Writing Fights Scenes 2: Dramatic Elements

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My last post dealt with the importance of understanding the tone of a fight scene, but there is something even more important. Real fighting, be it on a small or large scale is not inherently entertaining. Nevertheless, we are drawn to the story of a good fight because of the dramatic engagement of the characters. Without drama, the action can be a tedious, boring, or otherwise off putting.

Whether you’re writing something like the battle for Helm’s Deep or the duel between Hamlet and Leartes, the buildup to the fight is arguably more important than the fight itself. It is during the buildup that we come to understand why the fight matters. Ask yourself what’s at stake for your characters and in the larger context of your story. “The readiness is all,” Hamlet says at last, and because the entire story has built up to this moment, we are prepared for a fight of truly dramatic proportions.

Think of your fight scene as a kind of story within the story. It should be a necessary part of the overall narrative. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have a setting, a plot, and characters. It goes without saying it should have external conflict, but it should also have internal conflict. These elements should be established in the buildup, so when the action starts they all come crashing together. The fight should be a climactic focal point for dramatic elements in the narrative.

In terms of plotting the action, things should never go as planned. There should always be surprises, turns in the action driven by the elements in play. Perhaps reinforcements arrive, treachery unfolds, or fear strikes. A good fight will have at least one or two good turns, when the advantage shifts from one side to the other before the final victory or defeat.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, December 2013.

2 thoughts on “Writing Fights Scenes 2: Dramatic Elements

  1. Thanks for posting this. As it happens, I’m just getting ready to write a battle scene which includes the larger picture plus the smaller conflicts within. This doesn’t come naturally to me as a writer, so any advice is appreciated!

  2. I highly suggest studying some examples of scenes similar to the one you imagine. Movies are a (relatively) quick way to study up on battle scenes. There’s so many good ones. A few of my favorites are in Zulu, Aplocalypse Now, the original Star Wars movies, Children of Men, and Seven Samurai. And In my opinion, their goodness hinges on the ability to connect the action to the drama of the characters and the larger themes and stakes of the story.

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