Word-Karate: On Writing Action Scenes

Jaw, shattered. Femur, snapped. Skull, cracked. Perineum, ripped off and thrown into a river.

It’s time to talk about action scenes. Explosions, high-kicks, roundhouse punches, car chases, train crashes, wizard battles, robot attacks, machine guns chattering, nipples spewing liquid fire.

Initially, I thought: “Why bother writing about action scenes? Seems easy enough.”

Except, I’ve read some truly asstacular action scenes. Not that I’m some kind of expert on writing action, mind you: by this point in our relationship, I hope we’re clear that I’m an expert on nothing, and merely a very loud, possibly drunken journeyman who has no problem yelling his profanity-lacquered opinion into the echo chamber that is the Internet.

But not being an expert clearly doesn’t prevent me from having thoughts on the subject, and so I figured this was high time to share my inexpert thoughts on the subject here at terribleminds.

Writing Fighting Is Like Scripting Sexing

Sex and violence stare at one another in a warped carnival mirror. Both are intimate. Both reflect physicality. Heartbeat pulses. Fluids spurt — spit, blood, sweat. You push the camera in too close or pull it far, far back and someone is bound to ask, “Are those two fighting? Or are those two fucking?”

The funny thing is, we tend to be a lot more comfortable with violence in this country than we do with sex. We’re a flock of Puritanical gas-bags who beg and scream and wheedle to see the bullet-scalped bodies of Al Qaeda terrorists but if we see two dudes smooch on Glee half of America takes a collective panic-poop and pulls out clumps of hair like they were clods of grass.

Still, there’s value in seeing the relationship between fighting and fucking, at least in terms of writing. Bring one into the other. Bring the intimacy and discomfort of sex into the fight scenes, and bring our culture’s comfort with violence into writing the bedroom scenes. An interesting exercise: write a sex scene like you’re writing a fight scene. Then, vice versa. Do it pantsless. Just because.

Form Matches Function

Imagine it’s like that knife fight in Michael Jackson’s Beat It video — form and function are given knives, and their wrists are bound together so that they may not escape one another until one is stabbified.

(“Stabbified” is a word, right? It’s totally a word. Don’t mess with me, Internet.)

Form and function do well together across all types of writing, but this is particularly true in terms of writing action. I find that when I write action, the form of my writing moves to match the pacing of the action. I tend to like my action sequences presented as a short, sharp shock, and so the writing tends to mirror that. Shorter sentences. Sentence fragments. Blunt, brutal language. Words like rabbit punches. Like the stitching of prison shivs.

Is this necessary? No, probably not. But there’s value in setting the pace of your scene with the clip at which you write. You don’t want to write long, languid patches of prose in writing action. We want action to be fast, exciting, engaging, and most of all, easy-to-read. Writing action is in this way like writing dialogue: you want it to come across to the readers without them halting, without them pausing to take a breath.

That’s not to say there’s no value in slowing things down — pacing is a tricky thing. The escalation of any story has its peaks and valleys and you can give an action sequence those same valleys, too — you can collapse moments just as easily as you can drag them out. The value in that is the value of crafting tension. By pausing before the money shot, the cookie-pop, the underwear-shellacking, you’re forcing the audience to hold their breath a little bit.

They know the shoe is going to drop, so you can slow things down a bit right in the middle.

Tricky to do, but cool if done right.

Point being: action scenes aren’t just about the action that’s happening, but also the form and framing of that action. I always like to print out my work and look at the shape of the words on the page. It’s telling.

Clarity Versus Sensation

I’ve read action scenes that clarify every tiny detail — the prose telegraphs every thrown punch, every grenade tossed, every inch of every rippling explosion as the fire belches forth.

This is nice in a lot of ways. If only because it helps you maintain an image in your head of what’s going on.

On the other hand, that can get a little dull. A giant meaty paragraph dictating the cold and clinical step by step of a fight scene is a paragraph I am going to ice skate over with my eyes. This is doubly true of those writers who know martial arts and write about it in a very granular way. No, I don’t know what a Wily Cheung Dragon Five-Toed Pylon Garrote-Kick does, and I don’t really care.

