How not to write fight scenes like a teenage boy describing his victory in a video game
I have seen many authors try, and fail, at doing fight scenes. The typical thought–and I say this having thought it myself–is that it’s all about prose and action and explosions and maybe some bad words said at dramatic moments.
This is false.
No, you can write a fight scene with all of those things, and in the technical sense of the term it may (may!) be an actual fight scene. But more likely than not, if it’s not properly structured, it will be no more interesting than a fifteen-year-old boy recounting his virtual conquests.
But why should that be uninteresting in the first place? After all, millions of people play video games, and millions of people watch other people play videogames, so something has to be going right. Surely this would not be any more unreasonable than a sports fan describing a game to a friend? Why is it that the mere thought of such a ludographic narrative instills instinctual revulsion?
The answer: Videogame fights suck.
For those of you who play, how many fights–of the hundreds of thousands of virtual battles you’ve fought–can you distinctly recall? I don’t mean “That was an interesting boss fight.” I mean that the specific instance of you playing the game, one specific time you were at the Control Apparatus and pressing buttons to make sounds and lights appear. Can you remember?
I’ve played games since early childhood, and I can think of maybe five that have any particular memory. Three of them were final bosses or the like (one was a post-game boss) which I remembered because I had spent hours playing and playing and playing over the course of several days. I have trouble even recalling the specifics (aside from FolderBak spam against BassGS, because it was the only way my terrible folder could win). The others were particularly ignoble defeats in roguelikes. That’s it.
So with that out of the way, let me describe the Five Critical Elements to a good fight scene, through the lens of how video games fail at them. Before I sound like a wizend sage dispensing perfect advice, know that I didn’t know any of these in a true, explicit sense until a year or two ago. In fact, I believe you can find places in C&D1 where these various rules are violated. Mea culpa.
Dramatic fight scenes have a certain structure, which is required for your audience to listen. This is true across all genres and all media–you will find these even more vivid in anime, but they are no less present in a gritty police procedural. Audiences have been trained to recognize this structure, even subconsciously. If you go against this structure, no matter what your conflict is, or how exciting the explosions are, your scene will fall flat and your reader will quit. But with knowledge and proper use of this structure, you can turn any conflict, be it a battle between superdreadnoughts at the galactic core or the scheduled meeting of the local bridge club, into a page turner.
Now, you might be thinking “So what? What if I want to do my own thing?” Let me tell you: it doesn’t work.
I believe this is because Dramatic fight scenes are close to Realistic fight scenes, just with a bit of dramatic license. If you pick the most interesting conflicts throughout human history, from World War II to the Bible, you will find this structure applies. Without it, your reader will simply not believe or find it exiting, any more than you can write a novel set at sea without water.
With that said, let us get into the first element, which is…
Critical Element One: Stakes
The most obvious reason for your reader to care about your fight scene is that he actually wants to see something happen in it. This, I dare wager, is where most fight scenes fall flat to begin with. There must be something at stake for the readers, by proxy of the protagonist, or otherwise any amount of verbal pyrotechnics is wasted. This seems obvious, but it is very easy to go wrong!
Let’s take the failings of videogames here. There’s no stakes. Certainly, the story has hyped this battle up (unless it’s some random encounter) and the fate of the very universe rests on your shoulder! …Except, of course, if you lose, you can try again. And again. And again. No matter what you fail at, no matter how much it sets you bakc, there will always be more chances, until you run out of patience and play some other game. And should you be victorious it means nothing, because there is no prize that a thousand other gamers just like you have already gained. Princess Peach will forever be in an endless series of other castles whether you win or not, and even should you find her her freedom only lasts until you turn off the console.
Which, to segue back into literature, is my problem with 80% of fight scenes I see. They’re hyped up. They’ve got hypothetical stakes. But there’s no real change to the world at large, the characters, or sometimes even the plot, regardless of what happens. (VR-LitRPG authors: take note!) It is not enough for a vaguely stake-ish situation to be. It is not enough for the characters to have stakes. The reader must desire something to happen, or fear that something will not happen, or vice versa, or there is no point for the fight scene in the first place.
What are stakes? This varies between fight scene and fight scene. No one cares about the above superdreadnauts unless it is a battle between space empires–and who still cares, because what does it matter to the reader if the Orglans defeat the Zivothoth? But if that bridge club argument leads to the 80-year-old protagonist losing her only circle of friends, the reader will care far more about it than the galactic political climate.
Stakes must be clear! Perhaps our granny does not know why she is being accused of cheating. But the reader must know that that is the accusation.
Realistic fight scene note: In a real fight, people are shot, stabbed, lose fingers, arms, and eyes, be permanently disfigured, have broken bones that heal wrong, be paralyzed, be decapitated, bleed to death over the course of minutes–or watch as the same happens to their friends. If the worst that can happen to your protagonist is that he is briefly captured and then rescued before anything sufficiently unpleasant or humiliating occurs, I don’t care what your credentials are or how “realistic” the prose is–your story is not realistic.
