Fight Scenes that Resonate

One of the problems with online writing forums is that people often give bad advice… actually, awful advice. But sometimes, the questions asked are worth answering proper. This article comes from such a question where a poster asked, basically…

How do you write a fight scene that resonates and engages with the reader?

The answer is simple, always have the combatant who throws the first punch, throw it from the right side of the panel…

lol, if only it were that simple, right?

Of course, the real answer is a complex one with many (if not limitless) ways to skin the cat. Let’s go over a few of them.

First and foremost, something that I repeat all the time, (which if you’re paying attention you’ll notice overlaps just about everywhere in story telling, regardless of the element at hand);

At any given moment in a comic script, you always need to know what you’re trying to express. Story is all about conveying a message.

For example, you have your hero going up against a henchman of the main antagonist, Kung Fu Demon. Your beat in your notes or skeletal outline may be simply;

* Hero fights Kung Fu Demon.

This is fine as a note, as a core beat, but when you get into scripting, if you start developing the action straight from this, you’re sunk.

You’ll probably focus on spectacle, “how can I make these two guys fighting, look cool?”

Even if you manage to make it look cool, so what?

Unless it’s some six year old kid picking up your book, you’re not wowing anyone, we’ve all seen it ALL before. And if it’s not actively progressing the story, it’s dead space, refined sugar—a possible “ohh” or “ahh”, then a hard crash, no protein to keep you going—but ultimately, something else I often speak too, it’s wasted opportunity.

Now conversely, if you take that core beat and figure out what you want to say, how you can use the fight scene to progress the story, you’re writing at a completely different level—one that engages and resonates with readers—one that produces genuine story.

So; * Hero fights Kung Fu Demon.

On a project I’m currently working on, I’ve got a young hero who “falls into his powers.” Early in the story he doesn’t understand his powers, part of the story is the hero coming to grips with what he’s become.

So perhaps, in this fight of the story, I want to establish this benchmark—show for the first time what the hero is now capable of and his reaction… which in this case is going to be fear. He’s terrified of the powers at his disposal and is going to reject them. (Only to accept them later on in the story when the stakes start to raise and his friends are in trouble, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…)

Ok, so now we have; *Hero fights Kung Fu Dragon. Reveal the hero’s incredible power, while scaring himself with his ability.

If we scripted without knowing what we wanted to say, we might have just scripted a few pages of back and forth sparring with some cool looking shots and whatnot, ending however we wanted to end… which wouldn’t have gotten us nowhere narratively other than to say one character won and one lost…

But now, recognizing we actually need to say some specific things with the fight, we have specific direction and can brainstorm with that direction in mind.

However the fight is going to go, I know the hero is going to at some point make a big, powerful, impressive attack or display of it. The thing that’s going to catalyze his fear and make him second guess himself.

But an impressive move alone isn’t enough to instill fear. There has to be some sort of consequence to the action. Off the top of my head I’m seeing the character energy blast an entire building to ashes, or maybe kill his opponent unintentionally.

By knowing what we want to say before starting to script, the story itself, gives us 2 core beats to the fight scene.

While this alone doesn’t guarantee the fight will have the reader biting their nails, trembling in anticipation of turning the page, it does guarantee that however poor or well the scene is executed, it will further develop the story and at that level we know the fight will engage and resonate with the reader.

But of course, we’re not going to stop there.

Armed with knowing what we want to say, we can further develop the fight by approaching it in a simplistic three-act structure.

Introduction. (beginning)

Complication. (middle)

Resolution. (end)

When the hero and Kung Fu Demon get it on, we don’t just open on the scene with them in the middle of the fight, that’s probably entering the scene a bit too late. Let’s picture it in our head, scripting from the core beat without 3-act structure; in the end of the scene before the fight, the hero somehow segues into the conflict “ok, I’ve got to go confront Kung Fu Demon.” The next scene opens with the two fighting, there are some cool looking panels and the Hero wins throwing Kung Fu Demon out the window.

Can you take anything about the story away from that encounter?

Now let’s picture it another way.

Let’s add some sort of introduction, time dedicated to putting the players in place, getting the stage set, reminding the reader what’s at stake, etc. This is also a good place to showcase personality, which we’ll talk more on in a minute.

When the fight takes place, if the hero just throws a couple of punches and wins, if Kung Fu Demon is a pushover, this would generally be considered a boring, badly executed fight scene, after all story is conflict, no conflict–no story.

So clearly Kung Fu Demon needs to present a challenge, and the greater the challenge the more interesting the fight becomes…

but the challenging part isn’t always based on what the opponent brings to the table.

