translate that to the written page and it can lead to over description.

Which of these two punches takes the longest to actually arrive?

- He clenched his fist tightly, drew his arm back and pushed it forward at a lightning pace, sending it surging towards his enemy's unsuspecting jaw in a powerful right cross.
- He clenched his fist tightly and threw a staggering right hook that connected, snapping his enemy's head back with the force of the blow.

The answer is the second one does. The first one tells you a lot about the punch, but most of that description gets in the way of the actual action, leaving you with the feeling that you're watching someone move in slow motion, and fight scenes should be something that feel as if they're happening at speed.

To avoid the slow-mo effect, keep your description simple. Use short words and short sentence structures to give the words more bite. Fragments, particularly one word fragments, can be very effective.

Which has more impact:

- He fell, hard, tripping on the uneven ground, leaving him robbed of breath and dazed. He ached so badly that he had no idea how he was going to stand again.
- He fell. Hard. Tripped by the uneven ground. He lay dazed and gasping for breath. And he ached! He had to get up. He didn't know how he'd ever do it again.

Again, it's the second one. Note: Fragments are grammatically incorrect (we would be remiss if we did not point this out!), so should be used carefully.

Also to bear in mind, your word choice should be varied. This is a basic rule of writing - repetition of the same adjectives gets tedious for both reader and writer - but in fight scenes, you may find you're more limited. Have a good thesaurus and dictionary to hand (if you use the former, make sure you double check in the latter in case your alternative doesn't mean quite what you think) so that if you find yourself constantly using 'hit' you can vary it with 'punch', 'strike', 'slap', 'thump'...

Tips:

    * Keep it simple.
    * Keep it short.
    * Keep it snappy.

Step 4: Putting Pen To Paper

Once you've done all your homework and planning, you're ready to start writing your scene.

Tips:

    * Relax! Fight scenes aren't easy, but they're not worth breaking out into a cold sweat over.
    * When you've finished your first draft, put it away for a day or so, then come back to it and look at it objectively. This way, you will be more likely to spot the places that need fine tuning.
    * Get a second opinion. Ask a friend to look it over and get their feedback. Ask a leading author in the fandom you write for if they'd mind taking a look over it for you (do NOT blindly email a perfect stranger your entire story, that's rude, may cause the victim problems, will not endear you to the victim and may just provoke the FS101 Hive Mind to come after you with a sharp object).
    * Write your second draft.
    * Look it over again, and if you're happy with it, post it.

Step 5: Against The Odds

So far, all we've talked about has been with a view to writing a one on one fight, and while that works for some fandoms, for others, it doesn't begin to scratch the surface. Many times on shows like Buffy or Power Rangers or Queen of Swords, you have one character facing off against at least two opponents, and while this might sound like it's vastly harder to do than one on one, it isn't.

For two (or more) on one fights, you still need to go through your location details as you would for a one on one fight, bearing in mind that if the location is relatively small or enclosed, the more opponents your hero has, the easier it actually is for the hero. (Why? Because the opponents have only one target and are likely to get in each other's way in trying to get to that one target, giving your hero a better than even chance of getting them first.)

You also need to go through your weaponry options as you would for a one on one fight. Certain weapons become nearly useless at close quarters (cross bows, for example) while others are awkward to use (swords) though not impossible.

Before you move onto the word choice and the actual writing, though, there is one other aspect that you need to have firmly fixed in your mind. The number of opponents your hero is facing. The fewer you're dealing with, the more important it becomes. It's extremely unlikely that anyone will notice if you forget about one out of a crowd of thirty bad guys, but if you've got three and you only deal with two, people will notice.

While we mention the crowd of bad guys possibility, we would point out that unless your character is some sort of empowered being (for example, a Power Ranger, Buffy, Wolverine or another superhero type) the plausibility level for them surviving those kind of odds is low, and even for those with special powers, it's not great. We aren't saying never have those kind of odds – far from it, we are aware that there are times when that is precisely the kind of fight you need for your story – just urging you to keep it believable.

On, then, to word choice. For two (or more) on one, it's almost more important to keep your sentences short and snappy than it is for one on one; this is because not only have you got the speed of the action to cope with, but you also need to create a sense of urgency. The last thing you want to do is write the equivalent of a 1960s Batman episode where the flunkies could be seen literally queuing up to be hit by Batman!

Tips:

    * When it comes to keeping a count of how many opponents you've dealt with, keep a scrap of paper handy as you write so that you can literally keep a tally count of them.
    * Relax. Really, we do mean this. We know that there are more variables to keep track of in a many-on-one fight, but it's still not something to come out in a cold sweat over.

Step 6: Free For All

You have one on ones perfected. You're confident with your hero facing the odds on his or her own. It's now time to try the big one. The one where all your Scoobies take on a Hell God and her minions, the one where your X-team takes on Magneto and friends, the one… You get the idea.