In opposition you have those fight scenes that eschew details and go right for the feel of the thing. It’s all sensation: the feel of fists landing, of fire on the back of your neck, of one’s butthole being ripped off by a rifle round. This is cool because it’s poetic. Because it puts you in the hot seat. Action is chaotic. It’s not clear and clinical. It’s mud and blood on the camera lens.

The downside is, you can overdo it. Purple prose bogs just as easily as a ten-page karate menu.

So, where’s the line? What approach is the right approach?

Rough guess: it depends on how close to the action you wish the reader to be.

If they’re with the protagonist — and it may be necessary to put with in italics — then a more sensation-based approach has value. You want to feel what he feels. But if it’s a high-concept gain-some-distance third-person-not-all-that-omniscient action scene, then you might gain more ground by approaching the writing in a more clinical fashion.

Reality Versus Authenticity

How “real” does your action scene have to be?

Once more we find ourselves in that old battle between reality and authenticity. Those two scamps, always sissy-slap-fighting it out. My feeling is that reality has no place in any piece of fiction ever. Not because it’s a bad idea but because it is a meaningless idea. Let me explain.

You must in all things remain authentic to your story. You’re setting a tone, a mood, a pace, a theme, and all these things should play well together. When one piece feels off, it’s like a painting hanging on the wall with a troubling tilt: everybody’s going to know, and they’re going to obsess about it. Your job is to keep all ducks in a row. Your job is to attend to authenticity.

How things happen in real life has zero bearing how things happen in fiction. This is true of books, film, games, and so forth. And so it is that your fight scene should match the tone you’re putting forth in the rest of the work. The fight scenes in a cartoonish mecha-battle is going to feel a lot different than the fight scenes in a boxing melodrama. Forget reality as a meaningful metric. Remain authentic to the story you’re telling.

How Action Reflects More Than Just Action

As always, I love ensuring that my writing does not fall into the behavior of a unitasker, by which I mean, that it does one thing and one thing only. Action scenes needn’t only be action scenes.

An action scene is awesome when it’s doing more than just expressing physical threat and a sequence of objective events. How can you reveal character in an action scene? How can you express theme and mood? You should be doing a lot with your action scene. A character reacts a certain way that reflects who he is on the inside (doubly so during times of action — which is to say, in scenes of duress). A theme is revealed in how brutal or insane or dangerous your action becomes.

Just as dialogue and description are given over to sub-text, action can be given over to subtler threads, too. An action scene should never be there just because it’s obligatory: it should always have deeper purpose.

Your Turn, Class

Action scenes.

Name some good ones. In books. In film. In comics. Wherever they exist. What makes them good? What makes them great? What are some examples of ehh, mehhh, pbbbt action scenes?

Why would an action scene fail to connect?

What rules do you abide by when writing action? I think what’s true in prose is true, too, in screenwriting. I’ve seen some screenplays that let the action scenes be essentially a meaningless tag: “FIGHT SCENE ENSUES,” but that’s nonsense. While I don’t think you’ll find much value in bloating an action scene so that it fills ten pages of script, I do think action should be both enticing and enriching. I’ve long said that screenwriters could easily bring a few prose tricks into their scripts to keep it fresh and readable as opposed to detached and dull. Story is story, after all.

Talk this out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

50 responses to “Word-Karate: On Writing Action Scenes”

  1. Nice one. Collective panic-poops and clods of grass in the same paragraph. Eye-catching.

    My favourite fight movie scene of all times is the violent and almost physical pain inducing scene in True Romance where Alabama is questioned about Clarence’s whereabouts by Virgil.

    While it starts out as the most shocking and terrifying assault scene I have ever seen in a movie, going from hints of father and daughter love to knuckle-pie abuse in a gruesome heartbeat (bring the awkwardness of intimacy into the fight, check), it’s also key for understanding just how strong Alabama’s love for Clarence is (reveal something about the characters, check).