Challenges to the hero can come in any form.

The environment is an obvious one, how many action movies have you seen where the hero battles a villain against some crazy backdrop, like the wing of an airplane about to take off, or the top of a crane swaying in the heavy wind.

What about since our hero is just figuring out his powers, what if he can’t get them to work properly–performance anxiety… This really has nothing to do with Kung Fu Demon, but the complication of not getting his powers to work when he wants, suddenly changes the entire dynamic of the fight.

I’m sure  a dozen visuals are going off in your head right now.

As a reader wouldn’t you be intrigued to see how the hero overcomes this unexpected complication in the middle of the fight? Hmm whadd’ya know, I’d call that engaging. There’s more going on than simply fists slamming into faces.

Lastly in the three-act structure, everything works up to a climax/resolution, the most dramatic, intense moment. If the fight doesn’t come to a head, it falls flat.

Ever watch a boxing match, where the first 2 or 3 rounds was a crazy action, slugfest, then the other 10 were just two tired guys holding on to each other. You probably stuck around to see if anything exciting would happen, but when it didn’t you were disappointed. In recapping/remembering the fight, you most likely purged rounds 4-10 from your memory.

That’s real life, don’t do that in comics. In fiction you do it like Rocky and save the crazy blitz, brawl, knockout barrage for the end of the fight, in round 12. The climax–the biggest, most impressive bang always comes at the end.

Ok, so where are we now;

We’ve broken *Hero fights Kung Fu Demon* into;

* Hero warns Kung Fu Demon to leave the city be and let his girlfriend go. / Reintroducing the characters, putting their personality on display, setting things up./
* Kung Fu Demon says the girl’s dead unless the Hero defeats him. /Reminding the reader of the stakes. This fight isn’t meaningless./
* 1 page of sparring /Emphasizing the introduction/set up act nature./

* Hero’s powers don’t work
* 1 page of hero getting his ass kicked without his powers /The complication and opponents skill are more than formidable, we create doubt the hero might not win./

* Hero gets pushed past his breaking point. Do you remember “The Last Dragon” with Bruce Leeroy. You know the scene I’m talkin’ bout at the end, the little flashbacks as he’s gettin’ dunked. /A catalyst moment, leading to the hero tapping his true power./
* Hero pulls of his power move…
* …Accidentally blasting an entire building to ashes. /One of the core beats of what we’re trying to express in this scene./
* Kung Fu Demon retreats. /Resolution of the climax./
* Hero is terrified of the power at his disposal. /The other core beat of what we’re trying to express in this scene./

You can see here I’ve added a couple other bullet points fleshing out the fight. These beats arrive naturally from the fight itself, logical progressions from point a, to point b and so on, actions/reactions, stemming from a three-part structure anchored by the core beats of our message.

In spots where I say, 1 page of this, or 1 page of that, you can apply the same techniques we just did and develop them–or rather the message within them–further.

But often supporting moments in a fight don’t need extensive development. Every blow of a fight doesn’t need a message. And just like we pace the entire comic, the same roller coaster rule applies within the fight sequence itself. So a lot of times the supporting moments can come across engaging by applying the other elements in our list–we’ll talk about in a moment.

You may notice what we’re really doing here is developing a scene, giving structure to the fight. Instead of making it gratuitous, we’re anchoring it within the story narrative… giving it weight, relevance and meaning.

We’re writers. Writing a story. This is what we do.

If you do nothing else but express the message in your fight scene it’ll work.

*Keep in mind, the message of the scene isn’t always about the hero. Perhaps the message of the fight is some key element about the opponent… or perhaps he have multiple things to express. It all depends on the story and how much weight you want to give the scene.

Next up is Character Personality. Simply put if your characters don’t execute action WITH their personality, the fight scene as a whole will be wooden and unengaging.

For example. Think of how Jackie Chan fights in his movies compared to Bruce Lee. The tone, feel, style of their fight sequences are completely different because their personalities are coming through. Chan’s is light-hearted and comical in many instances, fast-paced, with an insane daring–that’s the guy Jackie almost always plays.

Lee on the other hand is no joke at all, he’s all business, totally efficient, no energy wasted, he comes across as a bad ass, with an occasional flare of jazz to remind you how bad ass he really is. His personality clearly manifests through his actions.

Because we experience story through character, it is essential to experience the character’s during a fight. Their dialogue, the way the move, the choices they make, their reactions—it all defines them. When Indiana Jones is punched in the face, he doesn’t wimper and complain about it, that’s not who he is.

