I will keep this under 1,000 words! (HA!… not even close, bimbo)
In the past I’ve been too wishy-washy about these articles to drill down. I become either hopelessly broad or lose all sense of character and emotion because I’m mired in details, trying to make my advice universal by listing every possible scenario. Which is, er… impossible. And tends to lead to 4-5,000 word mega-articles that do nothing except help me practice.
Let’s avoid that this time, shall we? I hope other writers find this useful in their writing, and that other readers find it gives them new ways to dissect and devour the stories they love.
Let’s future proof this: the following is the first article of 2021 North’s advice for writing a one-on-one fight, specifically, the way I would write it. Other ways may work well for other writers. Meanwhile, group fights and full-scale battles are their own sets of questions. There’s some carry-over, but let’s keep focused.
Don’t even ask about wars. Wars are as much about strategy as individual battles, and as to how to make that interesting… I’ll give you that advice if I ever figure out where to start, shall I?
Now, while approach can’t be universal between all writers, there are some helpful questions we can ask ourselves which come close. First: what are the dominant emotions of the fight? “Nothing” can be a valid answer! I rarely do this because stories are about conveying experience to the audience, and emotion’s a huge part of experience.
Yet, suppose you wanted to write a story about the self-perpetuating hollowness in a cycle of violence. You might open on a grey day of cold-iron clouds. Not rain nor snow, only a faint and desultory drizzle in the air. Two figures, each face blank, all eyes empty, exchange blows at once precise and yet soulless–mechanical.
One will be the protagonist, of course. The other will be dead. And it will mean nothing.
Now, why do I assume the story opens this way? You can write a tale that ends in emptiness. I won’t claim there’s no case where that works well. But do keep in mind that stories exist, again, to convey meaning and experience. I’ve read stories whose endings give me the same displaced feeling as walking through empty city streets in the depth of night, hearing cars in the distance but seeing neither headlights nor fellow travelers.
So… might as well have taken that walk, you know? Get some exercise, save myself some eyestrain. Maybe see an interesting building or two.
A story about violence that opens with this emptiness gives its protagonist an immediate motivation: the need to find fulfillment in something, anything, to fill the void within. And if they find some success in that, their reawoken sentiments will come into ever-growing conflict with the cold-hearted killing of their past–or present, for that matter.
The difficulty there would be making the protagonist engaging enough that readers care to go on that journey with them. It could be done. It’s not a story I’m interested in writing at present, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good story!
Enough generalities. I can only speak to my own skills and emotions. What kinds of one-on-one fights am I interested in writing? Because I’m neurodivergent–autistic, specifically–I’m drawn to the psychological side of storytelling. I mean, more so: all character is fundamentally about psychology, but I look at it through that lens because it helps me find points of deeper connection with other people.
Though our differences can appear irreconcilable on the surface, I find more and more in common with others as I grow older and learn to perceive our common ties. We often learn to hide these entwining threads out of fear that others will hurt us through them. Those who are most like us are most likely to share our weaknesses, and the knowledge of how to exploit them.
An irony: in a fight there’s less cause to hide who you are. You know you’re probably going to get hurt either way. I’ve often learned the most about others when we come to blows, or stand on the verge of it.
In other words, I write about violence in order to feel more human.
Literal, violent conflict between two people intrigues me because it can so swiftly bring our inmost selves to the surface. In daily life we’re constrained by so many bonds: etiquette, fear of consequence, desire to hide our dark sides from those we love, simple tiredness or apathy.
When we face someone else with the intent to strike them, we shed some of these inhibitions. There’s no room left for agonizing over word-choice and mannerisms. We can be honest. We can be ugly. And in showing those facets of our best selves strong enough to stay true when our worst come to the fore, we can also be our most beautiful.
So for me, the best fight scene starts its work long before the actual fight. I need characters who bring baggage with them to the blood-stained sands, and beat each other to death with it. I want some vital part of each character’s soul to depend on its outcome. Even if they survive a defeat physically unscathed, I want to see them leave pieces behind on the field.
In a one-on-one fight, the stakes are the characters themselves. That doesn’t have to be a weakness. It’s hard–not impossible, but hard!–to make audiences feel “the end of the world” as a full consequence. It’s so huge, so hard to comprehend. “This person, right here, who you’ve come to love over this story’s course? Probably going to die.” That’s as clear-cut as it gets. No escape into philosophy. No hiding behind themes. No long-zoom shots. A face we know, a story we care about.
Someone to fear for… if you’ve built your foundations well. If you know that two characters will slash each other to pieces on Page 248, start setting up everything you want them to bring there as soon as you can find a good place to do it. If you don’t see one? You better make one instead!
And if that seems like it’s going to push your limits because you didn’t plan on anything like that at first–good! Some of my own favorite story moments wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t forced myself to figure out ways to put bitter enemies toe-to-toe and snarl-to-snarl earlier on.
Here’s another question: how pivotal is this fight to the overall story? I won’t try to tell you rote instructions for this. I strive to put my main villain in as much contact with the heroes throughout the story as possible because, well, they’re the villain. But maybe your story isn’t about beating the villain through head-on combat. In that case you might want the fight scene to feel de-emphasized because it’s not the point.
A note about throwing unprepared characters into fight scenes: I like this a lot if the character wants to be good at fighting, or otherwise has motivations to get good that go beyond “I don’t want to die right now.” Again, I love characters who bring baggage to a fight.
