Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fight Scene Snafus

Remember the fight scene between Jackie Chan and Jet Li from Forbidden Kingdom? (This link will refresh your memory. )
Or perhaps you’d rather imagine the scene in the Princess Bride when Inigo Montonya introduces himself to the six-fingered villain who killed his father. (at this link )

Wish you could write a scene that good? I do, but I know I’d need the help of an expert—someone like Rayne Hall who is our guest today.

Rayne Hall writes dark fantasy and horror. She has published more than twenty books under different pen names in different genres, and her stories have earned Honorable Mentions in 'The Years' Best Fantasy and Horror'. She holds a college degree in publishing management and a masters degree in creative writing, and teaches online classes in 'Writing Fight Scenes', 'Writing Scary Scenes' and 'Writing About Magicians'.

To whet our appetite in crafting fight scenes, she gives us this list.

Header courtesy of samulli

Thirteen Mistakes Writers Make With Fight Scenes

1. Nothing at stake.... as if the characters put their lives at risk without purpose

2. Absence of emotion... as if the fighter didn't feel fear, fury or despair

3. Generic setting... as if the fight took place in 'white space'

4. Making it easy for the hero by giving him a superior weapon, superior armour, superior strength and superior skills... as if he couldn't rise to a genuine challenge

5. Fighters holding a leisurely conversation with long, carefully articulated sentences.. as if they had plenty of breath to spare during the swashbuckling

6. Implausible fight skills... as if the situation instantly granted the Regency damsel a black belt in karate

7. Inventing a fancy weapon for the hero... as if a gimmicky-shaped sword stood a chance against a blade of tried-and-tested standard design

8. Long sentences... as if fighting was a leisurely, slow-paced activity

9. Lots of adverbs... as if any sense of speed created by a verb must be squashed instantly

10. Weapons from the wrong period ... as if an ancient Greek would use a medieval greatsword, or a Norman knight a 19th century cavalry sabre

11. Weapons performing tasks they can't do ... as if an epee sword could split skulls or a small pistol stop a running target at a thousand feet

12. The character thinks deep philosophical thoughts... as if fighting off deadly blows were so easy that he could concentrate on something else

13. The fighter observes what his mates are doing at the other side of the battlefield and the sun setting on the horizon... as if the immediate danger didn't require all his attention

If you have questions about these 'mistakes', or about writing fight scenes, feel free to ask. I'll be around for a week to answer questions. And as always we appreciate your comments.

Even if you've never wielded a weapon, you can write an exciting fight scene. Rayne will show you how, in her workshop on 'Writing Fight Scenes', which starts on 1 June 2011:


  1. Very good examples of how not to do it! Nicely said.

  2. Hi CountryDew,
    Have you read any fight scenes which are particularly good (or particularly bad)?

  3. Thank you for these great reminders! I'm bookmarking this for the next fight scene I write.

  4. This was a great 13! I don't write a lot of fight scenes, but when I do, I'll come back to this.

  5. Great advice! I have never tried a fight scene.

  6. CountryDew,
    Thanks. I'm hoping I'll remember these cautions when I compose my next action scene. ;)

  7. Rayne Hall,
    Thank you for being our guest today. I'm thrilled to have you. I write a number of fight scenes and I'm always looking to improve.

  8. Skylar Kade,
    Great minds think alike. I'm saving a copy of these tips too.

  9. Edie Ramer,
    I like writing--fight scenes or not. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. This is a very timely post for me. My editor just told me the final fight scene in my upcoming urban fantasy was anticlimatic. I think the scene is a victim of #4 on your list: Making it easy for the hero. All the baddies come, and the hero really doesn't have to fight much to beat them. I have some ideas now on how to "make it hurt" a bit more. Ha!

    These are great tips. Thanks for the post. Going to Tweet it now. :-)

  11. Ornery's Wife,
    I agree with you. I think Rayne knows what she's talking about. Thanks.

  12. I would totally stink at writing a fight scene. :)

    Have a great Thursday!

  13. KendallGray,
    I'm glad the post helps. Rayne is also teaching a class at FF&P next month, which I bet will be very instructive.

  14. I am Harriet,
    Yeah, you write a lot of great stuff, but I can't really picture you penning a fight scene either. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Now I want to see Forbidden Kingdom. Too cool.

    Excellent list to keep in mind while writing.

  16. Great, Skylar. You mention that you will bookmark this for the next fight scene you write. So you've written one or several fight scenes already? What do you find the most challenging aspect of writing fight scenes? (if you're willing to share your experience)

  17. Hi Edie,
    Yes, you may not write a lot of fight scenes (this depends a lot on your genre), and one day a plot suddenly requires a fight scene. Then you'll know what to do (or what not to do, lol).

  18. Hi Brenda,
    What kind of action scenes do you write? (What genre?) What aspects of writing fight scenes do you find most challenging? Which (if any) of the 'thirteen mistakes' resonates with you?