    As the control of the situation changes from Virgil to Alabama, I always find myself (I have watched this movie far too many times) jumping in my seat, willing Alabama’s blows to hit harder, loosen more teeth, crack more skull. As if the fight has taken on a deeper meaning, articulating all wrongs I would like to right in my world, in my mum’s world, in everyone’s worlds (completely unrealistic, but with such a feeling of authenticity your heart almost bursts, check).

    That’s the theme of the whole movie, the underdogs rising and telling the bullies of the world that enough is enough. It’s like the ultra violence version of Revenge of the Nerds, the orange clockwork of a fantasy world where Elvis truly is king and Kung Fu movies really do hold a higher meaning to be deciphered as truths about life, love, and everything.

    If I were to nominate one fight scene to rule them all, Alabama vs. Virgil in True Romance would be it.

    Thanks for a great blog, and for making me snigger and think at the same time.

  2. A current favorite of mine is Robert E. Howard. The man writes fight scenes with a deep love of the visceral. Pantherish strength and speed, the mighty thews heaving etc. Or in the case of Solomon Kane straight up pummeling a ghost with the are hands. Howard mixes the clinical detachment and sensation based writing to make sure that while we don’t know exactly where Conan’s sword is at any given time we know he is cleaving men in half, and when the blade snaps.

    Comics: Also the Conan stuff (Dark Horse run on the character). Spiderman is actually a fascinating example. In some of the early stuff he narrated why he wasn’t dead panel y panel, but a lot of his iconic scenes convey the movement and flow of the character simply (Think of the cover of Amazing Fantasy #15 for example). Actually the same could be said for a lot of Marvel heros.

    Television and film: Go watch the Disney Gargoyles cartoon. Epic fights that have a very real weight to them. There is risk here, and people being clever. For film: I could site dozens of examples but simply go watch Old Boy. There is a fight between the protagonist and about twenty armed men, done in one take. It’s nasty, brutal, unpleasant, and it feels so very real. Or rather, it is ideally authentic to the story being told. Also I loved the hyper analytical fights in Sherlock Holmes. Oh and Firefly for the same reasons as Gargoyles.
    Star Wars Trench Run. Tight, high stakes, fast paced.

    Also all of the fights that Dresden gets in in Butcher’s Dresden Files. Very visceral (all the feelings Dresden the narrator has) but mixed with the cerebral (casting spells and planning a strategy)

    For me a fight scene fails to connect if either I don’t care about the characters or the internal logic is inconsistent. It makes sense that Dr. Insano has science based finger beams and Linkara has comic book powers because the lack of logic is played for laughs and comes back to being logical. But pulling a new power with no clue leading up to it in serious media? No thank you.

    Oh and on the whole fight/fuck thing? That’s what they did in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The dances turned into fights. If you take a Buffy the Vampire Slayer script (spike episode) and replace fight with fuck or dance it makes just as much sense.

    So Chuck, what are some of your favorite action scenes?

  3. It’s early and my brain isn’t turned on yet, but my favorite action scene has to be the pizza delivery from the opening pages of SNOW CRASH.

    That scene made the Matrix look like sock puppet theater.

    — c.

  4. I’ve found that director’s commentaries of fight scenes can be really helpful. One that was particularly useful for me was Peter Jackson explaining how the Battle of Helms Deep footage was put together and in particular the observation that he found it necessary to have closeups of the central characters every few shots to keep the audience emotionally in touch with what was happening. I also like the fight scenes from Hero, pretty much all of them.

    In terms of interesting sex scenes in movies, you’d do worse than watching Honest Courtesan (Dangerous Beauty in America, but… I don’t like that title, to put it mildly), especially the part with the lead character eating a banana… no that’s not a euphemism, or rather it really really is, but a visual one, deliberately made by the character, in response to a group of women asking her why their husbands keep running off with her.

    Oh, also I second the Dresden Files action sequences (even if I do think a couple of the more recent books are prime examples of how to sacrifice the novel on the altar of having a series arc), Butcher’s sex scenes though rare, work well as well. Also, also anyone who hasn’t already checked Jaye Wells’s Sabina Kane series aught to, because they do good action (of both types) and also they’re awesome.