As before, you need to go through your location details. If you have a lot of people fighting in a small space, both sides are going to be hampered to an extent, with the one with the fewest numbers probably coming off best. (Why? Because the opponents have fewer targets and are likely to get in each other's way in trying to get to those fewer targets.)

Weapons choice is also the same as before, bearing in mind that certain weapons are next to useless at close quarters while others are awkward to use.

The number of people involved is something you need to consider. This applies to both sides, particularly if you have a very much smaller team facing a horde (for example Buffy and the Scoobies taking on a Hell God's army). We have read far too many stories that have reached the climactic battle only for the author to forget about a character or characters who've been important up to that point.

Word choice is also very key. Short and snappy sentences to keep the action flowing fast and to keep the tension up. But in addition to word choice, there is also another language/style issue that needs to be addressed: The point of view you write the battle from.

This isn't something we have mentioned before because in general terms, a one on one fight will be written automatically from the point of view of one of the combatants while a one on many fight will generally be written from the one's point of view. (We note that neither of these are hard and fast rules, but simply the general/natural trend of writing.) With a big battle, however, point of view does come into play as we return to the question of how best to translate something very visual onto the written page.

With a television show or film, you can zoom in on different parts of the battlefield with ease or show the whole thing at one go. On paper, it is far harder, unless there's an innocent bystander who can give you the outside point of view, so you have two choices. Either you can use an omniscient point of view, or you pick limited points of view.

Pros and Cons:
- P: Omniscient will allow you to show everything without having to break things up too much.
- C: Omniscient can be potentially confusing, particularly if up to that point you've been using limited points of view.
- P: Limited allows you to get very much closer to the action and into the head of one of the characters during the action.
- C: If you're using one character, unless that character can take a brief break from the action to look around, it's very difficult to show what's going on around them without unnecessarily chopping up your action with scene breaks.
- P: Limited does permit you to concentrate on only one aspect of the fight at a time, essentially breaking it down into a series of one on one fights.

Which you pick will largely depend on what you're comfortable with and what your story requires. We would note, however, that if you pick omniscient please do not switch location mid-paragraph. Not only is this poor grammar but it is dizzying in a fast paced action scene and it will leave your readers confused.

Tips:

    * Keep a careful tally count of your characters from both sides of a big battle.
    * Location plans are especially useful for mapping out who is where on the battlefield.
    * If the prospect of writing a battle is daunting to you, go for the limited point of view option which will allow you to break the battle up into some little one on one fights.
    * We know that big battles are intimidating – we have been intimidated by our fair share – but the more tense and worried you are about it, the harder it will be, so our final word here is relax!

Other Types of Action

Much of what we've described for fight scenes holds good for other types of action sequence, but in the interests of providing an all-round action guide, here are a few brief notes on other types of action. (If there is a type that we don't currently cover, feel free to drop us an email and ask us to add it.)

Chase Sequences:
Nowhere is the maxim of short and snappy more applicable than in a chase sequence. Possibly, it's even more applicable than in fight scenes. By definition, a chase needs to be fast moving and tense. Will the characters escape? Will they be caught? Short sentences and fragments, carefully used, will create that tension and pacing.

Falls/Jumps:
These are a piece of action that we see abused more often than any other. We suspect this is because writers occasionally forget that they are dealing with a piece of action that is essentially very simple. As long as your action begins and ends, any and all description will add to the event. In the case of a fall or a jump, the speed/pacing is not crucial, but if you forget to say your character lands then you've abused the fall or jump.


Offline evilgrin

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Re: Fight Scenes 101
« Reply #1 on: Fri, Sep 12, 2008, 07:04 PM »
thanks, NL!

Fight scenes are exciting but they always rattle the hell out of me, leaving me feeling drained and exhausted. I live that damned thing over and over as I'm writing and my muscles are so tight that I have to go have a lie down afterward....shudder
Elaine:)

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Offline NorthernLights

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Re: Fight Scenes 101
« Reply #2 on: Fri, Sep 12, 2008, 07:11 PM »
:giggle

and that's why I almost always resort to a peacemaker or a glock... so much easier to shoot someone than beat the hell out of them

Offline evilgrin

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Re: Fight Scenes 101
« Reply #3 on: Fri, Sep 12, 2008, 08:02 PM »
yep, hahahha
Elaine:)

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It was a rainy night in the big city. A hard rain. Hard enough to wash the scum off the streets. And I'm stuck in it without an umbrella. What a tool.

Offline silver

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Re: Fight Scenes 101
« Reply #4 on: Thu, Sep 18, 2008, 08:10 PM »
Great info!
I love this stuff; hope I get the chance to use it correctly.


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Offline Bitten

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Re: Fight Scenes 101
« Reply #5 on: Tue, Nov 11, 2008, 08:21 AM »
This is great! I always have so much trouble with this kind of stuff. I try to plan realistic fights, but I always keep them short because I don't know what I'm doing. I think it's especially hard to write Xander, because he can use odd things as weapons and do athletic stuff that I can't visualize. Thanks for posting this; I think it will be helpful. :D