FURIOUS FATAL FISTS OF STEAMFUNK: How To Write Fight Scenes That Ain’t Wack!
I write speculative fiction – mainly, Steamfunk and Sword & Soul (for more on those genres, check out https://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/05/13/the-steamfunk-movement/ and https://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/04/13/sword-soul-much-needed-new-genre-or-simply-something-old-with-a-new-coat-of-paint/, respectively).
My Steamfunk and Sword and Soul novels contain lots of exciting action and fight scenes.
My friend, renowned spoken word artist XPJ Seven, told me “Dude, I like your fight scenes.”
“What do you like about them?” I inquired.
“They’re not like the fight scenes in most of the fiction I’ve read.” He replied, his brow wrinkling as he scowled.
“What’s wrong with those fight scenes?” I asked.
The wrinkles in XP’s brow deepened into canyons as he frowned in disgust. “Dude…they’re wack!”
Can’t argue with the wisdom of XP.
Thus, I write this as a helping hand to my fellow writers who may struggle with writing fight scenes. If writing fight scenes for you comes easy, please, keep reading; You’re already here…you might as well. And – in the spirit of all things not wack – if you will be so kind as to contribute your wisdom to this post, it will be greatly appreciated.
First and foremost, let the following Fight Scene Plan guide you toward the light at the end of that dark, dank tunnel called wackness.
Just remember – all good plans are malleable. As author, Milton Davis says, “A plan is a work in progress. It must be adjusted and modified based on results. An inflexible plan will eventually lead to failure.”
Fight Scene Plan
1. Show, don’t tell
I put this point first because it seems to be the one most writers have difficulty with when writing a fight scene.
Here is an example of telling:
After taking eight punches and several kicks to now vital areas all over her sinewy frame – such as her solar plexus, spine and head – Harriet Tubman staggered backward, wailing in agony.
This is “telling” because the punches and kicks are all lumped together, making it impossible to say, with any certainty, how many blows Harriet actually suffered.
Furthermore, we cannot be sure of exactly which body parts are suffering all the punishment, although we get a grocery list of a few parts that might be getting damaged…or might not – who knows?
Finally, what is Harriet doing while she is taking that beat-down? Just accepting it all willy-nilly? Does she throw a counterpunch? Beg for mercy? Scream “Feets don’t fail me now” and then haul ass? We don’t know. We cannot see this scene. We cannot see Harriet. We’re just being told about it. Wack.
2. Show sequence, not simultaneity
It rarely makes sense to make two different actions simultaneous in a fight scene.
Because a fight scene is loaded with different sorts of actions, each of which takes a different amount of time.
If one action takes a tenth of a second and another takes two seconds, the action will feel distorted if the author asserts that they happen simultaneously.
John Wilkes Booth ducked his head and whirled to the right, simultaneously kicking furiously with his right heel as he shouted “Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you?”
Now, you can whirl to the right pretty quickly. You can kick pretty quickly. But how long does it take to shout ‘Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you’? All this action cannot happen simultaneously. So, writing something like this? Wack.
3. Enforce causality
A Cause should be shown first, and then the Effect shown afterward. Showing the Effect and then the Cause? Wack.
Case in point:
John Wilkes Booth ducked his head and whirled to the right. He kicked furiously with his right heel as he shouted “Harriet Tubman, you just will not die, will you?” Just after he spotted Harriet throwing another punch at him.
So, what happened first? Booth saw Harriet throw another punch at him. However, that is shown last in the passage. The Effect is shown first, followed by a long sequence of events: Booth ducks his head. Booth spins to the right. Booth kicks. Booth shouts. Only after all that are we shown the Cause of it all.
4. Show the fastest action first
When you sequence a group of actions that happen at roughly the same time, show those actions that happen fastest before you show those that happen slowest.
Do not write the passage this way:
The steambot was no longer a threat to Harriet, as it lay broken in the dirt, wondering if it would ever see its beloved creator – Mistress Nakamura – again, the very woman who had nurtured it and taught it love, as an agonizing scream escaped its metallic throat.
We see the steambot pondering whether it would see its creator again and then we see it scream in agony. A scream usually takes less time than a deep pondering, so it is better to show the steambot scream first and then show it ruminate.
Showing the slower action before the faster one? Wack.
5. For every action, show a reaction
A fight scene should be written in this order: Action then Reaction. The Steambot slams an elbow into Harriet Tubman’s jaw; she staggers backward. Harriet whips a roundhouse kick at the Steambot’s head; it blocks and swings a back-fist at her temple.
See? Action…Reaction. Writing the character’s Reaction before the Action is backpedaling toward wackness. Case in point:
Harriet staggered backward when the steambot slammed its elbow into her jaw.
