Jan 14 2008
This article will teach you how to write exciting fights.
1. Immerse us in the scene. Engage as many senses as possible, particularly the visceral ones (touch, smell, taste). For example, if the supervillain dropkicks his sister, you could work with the impact he feels, the impact she feels, the secondary impact of her slamming into something else, possibly the smell and/or taste of blood, and anything related to the superpowers of either. (Dropkicking the Human Torch should be a different experience than The Thing or Reed Richards).
Additionally, avoid anything that makes your readers wonder what’s happening. It may help to create a diagram of the scene so that you know what’s happening. One frequent area of confusion is how far away the characters are from each other.
2. Don’t put in too many characters. Each additional character dilutes the fight and makes it harder to visualize the fight in real-time. I’d recommend capping your fights to 2-4 combatants at a time. If you want more fighters, I’d recommend writing the battle as a series of more limited duels rather than a battle royale with tons of fighters. If you have too many characters in a fight, it will probably lead to a fight that flits between each character, not sticking around long enough to show them doing anything interesting. (See Soon I Will Be Invincible).
3. Unlike comic books and movies, a novel does not accomplish much by having the hero mow down waves of faceless henchmen or creatures. A novelist doesn’t have visual special effects to show off. The main advantage of a novel is that its length allows it to sustain a deeper plot and better-developed characters. Fighting anonymous and hopeless enemies does not play to these strengths.
4. Be creative. How do your characters interact with the scenery? Brainstorm a few items or props that are in the scene and try to work in a few when a combatant gets desperate. Using props helps remind readers that the characters aren’t fighting in a vacuum.
Also, try to have your hero use his powers in an unexpected way. We’ll expect a shapeshifting hero to copy a guard or the villain to infiltrate the villain’s lair and rescue his girlfriend. But we’d be more surprised if he copied his girlfriend and got captured in her place.
5. Let your hero improvise. Throw a few wrenches in his carefully laid plans. If your supervillain really is a genius, surely he will anticipate some of the things your hero will try and prepare accordingly. (The forcefield generators will be within the forcefields, dammit!)
6. Be suspenseful. These elements should help.
–Stealth and desperation. Typically, heroic efforts that are stealthy and/or desperate are more suspenseful because any false step could result in failure. In contrast, it’s less suspenseful for a hero to barrel into the villain’s lair because readers know that there’s no chance a faceless mook will kill the hero. But the faceless mook actually DOES present some risk to a stealthy hero that cannot afford to be seen–it’s still not likely that the mook will stop the hero, but he could alert somebody that might.
–Ticking clocks. If the hero has 15 minutes to defuse the bomb or two days to stop the villain from taking over the world, that adds urgency to the plot. My favorite example of this was D.O.A., where the main character gets fatally poisoned and has to solve his own murder.
–Strong side-characters. If we feel for the damsel-in-distress, we’d care a lot more whether the hero can rescue her. We’re more likely to feel for her if she’s well-developed and has a distinct personality. I recommend looking at Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
–Suicidally determined heroes. If the audience knows that the hero’s only goal is beating the villain–not coming home alive–then it raises more doubt about whether he will survive. Whether he does or not, there will be more suspense. I’d recommend checking out Pacific Rim here.
7. Keep it as short as possible. Generally, fights should be the climax of their chapters, rather than the bulk. Dragging out a fight scene for pages typically feels pretty tedious. The worst-case scenario is that the fight will feel like a scrolling list of hits the hero and villain are landing on each other. I’d recommend checking out the last 20 minutes of Man of Steel here. Failure.