Which brings me to…
Critical Element Two: Risk
The outcome of the fight must be in doubt. There are two failures modes to this, which are sometimes useful, but for the most part there must be risk that things will not go perfectly for the protagonist. It does not matter what you think will happen. The outcome is foreordained for you, the author. But it is not foreordained for the reader. The reader must never know that the fight scene has a purpose in your overall plot. It must simply be. Without this element, there is no tension, and the reader might as well be watching YouTube videos of explosions.
But wait! No one knows what will happen in a videogame, right? Actually, the result is also preordained: you will get better and better, or grind more and more levels, and rescue the princess, and upgrade to more difficult battles with prettier princesses. Videogames are designed to be won.
The truth is, videogames are terrible at calibrating risk. Either it’s a random encounter which has no chance of doing you harm, or it’s the final boss and it’s supposed to be lopsided, but not so lopsided that it’s unfun. Occasionally the stars align and a videogame fight is risky–but then again, if you can keep playing it over and over again until victory…
Allowing the reader to believe the result is up in the air, when in fact it is not, is a difficult and subtle task. It is usually easier to let the reader believe that the Bad Guy will be defeated, but at some price, which is not explained at the beginning. But as mentioned there are two ways where it breaks down entirely, and that is where there is no risk.
If the protagonist’s victory is guaranteed, it is not a fight scene, but an Execution. This typically happens when the Badass Warrior Lady has to prove that She’s Just as Good as the men by beating up some musclebound knucklehead. No matter how satisfying it is for you to write, it is tedious at best for the reader and about as healthy to the story as eating only ice cream for breakfast. It is the Mary Sue version of the fight scene. No. Resist the urge. Give the Badass Warrior Lady some meaningful challenge–where there is risk–and then you can have her Kick Donkey.
But there still may come a time when an Execution is warranted. In these situations, it is best to get it done as quickly as possible. Have a pithy saying. Offer a final mercy that the villain rejects. Pull the trigger. Next scene.
The other “failure mode” isn’t, for in a Futile Last Stand there is no hope whatsoever for the protagonist to win. This scenes are stressful for the reader and author alike–who wants to read about the good guys losing? But done well, it can be emotionally satisfying. Tolkien was fond of many such scenes. Fingolfin cannot possibly hope to defeat Morgoth or save his people, but he can at least 1v1 a fallen god. And injure it!
Realistic fight scene note: If there is no possibility that things could go badly wrong, again, your story is not realistic. People die. People are disfigured. People lose. David Weber calls this “military pornography” and I’ve unfortunately suffered through quite a bit of it.
Critical Element Three: Will
Your protagonist must make meaningful choices based on his character and situation that change the risk in the fight scene to either victory or defeat. A virtuous hero must make choices that seem inexpedient at the time, but ultimately lead to a better outcome. This could be sparing Gollum or it could be stepping towards the other guy to execute a counterattack. A flawed hero must make mistakes that either lead to victory at a price, or result in disaster. If the hero has no control whatsoever, then there is no fight scene.
For once, videogames don’t suck at this… sometimes. It is true that you, the player, must use the Control Apparatus to make the Endorphin Causing Lights and Sounds to appear. But chances are, you did the same exact thing that a thousand other players did, plus or minus some button presses. Indeed, this may be why fifteen-year-old videogame valedictorians are so tedious–So you defeated Bowser and saved the princess? So did everyone else, in the same way.
Your hero must be extraordinary! She may be only a 80-year-old granny, but she must use her common-sense attitude and willingness to bicker with other octogenarians to lead her to a victorious appeal. If any 80-year-old granny can do it, why bother? People read stories to see what is possible, not what is commonplace.
Indeed, stories are the primary way people use to reinforce their beliefs about reality. From the days of cave paintings, stories have been used to say “Do this, and not that.” If the hero’s choices don’t matter, then ultimately it is a statement that nothing–nothing whatsoever–matters.
Realistic fight scene note: This is where a realistic fight scene can shine. The hero can spend days, even weeks arguing over the morality of killing to save another’s life. You can focus that entire debate into one moment, one line, when the hero has the villain’s head in his sights and the finger over the trigger.
Critical Element Four: Beats
These are the bones of the fight scene! You need a heart and other organs, yes, but this, I believe, is where 80% of fight scenes fall flat. (There is a significant overlap with the previous number.)
The following secret is immediately obvious in hindsight and can be observed easily by watching most anime: the fight starts with one fighter taking the initiative and doing something. He now has the upper hand, and that is the first beat. Our Badass Warrior Lady must then respond with some trick, countermove, tactic, or ability that seizes the initiative back. Now she has the upper hand, and that is the second beat. The antagonist must reply with some new or more outrageous attack, and so on, back and forth until one side has won.
I wasn’t kidding when I said this is vital. Every fight scene, wherever you go, has this structure, be it in Eastern art or Western art or anything else. It is wired into our cultural DNA, and possibly our actual DNA for that matter. The good news is, you’ve probably unconsciously done this even if you’ve never picked up a single book on craft before, because it’s just how it’s done.