  5. Nailed It. This is America, to a tee.

    “The funny thing is, we tend to be a lot more comfortable with violence in this country than we do with sex. We’re a flock of Puritanical gas-bags who beg and scream and wheedle to see the bullet-scalped bodies of Al Qaeda terrorists but if we see two dudes smooch on Glee half of America takes a collective panic-poop and pulls out clumps of hair like they were clods of grass.”

  6. Funny you talk about this now because I’ve been working on re-writing the climax of my latest book. Because I have to change a bit about the antagonist, the fight scene must change in quite a big way. But the way I’ve decided to do it reveals SO MUCH more about the protagonist.

    I’m really struggling to think of movies right now because I have too damned many… I’ll think on it a while. I do love the Lord of the Rings fight scenes (I’m totally biased to those movies, though), so much so that I find the in-between stuff boring sometimes!

    • The falling guy is the protagonist.

      He might be The Fall Guy for all I know.

      Or, picture him holding onto a big firehouse and swinging down the side of the Nakatomi building.

      — c.

  7. I love the fight (and sex) scenes from Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. It’s in-your-face visceral, savage, sweat, and blood flying all over the place.

    The fight scenes left me on the edge of my seat because I never knew what gruesome act would be coming next or if my favorite gladiator wouldn’t be making it out of the arena this time. Several of the sex scenes were equally engaging because there were some characters doing the forbidden naughty, and you never knew if this would be the time they got caught and crucified or not.

  8. Joe Abercrombie writes amazing action scenes. The language gets tighter and tighter as the fight goes on, sometimes showing how intent the character is on the fight, sometimes showing you how goddamned tired they are after battling for hours on end. By the end of the scene, you’re just about as breathless as the characters.

    He’s also really great at getting character in among all the swords clanging. In the First Law books, you know when it’s not Logen Ninefingers fighting anymore; it’s the Bloody-Nine in control. There’s a chapter in his newest, The Heroes that follows the battle from person to person, all the way up the hill one army’s trying to take. It’s incredibly well done. (The chapter titled “Casualties,” if anyone’s read it.)

    I’m pretty sure at least a few of his sex scenes are written like fights, too.

  9. I was going to mention Robert E. Howard, but someone beat me to it. Brutal, violent and bloody without going over the top (too often).

    I disagree, somewhat, with your reality vs. authenticity contention. It depends on the type of writing, obviously. But one of the things I try to do is experience a lot of different situations and activities to better inform my writing. I plan to head to the local firing range for some lessons and time on the trigger, because I’ve never held a gun. If you’ve never been in a violent car crash, enter a demolition derby, because you need to understand the level of impact, the rending of metal. Same goes for fights.

    I’m not saying go down to the local boozeshack and and hit on a biker’s woman, but maybe find a gym that will let you do some heavy bag workouts. If you’re writing a bare-knuckle fist fight and someone remains standing after one solid, full-on punch to the head, I’m calling bullshit. Only once you’ve thrown your weight behind a serious punch can you really grasp the force involved, the potential damage (both to punchee’s face and puncher’s hand).

    This is my biggest beef with movie and TV fights. Next time you’re watching Lost, count the number of severe concussions each character would suffer in a given episode. Those people punched each other like crazy and no one ever got more than a bloody nose. Bullshit.

    Obviously you can bend reality to fit your tale and build your internal authenticity, but I like there to be some basis in reality to anchor things. Even a mecha fight is informed by the crunch of metal and metal action you might get from a few hours at the auto recycler’s yard.

    • @Ed:

      I was never hanging around the LOST island looking for reality, though — if something bills itself as a tough-as-nails boxing drama, I expect some verisimilitude in terms of boxing and violence. But LOST is… what, about a crazy island full of melodramatic characters and hey, a polar bear, and hey, a magic cave, and ooooh, a button that needs to be pushed all the time lest Bad Shit Happen. It’s pulpy weird goodness, and as such, I don’t get overly concerned about the presumed concussions because ultimately it feels like it hews close to the show’s internal logic. I mean, they build a powerful logic dampener right in the first season, where the island seems to have “healing properties.”

