This article originally appeared at Patreon.
There are a ton of “How To Write Fights” books and articles and blog posts and whatevers out there. Most of them repeat the same advice that—while mostly valid and accurate to varying degrees—remains rudimentary for beginning writers and horribly redundant for experienced writers looking to improve their craft.
*shelves temptation to discuss the search for resources readily available to experienced writers looked to be even better*
I want these articles to be more than “the basics.” By using great fight scenes as examples, we’ll explore what works, how it works, and why it works. The goal is to move beyond technical skill—good fight scene—and look at the fight scene of exceptional craft—compelling story.
A few disclaimers before I begin:
First, I will never rip apart a fight scene for the sole purpose of pointing out everything it does wrong. Sure, it’s tempting now and then, and I’ll likely more than once give you my fight-scene peeves, but I’m not here to tear down another writer.
Second, the nature of deconstructing scenes means there will be varying levels of spoiler-y stuff to deal with. I’ll do my best to keep it to a minimum, but… Well. Please take those words to heart, my darlings.
Third, the fight scenes I choose will come from stories I like. I don’t give a flying flip if the author publishes independently, with a small press, or under a trade publisher. We’re here to talk craft, my darlings, not business.
Fourth, I’ll add a purchase link for the stories we’ll be examining. If the fight scene looks interesting and you haven’t read the book, do the writer a service and pick up their work. At this moment, I’m not setting up affiliate links, though I’ll likely do so in the future, and will notify you when it happens.
Lastly, these are my opinions and impressions. If you’re the writer of the scene I’m highlighting, and you want to jump into the conversation, PLEASE DO SO!! Because that would be totally cool.
And with that, let’s start with an action scene from the opening chapter of Myke Cole’s Gemini Cell (purchase link).
I originally envisioned these analysis pieces to be of short sections of scenes. But I’ve been kicking around varying ways to discuss an issue I’ve seen come up now and again—characters whose actual physical fighting is well-written, yet seem to be missing the mindset that would support such great fighting abilities. (See, The Mindset That Matters.)
Gemini Cell offers a great opportunity to highlight a fighter whose mindset is fully integrated. So this fight breakdown will be a little different than others. It’ll have fewer explorations of specific word choices, physical actions, and so forth. Instead I’ll focus on the wider perspective because there are so many things here done well.
The scene I pulled is from the opening chapter depicting a SEAL team infiltrating a cargo ship at sea. Major plot spoilers are non-existent in the sections I’ll be using, though you’ll of course have an idea of what happens in the fight itself.
It’s a different kind of fight scene. Rather, it’s a fight scene presented differently. It doesn’t adhere to or concern itself with the “standard” fight-scene advice.
It doesn’t work well in spite of that fact. It works well because of it. Because Cole has chosen to do far, far more with this action scene than provide action.
The action encompasses the entire chapter, so I’m not going to tear apart every line. Instead I’ll excerpt sections to illustrate what makes the whole thing work together, giving general comments and specific ones.
We’ll start about a quarter of the way through the opening chapter.
“Cut the chatter,” came in Ahmed’s voice as they rejoined the team and began weaving through the piled metal containers. The ship groaned beneath them as it drifted around its anchor and the swell began to hit it directly on the beam. The cloud cover was thick above them. When the hell’s it going to clear? With nearly no ambient light, the shadows coiled in every niche and recess among the stacks of conex boxes, putting Schweitzer’s reflexes on edge.
The bridge’s windows were dark, but Schweitzer knew that meant nothing. A crewman of the watch was most certainly on duty, hopefully sleeping, his binoculars resting on his belly. He glimpsed the windows one last time, the signal mast rising about it, before it was lost from sight as the towering stacks covered them.
Do you see those sentences? Especially those loooong sentences full of scene-building? They come in the midst of the action. After the enemy has been engaged. After people have died. And the pattern of long sentences, with lots of details and observations and complexities that introduce the reader to characters and setting, continues for over a dozen paragraphs that include maneuvers of stealth, gunfire, and other violence.
So let’s look at what all those long sentences, descriptions, and such tell us. I’m not talking about what the words describe. I’m instead referring to what we learn about the POV character—James Schweitzer—as a result of his observations and choices.
