Fight scenes have a lot in common with intimate scenes, which we covered last week. In both, characters show themselves, new plot points are revealed, and the story moves forward. Fight scenes are nice for the writer because they’re all about conflict, and conflict is the driving force of any story. Be sure to keep these steps in mind when structuring your next fight scene.
A fight scene isn’t just a plot point you jotted down in your outline. Fight scenes happen because tensions have finally boiled over, and the characters are having a confrontation. This is a scene about people and emotions. Even when it’s a literal fight, like a dual of some sort, it’s a battle between individuals. Their personalities, circumstances, backstory, and present story must get the plot to this point. It can’t merely be about action. It’s got to be driven by character.
How do they fight? Are they strong or weak? Right or wrong? Do they fight fair? Do they fall to pieces? What finally drives them to this moment? Keep characterization in mind and realize it should be exposed during this fight. Even if your protagonist is up against faceless Stormtroopers, you are sharing a lot about personality in such a scene.
There will also be repercussions to the fight. When you plan your next scene and the remainder of the book, make sure the proceeding plot points flow from this moment. A big fight (argument or physical romp) changes things. What will the aftermath look like for individuals and for relationships?
Most fight scenes follow a certain structure. Your character has a goal that is being thwarted by someone or something. How will she approach this obstacle? What type of confrontation will it be? Structurally, each fight scene should have a clear purpose and move the story into a new direction.
Set the Mood/Build Tension
Just like an intimate scene should be built with narrowing proximity and focus on the other person, so too should fight scenes. Set the mood, like you would for romance. Give us the anticipation, the darkness, the annoyance, the fear. Show us the technological wizardry of the Death Star. Let us see the mood souring. Make the beautiful day incongruous with the protagonist’s ill humor.
In real life, people get into fights without knowing why they do it. Maybe it’s PMS. Maybe someone’s got the kind of pent up agitation that makes them go cruising for a bruising. Just because inexplicable fighting occurs in life doesn’t mean it works in a book. Characters need motivation. Even if they don’t understand it, you, the writer needs to. Conflict needs a genesis. Therefore, build tension. Set the scene.
Finally, be mindful of how you write this scene. Avoid clichés, which sounds obvious, but it’s easier said than done sometimes. We’re all so highly influenced by our favorite movies, books, and tropes that it’s easy to downshift into what we already know. People read for nuance, so if you’ve seen in this way before, try to put your own spin on it.
Another technical move is to make sure your word choice and sentence structure match the mood. Senses are heightened. Tension is high. Her voice isn’t soft when it’s yelling, it’s shrill. He doesn’t close the door, he slams the door. If people are moving quickly, your prose should move quickly. Arguments aren’t wide shots—scenery, history, and the future are not important. (Battles might be different.) Fight scenes have immediacy. Language choices should reflect that.
Writing fight scenes mimics the precision of an intimate scene. Think about the build up and aftermath of this scene—it’s going to be a game changer. Structure it with purpose, and never lose sight of the fact fight scenes reveal character.