In response to my idea to launch a writers’ workshop, Christine Haggerty author of The Plague Legacy has offered to start things off with an article about one of my pet hates: the fight scene.
How many times have you skipped pages in a book, flipped through looking for the end of a wretched ding-dong just to get on with the story? Often a fight is inevitable, and personally I try to dispatch it as quickly as possible. Blow-by-blow accounts of a fight where the only interest is the outcome, quickly bore me rigid.
Christine is one of those authors who actually enjoys a bit of violent contact and knows how to handle it. She has very kindly agreed to share her practical experience on my blog. I hope you will find her article as helpful and entertaining as I have.
From the Dojo to the Page: Writing Fight Scenes
By Christine Haggerty, author of The Plague Legacy: Acquisitions
I. Love. Karate. For most of my marriage, my husband has referred to it as my religion. I even went to the dojo on Sundays while he took our three kids to church. (Yes, we’re still married.)
I love the dojo. I love the wisdom and centeredness I feel when I’m in that place. I love the mental focus in training.
And I love the fighting. Karate is about depth of character as well as the physical training, but when it comes to applying my knowledge of karate into fight scenes, it’s the physical training and mental focus that translate most directly.
There is at least a novel’s length of things I could say about writing fight scenes, but below is a three part guide to doing it right.
Before there is ever a fight scene in a book, you know your characters, their physical traits and mental make-up, and their situations. Even if you start a story with a fight scene, you as the author know these details and can use them to create an effective context for your fight scene.
1. Know Your Characters
I’m talking both their physical and mental aspects. You may have a nine-foot-tall Aztec guardian of some kind, but what if he’s spent most of his life trying not to hurt the other kids so that they’ll invite him out to play? He probably gets out of a lot of fights just based on his sheer size, but what is he like when he’s in one? Maybe he’s more willing to take abuse just so he doesn’t have to bear the guilt of hurting another creature. But then again, what happens when the bad guy steals the guardian’s favorite stuffed sheep? It’s a basic tip of good writing to know your characters. Add “How would they handle a fight?” to your character sheet so that you’re ready just in case the story takes you there.
2. Write in the Training
Fighting is 10% adrenaline, 2% luck, and 88% muscle memory. In a two-minute fight, which is the length of most martial arts sparring matches, adrenaline can get you through the first thirty seconds and then you’re exhausted and you have to rely on what your muscles do on their own. Martial artists spend 300 times more time training than they do fighting, but training experience is not the same as fighting experience. How much training has your character had? What kind? How much fighting have they done?
For example, if you plunk an unskilled character in the middle of a herd of trained ninja, your character is dead unless they have a magic trick equivalent to a grenade. (Or an actual grenade, but then your character would also have to be grenade-proof.)
In a good story, you also only need to go into detail with something once. The only reason to flesh out a repeat scene is if there is something compelling and special about the repeat, such as character growth. You should spend more time writing about training and the relationships and inner strength it develops than you do on fight scenes. Training sets up the fight scenes.
3. Build the Situation
I’m not talking about the narcissistic reality-show character, I’m talking about the lay of the land, the number of fighters involved, weapons, armor, magic, etc. The more you try to involve in a fight scene, the messier—and therefore slower—it is. The reality is that when it comes to fighting, you always rely on your few favorite tricks. It’s the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) mentality, and it works. That’s why characters have favorite weapons, favorite horses, favorite fighting partners, etc. It takes too many hours to get there to just start over every time.
Where is the fight? Who’s there? What’s at stake? Why does the reader care? This should all be described before you get into the action. Once you start throwing punches, there isn’t any room for this kind of description and detail.
The actual fight scene is going to be short and sweet. In a 3,000 word chapter, the fight scene is only going to be a couple hundred words. The rest is set-up or recovery.
