The Minutia Of Writing Fight Scenes: Episode 1 | Three Types Of Action

Welcome to Courtney’s Blog, I’m you guest host for today. As payment for losing a word count battle Out of the kindness of my heart, I am here to address a very simple question: How does one go about writing good fight scenes? (And accordingly, why would anyone ask me?)
The latter query may be addressed here. For the former, and primary, keep reading.
There are undoubtedly many differing methods for writing a fight scene and countless opinions on what constitutes a good one. To begin, let me try to sum up what I think makes a fight scene claw its way to the top of the heap. 
Realism. Or in some cases, call it believability. Whether we’re talking about a little old lady, a Spetsnaz veteran, or a big pink mountain troll, the reader wants to be convinced that the battle is real and possible in whatever universe his or her head is in at the moment. 
Pacing = Fast. Good fight scenes are page-turning at its best, and for some of us, reason enough to sludge through a few too many chapters of dialogue and all those other boring non-fight scenes. 
Length = Just Right. Too quick and the reader is disappointed and confused, too long and you lose realism and pacing. Give the readers time to get involved and in the swing of things, then go on long enough to wonder, and just before it gets repetitive, end it. Got it? Me neither.
Since this topic is really an endless can of kung fu worms, and one of the few things that I can actually write about in a rather long-winded fashion, this post is about to get really specific. 

 Here’s a great scene from Jack Reacher to get us in the right mood.
Three Types Of Action: An Analysis Of A Character’s Fighting Style
As I perceive fighting, there are three types of action that a combatant may take. 
                A Planned Action, an Impromptu Action, or a Reaction. 
The first two are basically offensive, while the last is almost always in defense or at least in response to an offensive action by the opponent. A fight scene does not require all three, but it will likely have them. The key component of a planned action is restraint, arbitrary parameters that limit a combatant’s actions and reactions. An impromptu action is not necessarily unplanned, but unrestrained.(Jack Reacher is a great example of this, he is a big planner, but he rarely holds much back.) The difference in severity and intent between planned and impromptu responses, as well as the cause of shift, can show a great deal about a character’s ideas, principles, familiarity, and skill when it comes to violence. 
By examining these three items, the fighting style of any character can be determined. Let us consider this scene. The setup is fairly simple. We have two characters in a dark alley who end up fighting each other. This, on the surface, sounds way too clichéd to even bother with, but it’s all in the execution. That’s why I like this example. It is completely free of special effects or any other arbitrary factors that might make an otherwise dull fight seem more exciting.
Let’s look at Cass, the point of view character and the protagonist. She begins with all planned actions. Even though neither the battlefield nor the opponent is known to her, she thinks she understands the level of danger and therefore plans her level of response. 
“ She smiled as she realized that hadn’t nearly killed a couple of innocents. Now the fun could begin. Time to put on a show.”
Then, after enough scene setting, the first kink in her plans appears.
“Cass was expecting the man called Marco to drag Anne out of the car. She was momentarily surprised when he reached for her. She continued to feign unconsciousness while the big man maneuvered her out of the car. He unceremoniously dropped her on the ground several feet away before returning to slam the door closed. “
Now, let’s skip to my favorite part, the actual fighting. This is first actions that each of the combatants take. Planned actions. Cass has planned to put on a show and not injure her opponent, who she thinks is an actor.

