Have you ever:
*Held a sword?
*Taken a karate class?
*Punched another person in the face?
Even if your answer is “no,” you can still write a good fight scene. In this guide, fantasy novelist Marie Brennan will show you how. Drawing on her experience with fencing, stage combat choreography, Okinawan martial arts, and above all writing, she lays out the components that turn the strikes into a compelling story.
From purpose to tactics to prose, Writing Fight Scenes walks you through the anatomy and execution of combat on the page.
When I got to college, I made instant friends with the entire drama club by uttering five simple words:
“I know some stage combat.”
It isn’t a skill commonly found among college students. There was one other guy at the school who knew stunt fighting, but he was a senior and very busy with his thesis. For the next four years, I was the go-to girl for anything resembling fight scenes. I worked on sixteen plays, for things ranging from chasing a character around the stage with a broom to full-on duels. It was fun, stressful—and enlightening.
I’d always enjoyed fight scenes, whether they were in books or movies. When I started choreographing them myself, though, my understanding of the topic deepened immeasurably. Not only did I have to think about the practical concerns of stage work (how to make the scene safe, while hiding its tricks from the audience); I had to construct the entire thing, move by move, with due consideration to not only what happens but why. And above all, I had to make it interesting.
To illustrate, let’s go back to my own senior year, when two directors asked me to put together multiple fights for two different plays.
The two plays were Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida, with five fights between them. The two from Twelfth Night were both slapstick comedy; the three for Troilus and Cressida, much less so. For the latter, I had to work out things like how to “break” an actor’s neck, which I had never been taught to do. The real trouble, though, came from the big fight near the end of the play, between Troilus and Diomedes.
Our setup was this: Troilus, having lost Cressida to Diomedes, comes face-to-face with his enemy and kills him. (No, that isn’t in the usual script for the play. This was a dialogue-free scene the director had inserted into the fifth act—one of many changes he made in his adaptation.) The director wanted it to be a big moment, and so he told me he wanted the fight to be long—“at least five minutes.”
The first word out of my mouth was “no.” The director, you see, had no idea what he was asking for. Assuming one move per second—which is quite a slow pace—that’s still three hundred moves. Even if I’d had the months necessary to choreograph, train, and rehearse, it would have been boring for the audience, because here’s the thing:
Only a movie can get away with making a fight purely about the spectacle.
In a movie, you have stunt doubles and/or highly trained actors who can do awesome maneuvers. You may have wires and CGI. You can speed up or slow down the film, change camera angles, overlay the entire thing with a pulse-pounding soundtrack, and generally play all kinds of tricks to make the scene exciting. And even then, a five-minute fight would be quite long. On stage? You have actors who probably don’t know what they’re doing, a static point of view, and extremely limited special effects. The audience would be yawning. So I had to figure out how to give the director what he really wanted—a big dramatic scene—within the constraints of the stage.
Working that out was the most educational experience I had in four years of fight choreography. I sat down with the actor playing Troilus, and together he and I constructed an arc for the scene: how it would start, how it would end, what shifts would happen along the way. That was the key to making it exciting, you see; it couldn’t just be punch-punch-punch all the way through. Like a piece of music, it needed dynamics. And that meant digging into character, making use of the space, and lots of other things I now realize are integral to a good fight scene.
The arc we built was as follows. The production’s aesthetic was sort of “post-apocalyptic rave,” so the characters had guns. But we didn’t want a gun fight. We therefore decided that Troilus and Diomedes run into each other during the battle, guns out, but lay them down in a kind of truce; they’ll settle this like men, with their fists. When the fight begins, it’s gentlemanly boxing, circling, feinting, dodging and blocking. But Troilus, it turns out, is better than Diomedes. He gets in a good blow, then another, and pretty soon Diomedes figures out he’s going to lose—
So he pulls a knife.
Whereupon the entire tenor of the scene changes. Now it’s potentially lethal, and if Troilus stays within Diomedes’ reach, he’s toast. The fight moves more rapidly across the stage, Diomedes pursuing, Troilus fleeing, up onto a platform on stage left, then up again to an upstage walkway, where Diomedes lunges and Troilus manages to trap his arm against a pole. He disarms Diomedes, and now we’re back to a fist-fight, only this time gentlemanly behavior is nowhere in the picture. More punching, but it’s more vicious, and once Troilus gets the upper hand again he has Diomedes down on the walkway and he’s just throwing blow after blow into the guy’s face, before finally strangling him to death. After a moment, Troilus gets up slowly, collects his gun, and is about to put some lead into his enemy for good measure when someone enters and the play returns to the usual script.
You see, one of the things going on in Troilus and Cressida is that everybody in it is some flavor of bastard. Even the “good guys” turn out to be good only some of the time; many productions cut the brief scenelet where Hector murders a guy to steal his armor, because it’s depressing to find out that even Hector is only decent when somebody’s watching. Because of this, the shift the actor and I worked out was that when Troilus starts whaling on Diomedes again, he finds out he likes it. A black, horrible thing—but a powerful bit of characterization. One that makes the fight more than just spectacle, or a plot device to remove Diomedes from the story.
