From a petty cat fight with slaps and hair pulling, to an action-packed superhero vs. super villain brawl, action scenes can start anywhere; however writing them effectively is harder than planning on who wins. It isn’t just about writing down who hit who, and if you don’t describe how a character handles the situation, you can accidentally make him or her seem stronger or even weaker than they should be. If the character seems too powerful without explanation, your audience will point the finger and label it a Mary-Sue, and you don’t want that (unless you’re purposefully writing a parody). Action scenes, whether it’s important to the overall plot or not, are an effective tool to establish your characters’ strengths and weaknesses—weakness being just as essential to highlight, if not more so, than strengths, but first, you have to know how to write a fight scene in order to know where to insert these vital traits.
The most important rule that you need to know is that the action always comes before the reaction. Of course, if there is no action there is no reason to react, but what I’m talking about is how you order it in your sentences. You cannot use passive sentences in an active scene. It forces your reader to slow down even though something is happening one after another. The scene has to be fast paced, so you have to use active sentences. Here’s an example of a passive sentence:
Passive: Tenshi stepped back when the sword was swung by the enemy.
In this sentence, it starts off active, but is actually a passive sentence. Tenshi stepped back is perfectly active, but everything after is passive, which will be made clear later in this entry. Besides the passivity in this sentence, I do think that the ordering of the sentence is a problem. Obviously, Tenshi reacted before there was an action, which doesn‘t make sense unless he was psychic and could predict what was going to happen next, but even so using an active voice is still better because the audience would be on the same wavelength as the character. If I cut that sentence, “Tenshi stepped back,” your audience doesn’t know why Tenshi is stepping back. There are other ways this could be rearranged, and it would still be passive, but what you should be aiming for is to have an active sentence:
Active: The enemy swung his sword toward Tenshi’s neck. He stepped back to avoid the singing blade.
Active doesn’t necessarily mean shorter, but it gets right to the point, and that’s what action scenes are. They get right to the point in establishing who’s doing what and what affects are happening as they are happening. The point is in this example is someone with a sword swung at Tenshi, he dodged, and the sword rang as it cut air. Just because something is happening at a fast pace doesn’t mean there isn’t enough room to use description also. It’s just that using a passive tone ruins the flow and breaks the action to reaction pattern.
Other ways to identify passive sentences is when the subject does not perform the act, but the act is performed on the subject.
Genna was hit with the crowbar.
Or when the subject or object is preceded by the word “by”.
Genna was hit with the crowbar by James.
Both of these happen in the first example. While these sentences may not be so bad by themselves, they would be in the middle of an intense scene.
James slapped Genna, making a loud clap, and making Genna cry into the school sink. One moment it was numb, the next, it stung. She didn’t know what to do or how to escape from him. Genna spied a broom leaning against the door behind him. James tried to grab Genna’s arm, but she shoved him square in the chest. He toppled over a desk. She ran. He sticks out his legs, tripping her to her hands and knees. James gets up and gets the broom. Genna was hit with the broom handle (by James).
See what I mean? While it’s not super bad, it just doesn’t sound right if you read it out loud. Now replace that last sentence with “James hit Genna with the broom handle.” That doesn’t break the flow, it’s straight forward, and it just sounds better to read.
The only time a passive tone should be used is if there is a break from a fight scene; when the characters start having a discussion, or is taunting each other with words. That’s when it’s OK for the pace to slow down, if the pace does slow down, but when someone finally continues to fight, the active sentences have to start up again.
The second rule is to keep sentences short because short sentences contribute to a fast reading pace. Even though I say to keep the sentences short, there should be some differences in length from sentence to sentence, or else it will seem choppy. Here’s what not to do:
Too dark to see. I punched blindly. I hit his nose. I hit him again. He covered his face. I kicked him.
If you kept up with this pace, the voice eventually turns monotone in your head because it feels like the same sentence one after another. In order to vary the sentence, you can stick with the periods and adjust the sentence lengths:
I listened. Peered into the eerie dark. A shuffle of feet to the right. Shoes squeak closer. I punched. The bridge of his nose crumbled. He cried into his hands. I kicked him in the gut.