1. Pack the Action
Once two or more individuals engage in a fight, brains shut down and muscles take over. Adrenaline wakes your senses and everything seems sharper while your body feels numb. You’re not thinking or worrying about metaphors and similes or whether or not you left the garage door open unless that affects your getaway options. You become primal. Fight scenes are action and reaction, a quick list of events.
2. Use Active Voice
Even though ‘active’ and ‘action’ have a lot in common, you’d be surprised how many fight scenes suffer from the smothering effect of passive voice. Keep your sentences straightforward and simple. Same goes for word choice. Be direct. Don’t get into fancy descriptions here. Use words as primal as your character’s behavior.
3. Stick to Physics
Living on Earth comes with a few rules, including inertia, atmosphere, and gravity. In short, what goes up must come down. If you describe someone being kicked and flying a distance of twenty feet before hitting a tree or landing on the pavement, either you are watching too much anime or you have no idea how far twenty feet is. Start with a realistic fight and then embellish with the characters’ special powers. I recommend measuring fights by body parts, such as ‘within arm’s reach’ or ‘she landed a body length away.’
This concept applies to your characters’ sense of time as well as distance. Time is suddenly measured in heartbeats or breaths, not seconds or minutes. Real time changes to psychological time when you’re fighting.
Getting punched while fighting hurts, but not as much as it will hurt after the numbing effects of adrenaline and swelling have faded and the pain is colored by guilt or fear or pride.
1. Describe the Physical Aftermath
In a good fight, you get bruises and broken bones. You hurt in places you didn’t know you had. Even Chuck Norris would be stiff and sore after defeating Megamind and his army of alien minions. These bruises and sore muscles are how you learn, and the more you train, the stronger you become and the faster you recover. In the scenes following a fight, remember to include these painful reminders of the action. Scars also make good stories.
2. Embrace the Learning Curve
It’s human nature to revisit events and consider what we should have done or what could have gone differently. Fighting is the same. A dangerous experience brings up emotion and memories and forces us to examine our definition of who we are. You will never be the same after a fight; neither will your character.
3. Invest in an Expert
Your character will go through a learning curve, and so will you. If you’ve never done any fighting, get help from someone who has. I’ve trained for ten years and taught almost as long. Spacing, timing, technique—I know these things. I will also know if an author doesn’t. Even if you think you have a good grasp of the logistics, have someone with experience read over your scenes. I also recommend having someone with no experience read your scenes to make sure that the rookies can follow the action, too.
You can also watch UFC matches, go to a local dojo and watch them train, or read books on fighting and techniques. First-hand experience is the best teacher, and many senseis would be willing to donate a couple hours of their time to help out an author. Be sure to thank them and maybe include them in your acknowledgements.
In the end, we write fight scenes because readers like them. They fit the characters and the story and serve as effective catalysts for plots. Make your fight scenes exciting and have fun with them. That’s what it’s all about, right? In the end, it’s having a good story that sells. The fight scenes just help. And why do we read books in the first place? It’s to escape reality, so make it a fun escape.
To illustrate how to put these rules into practice, I asked Christine to give us an example from her book.
I wrote a few fight scenes for The Plague Legacy: Acquisitions. The primary conflict is between the main character, Cam, and Devon, a kid who has been bullying him.
I’ve already established in the story that Devon and Cam have a conflictual relationship and a history of Devon picking on Cam. I’ve already established that they are setting up a campsite next to a road and the two of them have been in relatively close quarters for hours.
Here are the lines leading up to the physical part:
“When I heard gunshots, thought maybe you had been caught trying to run away.” [Devon] grinned, the flames highlighting his teeth and raking shadows along his mark and over his eyes. “Thought that maybe they went and put a bullet between those pretty blue eyes, but I guess they saved you for me.” He pulled his stick out of the fire and watched the flame cling to the wood, hungry. “Seems you’ve been making friends with my sister.”
Cam watched Devon in silence.
Devon didn’t care, didn’t wait for an answer. He put his stick back in the fire and continued. “She can’t have friends, though, Pig Boy. You see, she doesn’t deserve them. She deserves to suffer.”
You deserve to suffer, but not Tara. And not Jake. Cam kept his eyes on the mutant boy, watching the tension ripple in his throat, then startled when a shot echoed from the ridge.
Devon glanced behind him, then laughed. “They might put your little friend down now that he’s damaged goods, but don’t worry. They won’t shoot you, Pig Boy. Oh no, little piggies go to the butcher.” He stood as another shot rang out.
Cam glanced up at the truck. Tara held the flashlight steady, but the cab blocked Cam’s view of Jake and the Scout.
Now that I have the fire, the burning stick, and the tension of the moment ready, I can go into the action.
Here are the lines that describe the action:
Devon swung the branch across the top of the fire. Cam scooted back, the jagged end grazing his belly button. It pulled him off balance. His feet shuffled and he fell back, catching himself with his hand on the gravel. Devon jumped over the fire and pushed Cam flat on his back, pinning a knee onto his chest.
The burning end of the branch sparked across Cam’s eyes and he smelled the stink of singed eyelashes. He pushed up on his legs, trying to unbalance the mutant, but Devon leaned on him harder, pressing into the gashes left by the dog.
“Do you know what they do to us when we get to Salvation? What they do to slaves, even Pig Boys?” He ground the flame out in the gravel next to Cam’s head where the new set of silver tags strung out from his throat, the smell of dirt coming from the hot rocks. Sweat beaded on Cam’s forehead as blood pumped through his body. He searched the gravel with his hand, looking for something big enough to smash against Devon’s face.
The blond boy lifted the stick out of the dirt, the end glowing orange. “They brand us, like this.” He dug the end of the stick into Cam’s bare chest, over his heart. Pain shot from the tip of the branch up through Cam’s neck.
He arched his back and sucked in a scream, curling his fingers around a fistful of gravel.
Devon’s eyes flickered as the flashlight shone in his face.
Cam smashed the gravel against Devon’s marked cheek and twisted to the side. Devon’s knee slid off his bare belly and the blond boy landed on his side, almost rolling into the fire.
Now after the moment, Cam has to deal with the pain of his physical wounds as well as the psychological impact of having been bullied.
Here are the lines that contain details about the physical pain and Cam’s mental state:
As Cam stood and backed away, Smith pulled Devon to his knees and twisted his arm behind his back, the gun to his head. Tara stood by with the flashlight, her face ghostly white in the contrasting shadows.
“Seems like we’re having quite a misunderstanding, son. I thought I made it clear that you were to keep your hands off my acquisitions,” the officer leaned down and spoke directly into Devon’s ear. “Are we clear now?”
Devon swallowed and nodded, glaring at Cam with a promise.
The throb of the burn washed over the sting of the gashes [from a dog in an earlier scene], Cam’s lungs stretching his chest to take in the chill night air.
Looking at Cam, Smith waved the gun toward the truck. “Go get cleaned up.”
As Cam passed by Tara, she caught his hand.
“What happened?” She whispered, keeping the flashlight on her brother.
Cam squeezed her fingers and pulled away. “Nothing.”
What have you experienced with writing fight scenes? Do you have a scene you would like us to help you with?
Please leave your comments, even your problems in the box below, and if you want to post your own fight scene, whatever form it takes, please feel to send it to me.
Christine Haggerty is a black belt in Shotokan, a traditional Japanese form of karate. She currently trains at a mixed martial arts dojo where she enjoys kickboxing, point sparring, and maintains her traditional discipline. She is the author of The Plague Legacy: Acquisitions, a young adult dystopian fantasy about plague orphans being sold as slaves and gladiators. Her sequel, Assets, will be out late 2015 and involves both group and individual fighting in a dystopian version of the Roman arena.
Links for Christine Haggerty
The Plague Legacy: Acquisitions (Book 1)
Fox Hollow Publications: http://www.foxhollowpublications.com