Take the time to inject character personalities into the combat and your fight sequence will shine.

Next up are two of the 4 essential elements to every comic panel, Motion and Emotion, hey look I’m giving up the secrets from the Writer’s Guide…

Movement is absolutely critical to every fight scene. Fight scenes that are not dynamic, fluid, capturing movement in all its forms, will lull the reader to sleep. Fight scenes should not be physically on par to watching a game of chess. In contrast, if you inject your fight scenes with movement, the reader will have a hard time looking away.

If you’ve ever been in a real fight, you know first hand, real conflicts are not the choreographed dances we see in the movies. Real fights are chaos and whoever takes advantage of attacks of opportunity usually has a distinct upperhand.  Juxtaposing elements, creating a sense of instability within the movement of the battle, will draw the reader in.

You can juxtapose elements through camera direction, but it’s not necessary.

  • Hero runs up the wall.
  • Hero flips off the wall, soaring through the air.
  • Hero summons energy in his hand, preparing to strike.
  • Kung Fu Demon snatches hero’s leg in mid flight…
  • …and slams him back into the wall.
  • Hero’s eyes wide with concern, knowing he’s in big trouble.
  • Caught in Kung Fu Demon’s bearhug, Hero slams his forehead into Demon’s nose.

These panel “ideas” are all as effective in capturing movement as specifying camera direction.

Do the images any of these panels bring to mind feel unstable, chaotic, or unexpected?

Emotion is similar in potency to movement.

Who wants to see two guys fight it out, without any emotion behind the battle?

What’s more engaging 2 olympic fencers, going at it on the piste, with helmets down, a flurry of sword swipes, then one guy lands a hit and  they reset. Or the same fencers dueling without their helmets on, one guy foaming at the mouth with hatred, the other guy laughing his ass off at the other guy’s lack of skill?

Again it comes back to character. (You’ll find when structuring engaging fight scenes, these elements we’re discussing all mesh together in moments.)

If the players in the fight don’t experience emotion, the reader is unlikely to experience emotion… and emotion is the true key to comics.

So amp it up. Make your brawlers battle from a passionate place. Don’t paint them with fine strokes when it comes to their emotional reactions, use the widest brush and boldest colors you can find.

Keep in mind with both movement and emotion, you’re shooting for dramatic representation, not reality. Ground your story in reality somewhere else. Here, push the boundaries. Don’t be timid.

As I mentioned above, Environments, are also key to effective fight scenes. In fact, this may be one of the easiest elements to integrate to make a fight scene more engaging.

When to opponents come to blows, they’re not fighting in a void of empty space (well, most of the time anyway, this is comics). If you ignore the environment, it will immediately push the reader out of the scene, because you’re eliminating a large portion of what you’re presenting as reality.

In contrast, using the environment will tend to make create a more unique conflict. If you write two guys fighting in a boxing ring and I write two guys fighting in a boxing ring, there are bound to be similarities. But how similar will the same guys fighting be if you write them in a Bamboo forest and I write them in a NYC subway car? Feel me?

Integrating environments opens up opportunities, especially unexpected opportunities.

And with surprise being the secret sauce of story, any time you can focus on the unexpected, it will be hard for the reader to turn away.

If you’re directing the camera in your script or giving artistic direction, a number of–let’s call them–format specific elements open up.

Clearly there are a whole host of ways to direct action through camera shots, angles and transitions. I have a section dedicated to this in the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics. (Actually in the digital version I think I have two.)

In the guide I also talk a bit about story through artist direction;  breaking borders–pushing into other panels, border styles, bleeds, colors, lighting etc.

All of this can surely be implemented to support the panels of a fight scene and engage the reader. But these are more advanced considerations that cross into the art execution of the book.

The rule of thumb I personally live by, is don’t get dolled up for this dance, unless I’m absolutely sure I’m directly supporting the narrative with my direction.

As a writer, I don’t believe you should be afraid to use any elements when the story needs it. But it takes experience to truly know when the story is calling for it, or when you’re calling for it.

If you’re new to writing comics, I recommend not focusing on these elements.

Instead focus on the story.

Work in all the elements we’ve discussed on the page;

  • The Message
  • 3 act structure
  • Character Personality
  • Motion
  • Emotion
  • Environments

Once you get all these guys in your fight scenes, besides having an effective, engaging, fight scene on your hands, you’re likely to feel you no longer need the help of the camera and art direction to make your fight engaging.

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Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.