The Brute Squad – Fight scenes (and how to cheat your way through them)

Yes, this is actually my sword.“You seem a decent fellow… I hate to kill you.”
“You seem a decent fellow… I hate to die.”

I was recently asked by an internet acquaintance how to write good, convincing fight scenes without making obvious that the author in fact has no fighting training or experience at all. The answer got a little bit longer than I originally thought, so I offered to write it up as a guest post to share with you.

Fight scenes can be daunting. I often notice that beginning writers either gloss over them or, in an attempt to balance the scales, overdo them and fill the page with overly technical descriptions. Neither is rewarding to write, and eventually, neither of those versions are fun to read.

But, you say, I am a couch potato and my only battle scar is from fighting that stubborn jar of salsa last Superbowl Sunday, whereas my main character has mastered five martial arts and is a superstrong vampire! How could I possibly make a fight convincing?

Well… before we go into left hooks, atemi or überhau, let’s take a step back and think about what we want to achieve with a fight scene to begin with. As with all scenes, why would you have it in the story if it weren’t important in some way? Of course, the obvious part of the fight is to advance the plot. But there is another, just as important part to every fight: the people in it.

Even if you have never fought or held a weapon in your life, you can write about the characters in your fight scene. If you can put yourself into the mind of your characters, if you can think how they would think in the current situation, then you can make their fight convincing without even having to go into the detailed techniques.

Think about the fights in Ender’s Game, and how much there is said about the psychology of the contestants. This, rather than any specific style, informs their actions and the cause of their success or downfall. If you can logically think what your character would do in this specific moment, then you can write a realistic fight even without specific knowledge. The fight will make sense even if you aren’t naming specific styles or describing perfect techniques.

Here are some questions that I use for inspiration:

  • Reason for the fight
    “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
    Why are the characters in this fight? Are they deathly enemies? Are they just some mooks sent to rough up the character? Is it a fight for survival or do the opponents just stand in the way of some goal? How important is the victory on an emotional level for the characters: is it a matter of honour or just a means to an end?
  • Circumstances
    “Have fun storming the castle!”
    What does the character want to achieve with the fight? Do they just want to get it over with and move on? Or is the fight a show for the spectators? A test of proficiency? This will determine how showy the characters act, and how much importance they will give to style over efficiency.
  • Style
    “My way’s not very sportsman-like.”
    Is the contestant the kind of person to fight dirty, fight efficiently, or have a lot of flourishes? Is their style brutal and direct, or refined and stylish? Even within the same martial arts school, personal styles can differ a lot.
  • Expertise
    “You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?”
    Are they a master of a martial art, or bumbling and untrained, or perhaps only trained by experience and street fighting? Each style gives advantages. Even a beginner can surprise a master.
  • Personality
    “No. To the pain.“
    Do they relish in causing pain, or do they shy away from the possibility of death and/or permanent injury of the opponent? Will they always go by the rules, even if the opponent cheats? Do they enjoy the fight for itself, or would they prefer not to fight if it was not necessary?
  • Strategy
    “But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s?“
    Do they plan five steps ahead in the chess game or do they react spontaneously? Are they the kind of person to act or to react?

Treating fight scenes as much as characterization devices than as simple action sequences will make the fight rather more interesting to read than a depiction of a flawless martial arts match, no matter how well researched.
Of course, if your character is supposed to be an expert in his art, you might want to read up on at least some names and tactics in that sport. But for your generic, run of the mill action sequence – learn to think like your character would think “fight” and you’re all set!

*All quotes are from The Princess Bride by William Goldman.


Mission: Levity Nr. 1 by Bettina PetrikMy first science fiction book, Mission: Levity #2: Gute Leute, Schlechte Zeiten is due to be published on the German market in August 2015. Check out the series pilot here!

This article first appeared as a guest post on Crackin’ the WIP.

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