      — c.

  10. Everything you said was right on the money.

    For me, nothing is worse than the clinical step-by-step fight scene. It’s just plan boring and it breaks both excitement and immersion. For it ties in with what you said about authentic verses real. A real fight between two guys is boring. I don’t want to read or watch boring.

    Tony Jaa’s Ong-Bak has some brilliant fight scenes. Same with his follow-up film, The Protector–the scene where he fights his way up the pagoda is genius. One of the best tv fights I’ve ever seen was on Deadwood when Dan and Captain Turner got at it in the thoroughfare.

  11. I write erotica and also I’m working the second book in my urban fantasy series. I’ve learned a lot about pacing my fight scenes by writing a lot of sex scenes.

    And yeah, I can’t STAND it how people can’t handle sex but love to watch violence. My solution is to get sneaky and slip a little erotic sense into my fight scenes. Fuck yeah, it’s bait and switch, but a lot of good writing is.

    My all time favorite fight scene is from the show Supernatural. It’s not particularly violent, it’s a knife fight without anyone getting bloody. But it reveals character, which sex and fight scenes should, imo.

  12. I love me some action scenes. Yes, indeedy.

    Best fight scenes (IMO) in film? There are two, and they are from what I consider to be opposite ends of the spectrum.

    First up to bat, the hallway fight from the Korean film “Oldboy.” Holy Claw-hammer wreckage, Batman! Oh Dae-Su taking on a score of knife and lead pipe wielding thugs in a hallway is just jaw-dropping. Hell, half the fight he has a knife sticking out of his back.

    It’s not a fancy-pants fight scene. The lead character taught himself to fight by punching a brick wall with a chalk outline of a body drawn on it. It’s brutal. It’s visceral. It’s…despite initial take… believable.

    Number two is for a different reason altogether. The final fight between Sean Thornton and Red Will Danaher at the end of the Quiet Man is brilliant for a different bag of reasons. Clocking in at aruond ten minutes of screen time, the fight rolls across the village as the two big Irishmen pound the ever-living fuck out of each other.

    There’s a good deal of dialogue for a fight scene. Hell, even the rest of the town gets lines as John Wayne pounds on his brother-in-law. The thing about this fight scene that really gets me is the fact that the scene isn’t really about the fight at all. The fisticuffs are simply the vehicle by which the film transforms the relationship between the two men. You have a lot more character development going on than some films have during their whole runtime.

    Books? That’s a bit harder to nail down. Right now, I’m re-reading Brust’s Taltos novels, and I have to say that I’ve always had a fondness for his action sequences. The pacing is exquisite. The reader gets a genuine feel for the flurry of blows/kicks/sword strikes as well as the more deliberate measuring up and re-regrouping that occurs during a fight. Much like my favorite sport Sumo, there can be a good deal of time passing while opponents get a feel for each other and try to intimidate each other before the rapid exchange of blows.

    It’s kind of like a literary 300. Slow. Slow. Slow. Stretch out the sentences, and then rapidfreakingfastexchangeofbloodywickedbackfists followed by a more steady pacing as the scene winds down.

    Poetic vs Clinical? I prefer a well-oiled mating of the two, but if I have to choose between the two, I’ll take the purple nurple of fight scenes. I’d rather feel it than take a course in it.

  13. I do like the Lord of the Rings fight scene where the Viking-type woman pulls off her helmet with “I am not a man,” and beheads the bad guy.

    Sex and violence; now I’m thinking about cats again. The ovulating female is very seductive until the spiny male assumes his role. Then it’s screeching, claws and swatting. After awhile, they start all over again.

    No violence no kittens, I guess.

  14. One of my favorite action writers is R.A. Salvatore. He has an uncanny ability to get the feel for the battle and put what the characters feeling in the action. With the descriptions he uses on the page, you get a great mental image of what is going on around the characters.

    I also enjoy Brent Weeks action scenes.

