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  • Writer's pictureJohn Clarkson

How to Write Great Fight Scenes

Last week I did a reading of my latest novel, Among Thieves, at the wonderful BookCourt in Brooklyn.

After the reading, we had a Q & A session. One of the audience members was Dave King, an acclaimed writer of literary fiction best known for his novel The Ha-Ha. Dave surprised me with his question: “How do you write such great fight scenes?”

Actually, I’ve been told by quite a few readers of my novels that I write the best fight scenes they’ve ever read.  I agree if I do say so myself.  But maybe that’s faint praise, because I do believe many successful thriller writers don’t write very good fight scenes.

So, in case you’re interested, here’s my advice on how to write a great fight scene.

1.  Get Into a Fight. I know that sounds completely impractical, but hear me out.   This isn’t as dangerous as it sounds. I’m not talking about joining Fight Club.  There’s a safe way to do this. Chances are there’s a martial arts dojo or boxing gym near you where you can train until you are able to safely spar with another individual.  It won’t take long for you to learn that:

  • Everything happens much faster than you ever imagined.  Even pros can’t see every punch coming, or always hit a moving target.  Everything happens incredibly fast.  Most real fights last only seconds.  Experiencing the speed and pace of a fight will definitely help you write better fight scenes.

  • Fighting is exhausting.   Even if you think you’re in great shape, you’ll see how quickly you run out of steam in a fight.  Just try throwing punches for fifteen seconds without stopping and you’ll get a sense of the effort.

  • The emotions are intense. Experiencing the fear, anger, and tension associated with fighting will infuse your fight scenes with passion and excitement.

  • Getting hit isn’t what you thought. For many people, when the adrenaline is flowing they don’t feel nearly as much pain as they expected.  Unless a punch or kick hits exactly the right spot, someone can get hit quite a bit and still keep fighting.  Knowing this will help you write much more convincing fight scenes.

  • The aftermath is usually worse than the fight.  Much worse. As mentioned above, during a fight, you’ll only feel a fraction of what the fight does to you.  If you experience what it feels like in the minutes, hours, and days after a fight, you’ll write with a more realistic perspective.

2.  Watch  Fights, In Person. if Possible. It’s not hard to find an amateur or pro fight event near you.  Even if you do this just once or twice, it’ll make a big difference in how you write fight scenes.  Matches usually progress from the less skilled fighters to the best fighters.  It’s very informative to see how the action unfolds as you progress toward the featured fight.  It’s helpful to see all levels of skill.  Try to sit as close as you can. Hearing is a big part of seeing a fight.

If you ever get a chance to see a street fight, without getting involved, steel yourself and watch. Witnessing violence isn’t fun, but it’s extremely revelatory.  There’s a very good chance alcohol is a factor.  That’s something you should also understand.

If you can’t or don’t want to bring yourself to see a live fight, do the next best thing and watch broadcasts of fights.  There are literally hundreds of boxing and martial arts matches of all kinds on cable and even network TV.   Take the time.  Watch carefully.  Listen to the commentary.  You’ll be surprised how often what you see is not what you’re hearing from various announcers.

And don’t forget there are thousands of fights and exhibitions you can watch and study on YouTube.

3.  If You Can’t Be in a Fight, or See a Fight, Read About Fighting. Of course, reading applies to anything you want to learn about.  Here are some of the books on my shelf that have hung around over the years:

  • The Art of War, by Sun Tzu

  • Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out!  Knife Fighting Techniques from Folsom Prison, by Don Pentecost

  • Black Medicine Volume III Low Blows, by N. Mashiro, Ph.D.

  • Gouzao Gongji, Seven Neurological Attacks for Inflicting Serious Damage, by Master Hei Long

  • A Bouncer’s Guide to Barroom Brawling, Dealing with the Sucker Puncher, Streetfighter, and Ambusher, by Peyton Quinn.

  • Atlas. From the Streets to the Ring: A Son’s Struggle to Become a Man, by Teddy Atlas and Peter Alson.

There’s nothing unusual about advising someone to read up on a subject.  But there’s another benefit to absorbing technical information about fighting – – you’ll find out how you feel about fighting.  Maybe you’ll discover that the mechanics of fighting bore you.  Or fascinate you.  Or make you wince.  These realizations will inform how you want to write your fight scenes.

4.  Get the Facts Right. It’s always disheartening to read fight scenes where a huge amount of damage is inflicted and the victim pretty much shrugs it off.  For instance, let’s consider the reality of the common punch to the jaw.

Many years ago, I worked on the trauma ward at Bellevue Hospital.  (Not as a doctor.) Every Monday, I would come onto the ward and there would always be one or two guys with a “fractured left mandible”.   A very grim sight.  Particularly when I saw what they had to do to fix it.

Why on Mondays?  And why the left mandible?  Because more drunken fights took place on the weekends, and most people are right-handed.  A right fist lands on the left side of the jaw.  It didn’t take very many Mondays for me to realize how easily a jaw breaks, and how difficult it is to repair it.

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are much easier ways to learn about trauma so there’s no excuse for not knowing the realities of fight injuries.  For instance, I just Googled “fractured mandible” and in eight seconds found a picture showing the frequency of mandibular fractures by location.  Fascinating.  The most fractures (30%) occur in the worst place.  A few more minutes of searching uncovered detailed accounts of treatments, x-rays, 3-D renditions, complications involving aligning teeth, etc.

Finding out information like this will help you feel the reality of fighting both physically and emotionally, and that will make your readers feel it, too.  You’ll also be less flippant about fight scenes.

5.  Every Fight Should Be True to the Characters in the Fight.

This might be the most important tip.

Everything in the fight scene has to happen in a way consistent with your characters’ personalities, attitudes, and capabilities.  The more interesting the character, the more interesting the fight.  If you find your character in a clichéd fight, you probably have a clichéd character.

For example, the first fight in my new book begins with my protagonist, James Beck, running away from an opponent who is bigger, stronger, and tougher.  Not because Beck is a coward, but because he is a master at strategy.  Making the fight true to Beck’s character made it a more interesting fight, and in turn helped reveal more of his character.

Here’s another example… a character in the latest season of “Justified”, named Choo Choo.  Why Choo Choo?  Because when he comes at you, it’s like being hit by a train.

Now that might sound like the beginning of a cliché.  But when we finally see Choo Choo in action, it’s in a scene where he and his partner are about to torture someone to get important information. Choo Choo’s partner tells him to hit the guy with a “starter punch”.

Choo Choo hits the man so hard that he kills him.  One punch.  (Yes, that is possible.)

His partner is furious because now he can’t learn anything.  He yells at Choo Choo about hitting the guy so hard.  Choo Choo says, “If you didn’t want him Amtraked, you should have hit him yourself”.

True to character.  Beautiful.

Thanks for reading my latest post.  I hope you found it helpful.

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