Storium Theory: Feel the Fight

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on January 19th, 2017. Forgot to post it here that week – sorry about that!

I’ve done a few posts in the past on specific types of characters, but today, I’d like to write a bit on a specific type of scene – the fight scene.

Now, I’ve used combat for examples before in articles on this site, but what I’d like to do today is explore fight scenes from a narrative angle – not the mechanical aspects of those scenes, and not how they can be used to encourage interplay between the player characters, but how one actually writes combat.

I’m going to look at this from the standpoint of writing combat focused on one main character (presumably your own), but these concepts can likely apply just as well if you’re writing for multiple characters in one move. It should also be noted that this is written from the standpoint of writing a fight narrative in one move (not necessarily the entire fight, but a good bit of back and forth), as opposed to writing a fight by controlling only your own character and waiting for another person, controlling the opponent, to write the responses.

When you’re writing a fight scene, you’re writing an intense, exciting, action-heavy moment in a story. You’re showing a threat to a character in probably the most direct manner possible: Someone or something is trying to physically harm the character or defeat him.

It goes without saying, then, that fight scenes need to feel intense. When you’re writing a fight scene, you’re trying to make the reader feel the fight.

That’s the most important thing: Feeling the fight.

This is something I’ve missed at times, and that I think a lot of people miss when they’re writing up a fight: Fights in stories are not about the specifics of the moves, but about the emotion and meaning for the story.

A lot of people, myself included at times, will try to write a fight in a story as though they were writing film choreography – a list of attacks and parries and dodges and counters, composed in a chain to give people as complete a text representation of the exact way the fight plays out as possible. When this happens to me, it’s because I’m thinking of this intricate, cool-looking set of moves in my head, and I want to make absolutely sure that people understand exactly what I’m getting at. So I’ll describe the actions in heavy detail, break them down to their smallest parts that I can adequately describe, and write…

…well, write an incredibly boring list of moves punctuated by one or two moments where I’ll more accidentally than on purpose reveal some emotion in the fight with a line or two from a character.

Here’s the thing about choreography: it only works in visual media. A deeply choreographed fight scene works really well for movies, TV shows, stage performances, wrestling events, whatever you want to reference. But it works because in visual media like that, the choreography is only the foundation of the experience. It’s the base that establishes the general narrative. Atop that go the things that give the narrative meaning, like the actors’ emotional performances, the lighting, the film score, the slow motion effects for emphasis…all the things that are used to pull the viewers’ eyes to what needs to be seen and to inspire emotional reactions in them.

There’s some amazing martial arts performance videos on the web, but they aren’t a fight scene, because a fight scene isn’t just choreography – it’s the meaning behind it, the tale that’s being told, and the emotion of the moment. It’s about what happens to the characters – where they were when the fight started, and where they end up when it ends. It’s about the impact the fight has on the character arcs of the major players involved.

Those are what you need to emphasize. In written media, getting too specific, too detailed with the choreography of a fight gets in the way. It takes over the page, and chokes away the space needed for the emotion of the fight, the actual story of the fight.

So, when writing a fight scene, limit your descriptions of the actual moves. Instead, describe the flow of the battle. Give a basic synopsis of character fighting styles if it matters, sure, but once you’re past that, concentrate on who is winning and who is losing. Who got hit, and what does it mean for them as the fight goes on? Is the character we care about, the focal character, struggling, or is he finding the fight easy? Is he getting overconfident? Is he doubting himself? Is he pushing through the pain?

How does the focal character feel? What does he hope for? What happens to his arc?

That’s what matters to the fight. That’s what really matters.

Now, there are points where the specifics of the moves can help, sure. My point isn’t to get rid of those entirely. My point is to use them sparingly. Summarize, or condense, whole sequences of moves into some generalized form while concentrating more on the emotion and story impact. Then, pick one or two big moments in the fight, the moment where someone does something particularly noteworthy or interesting or cunning or impressive, or the moment when there’s a notable turning point, and describe those bits more.

That’ll have two effects:

  • It’ll get you focused on the emotion of the fight, so even when you do go into heavier description for those parts, you still focus on the emotional impact and the character story in the midst of them.
  • It’ll really, really highlight those two parts. Rather than mixing your big, cool moments in with a bunch of less important stuff you decided to spell out anyway, you’ll draw the attention of the reader to the major moments of the fight. It’s like the text version of slapping the scene into slow motion…it calls out to the reader and says “this is cool, you should focus on this.”

This will give you a stronger fight scene overall. You’ll focus the main storytelling on how the character is feeling in the midst of the battle and on his hopes and fears and how this battle relates to his character arc. You’ll focus on where this battle is taking him, and whether he’s getting closer to his goals or further away. There are exceptions, sure, but by and large…this way of writing a fight will allow you to keep the reader focused on what matters in the end.

Make the fight about the character’s arc and the feel of the fight…not about the moves. Remember what matters.