Pow, biff, ka-bam! That’s right, it’s time to talk about fight scenes. These are a staple of speculative fiction, and the movies make them look so easy! But anyone who’s ever written one knows that’s not the case, so today we’re discussing tips for making the process a little easier. We cover how to make the fight engaging in its own right, how to establish believable turning points, and when it’s better not to describe the fight at all. Plus, a little Shakespeare.
Generously transcribed by Sam. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening theme]
Wes: This episode is brought to you by our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Oren with me today is…
Oren: And today we’re going to have a fight on the podcast. It will be a fight scene even, and we will describe it in vivid detail.
Chris: Yeah. So right now my right arm is delivering a right hook to Oren’s left cheek (Ow!) and that hurts. And then my left leg is going to swirl around to trip him.
Oren: This is exactly how you should describe fight scene.,
Chris: Right. And I have a cape that’s also in the wind.
Oren: So the reason why I picked this is frankly that I’ve been reading a number of books with really bad fight scenes. And fight scenes are hard so I have some sympathy with writers who have difficulty with them.Certainly I have difficulty with them. So I thought this would be a useful topic to discuss. Chris I think I saw this in your notes, so that fascinated me. This idea that one of the main problems with fight scenes is that people are very influenced by cinematic fight scenes that they see, and then they try to replicate that in written form.
Chris: Yeah! I think just increasingly today, a lot of people are consuming stories and visual mediums, like TV shows, movies, not just visual, but of course they have animation and sound as well and movement. And I think there’s some substantial differences. And so we see a lot of people who try to take things from movies or TV shows into their writing, but it doesn’t quite work out. There’s some differences and there’s reasons why it doesn’t work as well and unfortunately fight scenes are one of those things where if you have a visual medium you can just make it look cool. And it doesn’t always work out perfectly like that. I think the storytelling rules still apply to fight scenes in movies, but for instance, if you’ve seen Black Panther, the fights there are just gorgeous, and there’s a certain level of excitement that comes from basically watching the choreographed movements, right? Like watching a dance. But if you can imagine putting in your written work, trying to give your reader the sensation of watching somebody dancing by being like, “Okay, then this dancer put her right leg out and then put it back and did the hokey pokey.” Probably not that one, but you can imagine that no, it’s not really that neat to read a technical description of what their movements are in a dance, in a book. You have to see the dance. And for fight scenes, I think that mistake is made a lot where the writer wants to create that cool sensory effect that you get in a movie or TV show and to some extent, it can’t really be done.
Oren: Yeah. And like movie fight scenes can also break some of the rules. In a fight scene, in a written form, you basically always need a turning point. If there’s no turning point, if the character just fights and wins, then the fight itself is not very interesting. Now you could have something else going on in that scene that would be interesting. Like the fight could just be the backdrop of some other thing that’s happening. I’ve seen that a lot. But the fight itself, if the main character just fights until they win, then… okay… that was kind of a let down. But coming back to Black Panther. In Black Panther the fight between the main character T’Challa (Is it T’Challa or…T’Chaka is his father..) Anyway, Black Panther.
Chris: The main character, I think his father is T’Chaka.
Oren: Yeah. And Killmonger… Did not really ever expect to say that one of the best villains of superhero movies is named Killmonger… But anyway, the fight between those two. There’s no turning point. They just fight until T’Challa figures out… like kills him, just stabs him. And it’s like… okay, they won. And there was no turning point but it was fine because of the visual medium and we just enjoyed watching them fight.
Chris: And I think to some extent, there are sometimes turning points, but they’re just a lot more subtle. They don’t work the same way as they do in writing. So for instance, in that fight, he makes a decision to turn off the suits. Right? And that’s, I think, a pivotal decision that basically forms the turning point in the fight scene. At the same time, a lot of times you can’t really see clearly how it leads immediately to his victory, which is what you would expect usually in narration. Or a lot of times they’re just struggling and it looks like the hero’s gonna lose and then the hero reaches out and barely grabs a rock and then hits a villain with it. And that’s like the turning point in a movie, right? In a fight scene where you can visually see the struggle and see what they’re doing. Whereas when you’re in a narrated work because you’re not seeing that, it’s kind of expected that it’s some way, shape, or form, the personality is what wins the day, not actually their reflexes or their strength.
