Being a Better Writer: Organic Fight Scenes

Welcome back readers! And, with a little hope, welcome back me!

Yeah, that’s right, this is still a post written well in advance (over a month, now) due to the uncertain nature of the length of my trip. Odds are it’s been done for some time by now, but just in case, I’m writing this post and adding it to the queue as a precaution. I’m probably back, but like I noted in last week’s post, such things are uncertain. I am indeed back! I’m certainly not a fortuneteller prognosticating the future here.

Anyway, as always, today is another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer, and today we’re going to tackle a reader requested topic from our last Topic Call. A reader wanted to know how they could make their fights and battles feel organic rather than scripted. And well … let me tell you, my brain immediately went two directions with this one. See, I’ve done posts on fights before, from the small-scale to the large, so in one respect I’ve probably touched on a lot of this topic before. But from another angle … not so much. Though I’m not certain that the request aimed toward that second angle, it was what immediately seized my focus and attention.

Naturally, we’re going to talk about both. We’ll tackle the second angle first, because it’s a more foundational element that needs to come first. And then we’ll move from there to a discussion of the more common advice for writing a fight scene.

So hit that jump, and let’s talk about what makes a fight scene organic.

I’m sure a few of you are scratching your heads right now with that particular emphasis, so let me start by asking you this: Have you ever read a story where a fight happens and you’re not sure why? It just felt like it happened for the sake of the story having something there? Like two characters just had a fight “because?”

Yeah, I certainly have. Sure, the resulting action might be nice and entertaining, but ultimately it feels a little hollow when at the end of it all, you’re left wondering “So why did that character punch that character again? That felt really out of place.”

This is where my mind went when I was asked about “organic” fight scenes. Organic meaning something that occurs naturally, rather than feeling “forced.” I’ve definitely read books and stories where a pitched fight between characters occurs for no other apparent reason than “Hey, I wanted to have a fight here.”

And it feels odd. Out-of-place. In disagreement with the characters and their aims.

So what’s gone wrong in this case, and how can we fix it? Well, the wrong is pretty straightforward: What’s happened is that the plot has forced something on the characters. We’ve spoken a lot this year about letting characters be themselves. An inorganic fight is what happens when they’re not being their own selves, and the storyteller is forcing a battle or action sequence solely so that the story can have another action sequence.

How these are executed can vary. They can be pointless car chases, arguments between characters that should be getting along, random violent encounters with no-name characters that end in a fight … Execution varies. The point is that the story takes a swerve into action for the purpose and point of action, not to further anything that the characters themselves would do. In fact, sometimes they can create some very out-of-character moments for the characters we’re following, requiring them to behave in ways that run in contrast to their established personality, aims, or talents.

That out-of-character bit is the biggest problem by far. As noted, this is a case of the plot of the story taking over and forcing itself on the characters, bending them to the story’s will rather than letting them make their own decisions. And while the resulting action may be fun and frantic, part of it will just always feel off due to the inconsistency it presents.

So how can we fix this? How can we make our fights organic, our action battles a part of the cohesive whole? Well, at the core, the most important change we can effect is letting the character take control, not the plot. Or rather, keep control, since they should be in control from the start. If a fight or an action scene is going to happen, it should be because they choose that fight or action scene. Well, or someone does. The protagonist doesn’t always through the first punch.

But whoever chooses to kick off that action scene, protagonist or antagonist? It should be their decision. Not the story saying “We need some excitement.” It should be the call of the characters.

And if they’re not, but the story really needs something to kick things up a notch (or even into gear), then maybe you need to step back and reconsider the whole segment. There’s doubtlessly a way to get the characters to choose action, usually by changing up the scene, setting, or maybe larger story elements (and if not, maybe the characters need a change). Sometimes this means rewriting a chapter. Or several. Which can be rough (believe me, I know), but that extra work is worth the change in order to deliver an action scene that feels fully in place with the setting.

Yes, sometimes this can mean going way back. I’ve dumped 50,000 words before when I realized that a story wasn’t working and I needed to rewrite the characters. Believe me, it was a blow, but also it was so worth it. The resulting story was much better for the change, and the characters felt far more organic with their changes and decisions because they were.

Our characters should be the ones who choose action. Not the plot. As a side note, this is not limited to just our protagonist. Plenty of stories have seen action occur because an antagonist pushed the protagonist into things. That’s fine … as long as it isn’t the only way our protagonist is pushed to do anything (we’ve talked about motivation and character-driven plot before).