  15. I was accidentally watching some variant of Dragon Ball Z last night, and it came to me, one thing I realized about the “action” in that show is that there isn’t any. They stand there for hours before they actually fight, talking about how awesome they are. It’s all “mu haha” and “Well, what you don’t know is…” “oh yeah, well, what you forgot was…” and my ill-slept brain screams “get to the friggin action already.” <- That would be my point.

  16. For writing action, the best examples are Robert E Howard, Ian Fleming and James Ellroy.

    For the same reasons: Violence without it becoming porn, Detail without it becoming overly clinical, and Pacing, Pacing, Pacing.

  17. In “Army of Darkness,” a classic B-grade horror flick starring Bruce Campbell, the action scenes are meant specifically to be over the top and make fun of itself. I think as far as action towards a specific purpose goes, that movie takes the cake.

    Regarding action that’s entrancing to watch and encompasses the majority of a film, I think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the epitome of awesome. The story seems to be secondary to the action in many ways, but I don’t give a rat’s ass because it’s just cool.

  18. As much as I’m not a fan of Stan Nicholl’s books, there’s a superb action scene in the opening of Quicksilver Rising with two characters scrapping all round a room. There’s a real sense of chaos, of dust rising and splinters flying, overturned chairs and flapping curtains, until the fight ends and everything slowly settles on a scene of destruction.

    I didn’t like where the series went, but that moment was finely crafted

  19. I hate writing fight scenes so I tend to keep them short. I find them kind of boring. Mostly, I think, because of the weird disconnect between how long a fight scene lasts and how long it takes to write.

    Had one I did took me like three weeks to get through. There was a lot going on with a lot of people in it and I had to keep track of them. One of the most painful writing experiences I’ve ever had. I ended up rewriting it three or four times and finally ditched half of it just to make it readable.

  20. My current favourite in terms of action and fight scenes is Andy Remic. The Clockwork Vampire trilogy is full of violence that builds the character and pushes the plot along. I used to enjoy the martial arts descriptions of Eric van Lustbader which was like a geeky way for me and a mate to try a few techniques. That was more than a few years ago though.

  21. Great post, Chuck! But I’d disagree about authenticity. (Maybe I’ve misunderstood your point, too. So forgive me if I’ve gone off my nut.) We don’t tell authors “write whatever sex fells authentic *to your story*” and ignore physical realities. Those sex scenes are, without fail, laughable.

    Fighting, like sex, should reveal character and move the plot. While in film we aren’t necessarily realistic — I’ve done lots of stage combat and fight choreography, so I can speak from experience — in books we can be. Awesome! All the better to tell a story! Physical conflict that is congruent to the character and meaty with biology-physics-forensics is far more impactful.

    As I’ve often discovered in research, reality is often far more interesting than anything we can make up. I think every writer should watch fights and even study something if possible that will teach them something about physical conflict. You learn how quickly fist fights are over and why people win. It’s a great way to add depth to your character, and experience.

    • Great post, Chuck! But I’d disagree about authenticity. (Maybe I’ve misunderstood your point, too. So forgive me if I’ve gone off my nut.) We don’t tell authors “write whatever sex fells authentic *to your story*” and ignore physical realities. Those sex scenes are, without fail, laughable.

      Fighting, like sex, should reveal character and move the plot. While in film we aren’t necessarily realistic — I’ve done lots of stage combat and fight choreography, so I can speak from experience — in books we can be. Awesome! All the better to tell a story! Physical conflict that is congruent to the character and meaty with biology-physics-forensics is far more impactful.

      As I’ve often discovered in research, reality is often far more interesting than anything we can make up. I think every writer should watch fights and even study something if possible that will teach them something about physical conflict. You learn how quickly fist fights are over and why people win. It’s a great way to add depth to your character, and experience.


      I’m totally on board with authors learning about the physicality of fighting and what-not — but I don’t really think reality is all that critical in terms of writing. Reality and fiction don’t play well together. Story is built in a way that our lives are not — that’s not to say story cannot reflect reality, or cannot be that, but certainly there’s no requirement. It’s like, a lot of what happens in our day to day is often too dull or too strange to be believable. It’s why, “But it really happened!” is never a justification in fiction.