Oren: Although I mean, I do think it’s possible to, in the same way that if you set up your magic really well and have really detailed and understood magic, I do think you can do the same thing with fighting in a written work. You use the methods of combat as a kind of clever deduction style turning point where they figure out that, “Okay, to beat this guy I need to apply these two techniques that I’ve learned separately and apply them together.” Or something like that.
Chris: Yeah. I mean they can relate to fighting. The one I like to use is “My mentor kept telling me that I need to use restraint in my fighting. But I’m just a hot headed fighter and I’m just always going for it” You know? And then the turning point would be, “Hey, the villain is taunting me, but I’m going to finally listen to my masters words and not go for it.” And that’s going to get. But there’s something, there’s some element of the personality that’s been brought into the fight that makes a difference.
Oren: Yeah. Wes, do you have any? Like a particularly favorite or thing that really bothers you about fight scenes?
Wes: Yeah. I mean, the less description, the better, if I’m reading it honestly. Because I think, I mean all of the advice for what makes a good fight scene, most of it I don’t think applies to written works for what works in cinema. I mean, I don’t think there should be a fight in a book unless it has a narrative purpose. Period. And that narrative purpose, if you’re writing one in, you should be asking yourself, does this fight advance the plot? Does this fight reveal character? Does this fight set something up that will have ramifications later? Does this fight, you know, if you take this fight out, does the story fall apart? Right? There just… there needs to be a reason and actually, Chris, what you were saying is, does your fight involve a character dealing with their emotions? That’s another really good concept to put into it. Cause fights, you learn a lot about people from how they deal with conflict and a fight is some strong conflict. So you really should use that as an opportunity to review your character. And honestly, I think that, as visually stimulating as choreographed fighting is in film, well written fights in books can be as or more rewarding because you get to experience an emotional turning point with the character. It’s just different, which is like a really fun thing to do because you don’t need to like describe it, blow by blow. It’s like our writing has changed with, you know, we don’t need paragraphs of descriptions of the Arctic, like in Frankenstein, because we’ve all seen those pictures now.There’s been documentaries and all kinds of stuff and we’ve all seen great fight scenes. So what really matters more is if there’s awesome banter between the combatants or other aspects, and then the readers can fill in the gaps themselves.
One of my favorites, I think I was thinking about like some really old examples, of a fight scene. If you read the last scene of Macbeth when he fights Macduff. (Which I realized that name sounds ridiculous because I keep thinking of McDuck.) But they just trade barbs and then that’s when Macbeth says “It’s not even worth your time. I can’t be killed by any man born of woman.” And that’s what McDuff basically says, “Yo, I’m a C-section. I’m going to kill you.” It’s way better than that, trust me.
Chris and Wes: *Jokingly* I am no man!
Wes: But then all the stage direction says is they fight. And you know, granted, if this were drama, you would actually witness it. But even just reading it, the dialogue surrounding it is really, makes that a nice, culminating moment in a much older medium. More modern fight scenes are certainly better, but I was thinking about an old example and that was like, Oh yeah, that’s a fight, that’s 100% dialogue and still very satisfying if you’re just reading it.
Oren: Right. Well, and in an actual production of the Scottish play.
Wes: Oh, I cursed us. I’m sorry.
Oren: Yes. I have a theatrical background, so I’m obligated to call it that. Those fights are generally pretty brief. Most directors, at least the ones that I’ve ever worked with, would not turn Macbeth and MacDuff’s fight into a five minute, extremely fancy, choreographed, swordplay bout. Unless that was the point. Unless you were doing something deliberately with like Shakespeare, but they do Kung Fu. Because frankly, in Shakespeare, the dialogue is the point. That’s what they’re doing. And that’s true of almost every Shakespearian fight scene.