Marco, on the other hand is planning to hurt her and maybe even rape her. His actions are planned based on the assumption that Cass is a victim and not likely to be a problem. The manner and mood with which each approach the fight is in each case unwise, yet very revealing.
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““Come here,” he grunted. Cass raised her arms slowly, in what might be confused with a surrendering gesture. She stopped just of arm’s length. He was reaching out to grab her when she raised her eyes. He hesitated when she met his gaze. Cass attacked.
She threw a ridiculously slow, but pretty kick towards his head, trying to play along with the drama level she’d observed so far. He ducked, and she followed with a double roundhouse. He dodged the first kick, but caught the second. With impressive strength, he threw her against the alley wall.”
Now, for Cass, little has changed in the way of her planning, she is still controlled, unconcerned.
“You stupid girl. Now I’m mad. I was gonna make it quick.” He shook his head and pulled out the Glock.”
Marco reacts, escalating the fight, Cass’s dramatic resistance being the apparent cause, but perhaps not the only one. I like to think that he sensed more than he saw and became cautious and instinctively wary of Cass. Pulling the gun was a reaction, an instinctive response. This, to me, indicates that he is not comfortable with hand-to-hand combat and prefers the perceived advantage of a gun–and possibly, that he fears Cass for some reason…
 “Cass tried to overcome the instinctive urge to try and kill the man.” 
And right on cue, we get to see what Cass wants to do. Her reaction is simple and demonstrates how deep her head-on personality goes. It also, indicates a familiarity with firearms, and a lack of the irrational fear that some might feel. This also shows us her level of self-control. Instead of killing the man she still thinks is an actor, she restrains her reaction and moves back to planning.
“She kept telling herself it was not a real gun right up until he the bullet tore through her left thigh. Cass looked down, shocked. It must have been a solid core 9mm hollow-point, because it went right on through. It hurt like the dickens, but she could hardly feel it. She was angry and that made her focused, focused like the laser beam mounted on the rail of her very own Glock 19, back home in the safe.”
“Now you won’t be trying any of that kung fu crap on me, babe. Let’s have some fun.”
He moved towards her, teeth bared, and a look in his eye that said he wasn’t going to kill her right away. The moment he’d fired that gun, Cass had forgotten all about the show or anything else other than the right here and now. She was no longer playing by any rules.”
And there it is, the shift, the final escalation. Cass is ready to take impromptu action without restraint and there will be no reactions called off anymore. This is where the actual fight begins for Cass. She now understands. Both combatants are now part of the same battle.
“She’d pulled herself up into a sitting position, her back against the grimy brick wall, her hands curled up against her left shoulder. She kept her eyes glued to her target as she waited for him to get close enough. The seconds were eternities as he walked up, then knelt down over her. He reached out with his free hand and felt of her hair. His other hand, still holding the gun, was against the ground, helping to hold him up. It was the end. 
Notice that she is not planning anything specific, she is more focused on the target and the result. This, to me is characteristic of impromptu mode. She is probably considering many possibilities as she has been prone to do before this, but she does not remove any from play. She will take action when she sees opportunity and she will do what can be done to create opportunity.
Cass’s tied hands moved in unison towards their target, one just an inch behind the other. The edge of her right hand struck the big man’s throat. The other hand followed it, adding the strength of her other arm. A blow that was dangerous with one hand became deadly with two. There was a wet sound as he tried to breathe through his partially crushed trachea.”
Here we see what happens when Cass takes unrestrained action. She acts quickly, and with no finesse. She goes straight for the throat (ha ha) and lands a nasty, but effective blow.
“His jerked back to his feet, hands instinctively grabbing at his neck, trying to ease the pain. Cass was free and the gun was out of play. She stood and set herself against the wall, using it to steady her injured leg long enough to kick with the other. The kick wasn’t pretty, or high, or any of the other things that look good on a television screen. It was only nasty. Cass’s foot nailed him right above the groin.  He took a step back, still searching for air, then he collapsed, no longer capable of standing.”
Cass is now in control, and she pushes her advantage, taking the extra time she has garnered to make another attack and seal her victory. 
“Cass fell down, unable to maintain the balance needed to recover without both legs working. She got her good leg under her and picked up the gun, but there was no need for it. The kick, as intended, had not only knocked the wind from her enemy, but dislodged the cartilage connection of the pelvis, damaging the structural integrity of his body. He was not going anywhere.”
So, let’s sum up what we know about the fighting style of each of these combatants.
                Planned: Controlled, unwilling to hurt others, uses kicks, showy ,dramatic.
                What this tells me: She has a reason not to escalate the fight herself. She is skilled and prefers using her legs in a fight. This strongly suggests a background in martial arts and especially a kicking art such as taekwondo. 
                Reaction: Lethal, focused, steady.
                What this tells me: I see an immediate understanding of weapons and the level of danger. Also, Cass clearly has no compunctions about using deadly force to defend herself. She is very in-control of her reactions/impulses and aware of her surroundings/perceived situation even under stress.
                Impromptu: Calm, reasonable, decisive, and deadly. Able to use hands, and feet. Not showy, brutal and efficient.
                What this tells me: The contrast between the efficient, ugly techniques here and the showy stuff earlier demonstrates her depth of skill and understanding of her martial art. She shows confidence in her ability and especially her leg by choosing to leave the gun out of play. We see that she knows how to be lethal and that she will be when she decides to be. No hesitation. Makes us think that she has been in a similar situation before. 
Cass’s fake (planned) fighting style: Martial arts, preference for showy kicks, non-lethal, controlled, inefficient.
Cass’s true (impromptu) fighting style: Martial arts, preference for kicking attacks, efficient, precise, unyielding. 
Cass’s instinctive  (reaction) style: ?, deadly. (this scene didn’t tell us much more than that)
As for her opponent, I’ll leave the summation up to you. If I do all the work, you might forget what was going on here. My philosophy on teaching (honed in the sacred halls of martial arts) has a huge hands-on component, so go for it. Tell me about Marco’s fighting style.
If you have any questions or comments for, me, the author of this lengthy post, don’t be shy. Only Chuck Norris can kick you through the internet and I am not Chuck Norris. (I can only kick people over a basic LAN.)
For more on techniques and tricks for writing fight scenes (or writing other things), check my blog: Tough Target.

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