Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 21: Fight Scenes

 Rob Wells joins the Writing Excuses crew for a second ‘cast, this time dealing with fight scenes. We talk about good blocking versus a bad blow-by-blow, and cover a few of the factors that may dictate the right style of description for that wicked-cool fight you’ve pictured in your head.

This episode is fast-paced and, well… punchy. No, really, it is. Seriously, that seemed like the right word there, pun notwithstanding.

Writing Prompt: Write a fight between two people who have never been in a fight before.


36 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 21: Fight Scenes”

  1. If you liked the Hunger Games another book id highly recommend is koushun Takami’s Battle Royal.

  2. FIRST!


    This gave me a lot of good points to think about. I have this sudden desire to go pull out my favorite books and start comparing their fight scenes.

    I’m continually trying to overcome my own basic ignorance when it comes to fighting of any sort. My past attempts at hands-on research have been rather amusing – I came in almost at the very bottom of my fencing class a few years ago. :)

  3. Great stuff guys, I really needed it.

    …I still would like to hear more from Don. Maybe you guys should move to a new and improved 20 minute format? Maybe? Ha ha ha…

    Again, awesome stuff guys, thanks.

  4. The Hunger Games sounds ALOT like Battle Royal, a manga / japanese movie about teenagers brought to an island and forced to kill each other off.

    I just wrote my first real fight scene just a week or so ago (so your timing of this episode was just a bit off). It starts with some blow-by-blow but that was because it was the first fight scene that is in full view, so I wanted to show exactly how the specific character fights but then went into the more emotional and abstract fight until the final blows were landed.

  5. I’m a fan of the “confused” fight scene, at least in terms of writing them (then again, the characters I’m working with at the moment aren’t exactly trained combatants). The real difficult thing with the “confused” fight scene is striking a balance between confusing enough and too confusing.

    In the last action scene I wrote, I went for a really, really tight third person POV. There were multiple people affecting the action of the scene, but a lot of it didn’t actually make it into the scene, at least not explicitly. The POV character might notice the ground shaking or something, but he had no way of knowing what that was, so I didn’t explain it to the reader. People who actually read the scene thought it was effective as far as conveying confusion, panic, all the rest of it, but didn’t feel that they were clear enough on what was actually going wrong. So there’s definitely a balance to be struck.

    Generally speaking, I find tactile details are often really effective. And one thing prose in particular is good at is playing with a sense of time. Most fights don’t actually last very long, but when you’re really involved in something physically, mentally, and emotionally, that fight scene probably feels like it’s been the longest thirty seconds of your life.

  6. Love the writing prompt. It is not hard to see a fight scene between two guys who have never thrown a punch in anger, just go have a skim through YouTube and similar hosting sites.

  7. Considering you guys made mention today of some books that you’ve referenced before–Dune, Ender’s Game, Lord of the Rings, etc.–it might be interesting if you’d put up a list (or maybe a discussion podcast) of books that you consider to be exemplary in many different ways. “Read this for a good example of world-building,” that sort of thing.

  8. I was just reading about this today from ‘Techniques of the Selling Writer’ by Dwight. Not just on fight scenes but for any scenes: readers read one word at a time.

    There can never be simultaneous reading and comprehension of several words describing a scene, no matter the mastery of the writer.

    That brings up another question though: if the fight scene is a climax (or THE climax), can you get away with abstraction?

  9. So are you guys going to put the link under Dan’s site to the amazon screen to his book, or keep with the bacon?

  10. His book doesn’t come out for a long time in the states and he probably wants the bacon.

    I’ve been playing with some of the fights scenes in my current project quite a bit so this podcast comes at a really good time for me. The character that does the most fighting is trained, but pulling away from the blow-by-blows is something I’m trying to work on.

  11. I can only once again say that Matthew Stover has written the best fight scenes I have ever read. His Acts of Caine series is probably a little too gritty for most of the tastes here but I believe he has also written some Star Wars, as has Steven Barnes who was mentioned in this ‘cast.

  12. Perhaps I missed this in an earlier podcast, but when you say blocking I think shields and “My d20 roll was higher than yours”. I assume you’re somehow referring to describing the action. Could you give a definition? (or point out where it has been defined earlier)

  13. Hello Gentlemen!

    I enjoyed this podcast immensely and (save for “Hunger Games” though a friend who owns a bookstore in town did recommend it) I’m combing my collection to find the books you mentioned. The only real “fight scene” I have in my current project may be too front loaded because it introduces charachters and abilities but it also serves to set-up a flaw my main charachter has: He is forced into thievery by life circumstances, but he’s untrained. Figuring it out for himself.

    I think you guys had some great points but could you expound on how its done? I love the deadpan comedy of “Schlock” and (except for the “pimpslap heared round the world” that ended the first “Mistborn”) I am fascinated at the fluid movement Brandon brings to his fights. Do you plan it out in outline or “screenplay” form beforehand? Does it just appear and you re-draft to get it so fluid?

    Do tell…

  14. At the beginning of the conversation, Brandon said his first piece of advice was to play to the strengths of your genre. This quickly turned into a conversation about not writing novels like screenplays. But backing up, is the basic idea that if you are writing a fantasy book with magic, then you should focus on the magic? Etc.?

  15. How does writing a physical fight scene differ from a vehicle/space fighter battle scene? I was just thinking about David Weber as I listened because he writes space battles that I can understand and follow, rather than just ships flying around and shooting at each other.

  16. I think he was talking more about the medium than the genre; books are very good at certain things, and not so good at others, and the same goes for movies, webcomics, oil paintings, and so on.

    As for genre, I do believe that every fantasy should have a very good reason why it’s a fantasy–if you could tell exactly the same story in a non-fantasy setting then you’re not using your genre very well. But let’s take the really early Flash Gordon serials as a counterexample: they’re ostensibly science fiction, but the stories they tell are just cowboy stories. Replace the ray guns with pistols and the spaceships with horses, and there’s nothing intrinsically SF about them–and they’re great. So yes, you should use your genre well, but remember that “it’s cool and the audience likes it” can occasionally be a good enough reason to use a genre.

  17. Ack! The e-gremlins ate my post! Anyway, I think I said something like:

    For fight scenes the only author I can reccomend is Matthew Woodring Stover. His Acts of Caine series is probably a bit grittier than most would appreciate but he has also written some excellent Star Wars novels, as has Steven Barnes who was mentioned in this cast. Really though, Stover is simply amazing. :o

  18. jinkang asks: Would you say a climactic fight scene could work abstractly?

    My opinion: using a fight scene as the climax needs to be done carefully, since you also need to tie up the threads of the plot as part of the fight scene. Probably the question really should be how much blow-by-blow do you mix into the more abstract parts. I don’t think you really need to have a lot of detailed blow-by-blow in the climax, although you can almost use that as a kind of buffer for the emotional storm that you are portraying through the dialog and realizations? Yes — I think you can portray the climactic fight scene in abstractions, perhaps even metaphorically.

    Other comments?

  19. With regards to authors who use intentionally confusing fight scenes: The first one who springs to mind for me is C. S. Lewis. He uses it almost everywhere in the Chronicles of Narnia (which was, frankly, kind of frustrating; I suspect it’s because that was his actual experience of combat), but probably best at the end of The Horse And His Boy. The viewpoint combatants don’t have any idea of how the battle as a whole is going or where each other are on the battlefield… and the people watching how the battle is going from a distance can figure out which side is winning overall but can’t make out what’s happening to individuals until everything is almost over.

  20. J Bar: “Blocking” is actually a theatrical term. Basically it means the choreography (but with less, you know, dancing) – where everyone is standing, what direction they’re facing, where they move to and from.

    Essentially, know where your characters are and where they’re going, and make sure your readers know it to,

  21. lol whoops. I guess I just didn’t look hard enough for my previous post…sorry for the double post.

    Ah good, a definition of blocking! That really confused me too. Towards the middle of the ‘cast I figured out the general gist of what it meant, but thanks for the definition Raethe.

  22. Interesting podcast – as always. :)

    One thought going through my head right now is “write your fight scenes to serve a purpose in your story”. That is, tailor your fights so that at the end of it there will be consequences for the protagonist, and there will be consequences for the story to deal with.

    I think what those consequences will be should play a role in how abstract you write a fight scene. If you want to make a point that the forces of evil have overwhelming strength you can just eradicate an army in a very abstract way. But if you want to have your protagonist deal with the consequences of his first act of violence, or something equally personal, you have to be prepared to go into more details. Perhaps not in the actual fight, but in flashbacks or other ways that reference the violence in some detail.

    Oh, and when it comes to skilled, well-trained fighters, I think taking a cue from Hollywood screenplays might not be such a bad thing. What often happens in action movies is that the protagonist faces a horde of ‘mooks’ he dispatches with relative ease, just so the viewer knows that our hero really is a good fighter. That can be accomplished easily in a story with a simple sentence like “ten seconds later three man lay on the floor, groaning in pain”, or something along those lines. Same for ‘action horror’, e.g. a vampire or werewolf throwing people around like ragdolls.
    Perhaps trying to translate a movie script to a novel blow-by-blow ain’t such a good idea, but I think the timing and pacing of a movie scene can provide some inspiration for structuring the action of a fight scene in a novel.

    One last thought, before I end my rambling: Usually I am a friend of long sentences, perhaps more so than I should be. But when I write action scenes I often make a conscious effort to keep my sentences short and simple.

    Short paragraphs.

    Less commas.

    Fast-paced writing for fast-paced action.

    Has anyone else here experimented with style changes for action scenes?

  23. @ readerMom:

    “How does writing a physical fight scene differ from a vehicle/space fighter battle scene? I was just thinking about David Weber as I listened because he writes space battles that I can understand and follow, rather than just ships flying around and shooting at each other.”

    First of all I think Weber may not be the best example of a … ‘typical’ space battle scene. His setting allows him time to tighten the pace or relax it whenever it suits him, dwell on the physical aspects of the battle or concentrate on the characters, given that his space battles are often like a long-range artillery duell would be in the real world (or so I would think).

    Second, if you see space battles as ship flying around and shooting at each other I think you are missing the point – or at least a writing opportunity. It’s not ships that shoot at each other – it’s people piloting those ships.

    So I would say there is not much of a difference, regardless of what tools the characters employ, be it fists, broken bottles, guns, or starfighters. In the end it all has to be about what the people in the story do. Everything else is just window dressing.

    Not much difference – storywise – between a punch on the nose and a proton torpedo ripping into an enemy starfighter. ;)

  24. @Samuel X: yes, I also thought of the scene in “Horse and His Boy” as a good example of what the guys were talking about; also, I have to mention Lewis’ “Perelandra” when Ransom fights with the possessed Weston. Definitely a fight between two who weren’t used to fighting – “two elderly professors,” I think he says.

    Guys, I enjoyed the cast as always, thanks!

  25. Looks like I’ve been writing my fight scenes wrong for the longest time. they are almost always blow by blow and given that I’m using mystic martial arts very drawn out. However I’m going to have to check out that “Dune” fight scene you mentioned, as it might be a good spring board for my re-writes.

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