Write Fights Right!

Sanjuro final duel, two samurai facing each other with spectators in background

If you’ve seen Sanjuro, you know this isn’t a still, but a playing video.

I love good fight scenes. In a story, I want to feel the action. In a film, I want tightly choreographed combat. It’s fine if it’s realistic (the long tension of Sanjuro‘s final duel, and we’ll just ignore the period blood effects), fake realistic (the bloody impact of Logan), crazy physics-defying martial arts (the alternate-world movement of The Matrix), or just plain fun (Captain America kicking Nazi tail). But lame action, the writer glossing over it or the director trying to fake it with shaky cam, makes me feel cheated.

So I try to write good action scenes. And most of the time I feel I do an okay job.

But I’ve been really struggling with one scene. It’s very short, an attempted bar fight which is over in under three seconds. But because it’s so fast, it’s hard to write; I don’t want to lose flow or add length with a lot of explanation, yet the physical actions are fairly complex. I’d been frustrated by this for an embarrassingly long time. So I called in an expert, Carla Hoch.

A Consulting Fight Editor

Cammy from Capcom's Street Fighter franchise

Out of respect for Carla’s private life, Capcom changed her name to another 5-letter C name and made her blonde.

Carla is both a writer and an MMA/Jiujitsu/Muay Thai/Taekwando/Street Fighter (no, really, I’m pretty sure there’s a Street Fighter character based on her), and she offers fight coaching services to writers. Like consulting detectives, fight coaches for writers are unique, and not many people are aware of Carla’s service of working with a writer to make a fight scene

  1. believable (no stupid Hollywood stunts),
  2. practical (an efficient and effective fight),
  3. fun to read (because that’s the point, after all).

I had an idea of what I wanted for my short bar fight — I need my main character to efficiently win with a wooden spoon, because he’s just that good — but Carla started by giving me two other ways this quick exchange could go, with three wooden spoon fight options. Delightful!

Then we talked through my character and plot concerns. The simplest technique would be most efficient and practical, but it wouldn’t have the full takedown effect that I wanted for drama. It’s a great technique, however, and I’m saving it for a later story (or possibly real life, you never know). The second option would be very efficient, but it would also inflict more pain, and as this scene is our first impression of this character, I worried it would present him as a sadist rather than an efficient guy just stopping trouble. So we went with the third option, and we next tackled my troublesome phrasing.

sketch of bar fight in old West

Bar fights have a long and glorious history in fiction! By Charles F. Price [CC license BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’d been trying too hard to explain the actual move (a taijutsu technique), but Carla was able to penetrate to the key effect of the move (throwing the recipient off-balance) and helped me to refocus. “Ah, that makes sense!” I realized. “Not everyone understands a martial arts technique, but everyone has been off-balance!” And so I could now write an efficient scene which anyone could understand.

It wasn’t about giving the scene the most action possible or the best fight moves around, it was about giving the scene the best action to serve the story, and writing them not in the most action-y way, but in the most reader-accessible way. And bonus, I have extra fight material to use later.

You can ask Carla about your own fight scene here, and check out her regular Fight Write blog where she answers write-in questions about fight scenes (her most recent, at the time of this writing, is about fighting in zero-gravity!) and her Geek Block spec-fic podcast (which has even featured me!).

The Result

And my scene? Here’s a snippet from that longer chapter, including the three-second bar fight with a wooden spoon.

Tam shifted the ales to make room for cold mutton and warm turnips and parsnips, sprinkled with shredded herbs and chunks of butter. The landlord beamed at Ariana’s praise for the food and retreated to the kitchen, shooing the child ahead of him.

The man to her right was intent on a story for his other tablemates. “And so there was Sergeant Vanguilder, pulling his last arrow, and then out of the sky comes this Ryuven—”

“The Ryuven in front of him?” asked another.

“No, another Ryuven, come from above. And he strikes the sergeant like a lightning bolt and he goes face down—the sergeant—and I don’t have to say the arrow goes wide, and the Ryuven—the first one, now, the one on the ground—jumps for him like a terrier on a rat.”

One of the listeners rolled his eyes. “Maybe a stunted terrier. On a fat rat.”

“Eh? The sergeant ain’t fat.”

“Or maybe if the rat had a bow and a pike, and the terrier had a mace and magic.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” the storyteller demanded. “Stupidest thing I ever heard.”

