Hello My Imaginary Friends,
Fight scenes are hard to write and even harder to write well. A great fight scene will simultaneously amuse and move the story forward. This applies to any medium.
There are three elements to a fantastic fight scene and if you’re missing one of them it will fall flat. Those three elements are Tension, Character and Story Development, and Entertainment.
These three elements should be present in any good fight scene but be used in varying amounts for different styles.
The tension in the fight comes from the risk of injury, death, or failure. If you’re watching a fight and don’t really care what’s happening than there’s no tension.
In order to care about the scene the audience has to care about the characters, the outcome, or the location. The tension in a good Godzilla movie isn’t whether he’ll survive, but what his fight will do to the city and people in it.
Once the audience is invested, the fight has to feel like the thing or person we invested in, is in peril. If you know Superman will win and the movie gives you a thirty minute set piece fight, you get bored.
This is extremely common in Table Top games when the player characters are overpowered and the gamemaster just throws longer fights at them.
It also happens in superhero movies and super powered hero books.
Guilty: Man of Steel (2013), Chuck Norris, and Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition.
Innocent: Wonder Woman (2017), Jackie Chan, and Shadowrun 3rd edition.
Character Story and Development
If your fight scene serves no other reason than to show off special effects or fill space, it’ll be boring.
A fight scene needs to work like a song in a good musical. It tells us about the characters, moves their plot forward, and ties in to the rest of the story. It also needs to be a story in itself.
The time I have as an audience member is precious and I want more than just something pretty.
Guilty: Atomic Blond (2017), Star Wars Episode 1, 2, and 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Dungeons and Dragons Random Encounters system.
Innocent: Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), Star Wars Episode 5, 6 and 7, Star Trek (2009), Princess Bride
This is the third category and in truth, it’s the one that most people concentrate on when writing a fight scene.
This is where the tricks and awesome things come in. Sometimes it’s humour, sometimes it’s choreography, and sometimes it’s just banter. This is the hardest to get wrong and often flows out of the other two.
Guilty: Fight Club, Star Wars A New Hope, and older low level JRPGs (I’m looking at you Everquest on NES)
Innocent: Kung Fu Panda, Batman Vs Superman, modern JRPGs
I like my fight scenes weighted towards Character Story and Development with a lot of Entertainment (Pirates of the Caribbean, Hitman’s Bodyguard, Princess Bride, Court Jester, Kingsman), but as long as a fight scene hits on all three I’m happy.
What’s your favourite fight scene and why?