Are you ever reading a thriller, and in a key scene there is a fight, but you get confused: the hero or villain seems to have three arms, or is facing one way then suddenly another, or else you just can’t visualise what is going on, and you really want to…?
It’s not easy writing fight scenes – they work great on the silver screen, but in a book it’s hard for three main reasons. First, most writers have probably never been in a real fight, and being in a fight is completely different from watching one. Second, most readers don’t know karate, kung fu or wrestling, and so the various moves need to be explained in a way that is visual and understandable. If it’s simple and over quickly (e.g. A punched B in the gut, then knee’d B the head as B doubled over), it can be done in a straightforward way. But if you want something more exotic, it’s harder. The third reason is related, since if you start over-describing things, many readers will disengage and lose interest just when you don’t want them to…
So, here are seven solutions I use.
First, I admit to having done a lot of martial arts over the years, including full-contact sparring, so I know what is possible, what is fantasy, and what it feels like (including being hit and even knocked out). But you don’t have to know all that to write good fight scenes. But you do need a basic idea of anatomy…
Second, I write them out in full, as if choreographing a dance, because in a way that’s what such scenes are, and that’s how they are developed for the big screen. But then I pare the description back to give the minimal information that still makes it visualisable and understandable.
Third, I add in things that are visual to give it a cinematic feel (see the umbrella, and the tattoo in the extract below), so the reader can see these things even if the actual fight is less clear to them.
Fourth I add in other visceral details (sound/touch/smell), to keep the reader engaged (the thunder and warm rain in the extract below), so that it feels real rather than watching a video game.
Fifth, I raise the stakes for the reader by putting the central character in serious jeopardy, to engage the emotional connection between the reader and the central character. This is important: would you like a character that easily beat up someone? The line between hero and bully is quite thin (see for example the ‘ragged child’ in the extract below, who could so easily have become ‘collateral damage’).
Sixth, I add an environmental element, in the extract below, a cyclone, because the fight happens in Hong Kong (where I trained, incidentally) in August, which is cyclone season.
Last, I add a surprise, because, let’s face it, fight scenes have become ‘normal’, almost banal. It’s at the end of the extract.
So, here’s the extract from the forthcoming book, 88 North, portraying the scene between two martial artists fighting to the death on a market street in Wanchai district, Hong Kong, just as a cyclone hits the island…
Blue Fan heard it before she saw it: the stuttered hum of a bladed weapon tomahawking through the air. She dropped down low into a snake posture, right leg outstretched on the soggy ground, left leg bent double, as the axe missed her and squelched into the forehead of a balding man holding an umbrella, his shirt spattered by rain, a sheen of sweat on his face from the intense humidity. Until a moment ago he’d been next in line to buy fish. He keeled over, rigid, silent, already dead, eyes unseeing, the umbrella falling with him like a frozen parachute. Blue Fan triangulated the position of the attacker behind her, and was about to let one of her razor fan-knives slip from her fingers, when a ragged child ran across her path.
Time slowed. Her eyes met the assassin’s: an athletic male with jet black hair lashed back in a ponytail, a tiger tattoo on his inner forearm, its front claws outstretched, its jaw set in an eternal, angry roar. Others around her suddenly caught up with events. A woman screamed. The fishmonger vanished into the dark recesses of her shop, while another shopkeeper stumbled backwards and tripped over his wares, upsetting water-filled cartons, spilling gawping koi and angry crabs onto the cobbled pavement. People ran. The attacker removed two more short axes from his belt, one in each hand, and crossed them in front of him as he faced her. A male tourist tried to video them, until Blue Fan skewered his iPhone with one of her blades. He stared at it a moment, then dashed off.
Thunder cracked, loud and close. Warm rain lashed down, drenching everything. Wind whipped water into her eyes. The cyclone was early. On cue, the siren wailed, and everyone vanished.
Good. Now it was just the two of them.
She hadn’t moved from her snake-stance, a fresh blade in each hand, four more in reserve. He uncrossed his arms, yelled a warrior’s cry and scythed through the rain, arms whirling propeller-style, slashing the air, leaving no space. He was good. She pulled her legs together to stand upright. No mean feat, but she trained every day, as she had since a child. She watched, perceiving the pattern, looking for an opening. There was none. Make that very good. She raised her arms ready to throw, and timed it so that one blade would follow a fraction of a second after the first. Possible to block the first, almost impossible to dodge the second. She launched her two blades at him. They clanged as he deflected them, sending them skittering across the ground.
Make that exceptional.
He was methodical, focused, a thresher bearing down on her. She couldn’t see a way through, and so, not for the first time, she knew she would have to kill him using psychology, as her grandfather, Salamander, had taught her.
She turned and ran.
He chased her into a blind alley. She let her gait falter, just a fraction, giving the impression of fear. She glanced left and right, as if in panic, felt him close on her, heard the fast helicopter rhythm of his axes. She needed to make him break his stride, accelerate for the kill, create an opening. It wasn’t happening. Somewhere deep inside her, panic tried to rise, but years of brutal training pulped it.
The most difficult martial art she’d mastered was Hsing-Yi, Mind Boxing, a linear mode of attack, whereas his movements were circular. But it was only partly about movements – it was also about upsetting the mind of your opponent. She was out of space, and out of time. Never put your back against the wall, Salamander had told her, because you might as well be stood up in a coffin, and this assassin almost had her. Almost. She raised her right leg behind her, planting her foot against the wall, her standing leg vertical and straight. She faced her attacker, her hands in fists close to her chest, blades pointing upwards. His eyes narrowed. He’d not seen this move. How could he? Only Salamander knew it. A lost North Korean technique. And then she added the final, necessary touch.
She closed her eyes.