Ultimately, let the characters make their choices, but have characters that will make choices that lead to the action and adventure you want (even if that choice is to flee the adventure and be caught up in it regardless, which is often funny).

So, with that said, what about the other half of this equation? The one that most who see this topic will likely think of? What about when the action itself gets going? When the blows are raining fast and hard and the punches are sweeping in from the side?

Look, we’ve all read bad action scenes and sequences. They’re distressingly all to common.

So how can we rise above that? How can we make our action scenes feel natural and smooth to read through, rather than stilted, confusing, and rough? How can we better our battles?

Well, I’m going to start with an odd suggestion. Or rather, one that might seem odd (and again, as I noted above, we’ve talked about fights before, so check out that post too). I’m going to recommend editing.

I know, that sounds odd. But look, even my fight scenes wouldn’t be what they are without the editing work that goes into them (and I say that to make a point, as the reader who requested this topic complimented the smoothness of the battles and fights in my work). I get readers to go over them, as well as retread them myself, checking for clarity, consistency, and proper pacing, along with pretty much any other potential issue that can be found.

Probably not the answer most of you wanted, I think. But the truth is, even with knowing how to write good fights, how to pace action and deliver everything by what we’ll talk about next, editing is key to making sure that everything smoothly fits together and no one is lost along the way.

But outside of editing, what other things can you do to keep your fights feeling smooth and natural?

Well, one of the biggest ones, and a trap that I do see younger writers falling into, is remembering your viewpoint. If your viewpoint character, the one you’re following through the fight, is a pacifist who knows very little about combat and technique, then having them name and identify different fighting positions and styles as they flee is going to be weird.

Yes. I’ve seen stories do this. More than once. With all the describing, the action, etc, be sure to keep in mind who you’re writing and what they would actually know. Yes, characters can get things wrong, calling a Bradley a “tank” because they don’t know what a “tank” actually is.

Actually, let’s sidebar for a moment and talk about the glut of “naming things” in action scenes. Look, when a punch is flying at someone’s head, very few people out there would think “Wow! It’s their infamous flying tiger dive punch, first pulled off in their bout with a dozen gangsters four years ago, and utterly unstoppable unless their opponent can blah blah blah blah.”

No one thinks that. For one, that has killed any pacing. Even a baby could throw a few punches before that run-on of exposition is over. Second, only a very odd character would think anything like that with a punch rocketing for their face. It would be “DO NOT GET HIT” instead.

Look, I’ll lay down a ground rule: If you want good fights, don’t do anything anime does. Calling out attack names, long periods of exposition while punches are flying, all of it. I say this because yes, I’ve read books that were clearly trying to capture the broken-pace and jilted style of anime battles. And that doesn’t make for good reading. A TV show can get away with it … sort of. Manga and comics have a rule about talking being a free action.

Books do not.

Worse, this sort of naming things falls right into a few traps, one of which is a common complaint with “stilted” combat and action. The dreaded “checklisting.”

Checklisting is what it’s called when a story drops into “this-then” descriptions of combat. When the descriptions of what’s going on start to look like a list of items going blow-by-blow rather than a “flow” of combat, that’s a problem. When your “action” is just “Patel threw a punch. Which Devo dodged. Then Devo threw a punch. Patel dodged.” and this repeats for a while … you’ve got an issue.

Again, I’ve read “action scenes” like this. They exist. They’re just line after line of “X did this, Y did that.”

Tedious. Shake. It. Up. Don’t tell fights. Show them! Give us lines that evoke response. Don’t just tell us that Patel through a punch. Have Devo get his arm up in time but still take a clip to the head that makes his world ring. He stumbles back, trying to keep Patel from getting an ever better blow, stumbling and almost tripping.

That’s evocative. Ditch checklisting for letting us be in the character’s head and see through show what this fight is doing. Let us feel the burning of overexerted muscles as the protagonist flees from a monster, the heaving of their chest as they gasp for breath.

And while you’re doing all this, again consider what that character would focus on. No one is the same. In a fight, some will note that they’ve been hit, others will focus on dishing hits out. The same fight, from two different character’s views, should feel completely different despite being the same fight. They should focus on different aspects or events, see things differently.

