We’ve all experienced the thrill of epic battles, high-speed car chases and gut-clenching gun fights on the big screen. Explosions, sound effects and a plethora of camera techniques come together to create a kaleidoscopic visual experience that sets off an explosive adrenaline rush, but when it comes to those same action sequences in books…things can easily come to a grinding halt.
Unfortunately, a lot of writers think that an action scene will pick up the pace of their novel. I mean, it makes sense that conflict and intense action would propel the story forward, right? Alas, unlike Hollywood, writers don’t have the benefit of quick visual stimuli to help us along. We have to explain everything that is happening, and we have to enlist the help of the reader’s imagination to help bring it to life rather than have them passively observe the action as they would watching a film. As such, it’s easy to get bogged down and lose the desired tempo.
As a book nerd, I don’t have much experience on the battlefield. However, I do have a black belt in Karate, and competed at the national level, so I do have a tiny bit of insight into what it feels like to actually be in a fight, and I’d like to share a few things from my experience that might help you as a writer improve those fight scenes.
- Fights are fast – In real life, it doesn’t take more than a minute or two for a fight to end. Only in professional boxing matches (or karate tournaments!) do participants spend multiple rounds exchanging blows, and that’s because they are wearing gloves and have to follow certain rules (some sports do not condone excessive contact). When it comes to live-or-die fights, things come to a head VERY quickly, so unless your characters are boxers or MMA fighters, please, please don’t get into a blow-by-blow exposition of your characters kicking and punching each other over and over again. Here is an example scene I’ve written so you can see what NOT to do:
Micky saw the punch coming and ducked just as the fist swung over his hand, and spun around, landing a blow to the assailant’s ribs. The assailant kicked him in the stomach, causing him to double over, then punched him across the face. Stumbling, Micky fought to regain his balance, only just managing to block the swinging haymaker before it landed. He punched the man in the nose, took a glancing blow to the side of his head, and delivered a hard right hook to the jaw. The assailant fell back, shook his head, and charged forward with a spinning back kick.
You can see how the pace lags. It’s repetitive and despite it being full of intense action, it’s almost boring. You could read it with the same dull monotone you’d use for a shopping list. YAWN.
- Don’t forget about our friend ADRENALINE – Because fights are fast, those involved don’t have much time to process what is happening. If your character is an experienced fighter, I guarantee they will be relying heavily on reflexes, and if they are not a fighter, I guarantee they won’t know what the hell is going on until they are flat on their back. If you have Regular Joe describing how the assassin came at him, how he caught the bright glare of moonlight in the reflection of the cold knife as it flew through the night….just know that if this were real life, Joe would be dead before the thought could fully articulate itself. Adrenaline does not allow for poetic musings. It shuts off all but the most basic thought processes, and NOT EVERYONE WILL BE ABLE TO REACT. Some people will freeze. As frustrating as it is to be stuck in the backseat and watch your character do the stupidest thing ever (like not moving, not calling for help, or running to the roof where there is no escape), it’s far more realistic that these things will happen. All this to say: when you are writing a fight scene, keep your sentences short to help mimic the fractured thoughts of someone in FIGHT OR FLIGHT mode, and keep your flowery descriptions to a minimum. In fact, try to eliminate them entirely, and unless your character is a skilled combatant, they will sometimes do the stupid thing.
- Research is your friend – You don’t have to earn a degree in anatomy, but do a little bit of research when you’re writing a fight scene. Writing about hand-to-hand combat? Find someone with some experience in the ring to figure out what it feels like to get punched in the face (hint: even if you get hit lightly on the nose, your eyes WILL water). I’m all for women being tough, but a five-foot five, hundred and ten pound woman is NOT going to inflict damage on someone the size of Dwayne Johnson. She just isn’t. Period. If you’ve seen the movie Hobbs and Shaw, you’ll know what I mean. There is a scene where Hobbs fights Hattie Shaw, and props to Hattie, she is a fierce bad-ass who gave it her all, but Hobbs literally lifted her off the ground with one arm like she was a stuffed doll with the same tired resignation of a parent putting their child in a time-out. Unfortunate, but realistic. Also, punching the chest isn’t going to debilitate someone the way a hit the solar plexus or kidney would. If you tell me a guy got knocked down because someone punched him in the shoulder, I’m going to wonder if he has severe degenerative bone disease, because all that would do is break the aggressor’s hand. So do some research, and make sure your characters’ experience is as authentic as possible.
- Focus on the senses, not the mind – Fights are not the time for introspection, but they are a time for ramping up the senses. Think about it. When you hear a creak in the house in the middle of the night and you get that spike of adrenaline, your senses go on high alert. You HEAR better, you suddenly become hyper-aware of the FEEL of the floor under your feet and the tickling shiver down the back of your neck. But again, keep it concise. It’s okay to have a gripping build-up, but once the fight starts, lengthy description will just slow things down.