“Hey! I don’t want my story to sound like a low-budget shounen anime!” I hear the protest. Might I instead suggest that the reason low-budget shounen anime work at all is because people expect to see this formula over and over again, which in turn is because… it’s actually what they want? Think about it. No one wants to see the battle end on Turn 1 because of a super-move. Tensions and stakes have to rise, the action has to accelerate, and eventually the fight build up to the super moves. (If you are looking for fight scenes to study–because this inherent structure is visible plainly in anime–Mobile Fighter G Gundam has this formula every episode, and Mobile Suit Gundam 00 does it much less obviously but still perceptibly for the perceptive)
Videogames do do this, but not as you expect. It’s rare that a video game can nail beats in individual battles, but the game as a whole can. You start off weak–either because you’re level 1 or you’ve never picked up the Control Apparatus before–and the game takes the first beat by posing some challenge. You overcome it somehow, which is the second beat. Then the game throws a new, harder challenge at you, which is the third beat, and so on, until you beat the game.
But are all fight scenes so structured? Yes, but you can hide it well. For example, the Badass Warrior Lady’s heel-lasers normally penetrate armor, but the villain has equipped stronger armor, unbeknownst to her. Or perhaps she has a potion of Donkey Doubling, making her twice as badass as before, but she only has one–dare she risk it in this fight? Perhaps she’s blocking the line of fire to the innocent hostages with her cybernetic bodice, but it can only withstand so much beating before even it is overwhelmed–and now she must choose. All of these can be made into beats. There are thousands of techniques to hide this from being obvious, but the bones must still be there underneath the skin.
This is true of all conflicts! The bridge club starts with the accusation, our protagonist protests, her partner tattles, our protagonist’s friend calls the tattler a liar, the instigator reveals the stacked deck, but–oh! The granny proves she would not have bid five clubs in that instance.
Realistic fight scene note: “Come on, Matthew, real fights don’t work that way!” World War II. More particularly, the majority of real life fights are one-sided. The dramatically interesting ones are no less realistic for being dramatically interesting.
Critical Element Five: Pathos
This critical element is very simple. The reader must sympathize with the protagonist. Does the reader wince when arrow nicks her face, leaving a permanent scar? Does he hope the potion of Donkey Doubling will be enough? Does he fear that the bodice’s self-regeneration power will not hold out?
If none of these things are true, then it does not matter how your fight scene is structured, or whether it is realistic or not, or what the stakes might be. Conversely, if the reader sympathizes enough, he will put up with your dumb “fight scene”, regardless of how terrible, but that does not in fact make it a good fight scene. Do not mistake explosions and profanity for pathos–only pathos is pathos.
Videogames saving grace is this–usually the player is emotionally invested enough to see it through. But this does not apply to the rest of the family of the fifteen-year-old at the dinner table.
Realistic fight scene note: Here having actually been in a fight, or even trained to fight, is something that cannot be replaced. But a common mistake I see is going into excessive detail about a fight. Detail is not pathos. If it was, gun manuals would be sold in the thriller section. Pathos is pathos. Detail that does not lead to pathos–and it very easily can lead to pathos–is not useful. Make it useful.
Videogames have their merits. I play a lot of them myself. But dramatically, they pale in comparison to one specific planned scene by an author. This is not the fault of videogames–from a distance, the overall experience is a dramatic journey that is entertaining.
There is one massive exception to all this talk of games, and that is multiplayer games. They have stakes–either just the victory or perhaps a real prize. They have risk–no player is guaranteed to win. They have will–unless you’re playing Candyland, admittedly, but… They have beats, most definitely–Magic: the Gathering is based on the theory of beats elaborated above, and most other games are like it. And they all definitely have pathos.
I can’t recall many video games, but I can recall many games of Innovation in detail, to the point of being able to tell them as funny stories. (The time I got the World special achievement through a very lucky Mathematics-Translation combo. The time the game had a nuclear war, where math lead to computers lead to bioengineering destroying all but one suburb of green life. The time I thwarted Dad through several turns of chaos. The time…)
Indeed, perhaps this is because writing is a multiplayer experience, between you and the reader. Your reader is trying to figure out the trick, and you are trying to sneak it in. Fight scenes are simply the most obvious expression of this.
I have always been inspired by the story of Fredrick Douglass, a slave who escaped slavery to become a renowned orator and author. His is not the story of a man who was second-rate, shooed into the spotlight only for his relative accomplishments compared to his past. What use would that be? No, he was not merely any random speaker, but Fredrick Douglass, a name that survives to this day in history books, no matter how often it is skimmed over.
A shameless plug for someone else.
I have seen, and admittedly indulged in that fan activity I will call the Fact Checking Game. It goes like this: First, you take some work of fiction, particularly a popular one, and you find some fascinating idea or claim it has. Then you deconstruct it with real world logic, checking all the facts and invariably coming up with an unrealistic or at least implausible conclusion. At this point, bemoaning that the creator did not think of this may commence. As a sequel, you can find some plausible counterpoint, and argue with the proponents of the former conclusion until the cows come home.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing.