Sunday, April 22, 2012


     Fight scenes are hard to write, and if done badly, are pretty hard to read as well. There are a lot of common pitfalls for writers to skewer themselves on, and some simple tricks that are often ignored. I don’t claim to be an expert on any kind of combat that doesn’t involve a sixer of Code Red and a high speed internet connection, but few can match my skills at nitpicking and disgruntle-ry. So here goes my list of fight tropes, good and otherwise.

Stuff to Do:

Trim the fat. Fight scenes should be sleek, fast, and full of action—much like the fights themselves. There are few things more maddening than reading page after page of dull details, except perhaps craving Chik-Fil-A on a Sunday.  But while it’s deadly boring to over-write a fight scene, not giving enough detail can easily make it confusing. Don’t waste ink on anything but the most essential descriptions, and make sure you don’t repeat yourself. 

Visualize. You forget one crucial detail in a fight, and suddenly your character is on the other side of the room and no longer stabbed in the gut. Make sure that everything you’re describing is logical in a physical sense, especially the location of objects/characters. Continuity is key; because fight scenes happen so quickly, one discrepancy in your writing can throw the whole thing off as the reader spends the whole time trying to figure out what’s going on.

Inject characterization. Fights don’t just have to be action word dumps. They are a lot more interesting if you use them as a tool to keep exploring your characters: how their fighting style reflects their personality, what their emotions would be like, how they react to pain. Your combaters shouldn’t just be like rock’em sock’em robots banging on each other for a set amount of time just for the sake of fighting. 

Stuff Not to Do:
   It should be noted that the following “bad” tropes can be done well; what you should keep in mind is that it’s easy to do them badly. A lot of these also apply to film and television as well, so the example I use will be from those for the sake of recognition.

Pause before the killing blow. I see this trope all the time when the protagonist is fighting a creature of some kind—which is ironic, because animals are probably the least likely to do something like this. In this scenario, the animal has the protagonist pinned, its jaws inches from their throat, yet it pauses to get all drooly and intimidating. Meanwhile, this gives the hero’s allies just enough time to get their shit together and save the protagonist’s ass. Even my beloved LOTR falls to this trope; just check out the scene in the warg battle (Two Towers) where Gimli is trapped under a pile of bodies. 

Come on Aragorn, we don't have all fucking day.

The problem is that animals run largely on instinct, and there’s no reason they would stop a mere second away from the kill. If the creatures are sentient or mind controlled, it’s a different story. Evil monologuing can also fall into this category, but that’s much more excusable; humans are much more likely to gloat. 

Come out of a fight looking spotless. Battles have more meaning if you have scars to show for them afterwards. Don’t be afraid to rough your characters up a bit, even after a minor skirmish. Being punched in the face is no joke, despite what TV says; give your character a black eye, a broken nose, or a knocked-out tooth. On top of that, keep in mind that being stabbed or shot is generally not the kind of thing you can just shrug off before returning to a fistfight. The shoulder or leg seems to be a favorite place for nonfatal wounds, due to their supposed lack of vital organs. It gives the hero the perfect opportunity to grit her teeth and look really tough without actually slowing her down. It’s not like shoulders and legs contain vital arteries that can cause someone to bleed to death in minutes, and that’s when the hero’s not navigating through a fight scene in an increased-heart-rate sort of way. So if you’re going to have your character in a fight, give them wounds. And then make sure those wounds wouldn’t realistically kill them in the given circumstances. 

Throw your weapon. This is only useful in .001% of cases, and even then it’s usually really stupid. Unless your weapon is built to become a moving projectile through the air, your character will not get good accuracy with it. On top of that, they are also throwing away the thing they can use to stay alive in a fight.

Beat the master. This trope is unfortunately common in any story involving a “chosen one”. You know they’re so chosen because they can beat that one guy who’s really good at fighting and stuff! A lot of times the hero doesn’t even have any training at that point; they just sort of do it without any explanation. Theoretically this makes sense if you want to prove that your hero is important, but all too often it’s just used as a chance for the author to gush about how awesome their character is. In the end, it just comes off as annoying and indulgent—so if you’re going to use this trope, watch out for that.

Wield impractical weapons. It should stand to reason that if you’re going to be using something to kill someone with, you should actually be able to use it to, you know, kill people. That means it can’t be excessively heavy or excessively ungainly—for example, medieval swords usually weighed only 2-4 pounds, no more than 5. Weapons with a bunch of spikes and doohickeys are more likely to get stuck in stuff, and then you end up like Eddie from the second Jurassic park movie. 

Why is that even a thing? 
What possible purpose does a little hook serve other than facilitating T-rex meals?

You also wouldn’t want to be using something like a spear or halberd in close-quarters, because you can’t maneuver them to attack people who get past the point. Of course, special circumstances can affect what weapons your characters use, so by no means shy away from being creative. Just keep in mind that a 40 lb mace with four smaller maces coming out the side will do nothing for your character in an actual fight. Except maybe giving their enemies a good laugh before they kill him/her.

Do twirls and flourishes. They’re complicated to explain well in writing, and they don’t make much practical sense. Doing a neat twirly-thingy while spinning your sword around your head may sound pretty cool, but it also involves turning your back to your opponent and swinging your weapon around where it has no chance of hitting something. There are times and places for that, namely in feints, but generally combat should be focused less on appearance and more on putting the pointy end in the other guy. Think of that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. No one wants to be that guy. 


  1. You caught me in a stereotype; until I read your pronoun "her" (grit her teeth), I had been visualizing the fighters as men. Thank you for reminding me that girls can fight, too.
    As for non-fatal arteries, there is a pretty large, significant artery in the leg, the femoral artery. Having it sliced open may not be lethal, but I think it would slow you down.
    I wish more TV and movie producers would follow your advice about not having their characters recover from blows that actually would disable them. Fight scenes go on way too long.
    Thank you for ending with that Indiana Jones scene. It's one of my all-time favorites.

    1. Yeah, I'm not trying to be obnoxious with the whole she instead of he pronoun thing, I just feel that it doesn't matter which pronoun you use so I might as well use the female one.

      And yeah, it makes sense sometimes if the protagonist has special powers of some kind, but even then they usually are ridiculously durable.

  2. "The problem is that animals run largely on instinct, and there’s no reason they would stop a mere second away from the kill. If the creatures are sentient or mind controlled, it’s a different story. Evil monologuing can also fall into this category, but that’s much more excusable; humans are much more likely to gloat."

    LOTR lore should have been carefully studied before this complaint even entered the internet, as any lore enthusiast or a huge fan of wargs themselves would have been able to tell you wargs are NOT just animals. They have instincts but because of the way in which they were created they also have great intelligence to the point of being considered human-like intellect and wargs will gloat when they think their prey is helpless. A flaw in Angmar's animal troops which leads to untimely deaths due to arrogance shown from the animal.

    Here is a link to a wiki on wargs, it is based wholly on the whole Tolkien franchise and in most of the descriptions wargs are more like the antagonist monologing than the raging animal attacking and mysteriously pausing. Hope this clears a few things up for you.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out. I profess that I haven't read any of the books in years, and based the reference for this article off of the movies with which I am more familiar. Your input is very helpful.