I came to the realization last year that I didn’t really know much about writing action or fight scenes. I knew some basic things like how you should keep your sentences short and use words with few syllables (that gives the scene a fast pace), how you need to make sure your action sequence is realistic, how you shouldn’t give a blow-by-blow description because that gets boring. I took Tae Kwon Do as a teenager, so I do know a little about fighting people. I’m also a pretty good shot with a gun.
But I wanted to know more. I wanted to dig deeper.
I wondered, what really makes an action scene great? What makes one better than another? What makes one bad? Not in the writing style, but in the content itself. Are there cliche action scenes? Is it bad to use one? How do you improve an action scene?
I didn’t know.
I asked people for references, blog posts, books, something, about writing great actions scenes. I couldn’t find a book, and most people couldn’t give me much guidance. But my friend James went out of his way to find a few sources for me, like this podcast from Writing Excuses, and a blog called Grading Fight Scenes, and the Think Tank’s podcast on the subject with author C. Michelle Jefferies.
But I wanted more. (I get kind of obsessive about writing.) I wanted to develop an eye for writing action scenes myself.
So I decided to start studying instead of just reading or watching action scenes.
And I quickly ran into my first problem.
I’ve learned I have the tendency to zone out during most action scenes. Yes, I’m weird. While everyone is on the edge of their seats watching Iron Man flying around fighting villains, I start to slip into daydreaming mode after a few minutes. I’m kind of watching, but very passively, not actively. It’s kind of embarrassing. I think my subconscious realized that it didn’t need to get the details of the action, that my brain only needed to be completely engaged when a character was seriously injured or a dangerous object was stolen by the bad guys. All the jumping and swords swinging wasn’t that important to me.
I’ve also realized whether or not I zone out depends on how long the action sequence is and how much I care about the characters. If I don’t really care about the characters, I don’t pay much attention to them. I do want to say, though, that I don’t always zone out, but probably more often then not, I disengage to a degree.
I had to retrain my mind to pay attention, to watch and read action scenes actively and not passively. I had to learn how to focus.
And you know what I’m finding?
Yes, yes, action scenes do have cliches! Yes, there are cookie-cutter fight scenes! And yes, there are ways to make your action scenes better!
I finally started developing an eye for action cliches when revisiting Dragon Ball Z with my brother. Okay, I know there are some people rolling their eyes right now, but bear with me. There is a lesson that can be learned from anything, and once I started watching or reading things with that attitude, I’ve learned loads more about writing. And heaven knows I’ve learned plenty from Dragon Ball Z. As I was watching it, I realized there was this one fighting/micro-plotting technique that was used against almost every villain by every hero. It was this:
Hero gets super upset
Hero shoots about a million blasts at the villain
The hero is out of breath
The smoke clears
The villain is unharmed
The creators used this sequence over and over again, and it became a cliche in that story, to the point that my brother and I would laugh every time it started–because we knew that when the smoke cleared, the villain would emerge unharmed. Soon we started saying things like “Come on, that fighting method never works!” Because it never did. But the creators kept using it because it had a cool effect, until it was overused.
Here is another cliche. Kicking a guy in the crotch. Seriously, how many times have we seen that? There’s a reason it’s used so much–because that’s obviously a weak spot the heroine can use to her advantage. Sometimes it would be stupid to not try that. But we’ve seen men drop from crotch-kicks before. It would be better to try to make it fresh somehow. How can you twist that action to make it interesting again?
Here’s another: a male is fighting a really talented character that he doesn’t know the identity of. This character bests or nearly bests him. Then, either the mask comes off, he touches the chest, or the character starts talking, and, surprise! He’s been fighting a girl! Only it’s not a surprise, because we’ve seen it a million times. We know how it’s going to end. Look at the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean or Puss in Boots for an example; if you took the time, I’m sure you could think of 20 others.
And another: a character hanging off a ledge by one or two hands, and another character grabs him just before he falls. Again, there’s a reason it’s a cliche, because it’s tense. But we’ve seen it before. We know what’s going to happen.
Make it Fresh
Great action scenes give us something we haven’t seen before, or a twist of something we’re familiar with.