The longer and more complex sentences, coupled with the details, reveal a man whose experience has made a fight normal rather than unusual, who is accustomed to the surge of adrenaline (and its consequences). He is a warrior fully immersed in the fight. His thinking mind is immersed—something I rarely see understood by non-fighting writers—so he sees the fight as an integrated part of his being.
It isn’t disjointed and frantic. It’s a day on the job. It’s smooth and flowing. While no experienced fighter would call a fight predictable, Schweitzer’s viewpoint tells us the fight is familiar. The visual representation would be a single fluid and camera-steady shot viewed over the shoulder of a highly competent fighter. And a fighter who, when life and death is playing tug-of-war, notices all of this—
Both men were ignoring the plastic stick, dropping to their knees and raising military-grade carbines, fitted with modified sights and extended magazines as advanced as the gear the SEALs carried. They looked nothing like the armed seamen Schweitzer had taken out. They wore black bodysuits, NODs mounted to high-quality Kevlar helmets, torsos enveloped in military-grade body armor that would stop most rounds fired into their center mass.
–is danged near guaranteed to give me a story that has the smarts to match its action.
So here we are, pages into an extended action scene told in specific and smart language that hasn’t slipped into the hokey “Look! It’s a big doo-doo fight!” pattern of jabbing my brain with choppy sentences to describe solely physical action for paragraphs on end. I’ve slipped from trusting the writer—an abstract decision—into trusting the viewpoint character—an immersive experience—and am happily riding along on his shoulder.
Have you ever been to Disneyland? Ridden one of the story-based rides like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion? If you have, the opening chapter of Gemini Cell is at this point the ride’s introductory section. The ride before the ride. It’s the darkening, increasingly claustrophobic journey from the quiet bayou into shadowy tunnels echoing with stark warnings. It’s the descending elevator that takes you from the interesting oddity of paintings that shift with a head-tilt to the screaming deadly stakes of a dead body hanging over your head.
Then we take the blind plummet into darkness.
Shouts. A voice was crying out behind them, ragged and coughing, but loud enough to do the job.
Chang rolled back around the corner, returned a moment later. “Your guy, Coastie.”
The shift to short sentences here isn’t really about suddenly signaling, “Here’s the fight!” Nope. It’s about tension, not pacing. It shows us our viewpoint character is now uncomfortable. And if a guy as steady and competent as Schweitzer is worried, you can be damned sure I’m worried, too.
The pressure of the operation, especially one in which he’s mostly unseen and anonymous, hasn’t truly and deeply disrupted his composure before. But now something doesn’t fit his narrative, has jolted his internal expectations. Even though Schweitzer has been fighting and in jeopardy from the novel’s opening—conditions that would have sent an “average” fighter into short-sentence mode from the start—it’s this unexpected interruption of forward movement that puts a bump in his flow.
We have Shouts. Not Someone shouted or the stupid-clunky He heard shouting. We have instead a single word that tells us, “At least one human is making lots of noise that others will hear, and since we’ve established we’d recognize the voices of our own guys, we know it’s an enemy.”
That’s an impressive and hard-working word there, Shouts.
Then we have A voice was crying out. Not a person. Just a voice. Disembodied. Unidentified maybe because the author wants to raise momentary suspense with mystery, but I read it more as indication of who Schweitzer considers worth consideration. It’s confirmation that this isn’t an ally who is shouting, and it underscores the viewpoint warrior’s mindset. The enemies he has encountered exist as things vastly separated from his very human and real companions. Period.
I love that Cole then chose the phrase “to do the job” to concisely express the threat. The reader knows “the job” is to disrupt the mission of Schweitzer’s group by alerting others to the infiltration and rousing those others into taking deadly action. But it would totally suck to say all that. Cole trusts the reader to follow along, and this reader appreciates the trust.
And here’s another immersion point: Schweitzer isn’t going to pause to explain something like that to the reader. Schweitzer expects you to keep up.
Now look at the following single sentence from Chang. We don’t even get a proper conjunction. (Insert Schoolhouse Rock moment.) Schweitzer doesn’t have time for no stinking conjunction right now. We shouldn’t be wasting time on a three-letter word, either. Seconds matter, damn it, so quit your bitching.
This is when and where those short sentences matter enough to make an impact. The contrast is a tool used to get the reader’s attention. It’s the sudden turn the roller coaster takes right before you slam into a wall. Sure, you missed that sudden death, but there’s something even worse just up ahead.
Chang’s three-word summation of the life-threatening problem is lovely. Your guy, Coastie. Now we know who’s shouting, whose fault it is, and Chang’s preference for naming fault with a moniker that sets one person outside the team’s cohesion.
That’s a damn fine bundle of stuff packed into four sentences.
A rapid exchange of dialog follows, and a handful more of punchy sentences. Then Schweitzer gives himself a single command: Focus. The narrative resumes with detailed observations and varied sentence structures. Schweitzer has rammed himself back into op-mode, which is on one hand incredibly composed, and on the other exceptionally intense, as the action pounds onward.
After a little while, we come to my writer-brain’s favorite little section in the whole chapter.
Within moments, they both abandoned the tight target box and let their shots roam in the interest of being able to put more bullets in more people more quickly. Schweitzer shot one of the enemy operators in his gut—miserable aim by his standards and likely stopped by the body armor, but the force drove the man off his feet and he tumbled from the top of the stack, shrieking, to slam into silence against the deck below. Schweitzer’s eyes tracked and moved, sighting targets and shooting them, his hand mechanically releasing his empty magazine and shuffling it over two inches so the full one, duct-taped alongside, could move into the gun’s smoking ammunition well with barely a second lost before the carbine’s bolt slid home, and he was shooting again.
Bang. Target down. On to the next. Move. Bang. Target down. On to the next. Move again.
Those two paragraphs do All the Things, my darlings.
Again we have these longer and detail-filled sentences, but now we feel as if we’re on the downhill and picking up speed. There’s a sense that everything is happening at once, and maybe we need to read faster so we don’t miss something.
Let their shots roam… I love this most awesome phrase. I kept thinking, “Request permission to send my bullets on a walkabout, ma’am!”
Miserable aim by his standards… Under extreme pressure in a mission going sideways, he’s critiquing his aim—even though the shot took the enemy out. Process matters to this guy. How something gets done is just as important as whether something gets done because how is something within his control.
And the entire one-sentence description of reloading is a thing of beauty. There are no unnecessary bogging details; we’re told only what’s important in that barely-a-second Schweitzer gives himself, and in retrospect, that’s a whole damned lot of necessary.
Then we reach that second paragraph—the short and sharp parts that are supposed to make us feel frantic. But their deliberate nature actually slows us down. Focus, Schweitzer is telling us. Don’t outrun your own feet.
(I don’t much write fanfic per se, but I do hear random snippets of dialog from characters at times.)
Bang. We are done wasting time with extra words. Forget the conjunctions, we don’t even have time for italics. Bang is statement, not a sound. Stark and emotionless. Alone but for the period at the end.
And we haven’t even hit the cool and spooky stuff, and the most intense fighting, that this one chapter has to offer you. But we’ve seen plenty at this point to establish one the most important traits of a strong fight scene.
It isn’t how pow-bam cool the techniques are (though those factors will indeed be more important when we start examining hand-to-hand fight scenes). It isn’t imposing a pre-ordained rhythm on your fight scene (though understanding the rhythm of a fight helps you know how to break up expectations).
It is absolutely about the choices the writer makes to reveal, expose, and illustrate what kind of fighter the character is. The mindset that will drive the character not only in the fight, but in the story before and after the fight.
Questions, comments, and ideas? Share them, pretty please!
And for goodness sake, go buy Myke Cole’s book.
If you like this fight scene breakdown, and want to see more articles on writing fight scenes and understanding self-defense, check out Patreon.
Edited to Add: Myke Cole wrote an excellent post in conversation with this one on how the cumulative nature of focused practice–not some unknown talent or instinct–makes it possible for him to write his fight scenes without being constantly aware of the writing choices he’s making. Go read!