You can also combine the phrases, separating them with a comma. With commas, the flow is still set as if short phrases are continued to being used, but with commas, the pauses are shorter than with periods:
I listened, peering into the eerie dark. A shuffle of feet to the right, his shoes squeaked closer. I punched. The bridge of his nose crumbled, and he cried into his hands. I kicked him in the gut.
Another note to remember is that after a while, punches, kicks and slashes will start look the same, especially if you keep using the same words over and over (kind of like the “said“ rule in dialogue). Use different verbs. If the character has a sword or something, you can use lash, or cut; if it’s a club, there’s crush, crash, dent; there are thousands of words you can use. Sound affects can be a great tool so your audience can hear what’s going on as each blow is dealt, and some sound affects can be used as verbs. Basically, because these scenes are pure action, it’s great if you incorporated all five senses into the actions. Does someone have the taste of blood in their mouth? Is someone in pain? How bad is it and where? Is there a smell of sweat? All of these can be added nicely into the scene.
Now because action scenes are filled with short sentences, taking turns with the characters, it seems as if each phrase or two should have its own paragraph, but let’s face it. That’s tedious, and having to break them up after every sentence just breaks the precious flow. In addition, most fight scenes don’t have dialogue, unless someone is crying out or grunting, but those don‘t usually have quotation marks around them. While the scene should definitely not be one huge paragraph of text, you basically have free reign as to how to format it. You can have one or a few sets of action to reaction have its own paragraph, or you could separate the scene by switching who’s on the offensive or defensive. You can do anything.
Since the English lesson is over, let’s get to the fun part: the research! Don’t aw man at me! Research is a word I use when I’m searching for something I’m interested in. If I’m not interested in it, I just call it studying. If you are writing a fight scene, you should at least be a little bit interested in it, right? I’m not going to do the research for you, but I do have some tips.
The first, and practically only, tip I can provide is to switch right to left and vice versa, but the flow of the movement will stay the same.
I cracked his jaw with a closed right fist, and turned on my right heal to kick him with my left.
If you got up and tried this yourself, you’ll notice that the entire body, while switching from right to left, will continue to move counterclockwise. It’s too hard to start a movement and turn around in the opposite direction. You’d have to plant first, and then switch the flow, making it two different moves (plus if the situation is dire, the character might not have enough time to plant). Study fighting tournaments, or practice in your room. Do whatever you can in order to know what’s going on. Most of the weight is on which foot? Is the body straight or bent at the waist? In what direction is the body leaning? I’m sure there are a ton more questions that would need to be answered, but those were just examples of what would need to be answered.
Of course if the character is into an organized style of fighting, you’re going to have to research the style specifically. How is their weight thrown around? Is the style more in defense or offense? (Even though most martial arts are bent on the ‘self-defense’ speech, a lot of them are more in the line of offense than just the practical defense.) Does the style depend more on flexibility than strength? Ask yourself more questions and do your best to answer them.
After doing all of that research, you’ll know new terms, but just because you know something, doesn’t mean your audience knows. It would probably be best to strictly describe what happens instead of giving the move a name, unless you’ve already described how the move works before. Just remember that if you keep using the name of the move, it’ll start to sound like simple kicks and punches would after a while. If a move is too complicated to be described in a short sentence, then it either needs to be simplified, or not used at all.
Some people preplan the fight scene before actually putting it to paper and others wing it, stopping periodically to see if a combination of moves would work. You can do whatever comes best to you, just as long as you provide your character the appropriate strengths and weakness. This can be difficult to show, especially when writing instead of drawing a comic. With a comic, the audience can see the anguish on the character’s face, but when in written form, an author has to describe what happened effectively to get the same reaction from the audience. If the character isn’t in any sort of pain during or even after the battle, then the character would seem too strong—practically inhuman.