Wes: You know what’s another, and I was thinking about an older choreographed fight scene in a film that I really enjoyed, that I still think actually holds up very well. And I think maybe this one you could probably translate to a written medium and it might work, so tell me what you two think about this. I remember when they sent, when they put out The Phantom Menace and the other new trilogy of the Star Wars films. And I remember watching the… Oh crap, what’s the third one? Revenge of the Sith. No… Yeah Revenge of the Sith. Obi-wan and Anakin Vader fight? I remember watching that and just being like, “Oh my gosh, look at what they are doing.” Right? It was just, it was so like sensational and crazy. But then a few weeks later I went and I watched The Empire Strikes Back and the Vader-Luke showdown at the end of that is awesome. The fight choreography is nothing compared to what they do in the new films and it’s still awesome. I think it’s just, Vader is the most menacing he ever is in the entire series in that part. I think that’s a great fight scene that doesn’t rely on choreography.
Oren: Well, I would say that the difference, if we’re talking about visuals, the Revenge of the Sith fight is certainly impressive for how extensive it is, but it doesn’t have the same emotional weight that the Vader-Luke fight in Empire does. And the Empire Luke fight, the reason why that one is better than say, the Obi-wan Vader fight in New Hope is, is that they got better at choreographing, and they also got better at hiding the stuff they weren’t super good at. You can sort of tell in New Hope that these people don’t really know what they’re doing.They’re swinging swords at each other. It’s fine, but their movements are kind of awkward. Whereas Empire is as good as a fight, as good as the choreography needs to be. And then they use menacing camera angles and darkness to sort of make everything else work. And if we wanted to apply those lessons to a written medium, I would say that with fight scenes, and this is true to a certain extent of all description, but with fight scenes in particular, because it’s super tempting for everyone to do the blow by blow, (And then I threw a left hook and a right hook) is that if you are going to make your fight visually interesting, which you can do, you need to use evocative words and fewer of them. Because again, it’s very tempting to just blow by blow, describe the entire fight. And that’s where you get really dull fights that feel like they take forever and go nowhere. Whereas if you compare that to something like the opening of The Blade Itself, which is a story that I critiqued a while back on the site, that opening fight scene is quite good. And it’s detailed. You can kind of, you can see what’s happening, except for the main character’s opponent is never described. I have no idea what it looks like. It’s just some kind of monster, which is a little strange and I dinged it for that in the critique. But everything else, the fight is very well described. And the author is very evocative word craft and not a huge amount of it. And that is able, that paints the picture.
Chris: So I think description in writing a lot of times is for the purpose of setting atmosphere, as opposed to trying to give people an idea of exactly everything that’s going on or an exact layout of the area, which is another thing that can happen with these kinds of scenes. And I think the other thing is if you want to have like a novelty in the atmosphere or the setting, incorporating the setting into the fight I think is a really good thing to do. So if they’re fighting in a graveyard, having them roll over or leap behind gravestones. As opposed to just they’re fighting in a graveyard, but by the way that they fight, you can’t tell.
Oren: Feels like they’re in a dojo somewhere.
Chris: Dojo that is styled to look like a graveyard.
Wes: The other fun thing with how evocative you choose to be, it’s definitely a matter of what perspective you’re using to tell the story. Because first, a tight, first person, you can work that with almost, um… Oh man, there’s this really old book that I remember reading when I was like 12 and I think it’s called The Tripods or something like that. It might’ve been that.
Oren: Oh yeah, I’ve read that. I’ve read The Tripods.
Wes: Remember the main character, he’s a boxer. I hope I’m remembering this correctly because I’ve kept it with my spin me for so many years now, it’s his point of view and I just liked how that fight was going on because it wasn’t like a blow by blow. It’s more just mental reminders to himself of what he should be doing as it’s going. Like, keep your hands up, keep your hands up, work the body, you know, like how he’s like coaching himself in the fight. And I thought that was a really cool way to say instead of some third person perspective might be like, “and then he like stepped forward and started pummeling the body with his right hand and then he ducked out of the way. I liked how close it was, how intimate the fight was to be there with this protagonist who’s remembering what to do in the situation and respond accordingly .It was very, it was a cool way to do it.
Oren: Yeah. I don’t remember that exact fight scene. What I really remember from the fight in that book, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, is how satisfying it is when after this whole book of these aliens who have invaded earth for, you know, alien reasons and have all this technology that they use to dominate humans after the rebels have disabled their technology, the main character punches an alien in the nose, and it is just so satisfying. Like” Yes, take that alien!”
Chris: But I think one of the challenges of doing fight scenes and battle scenes is the fact that they are inherently really complicated. They have a lot going on, but it’s too overwhelming and too confusing and too boring to tell the reader everything that is actually happening. So you have to find ways to kind of simplify that down, condense it into something that is understandable and meaningful. First the fight, as West was saying, has to be meaningful to the story. We know, we care whether the, the main character wins or loses this fight. There are stakes as an outcome or consequences for losing that we understand. All of those things. But then within that, understanding what the fight means in terms of, in that context, if somebody, what is the outcome of this punch, right? What is the outcome? If I’m choosing this strategy, what does that mean? Does that mean I’m now choosing a risky strategy? Where I’m losing and the strategy is really risky and I could die trying it, but it’s like my last option. What it means in terms of the fight and the outcome of the fight, is really important. And so trying to then, if you imagined a battle with all of the soldiers in it, and you’re a commander, just trying to choose tactics, understanding what the tactics are, why they’re choosing them, what those mean. And Oren had a post on space battles. I think that has some really, really good notes on strategy. Did you want to bring some of that in?
Oren: Yeah. So I don’t think that post is up yet, so you might be listening to this before that post goes live, depending on our scheduling. So what I found when I’m talking about fights, and this is true of space battles, and oftentimes space battles have a lot in common with a fight scene, more than they do with like a big epic war because you’re either, your character is a one person pilot, piloting their ship or maybe they are inhabiting the ship through AI or something, but regardless, they have a lot in common.
And so you have to like figure out, okay, what are the strategies that these characters use to engage with each other in this combat? They can be over different things. Iin a fencing contest, if your primary form of combat in your story is fencing, it could be that what they are fighting over is leverage. That’s what they’re trying to gain. They’re trying to get to a point where their opponent’s sword is so far out of position that they can attack and it is impossible for their opponent to deflect them because they don’t have the leverage. That’s one thing it could be. If it’s in a space combat, the thing they could be fighting over is location.
If you’re in space, you’re so far apart that you can’t easily tell where your opponent is. So the fight is all about narrowing them down into like a tinier and tinier volume of space until they can’t evade you anymore. And if you communicate that to the audience and then the audience understands what they’re doing. And this doesn’t require pages and pages of technobabble. In fact, that’s usually counter to what you’re trying to do here. And that way when they do something, like when the character is like, “All right, I’m diverting power away from my sensors to my engines.” It’s like, okay, you understand what that means is that they are giving up their ability to track where their enemy is to increase their own evasion or vice versa to up the tension. And that’s, you know, that’s really important in a fight scene, to make it feel gripping.
Sometimes I wonder if this goes without saying, if your fights, if there’s no risks that the main character will lose or something bad will happen to them as a result of this fight, there’s really no reason to describe it. Like if your main character just jumps a guard on their way into the castle, you don’t have to describe that unless this is a really bad ass guard.
Wes: Oh, I really like those, where I’m reading something where they don’t draw a lot of attention to things like that. Not every conflict needs to be well described and in doing that, I like how that can just be like a subtle reinforcement of like a character’s power level. It’s like, “I can just do this. We don’t have to stop and roll dice to see if I can jump a fence.”
Oren: Unfortunately, a lot of writers, both new writers and professionals, have this issue where they think that the best way to communicate how badass the character is, is to go into detail and see them own enemies over and over again, but that really just gets boring. My favorite weird example of this that I’ve seen recently was on Kaze No Stigma, I think it’s called.
It’s an anime that me and Chris are watching and the main character is like super overpowered and can do anything he wants with wind magic. And they do this thing where he in his estranged dad, get into a fight. And they do the whole thing of “Oh no, maybe my dad is too strong for me and maybe I’m going to lose.”
And it’s like, okay, I’m actually interested in this fight now because it looks like he might lose. Whereas all of his other fights he dominates so handily I’m just like “yawn.” So it looks like. he might lose, but then at the end of the fight, he busts out this super trump card that he apparently just always had and could always use and easily defeats his dad and it’s like, yeah. Why were you worried? You know, that was like someone in the writer’s room knew that the fight needed to be tense, but they also weren’t willing to actually entertain the possibility that he might lose.
Chris: Which brings me to another thing that I think is a difficult point that a lot of writers have trouble with which is once you get into a fight scene, how do you make this a fight that feels tense. It feels like there’s a good chance the protagonist will lose, but then still have them turn it around. Which, with any conflict, any book, that’s just an ongoing problem. But some, and I think a lack of understanding about fights probably contributes is, I don’t have the technical knowledge to see how fencing goes, but I’ve seen some pretty funny things recently as far as people trying to pull this off. Let’s see, I’m reading right now, a book called A Darker Shade of Magic, and it just has some really weird stuff in it where the protagonist is, once again, a super powered magic user. And again, if you have a super powered magic universe, it’s just going to cause all sorts of havoc to your fight scenes. And we don’t really know what he can do, but as far as we know, he can do just about anything because the book makes a big deal about what an awesome magic user he is. And so somebody basically gets ready to threaten him with a sword that he himself enspelled for somebody else that will supposedly take away magic. And it’s supposed to make it threatening, but there’s no reason he can’t just use his power to like burn the guy, maybe, since he can control all of the elements.
And then another fighter shows up and he just quickly manifests a stone wall to block that guy off. And the first guy, it’s like, “Well, wait, why didn’t you do that with attacker number one.” And then they have the sword actually be effective in nullifying his power and then the writer instantly gives him a way to get around that, ensuring getting rid of his power will never work again. It’s this back and forth with “Oh, we need more tension. You know, let’s do this and then we need him to have victory again. So now let’s make the thing that we just did completely meaningless.”
Oren: Oh man. That fight scene, it was just such a piece of work. So it starts off with the main character being like, “Oh no, I’m being threatened by a dude with the sword. I have forgotten all of my magic” that we know he has. We know you can fly, dude. We heard you talking about it earlier. So he’s forgotten all of his magic and then he’s just gonna knife fight the guy. And then the guy’s friend shows up and he’s like, “No, now I remember I have magic. I’m gonna use an earth wall to keep you from joining the fight.” It’s like, “Okay, now are you going to use the earth wall magic against the dude?” And he’s like, “No.” It’s like, are you going to use the sword to like explain why he’s not doing the magic? It’s like, no, he doesn’t get hit by the sword until halfway through the fight. And then I guess the author got tired of describing the fight because after this really long, slog fight where everything was described of him beating this first goon, the second goon finally shows back up and he just murders him with a knife super easily. And it was like, “What? What is happening in this fight?” It’s like the most bizarre fight scene I’ve ever read.
Chris: It’s like wow you can just summarize murdering a guy with a knife after having this? Yeah, I don’t really… It was very strange, but I feel like what you were saying Wes, about how it fits into the story. If you know what the goal of the fight scene is it’s a lot easier to figure out what you need to do to make it work and make the protagonist struggle and then win. In this case, this was a early book thing and it was really just a tension setting. It was a way to make him injured in a way to introduce a conflict. And so I think this and all that actually needed to happen is that somebody’s surprise attacks him, gets a blow on him, and the blow from the sword disables his magic, because that’s what the sword is designed to do, and then he runs… hobbles away. That’s really all that needed to happen, and that would effectively do all of the things that this fight scene was supposed to do without going back and forth and trying to figure out how there can be high tension and then how he can… you know. I guess the impression that it made on me is that this writer’s probably not really into fight scenes anyway cause that’s not, you know… Again, we had talked about writing your passion recently. You don’t really need fight scenes.
Wes: We talked a lot about a goal and narrative purpose and raising tension, but another good way to think, if you want to like include a fight scene. What makes a good fight scenes good is that there’s, I mean, I mentioned like an emotional component. But I think you could think about what is the mood of the fight? Do you want this fight to be one that’s focused on anger or maybe there’s a betrayal component or maybe someone’s fighting out of loyalty or it’s desperate, or maybe the point of the fight is to have somebody become just completely humiliated. There should be like an emotional mood to it in addition. And that should bring, I think that would like help align stuff to create the proper like tensions and turning points that you want, if you can say something a little bit more specific than create tension. It’s like, “Okay, well how, what emotional components should the reader feel for these characters or character?
Oren: Right. So since we’re getting close to the end of our time, I have two kinds of practical pieces of advice that have been very helpful to me when crafting fight scenes, for at least a written format. And one of the things we talked about earlier, the difficulty of making a fight seem dangerous and threatening, but then also have the characters’ victory be believable. That’s one of the main things. And there are sort of two standard ways to go about that, that I know. One is again, to spend a lot of time sort of setting up how you’re fighting works and making sure the audience understands it and then showing how they won their victory by properly applying the techniques that you set up earlier. That obviously takes a lot of work, but it’s very satisfying. If you don’t have time for that, if that’s not the kind of story you’re writing, an easy way to get around this is to have the main character win, but be forced to give something up. This is a very simple thing. If the main character gets into a dangerous fight and they win, but they are wounded, then that preserves the sense of danger that makes the audience feel like you weren’t lying to them when you described this fight as dangerous. And they can be like, “Hey, this guy is, you know, I got jumped by this super bad ass assassin and the plot purpose of the scene is to set tension because now I know there’s someone sending assassins after me. But the main character also needs to not die in this scene, so he can either escape or he can win the fight, but take a stab wound to the leg and now he’s hurt. Or he can like lose something that was otherwise important to him. And I say him, but obviously it can be of any and all genders that this works for.
And finally, the other piece of practical advice is the more text you put in any scene, but this is particularly important in fight scenes, the longer it feels like it’s taking. Even if it’s all description, even if you write a paragraph of description and then at the end say, “this all happened in a moment,” it’s too late. It already feels like that fight scene was dragging on. I’m reading a superhero novel right now that does that constantly. And sometimes the main characters will even stop and have conversations in the middle of these fights. And it’s like, “What is happening? Why are they all waiting around? Is it not their turn?”
Chris: Narrative has a time component that people just inherently feel. And when you have any kind of scene where timing is really important. In a fight scene would be one. Dialogue is another. If you put too much text in there, it actually feels like time has just literally slowed down.
Wes: When everybody needs to remember most fights last like a couple seconds. That’s it. There’s not much time. And fighting is super exhausting and that’s why it can’t last that long.
Oren: It’s real tiring after a while.
Wes: I punch like one thing and I just want to fall asleep. I’m just exhausted.
Oren: Yeah., I mean, after a couple… after like one fencing bout, I can certainly feel it. And fencing’s hardly like the most physically arduous type of fighting there is.
Wes: But that’s actually a good point Oren. If you’re writing this stuff, keep in mind that if you have a fight scene, people get hurt. And people get tired. And if you have somebody get injured, don’t have them just miraculously recover. If you’re going to go to the effort to make it believable, then keep it realistic there. They need lots of sleep and rest if they get hurt.
Oren: Yep. That’s good advice. That’s a good thing to end on cause we are out of time. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise we will talk to you next week.
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