John Ostrander on Writing Fight Scenes

Yo, action writers!

Read this!

Do it!

You won’t be sorry.

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JOHN OSTRANDER’s Rules of Engagement
by John Ostrander

Let’s talk about writing fight scenes. Nothing to it, right? In this corner we got character A, in that corner we got character B, the bell rings, and they proceed to beat the poo out of each other until someone falls down. Simple, right? You just point the artists in the general direction, tell them how many pages they got, and collect your check. What could be more simple?

I’ll admit, I’ve pretty much done that some times. If I know the artist real well, I’ll give plot points that are to be covered and let them work their magic. However, I only do that if I know that the artist and I are on the same page about how fight scenes should go.

The fact of the matter is, fight scenes need not only to be choreographed, they need to be plotted and written. They need to build. Above all, they should serve the story and not simply be there for some random violence. The purpose of the story is to reveal character and so also is a fight scene.

The real question in any story is what does the protagonist want and how badly does he want it? It reveals who he really are as opposed to who he thinks he is. My late wife Kim used to play scenarios for me and ask me how I would feel or what I would do in such and such situation. I always told her, “I don’t know. Ask me when we get there.” All I could have told her what was I thought I would feel or do or how I hoped I would react. The truth is, those are all bound up in youridea of who you are. You don’t know until you’ve been there. Past experience may be an indication but it’s not a guarantee. Circumstances are always a little different and there’s any number of contributing factors that can alter the outcome.

In any scene (and that includes a fight scene), what a character does is determined by what they want. What is their goal? Usually there is more than one objective and sometimes these objectives are contradictory – we’ll talk about all that some other time – but let’s say there’s one essential goal that drives the protagonist. It’s not something they would like or they sorta kinda maybe want, it’s something they want. It is something that defines them. It is something theymust get, must achieve, must save, must protect.

The opponent – the antagonist – is what’s in the way. It could be a person, it could be an army, it could be a wall, it could be a hurricane, it could be anything. In a regular scene, the objective could be relatively small but, in a fight scene, it usually comes down to something pretty primal.

The goal also can’t be easy for the protagonist to get. If the goal is to get through the wall, you look for a door. If the door is locked, you look for a key. If you don’t have a key, you try and kick it down. If the door’s re-enforced, you try to blow it up – or you give up. If giving up is not an option, then the protagonist has to find a way.

Notice there was a progression in the wall sequence. We try what is easiest first – rule of human nature and what’s true in real life should be true in our stories. You want the scene – any scene but especially a fight scene – to build. It gets harder for the protagonist as it goes. You blow it all in the first punch then you have nowhere to go and neither does your story. The protagonist has to struggle; it’s the only way we get to see who they really are. No struggle, no revelation. No point to the story.

Take boxing as an example. You have the champ and in this fight he goes up against a palooka. The palooka goes down and out in the first round. The fight is over and who cares? Palooka keeps getting up and coming at the champ and, win or lose, you’ve got Rocky.

Violence isn’t necessarily about two characters beating the poo out of each other, either. There’s emotional violence as well. Read or watch Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolff for some first class emotional violence. It can be small scale, it can be Grand Guingol, but violence – emotional or physical – creates conflict, tension, and reveals character.

Fight scenes, if you have them, are part of the story and they have to tell the story or they’re a waste of time and space and the reader’s attention. A good fight scene is about something. That’s what we’re looking for – and that’s what we have a right to expect.