  19. Hi KendallGrey,

    Wow! This is fantastic that my guest blog has come at the perfect time for you. This pleases me enormously. I'm performing a happy dance!

    If you're going to tweet it, that would be much appreciated. I believe that many writers could do with help for the fight scenes.

    Since your editor specifically comments on the final fight scene being anticlimactic, you may find this article even more useful. wrote it as a guest on the Writer in Waiting blog. It's about how to create an exciting climactic fight between hero and villain:

  20. #4 is why I think John McClane from the Die Hard movies resonated with the public. He was just a guy with receding hairline and an attitude. It made him so much easier to root for.

    (And thank you for including the Son of Domingo Montoya. Love The Princess Bride!)

  21. Hi Harriet,

    A few years ago, I stunk at writing fight scenes. Really, really stunk.

    My efforts were cringe-worthy. Some were even published, and I'm embarrassed at the thought of someone reading them.

    At the time, I knew that my fight scenes were appalling, but I didn't know how to make them better. I looked for help everywhere, but there wasn't much help available. In the end, I studied lots of published fight scenes, and observed what worked and what didn't, and learnt from those that worked. I identified some techniques and applied them to my own writing, and suddenly my fight scenes came alive.
    Then my writing buddies and critique partners asked me to help them with their scenes... and suddenly I'd become an expert on how to write fight scenes.
    I'm writing these guest blog articles and teaching workshops to help writers master the challenge of fight scenes.

    Are you sure you 'would totally stink at writing fight scenes'?

    I think if you wanted to, you could.

    Writing fight scenes is a craft aspect which can be learnt. If I could learn it, so can you.

    You could probably write *great* fight scenes if you tried. (the first attempt might be lousy, but that's what early drafts are for).

    Don't be frightened of fight scenes. They're scenes like any other, with just some special requirements added.

    (hoping sincerely that I haven't scared you off fight scenes)

  22. Hi The Gal Herself,
    That's interesting that you love the fight scenes in 'Die Hard' and in 'The Princess Bride' - because they're very different. The fighting in 'Die Hard' is very realistic, the fighting in 'The Princess Bride' very unrealistic (but delightfully entertaining).
    If you are (or if you were) writing fight scenes in your own novels, are the more similar to 'The Princess Bride' or to 'Die Hard'?

  23. Alice Audrey,
    I bet you'll like Forbidden Kingdom and I'm glad you find the list useful. Thanks for stopping by.

  24. From my point of view the biggest mistake is that they go on too long. I get bored and want to go back to the story, if there is one.

  25. Great topic - and great information for anyone who might consider writing a fight scene in any sort of story. A lot of these will come in hand no matter what you're writing - even if it isn't really combat but an internal struggle or a battle of wills.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    Happy TT!

  26. Rayne Hall,
    What kind of fighting scenes do I write? Anything from magic duels to sword clashes to bar brawls--you'll see. I'm taking your class next month.

  27. The Gal Herself,
    Thanks. I'm a Princess Bride fan too.

  28. colleen,
    Really you don't like fight scenes? Are you more of a character and plot person? Or do you like the sound of the prose because you're a poet?

  29. Hi Colleen,

    Yes, a fight scene which goes on and on can be boring, especially when it's a blow-by-blow account of events. It's worst if the story comes to a halt to let the fight take place, instead of the fight being part of the story and the story part of the fight.

    On the other hand, fight scenes can also be too short, for example if the whole novel has built up to a climactic fight between hero and villain. Then a very short scene (such as >With a single blow of his sword, King Henry killed the pretender.<) can be disappointing for the reader.

    I think the ideal length of a fight scene depends on its purpose in the story. It also depends on the genre (for example, romance readers would get bored with long fight scenes, while readers of action thrillers thrive on them).

    Have you read any published fight scenes which definitely went on for too long, for your personal taste? I'm curious what genre they were, and (if you have them at hand and can check) how many pages.


  30. Hi Kimberly,
    I agree, some of the 'mistakes' apply to other types of scenes, too. The techniques for writing fight scenes overlap with the techniques for other kinds of scenes.
    However, not all techniques apply to all kinds of scenes.
    For example, you mentioned 'internal struggle'. If it's an internal struggle, the pace-slowing effects of adverbs and long sentences aren't a problem, wheras in a fight scene, they can ruin the pace.

    By the way, although you may not plan to write a fight scene, you may be surprised how many novels call for a physical fight somewhere in the plot, even if it's just a short non-violent one, such as the heroine trying to get away from her kidnapper, or the hero restraining a drunk from doing something stupid.


  31. Hi Brenda,
    Great! I'll see you next month, then.
    Do you have a particular scene you want to work on during the workshop, or will you develop a brand new one from scratch?

  32. Or, in my case, the heroine tripping over her own two feet and popping the hero right in the eye. LOL! :)

  33. LOL. Does the hero do anything to prevent getting popped in the eye? ;-)

  34. I haven't written a fight scene yet, but I will definitely keep these points in mind if I do!

  35. Kimberly Menozzi,
    Yeah, I think it's a great topic too. I'm glad to have Rayne share her knowledge.

  36. Kimberly Menozzi,
    LOL. I'd like to read your scene with the heroine giving the hero a black eye by accident. It sounds like my kinda of thing.