      In terms of writing, you’re free to be as realistic (with sex and fighting) as the story demands. I don’t think film is all that different. Sex in particular is just as much of a floating target in terms of authenticity — sex scenes *frequently* ignore how sex really is. Generally, sex in fiction is not portrayed as realistic. Nor is it in film. Some stories do — in fact, I just saw Anthony Neil Smith talking about this the other day, about how he likes to write sex with all its warts and grunts and general awkwardness. That’s authentic to him as a writer, and more importantly, authentic to his writing. But it would feel out of place in some erotic romance — there you want the sex to be grand and sweeping and beautiful. The physical act is less the thing; it’s all about staying true to the fiction you’re writing.

      That said, I completely agree that both sex and action are best when they reveal character and move plot. Even better if they help reflect themes and reaffirm mood!

      — c.

  22. Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi was a big influence on how I look at action, which is natural given that it is about a guy with a sword getting into duels, talking about duels and dealing with the problems of a duel-focused life. Extended setups for motivation and pragmatism. The fight as an amoral space, but one where moral issues get decided. (Facing dozens of Yoshioka fighters, Musashi murders the figurehead — a 13 year old boy — first, but this is a symbolic end to a rival group that has spiritually deformed itself in its quest to even the score with him.) The actual descriptions of fighting (in translation) are sparse, despite the fact that it’s a biographical novel of one of the most famous martial artists ever. So the setup is the thing.

    On the other hand, I do like a good procedural tit-tat fight (though in truth, this stuff tends to be remembered as more detailed than it is as the writer talks about the fight generally, but zooms to a few choice bits for rhythm). Roger Zelazny was pretty good at them. If you can meld them, you get good stuff. I can think of one fight in the movies in particular that does this well: the end of Rob Roy.

  23. @Malcom — Very much agreed. And I was going to mention Rob Roy! I know who choreographed that fight, too. Bill Hobbs. Absolutely brilliant sword choreographer. And if you look at Dangerous Liaisons, another of his duels happens at the end between Valmont and Danceny. If you know anything about small sword duels, it’s really more of a brawl. But it make sense — it’s desperate, extremely passionate, sloppy, slippery in the snow. It tells everything about those two characters, especially when Valmont pulls the sword into himself. It’s a man who wants to die versus a young man who wants to live.

    See? Fight scenes should always be this way. Even in books. A place to expand on motivation and character.

  24. Jeebus, after reading this article and the comments I realize there’s now ANOTHER thing I’ve never really thought about with writing. I’d always assumed that actions scenes had to follow the shorter sentences and sentence fragment format but now I’m starting to realize there’s a whole other ways of doing things. I guess this is a good example of the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know, eh?
    @Sparky: Love the Dr. Insano and Linkara reference. TGWTG for the Win!

  25. For my own style, I like switching back and forth a lot from emotion and fact, and from specifics to being vague. I feel it keeps the readers up to speed with what is going on, but an also let them get lost in what is happening.

    I have to agree with whoever mentioned Joe Abercrombie above. I have only read the first “First Law” book so far, but the violence in that book is top notch and very well done.

    As far as on TV. Lots of good examples, but of late I’ve found that the Game of Thrones has done its sex and its violence very well. Sword fights are believable and full of emotion. Sex scenes are as well…or not, when required to be so. You really get a sense for the characters in how they act in those scenes.

  26. For the best fight scenes in fiction there are only three words: James. Lee. Burke. Dave or Clete kick some serious ass, Burke makes you feel every blow, it reads like poetry, and he does it in a few short sentences. The emotional aftermath is devastating.

    • I’ll also add to the pile: Joe R. Lansdale. Any book, really, but obviously the Hap and Leonard stuff really work well in terms of fight scenes.

      — c.

  27. Thank you very much for writing this. I’ve been planning out a lot of actions scenes, but wussing out on putting them to page for fear that they won’t sound authentic.