The Reaction – staggering backward – took place before the Action – the elbow to the jaw. Wack.
Each Action – Reaction should have its own paragraph. This, however, is not always possible. Sometimes, the sentences are too short to have their own paragraphs and can be combined. It’s up to you how to format it.
The steambot swung exploded forward with a powerful uppercut.
Harriet leaned backward to evade the blow. A breeze slithered up her face as the steambot’s iron knuckles swished past her nose.
The steambot exploded forward with a powerful uppercut. Harriet leaned backward to evade the blow. A breeze slithered up her face as the steambot’s iron knuckles swished past her nose.
6. Make it happen in Real Time
When writing your Action – Reaction, be sure to make it happen in Real Time. When a fight is happening, you see one punch and then right away, you see the response; and then right away, you see the next punch. During a fight in Real Time, you do not have time for such contemplations as this:
The steambot’s elbow slammed into Harriet’s jaw. She staggered backward. She was hurt quite badly; perhaps not as badly as when she shattered her shin against the thigh of that giant knoll, but badly, just the same.
This should be written this way:
The steambot’s elbow slammed into Harriet’s jaw. She staggered backward.
7. Control the pace
Pace is important in a fight scene.
It is not cinematic – and you want your fight scene to play like a movie in the reader’s head – to show a nonstop flurry of actions and reactions.
Even a warrior who possesses extraordinary gifts like Harriet Tubman has to catch her breath.
A cinematic fight has ebbs and flows in the pacing.
You show the faster parts of the scene with short sentences that show only the Actions and Reactions.
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 roll with each punch; shift in his or her seat with each kick.
Fast reading pace is essential. Use only a phrase, sentence, or – at most – two short sentences for each action. You can also combine short phrases together, since each phrase will still let the action move along:
Harriet paused, listening for movement. The whisper of a footstep to her right. She whirled, exploded forward, felt her knee connect with muscled flesh and then heard a soft thud as Booth fell to the floor.
Conversely, reading flow can also become bogged down if there are too many sentences of the same length one after the other. Cases in point:
He kicked. She ducked. He chopped. She whirled.
Harriet turned at the sound of running feet. Booth crashed into her as she stood there. Her body struck the table with a thundering crash. Splinters stabbed into the back of her neck.
Continue to avoid long, rambling description, but vary your sentence and phrase length:
Running feet. Harriet turned. Booth crashed into her, slamming her into the table with a thundering crash. A low gasp escaped Harriet’s lips as splinters stabbed into the back of her neck.
You can also show the slower parts of the scene with longer sentences that show Actions and Reactions interspersed with dialogue and interior monologue.
To do otherwise? Wack.
8. Favor completed verbs over continuing action verbs
Use simple past tense verbs, such as kicked, ran or leapt rather than participles such as kicking, running or leaping.
When you say Harriet head-butted Booth, you imply that it happened quickly and the act is now over. When you say Harriet was head-butting Booth, you imply that the act is going on and on and on. A head-butt happens in a fraction of second, so writing “head-butting” causes the reader to envision the head-butt happening over and over and over again. Or they envision it happening in slow motion. Either way, it is not much like a fight anymore, is it? Wack.
Finally, remember that a good fight scene is about momentum and rhythm.
Jackie Chan once gave me some advice on choreographing a fight scene (yep, the Jackie Chan – I’ll tell you that story one day) that I use in my writing. “The rhythm of a fight scene sells it. I use African and Japanese drum rhythms for my fights. Those rhythms draw the audience in and make them love the fight.”
Each move should flow from where the last one ended. If your hero throws a spinning back kick, where is her weight when she lands? Is she standing straight 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.
Try to act out fight sequences – or, if you live off a steady diet of Krispy Kreme donuts and Coca Cola, ask someone else to do it – in order to figure out momentum and balance, which creates rhythm. Throw a punch and observe how your weight shifts, or what area of your body is exposed.
I often act out the entire fight scene with my wife. We are both career martial artists, so, for us, it comes easily. However, if you do not happen to have a spouse that is a martial arts expert handy, watch movies for ideas (or call me – I choreograph fight scenes for films, theater, comic books and novels…for a meager fee).
Finally, choose the type of fights you want in your story. Do you want gritty, brutal fight scenes such as the ones in Steven Seagal’s Above the Law or in the Bourne Identity (the 2002 movie, not the 1988 television miniseries)? Or do you want Hong Kong Cinema-styled fights, such as the the ones in The Matrix, Inception, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Most readers will follow either style as long as they make sense and are a good match with the genre you are writing in.
If you have more to add to this post, please comment. I am always looking for effective ways to shield myself from wackness.