And that’s what I came to understand about fight scenes. They’re part of the story, and not just on the level of plot. Remember how I said I was choreographing five scenes for two plays? One night I went from a Troilus and Cressida rehearsal straight to one for Twelfth Night, and my brain froze up; all I could think of was the choreography I’d just been doing for the other play. Director #2—meaning well—told me he didn’t mind if I just reused the same moves. I nearly had an aneurysm at the thought. “The same moves,” in this case, would have meant kicking the enemy in the head while he’s crawling across the floor: not exactly fun comedy material. I couldn’t cut-and-paste from one production to another, because they were fundamentally different stories, and what I was constructing had to fit its environment.
Fit, and add to. Fight scenes are intense, even the shallow or silly ones, because at their core they’re about violence: what people are and are not willing to do to their fellow man or woman. Because of that, they can reveal or change or confirm important things the audience know about the characters. They can support a story’s themes. In fact, they should do those things, especially if they’re going to get any significant screen or or stage or page time; otherwise, you should just knock them out of the way and get on with the real story. Movies have enough tricks on hand to get away with pure spectacle—but even then, how much more awesome is it when there’s more going on than just martial pyrotechnics?
My love for fight scenes probably goes back to seeing The Princess Bride at the tender age of six. Inigo Montoya was always my favorite character; because of him, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to learn fencing. (It’s also his fault that I studied Spanish in junior high.)
For years the only “fencing” I knew was what my friends and I figured out by trial and error with wooden dowel rods. But when I was in high school, my local rec center offered a free class, so I started taking it, along with several of those friends. Our instructor attempted to teach us the style used in tournament fencing (the kind you see in the Olympics), but no repetition of reminders would persuade us to stop circling around one another—which you’re not allowed to do—nor would we leave our free hands out of it. Finally he said “screw it” and began teaching us historical rapier-and-dagger styles instead. (Which is what most of us wanted anyway.) He also taught us the basics of stage combat: how to slap and punch and kick someone without actually doing them harm.
This all fed into my existing inclinations. As a teenager, I was a big fan of R. A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf series, with all those lovingly-detailed fights, and I ate up action movies with a spoon. Getting down into the practical guts of fight choreography fed back into my writing, especially my Doppelganger series (the first volume of which I wrote while helping out with those plays in college), and it’s informed my thinking ever since.
I’ve gotten more experience along the way. Apart from fencing, I studied kung fu briefly in college, and karate more extensively in recent years. As of the publication of this guide, I’m a brown belt in Shorin-Ryu, and a green belt in Yamanni-Ryu, which is the associated kobudo or weapons style. And, of course, I’ve continued to write, with eight novels out and more on the way, many of which contain some kind of combat.
So my background in the topic is as a writer, a fight choreographer, and a fan. Because of that, I’ll be drawing from a wide range of examples throughout this guide, including my own novels, plays I worked on, and books and movies that illustrate my points. Examples go better when the audience is familiar with them, though, so here are a few key ones I’ll be bringing up more than once:
• The Princess Bride. The duel between Inigo and the Man in Black atop the Cliffs of Insanity is a very useful example for fight scene structure. There’s also a fair bit to be learned from the fight with Fezzik, and Inigo’s confrontation with Count Rugen, though they’re less central to this guide. If you have for some reason never seen this movie, drop everything and go watch it now, you poor, deprived soul.
• The Game of Kings, first book of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. It contains the single best third-person omniscient fight scene I have ever read in a book. Hands down. It’s also a good enough novel that I’m loathe to spoil it for anyone, but as it makes a very good illustrative example for how to do a fight scene on the page, I’ll be referencing it during this guide. (I highly recommend the series in general. Dunnett’s prose is a little opaque—she tends to write around things, and you have to read between the lines to see what she isn’t saying—but it’s absolutely worth the effort.)
• My own first novel, findable either as Doppelganger (the original title) or as Warrior (the new title). I include this because, as the author, I know what I was trying to do, and why I used certain techniques to do it. As a consequence, I can go “behind the scenes” in a way that isn’t possible with the previous two sources.
The first concerns itself with the broad preliminary questions that go into planning a fight scene. The second is about the specifics of the fight itself, i.e. what happens in it and how. The third covers how to get the fight onto the page: craft-level issues of what to say about the combat. Finally, the last section demonstrates how one might approach the topic in practice, using examples from my own work.
The focus here is almost exclusively on melee combat, which is to say bare-handed or with non-ranged weapons. What I know about firearms would fit into a thimble with room left over for archery, throwing knives, and everything else ranged. But the broad principles, of course, apply to any sort of fight scene.
My thanks to everyone who participated in the original blog series, offering helpful examples and asking useful questions.