Saturday, January 14, 2012

Writing the Fight Scene-Part 1 (Understanding the Character Motivation)

Everyone is an expert in at least one thing. We bring that expertise to the stories and articles we read and to the movies and television shows we watch. Speaking for myself, when I see or read something that is clearly wrong I want to shout, "That's wrong!" Often times I fight myself from stopping my enjoyment of the story and moving on to something else. Watching or reading a fight scene is one of those things that catches my eye and often makes me groan (to say the least). Often times, friends do not want to go to a movie with me if there are a lot of fight scenes--or at least not ask me what I thought of them. Often times, the look on my face says enough. Why am I this way?

I started studying Martial Arts over thirty years, about the same time I started writing. I have dabbled in a few different fighting styles, including fencing, Iaido, and various hand to hand styles. At the time of this blog I hold a third degree black belt (Sandan) in Tracy's Karate, which has always been my foundation in training. I have spent much of my life, in one way or another, studying how to fight and how not to fight (including when to run like the devil was after you). Despite all of this, even I catch myself writing a fight scene wrong. 

How do I write a fight scene, as an expert in fighting, and how do I correct it when I go wrong? While I would imagine there is a book on how to write a fight scene, I haven't seen it. So, I am going to tear apart the process as best as I can over the several months. Before I begin to outline it, let me be very clear: Writing is an art. Martial Arts is an art. There is no one way to do anything. Take from this what works for you, knowing that, like all writers and marital artists, we all walk our own path.

The first thing I do with writing a fight scene is to understand who is involved. When people fight in real life, everyone has a set of skills, a way they think, and a motive to be in the fight. Let's work this backwards and start with motive. Why does your character want to fight? 

Let's think about your character and about fighting. Fighting is dangerous and painful.  How dangerous? Allow me to share with you a true story.  How many times have you been somewhere . . . a park or a bar . . .where some people break out in a fight and you hear the spectators cheer on, calling to the world, "Fight! Fight!"  The story I am about to share is not about one of the combatants but one of the spectators.  As the spectators gathered around to cheer on the drunken fight, one of the bar room warriors pulled out a knife and swung it blindly at his opponent.  Instead of cutting or stabbing his opponent, he slit the throat of one of the spectators--someone who had gone out for a few drinks left his life's blood pooled out like a pool of sticky dark blood all because he wanted to watch two morons fight over  . . . what?  What were these drunks fighting over and what had been worth so much for someone to die?

Someone can be beaten to a proverbial pulp or lose their lives over trivial issues--like a pair of shoes, a spilled drink, or (as a guy I once knew discovered) looking at someone's girlfriend the wrong way. In St. Louis, Missouri a game among teens has developed where they go up to complete strangers and try to knock them out. Fights can start over imagined slights, being drunk, forced to protect yourself or a loved one, property and so forth. 

Why is your character willing to fight?

Before you decide to turn your character into a super hero or the next Jet Li, let me break down the motivation a bit. There was a story my Master Instructor once told me that I have never forgotten.

A man, who was studying Martial Arts and had grown so confident that he felt like he was bullet proof, was once asked what he would be willing to fight for. He was asked, "If ten men were leaning on your car and causing trouble, would you fight them?" 

He replied with confidence, "Of course I would beat the . . .." You can fill in the words.

His instructor then asked, "What if they all had chains and baseball bats and you were unarmed?"

The student thought about it and agreed he would not fight them. 

The instructor then asked one final question, "Take these same men, armed the same way, and now they are raping your wife. Would you fight them?"

His answer changed.

The circumstances in real life and in our fiction writing are what will determine if someone will be willing to risk their lives in a fight. What are you willing to fight for and lose your life over? If you answer that quickly, I personally ask--plead with you--to think about it a little more. What is your character willing to fight for? What is their line in the sand?

On February 11, we will begin to get inside of the fighter's mind--from the untrained to the most trained.  How do they fight? More importantly, how do they think about fighting?

If you have questions about writing fight scenes or about how various characters might act in a fight, please feel free to ask.  I will do my best to answer your question.  Your question's response may even lead to a blog entry in this series.

Thank you for reading and please visit and Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.

1 comment:

  1. Very good post. And this is very true; the character must have a very good, solid reason to want to engage in a fight. Because, as I have learned, if you step into a fight, even to protect someone you love, you WILL become a part of that fight! Thank you for posting.