  37. Suzanna,
    Yep, Rayne makes some good points.

  38. Hi Rayne. Great list.

    Let me chime in with a variation on item 4, the writer showing the hero's alleged superiority by pitting him against vast numbers of inferior opponents. I find stories where the hero wades through miles of orc gore tedious (orcs can't be much of a challenge if Ranger Handsomous kills 10,000 of them before breakfast, now can they?)

    Likewise, battle scenes where armies square off, then each side trucks out their mage and the biggest spell wins make for an incredibly boring waste of time. If the mage is that good, what's the point of fielding armies to begin with?

  39. Wonderful tips! Thank you so much :)

    Happy TT,

    13 (More) Distractions

  40. Hi John,

    I agree with your examples of what can make a fight scene weak.
    Mass slaughter isn't heroic (not for me, anyway - I find it disgusting) and bigger numbers don't make it any more heroic, exciting or digestible.

    When the hero dispatches several opponents, there's always a plausibility issue. A writer could fix this by creating an illusion of reality. He faces four, not ten thousand. And instead of dispatching his opponents easily, show him struggle and almost losing. Then the reader can buy it.

    Theres also the emotional issue. If the hero dispatches his enemies with ease, there's no need for the reader to root for the hero. If he can slay ten thousand orcs before breakfast, there's no point fearing for the hero's life and hoping he'll make it. As a writer, you can fix this by stacking the odds against the hero: Instead of giving the total superiority over the enemy, make the enemy superior. Now the hero is in trouble, and the reader roots for him. If the exhausted hero drags his bleeding blody through the forest, and he's had to shed his armour and drop his sword, and suddenly two orcs swoop down on him, the reader will root for him and wonder if and how he'll win.

    Merely adding implausbible zeros to the number of enemy hordes doesn't have the same effect.

    Regarding magic... that's one of my pet peeves, too! If a magic weapon or magic spell can achieve any goal and solve any problem, then there is no story. And, as you say, if magicians can win a war with magic, you wonder why they bother with ordinary armies at all. The same applies to other situations: if problems can be solved by the flick of a wand, why bother with any other endeavours? Characters would simply go to a magician, and presto, the story is over. No need to write or read a novel.

    If writers use magicians for fictional battles, it's best to model those on real magicians and battles (i.e. how magicians were employed in warfare in cultures which practiced magic).

    The role of the magicians in warfare was typically blended with that of priest, astrologer, soothsayer, psychologist, and spin doctor.

    Most of their work was done in the run-up to the battle.

    They would study the stars or the entrail of a sacrificial animal and declare that the omens were favourable for their side, or advise the general to postpone the battle until the next day.
    They would bless the soldiers and bless the weapons. They would carry out a ritual sacrifice to bring the goodwill of the relevant god. Then they would announce loudly that the god(s) were on this army's side, which was a pretty good psychological boost for the average soldier. They might cast spells to make the arrows fly further and to give the soldiers greater strength and courage.

    They didn't - as far as I've been a ble to ascetain with my research - get involved in the battle, hurl fireballs at the enemy, or invent wonder weapons.

    If the magical measures influence the fight rather than decide its outcome, the scene is much more interesting.


  41. John,
    Yes--good observations. Over-powered heroes are perhaps fun in computer-gaming, but not so much in fiction.

  42. Rayne Hall,
    I'm with you. I think limits are important in fiction especially in regards to magic use. Orson Scott Card talks about setting world building rules in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and it's good advice.

  43. Xakara,
    Thanks. We aim to please.

  44. Some excellent points. And who doesn't love that fight scene in The Princess Bride?

  45. Hi Heather,

    I, too, adore the fight scenes in 'The Princess Bride'. Inigo vs The Man In Black is my favourite, with Inigo vs The Man Who Killed His Father the second.

    They're so vibrant, so entertaining. We get a strong sense of the fighters' personalities, and there's a purpose to each fight. The setting is used creatively, the dialogue is rapier-sharp, the scene structure is masterful... just superb.

    Totally unrealistic, of course, but in this kind of story realism isn't needed.

    If you get the chance, read the book (if you haven't yet). It's even better. They did a surprisingly good job making a film from the book, but the book has more detail, including n the fight scenes. Worth studying.


  46. Heather,
    I agree with you the tips are excellent and the Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies too.

  47. Rayne Hall,
    You're right. The Princess Bride is an excellent movie, but the book is even better.

    Thank you for your helpful insights. I appreciate you sharing your wealth of knowledge and I'm looking forward to learning more from you.

  48. Fabulous list! I shall keep the warnings about adverbs, oddly-shaped swords and philosophical musings especially in mind!

  49. Great, Karen. If my list helps you create better fight scenes, I'm delighted.


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