With all that, let’s talk about the big elephant we haven’t brought up yet. In addition to everything above, there’s another very vital and key aspect to smooth, organic action scenes we need to discuss.

Pacing. I mentioned it above. Pacing is key, to the point that pacing can make or break an action scene for your audience. Pacing is also incredibly hard to get right, but very easy to get wrong (and it’s why I dropped a few hard “don’t do this thing” statements above—each of them is a pacing killer).

So how do you get pacing right? Pacing—which if you’re now wondering about, has several BaBW articles on it, so hit them up—is for lack of a better description the “speed” at which you move through and along a scene. Things like checklisting or out-of-place naming and exposition? They drag the pace down. And pace for action should be quick, rising and falling like waves. You need to have moments for the audience (and sometimes characters) to breath so they don’t burn out, but you also need to pace each moment so that the action continuers to feel smooth, fast, and tight.

But character comes into play as well. For example, a character that is panicked and fearful during action will often have lots of short, concise sentences alongside a few big ones they fixate on to mimic their emotions and what they see, while a methodical character that’s an old hand at disaster and threat will tend to be more level-headed and a bit more descriptive, the pacing a bit more calm since the character is calm.

And look, each of these is a topic we’ve discussed in detail before. Hit that search on the sidebar or browse the tags if you feel that you need to dig in a little more. But all of it comes together, working as a whole to make a good action scene.

I know this was a lot. Today we’ve discussed getting our characters to sync up with our desire for action so that they’re the instigators, rather than being forced into it, and how getting there might involve a few rewrites. We then delved into some of the more specific components of a good fight scene, such as editing, keeping to our viewpoints (and using them), avoiding checklisting (plus similar behavior), and keeping our pacing consistent.

It’s a lot. That’s why so many people tend to really enjoy the work of authors who get action right. There’s a lot that goes into it, and it takes a lot of skill and practice.

However, it’s also why all that hard work and practice can really pay off. So if you want to write great action, it’s worth spending the time.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Organic Fight Scenes

  1. Funny you brought this up, just yesterday I was having a conversation with a fellow writer about action scenes. They lamented that they tend to freeze up on them, having no idea how to approach them. This is distinctly different from myself, as I relish combat scenes and tend to fly through them in terms of writing speed. Many of the points you’ve made are things that I’ve witnessed, if not done myself back when I was first getting started with this whole ‘writing’ idea. It’s all good advice, and I’m always thrilled to see a fight scene handled in a way that feels, to use my own preferred term, ‘realistic’. If I may, I would like to add a few things:

    First, limitations. Characters have them, or if they don’t, they should. Writers have an unfortunate tendency to forget that their characters aren’t infallible in combat. The worst action stories are the ones where the protagonist just beats up a bunch of enemies without any risk to themselves. That’s not [i]interesting[/i], nor is it particularly realistic. If you’re going to have an action scene, remember who the character is and their background. Just as a random example, a waitress who spent the last five years serving tables might not know how to throw a punch or predict her opponent’s next move, but she [i]will[/i] have top-notch stamina and probably strong balance to boot. Use those positives and negatives! Not everyone is a martial arts expert, and they don’t have to be to make an action scene interesting.

    This goes double for nonsensical defiance of the laws of physics and biology. No, author, a character whose wings just got broken cannot leap back into the aerial fray, no matter how much you try to make it so (yeah, I saw this once), and that protagonist who just got his arms broken isn’t going to magically find a way to throw full-strength punches and save the day at the last second (saw this, too. Repeatedly.).

    Second, I would argue length is just as valuable as pacing. Yes, fights can be exciting moments, but they can also wear out their welcome pretty quick. Worse, lengthening fights to extreme degrees tends to defy reality; contrary to what anime and movies will try to sell you, you can only go for so long before your body decides enough is enough. Real world fights are usually over in a matter of seconds, not hours. Even a professional 12-round boxing match can last at most 47 minutes. That ignores breaks where the fighters get to rest and get checked by medical staff and assumes nobody got knocked out or otherwise eliminated before the time out. Your protagonist is probably not a professional boxer. And even then the comparison isn’t apt because boxing is a controlled environment with set rules and requirements which – unless you happen to be writing about a professional contest like boxing – your action scenes won’t have.

    Don’t let an action scene overstay its welcome. Sure, it’s exciting, but eventually the story needs to resume.

    Liked by 2 people

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