    My favorite action scenes in film are from the 1973 version of “The Three Musketeers” (and the sequel, “The Four Musketeers”). Any mistakes in the choreography were deliberately left in to make the fighting more realistic–real combat isn’t perfect, after all.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9uGy3LlNeI here’s the final fight from the second movie. Spoilers, obviously, if you haven’t seen both movies (which I think everyone should–they’re excellent).

  28. This is a great post. At the risk of sounding pompous, I’ve written a short book about this. I’m a writer and a career martial artist and I get so sick of great stories being ruined by shitty action/fight scenes. It’s not the fault of the writers – most, thankfully, haven’t fought. I have, a lot. It’s my job. When we’re always being told to write what we know, and the only fighting we know is choreographed movie scraps, the transition to the written word suffers badly.

    A friend asked me to run a workshop about writing fight scenes at a convention a few years ago, which was quite a success. I’ve since run it a bunch of times and a short (only around 12,000 words or so) ebook has grown out of that. You can find it at my website if you’re interested.

  29. My favorite part: “… two dudes smooch on Glee half of America takes a collective panic-poop and pulls out clumps of hair like they were clods of grass.”

    Keep screaming into the void that is the internet.


  30. Great post.

    I think a big problem is that most writers haven’t fought or had action packed experiences and that makes it hard to write those things well. Converting movie fights and action scenes to the written page often doesn’t work well.

  31. Thanks for this; I’m always looking for new ways to write action. I don’t know if it’s a generational (word?) thing or what, but I tend to write my action sequences as if they’re in movies.

    There’s a movie action sequence that sticks out in my mind because it drives me nuts every time I see it. It’s the scene in V for Vendetta where everything is in slow motion and V’s knives suddenly leave trails of lights behind them and make high-pitched noises – and it goes back to authenticity. None of the action sequences in the movie are exactly realistic, but that scene is overly cartoony, and I find it abrasive.

  32. I’ll start with the worst fight scene I’ve ever seen: the whole movie 300! Slowing everything down so much ruined it all. Compare with Kurosawa’s fight scenes.

    I think the best fight scene is from the movie Shane (a lot of you younger whippersnappers won’t even know what I’m talking about). Just a good old toe-to-toe fight. No special effects or wires, just a lot of flesh-pummeling-fists (with a shoot out at the end to top it off!).

    I understand what you are saying about reality and fiction, but I have a different take on it. I am not trying to bring reality into my writing, but turn my writing into a reality that is just as concrete as the one we live in. With a good writer at the helm (I am not saying I am that writer), the reality of a novel can be more compelling than the one the reader inhabits when he puts the book down. This is one of the goals of Fictionalism, to create solid realities through fiction. Consider this well.

  33. I wandered over here from Betsy Dornbusch’s place. She said you were brilliantly fabulous (or something like that) and she was so right. Glad I found you!

  34. I know I am late, found this one in my wanderings of the interweps.
    River Tam vs Reavers in Serenity. It was only a small scene; it showed all the action and badassery and showed what river was capable of and why the alliance wants her.

  35. I know I’m horrifyingly late to this party, but there’s one film action scene that blows me away every time I watch it: the ending duel of House of Flying Daggers. Good old wuxia. I’d even put this film above CTHD.

    Anyway, the setup: one of the main leads, Leo, has thrown a knife into the chest of the female lead Mei to keep her from going off to find the other main, Jin, who has ridden off into the Chinese countryside. Jin has come back to look for her, and Leo abruptly attacks.

    After a little dialogue, the fight starts, standard (but beautifully-choreographed) wuxia swordplay. A wide shot time-lapse shot shows the fall scenery changing to winter, without a break in the action. I don’t know what effect they were going for, but I thought it was pretty nifty upon first seeing it. The camera zooms back in, and the fight has become more desperate. Gone are the flowery leaps and sword flourishes. Instead, it’s replaced with wild swings, repeated headbutts, and overall far more visceral fighting. You can really feel the desperation and hatred that’s built up between these two, who were formerly best friends.

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