Throwing in someone unprepared, or imperfectly prepared, is also very helpful for us both as writers and readers–the neophyte’s movements will be sloppier, less inventive, more timid. It’s a great way to bridge the cognitive gap for writers and readers who may not have much combat training either, and let them grow their understanding of fighting along with the character.
But I always have to roll my eyes a bit at stories that go out of their way to pick characters who aren’t invested in being fighters. Fights interest me most as tests of character–how do you test someone’s character by targeting a piece of their identity (fighting skill, warrior pride, etc.) that doesn’t exist? This speaks more to the character of the test-giver than the one being tested.
Now, to be clear, you can write some excellent stories about how many societies force unsuited people into battle for various reasons. But at that point we’re just back to the “de-emphasized fight scene” point: while there is a fight scene, it doesn’t serve the same purpose in the story as the fight scenes I’m currently offering advice on.
It is, in fact, outside the scope of this piece!
Back on track: if you’re like me and you subscribe to the idea that the climactic showdown between one or more heroes and the big-bad is something to savor precisely because it’s expected, start that drip-feed good and early. Do you find your character’s martial journey compelling? Their progress in learning the skills of a warrior?
Here’s a little secret about writing fight scenes with intricate blow-by-blow choreography and elaborate techniques: you can do it, but not if you try to introduce those things in the middle of the fight. If you’d like to really dive into the different fighting styles used by the hero and the villain, start doing that from the moment you introduce them.
If you’re going to mention a technique in the fight, find a place early in the story to introduce it, attach emotional significance–maybe it’s the signature move of someone the character loved? Their own special invention? Maybe they even stole it from their enemy’s favored fighting style!
And don’t stop there! Think about how it interacts with the other techniques. Which ones are high risk, high reward? Which ones just aren’t worth it unless you’ve lost any chance to win, and you’re just trying to stay alive–or, just trying to take the enemy down with you? It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a martial art that would work in our reality as long as you’re passionate in keeping it true to the story‘s reality.
Fight scenes thrive on action and reaction. Each is a story unto itself. Every technique is a chance to reflect on the mood, the inner mind, and the health of the warrior performing it.
And some of my fellow writers may be thinking, “But how do I do any of this without being tropey?” I’m here to give you permission not to give a fuck! Tropes are just established storytelling concepts. We all use them. When we complain about something being “tropey,” what we really mean is that the story has only taken the concepts while doing nothing to weave them together or meld and flavor them with its unique identity.
Not only are tropes not inherently bad, but people absolutely love this one. “Character’s fighting style shows their personality” is a favorite trope because it’s good. Your character should show who they are through the way they approach fighting–what is a fight but our fierce effort to reinforce our own identity by breaking down someone else’s?
Well, yes, there are exceptions, but we’ll get to those in later articles. If I write later articles, I mean.
Let me close on that last note, actually. I used to believe it was vital that my stories not feel “contrived,” by which I meant that I didn’t want them to feel too convenient. I didn’t want so many elements to line up in driving home the story that they felt constructed, because scenes are never that cohesive in reality, right?
That is sometimes true of this reality. But I don’t write stories in this reality–at least, as far as I can tell–and eventually I realized: very few readers will complain about a little contrivance if it makes the story better.
Thermian Paradox, no? At day’s end, all storytelling is contrived.
The contrivances that drag down a fight scene, as with most other parts of a story, are the ones that make it feel like it matters less: the main character shrugs off wounds for no reason, the writer introduces a miraculous new power with no prior setup in order to beat the bad guy, or in reverse, the bad guy should clearly have died but gets away to fight another day.
So as far as fight scenes: that battle arena you think is too colorful, bizarre, or edgy? I don’t care how crazy it is, I want to see it. Find ways to hint that it exists, or to create a world where its existence makes sense, early in the story. Give your characters reasons to go there. Those powers that seem too crazy? Start laying out their pieces in the form of weaker powers that work on the same principles.
This isn’t just for your reader’s convenience. It’s a vital chance for you to practice all the skills you need: seeing the fight in your mind’s eye, feeling its energy, becoming better and better at letting your characters use their skills, weapons, and powers in ingenious ways.
Maybe you’re worried about spoiling surprises for the big final battle. Hey, guess what? Surprise is the most overrated emotion in the whole of storytelling! Sure, if you tone down the emotion elsewhere in your story in order to save up for the finale, that finale will appear more emotionally powerful by contrast.
But just as defeating an opponent too weak to challenge you feels empty once you face a true rival, this finale is nothing to the crescendo you reach if every strike, every snarled word, every scar on the warriors has been imbued with feeling from the start. Human emotion, stored over long travels and many struggles, can turn the tiniest souvenir into a prized possession.
Writers, I don’t need to tell you to imagine what this can do for your fight scenes. Think of the one you love the best as a reader, as a member of the audience. I guarantee it’s not the one whose writer tries to hold everything back as a surprise. It’s the one where you feel the battle in your bones long before it arrives. The one whose writer lets you think, “This is it. This is the moment”–then, just as promised, hits you with everything they’ve got.
I might just leave it at this article as far as one-on-one fights. Anything else I can think of would just be delving into specific subsets. But hey, maybe there’s interest in that? Let me know in the comments! Otherwise, please do the usual: like, share, whatnot. I do post these because I hope other people will enjoy reading them, you know!