What is a fight, from a writer’s point of view? I’ll define it this way: A fight is an extreme difference of opinion between two or more entities that leaves physical violence as the only solution. (Non-physical fights are a whole ‘nuther topic.)
For a writer, a fight is not about the weapons or the movements. A fight has a beginning, a root cause–it is drawn entirely from who the entities are as individuals. That means their religion, their physical attributes, their biology, their culture, even their diet all come into play.
Here’s a sample two person altercation. Person one: James. Person two: Marcia.
James: mild-mannered guy, raised to respect women, believes fighting is a last resort. Has martial arts training, stays in good shape, is observant, thoughtful, intelligent.
Marcia: scrappy, not quite right in the head. Has been living on the streets for years. Quick to take offense, quicker to attack, especially over any infringement on her “territory”.
How are each of these people going to fight? What will drive them to fight? How far will they take the fight–to stun, to main, to kill? How much stamina does each one have? What allies does each one have in the area? How does their clothing affect the fight? Their hair length? The weather? The local law enforcement or lack thereof? I could go on for pages.
All this before the first punch is even thrown….
James turns down the wrong street. Marcia flips out over his presence. She wants him out of her territory, he wants to defend himself against a crazy woman. Who would be most likely to win?
James is healthy, well fed, in shape, and smart; Marcia is fueled by rage, malnourished, and not particularly bright. James would outsmart her, drop her unconscious, call the cops, and Marcia would be bundled off to the local psych ward to get the help she needs.
But what if James just came out of an all you can eat buffet, where he did his best to empty the steam tables? In that situation, James’ fighting style is severely impaired by a stomach overloaded with cheap, salty food. He’s dead on the ground in five minutes, with Marcia rifling his pockets and taking off before the cops arrive.
A well-written fight ought to tell you something about the world and the characters, as well as advancing the plot. The individual punches and flashy moves are technical details that follow the curve of the characters, not the other way around.
For example, in the Children of the Desert series, a young mercenary named Tank gets into multiple scraps (he’s a bit of a hothead). Some of the fights end with a single well-placed punch; others are more complicated. In one, he’s in trouble brought about by his own sarcastic backtalk to an older, more experienced, and considerably less ethical mercenary. Tank first tries for a simple resolution that should have ended matters with room to for him to make amends for his misstep.
Mercenaries can’t really go about beating the shit out of their co-workers. It’s one thing to thrash an upstart with a few well-placed punches that won’t actually stop him from getting up to go to work in the morning; it’s another to risk serious damage (and trouble with your mutual boss) over a fairly trivial insult. When Tank shows that he’s more dangerous than he looks, the older mercenary reassesses the situation. He’s about to offer some face-saving excuse to back off and keep the fight in less dangerous arenas in future: verbal sniping, for instance.
But Tank’s friend turns up at a pivotal moment, and the older mercenary’s pride kicks in. Now he has to thrash this stupid little punk into the ground. The others in the group get involved, one by one, for their own reasons.
As a result of the fight, Tank and his friend have to leave the group and find other work–which drags them into the middle of the very politics Tank’s been trying to avoid. All because Tank can’t control his impulse to snark–and because, when it comes right down to it, he’s too proud to lose a fight in service of winning the war. That flaw haunts him throughout this series (and the next one as well). All of that is more important than the technicalities of the fight itself.
Here’s a challenge for you: in the above example about James and Marcia, if person two was, instead, a crazy man called Sam–in the first scenario, would Sam wind up dead, or would James show mercy, as he did with Marcia? If James was black and Sam was white, if Sam was black and James was transgender–the permutations are infinite.
Try writing four or five variations of a fight scene, keeping the same basic personality structure–Person one: kind, intelligent, healthy, trained to fight but reluctant to do so, defender; person two, batshit crazy, territorial, malnourished, not very smart, aggressor. They fight because person one has unknowingly invaded person two’s territory. Change everything else. Change the setting, the weather, the culture, the gender, the skin color, the religion–and see how each change affects the basic mechanics of the fight.
…I seem to have lost my ongoing battle to keep my posts short. Again. So I’ll close by urging you to go ahead and write that scene, at least four different ways. Just to see what happens…. and of course, please post a note as to what you discovered! (Please do NOT post the scene itself, mind you–that’s yours. Just tell us how the exercise worked out.)
Namaste and keep writing–I’m off to complete more prep for Ravencon 2013….and the secondary book launch the following week! (Yes, what a surprise–writing this blog post was part of my panel prep. SOP….)