As I described in “How Much Power is Too Much Power”, fight scenes are the time to make use of all factors of weaknesses: natural-born, physical, distraction, environmental, and cancellation. Use the weakness to create more tension as the opponents switch between offensive and defensive. That tension is what audiences are looking forward to, not that your character can take down the most evil villain in the world with the snap of their fingers.
I’m not saying that your character can’t win, and easily, it’s just as long as there is some thought put into both character’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, in Supernatural, when Sam was in high school, he was bullied. When he finally went to fight the bully, he beat him easily because even though Sam was smaller, he had formal training, and the bully didn’t. The bully was only relying on pure strength and his opponent’s fears to get by. Sam didn’t even get a scratch during that fight. Did that make Sam too strong? No. It made sense especially since he and his family have to face monsters nearly everyday. Sam had to learn how to fight. Your character can win in many ways; just make sure to accurately gauge both opponent’s strengths and weaknesses to make the scene worthwhile.
In addition, I’m also saying that a character, whether an original character or a canon character, can lose. Fan fiction, especially with OCs with major roles in them, get notorious complaints from people when a canon character, usually highly respectable or popular, loses a battle even when there was a reason as to how and why. When a canon character loses, it’s not always because the author is portraying them as a weak fighter, it just could be that the opposition is stronger, or they had a clever strategy, or the canon character was just overwhelmed; the list of what could factor into why the canon character lost a battle could be numerous, even right down to sheer luck. Yes, I don’t like seeing my favorite characters lose, or even die either, but if it was reasonable, moved the story along, portrayed another angle of character or plot development, or any other good story-telling reason, then I wouldn’t ask the author to change anything if it would change any aspect of their story.
Similar to “How Not to Write Like One”, don’t use euphemisms. In a scene that is dependent on actions, wording definitely matters. If the character should be seriously wounded, they can’t just simply brush it off and keep fighting like it isn’t there. An adrenalin rush can’t be used every time the character gets hurt, and most serious injury is at a time when not even that would help the character. If the character was hurt, there would be pain obviously, there would also be hesitation, and odds are there would be places left open for attack. It’s not shameful to have a character be carried off the battle field at one time and another.
If the character is in pain, describe it, to remind your audience that your character, as strong as you made him or her out to be, can still be hurt.
Blood slithered down my body. The source is burning. It’s unbearable! I feel dizzy. Moving my arm just makes it worse. I stumble around. It’s getting harder to dodge his oncoming attacks.
The last thing to take note of is the surroundings of the fight. Is the ground smooth or rocky, or maybe it’s a forest area? If the fight is taken outside, how’s the weather? Rainy? Super hot? Environmental factors may not only be a weakness to your character, as I discussed before, but depending on the conditions, it can either prove to be worse, or be the stroke of luck your character needs to win. If your character is wounded enough that he’s about to drop, if the enemy slips in the mud or trips over a stone, your character can still have a fighting chance. Just remember that that can happen to your character too.
To sum everything up: action before reaction, keep the sentences short, use description of the action, switch between offensive and defensive if the situation calls for it, and make sure to effectively utilize both opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and that’s your basic fight scene along with how to make a character a little more developed—physically anyway.
I started writing these in 2009 or 2010 solely because I hated what other people were claiming Mary-Sues to be. OH, she's beautiful? She's got to be a Mary-Sue! OH, he has all of these superpowers? He's definitely a god-mod Gary-Stu! It's all stupid, so I made my own definition, and I am quite satisfied with what I've come up with so far. This is the fourth part of ten in my Mary-Sue: Who is She? series. That's right, TEN!
Author's Chapter Notes:
In the third part, I discussed superpowers and weaknesses, here, you'll learn how to portray them in a fight scene. It's simple, really. EDIT: I goofed in the first example, but it's fixed now. Sorry if I confused anybody.
Chapter End Notes:
Like always, I encourage you to make your own notes on what Mary-Sues are, and even to write your own notes on how to write various scenes.