“Well, that’s a stupid way to describe it, terrier and rat. You ever seen a Ryuven shake a soldier by the spine? Say plainly he went for the sergeant with his hammer or whatever he had. He didn’t use magic, I’ll guess, or you wouldn’t go on about terriers.”

“You done for a bit? Can I tell on?”

Ariana hid her smile behind her hand.

“So I use my sword and I cut a steak out of this Ryuven, and then over us comes this shadow, and—”

“And it’s Pairvyn ni Ai himself, right? Only he sees you and he runs for his life? And then King Jerome comes and says he wants you in his personal guard—” The rest of the listener’s heckling was drowned in a chorus of mocking laughter.

“Shuddup!”

“It wasn’t yet that the king asked him,” protested someone else, laughing hard enough to muddy his words. “He had to go and save His Majesty’s life first, right?”

“Shuddup,” repeated the storyteller, sullen. “I did so guard the king at Ason Field.”

“Right you are! Wait, I thought you said it was at Scout’s End?”

Ariana glanced at Tam with a conspiratorial smile and whispered, “The king wasn’t even at Scout’s End.”

Tam pursed his lips. “Was so.”

“How would you know?”

“Same as you—I’ve listened to your father’s stories.”

“And my father said the king wasn’t at Scout’s End!” Ariana laughed.

Tam’s grin vanished and he started up from the bench. Ariana caught a flash of movement and then the storyteller’s hand twisted into her shirt collar, pulling her off-balance. “You calling me a liar, girl?”

She blinked and struggled to find words. “No! No, I wasn’t even—”

The storyteller curled his lip, glad to vent his frustration. “We fought and bled and died there, and you got no call to be mocking those men who—”

“I’m sorry.” Ariana gathered power into her palm, just enough to knock him off his feet if necessary. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I have only the highest respect for—”

Becknam appeared beside them, his eyes on the soldier. “Let her be.”

“I won’t be mocked by a piptit not old enough to—”

Becknam’s hand rested lightly on Ariana’s shoulder, very near the soldier’s. “Let her be.”

For response, the man released Ariana and pivoted, driving a fist toward Becknam. Ariana ducked and Tam seized her, pulling her into a stumble.

Becknam parried the fist outward with his left hand as his right jabbed the end of Ariana’s wooden spoon deep into the attacker’s bicep. The man’s fist recoiled, and Becknam slid the spoon beneath the storyteller’s upper arm and over the wrist, pressing his arm back. The storyteller stuttered back a few steps but could not reclaim his balance, and Shianan eased him backward to the floor, pinned by the spoon on his wrist and a knee on his chest.

The room went quiet.

“Now, she’s said she was sorry and wished no harm,” Becknam said, “and I’m sure you mean the same, so let’s all be neighborly.” He rose and offered the man a hand.

The soldier frowned and didn’t take the hand. “That was too slick to be farm work.”

Becknam shrugged. “Farms need defending.”

“You’re in?”

Becknam nodded, and Ariana caught her breath. But he added casually, “I’m posted at Stoneship, on leave to visit home.”

“Stoneship?” The soldier held out a hand, and Becknam pulled him to his feet. “That’s where I did two years.”

“No joking?”

“And Edgar was there, too. Hear that, Edgar?” The soldier slapped Shianan’s shoulder. “That was a slick turn, but you’re lucky I didn’t see it coming.”

Becknam laughed and turned into the group, nodding and smiling and clasping wrists like old friends.

Ariana sighed and sank down on the bench. “I could have defended myself,” she murmured to Tam. “I was ready.”

Tam was irritatingly practical. “Magic would have been harder to explain than fisticuffs, and less soothing than trading soldier stories.”

“Maybe. But I was ready.”

Tam scooted onto the bench beside her, watching Becknam accept an ale. “It was Steward’s End.”

“What?”

“The king went back to Alham before Steward’s End, not Scout’s End.”

Ariana clenched her jaw; her history error had nearly cost a great deal. “You’d better not let his lordship hear you correcting your betters so lightly.”

Tam barely suppressed his usual grin. “Right, my lady.”

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3 Comments

  1. Oh, that turned out so good! Well done, you. Thank you for the kind words. :)

  2. Good post! I agree about bad fight scenes. The biggest letdown for me was the film, The Presidio, when Sean Connery’s military veteran tells a guy he’ll beat him up using only his thumbs. I expected to see genius combat techniques that only a trained soldier might know. Instead Connery beats the guy up using his thumbs like fists, which … would never work.

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