You know that ledge example I just gave? Where one character is hanging, losing his grip, and another grabs him just in time? Lord of the Rings uses it, but the filmakers put a fresh twist on it.
Frodo finally makes it to Mount Doom. Gollum attacks him, and the Ring falls into the lava, and where’s Frodo? Oh, he’s holding onto the ledge. But wait, some of his fingers were bitten off. They’re bloody, so not only is his hand slippery, but he’s missing those digits to hang on with. And to top it off, the expression on his face tells us he’s not sure he wants to hold on. He’s not sure he wants to be rescued. He wants to die. He wants to let go. “Don’t you let go,” Sam says. And there is a new kind of intensity, because we know Frodo might let go on his own free will.
See? The filmmakers took a cliche and made it fresh.
Author David Farland often refers to an example from one of the Die Hard movies when talking about fresh actions scenes. I haven’t watched the movie, but I did look up the clip. In it, the hero is being held at gun point, with the villain’s arms wrapped around him and the gun pointed to the hero’s chest. There is no one left who can rescue the hero. It’s at the climax of the story. Suddenly, the hero looks down and sees the angle the gun is at: it’s not pointing directly at his heart. So, he shoots himself. The bullet goes through the hero and into the villain. And the hero escapes.
I hadn’t seen that action technique used before. It was fresh.
So when plotting out your action scene, twist it and take it further and dig deeper to make it unique.
How do you do that? One way is to look at what the characters and setting bring to scene.
What did You Bring to the Fight?
The characters, their abilities, motives, and emotions feed into the action scene. The stakes feed into the scene. And so does the setting. Sounds obvious right? Let’s look at some examples.
In Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, one of the characters, Al, doesn’t have a body. His soul has been bound to a suit of armor. This suit of armor is his body. This gives him some advantages. He doesn’t get tired. He doesn’t get hurt, though he can get damaged to the point he can’t fight anymore. The only way to defeat him is to break a seal inside the helmet. He’s hollow.
In one scene, Al is up against some villains. He’s a pretty good fighter. He’s had training. One of the villains gets the idea to jump inside Al to try to stop him from moving. She puts her arms and hands in his, her legs in his. While she can’t stop him completely, she slows him down so he can’t get away.
And it’s interesting.
Moments later, a third-party person comes and attacks the villains. Now the girl inside Al wants to get out, but he won’t let her. Eventually, the third-party attacker shoves a sword down Al, killing the villain, but not him. So now he’s stuck on the ground, in shock and horror, with a dead body inside him. It’s morbid. But look at what the writer did. Did she go for the cliche fighting tactics? No, she used what was unique to Al to create an action scene that was fresh.
Another character, Pride (named after one of the seven deadly sins), is a creature that can only move and exist in shadows. The more shadow he has, the more powerful he is. When the heroes fight Pride, they have to work around that, by altering the setting, either by making it pitch black so there are no shadows, or throwing flares up to minimize shadows. The tricky part is that everyone casts a shadow, so he can lurk in those as well.
The writer played with what her characters brought to the scene. She didn’t go for cookie-cutter fights. It’s easy to see how this can apply to fantasy, but the same principle applies to any genre. Is your character a gardener? How can that influence what he does in action scenes? Does he go for the nearest shovel to swing at someone? Is your character a black belt who wants to defend himself? Or an inexperienced maiden who only wants to escape? They react to dangerous situations differently. Use that to your advantage.
Check out your setting. Can it influence the fight? If people are dueling on a rooftop, can it start raining to make the roofing slippery? A hide-and-seek chase scene in Disneyland would be very different than one in a cave. Look at what you can play with for that scene in a theme park versus what you have to work with in a hole in the earth.
In the book Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall states that often the action starts in a part of the setting that’s only a little risky. As the fight progresses, the characters move to more dangerous parts of the landscape, until, at the climax of the fight, they are battling in the most dangerous spot. She also talks about how interesting settings can offer interesting surprises. A fight in a kitchen can lead to a house fire, for example.
In short, here’s what I’ve learned. Look at what is brought to the action scene–what you have to work with–and sit down and brainstorm. Then brainstorm some more. Then a little more. (Because the cliches are usually the first thing you brainstorm).
To learn more about writing action scenes, specifically fight scenes, I highly suggest checking out Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall.