How To Pace Your Characters Through A Perfect Fight Scene

Fights are some of the trickiest things to write down; the action must be clear, the moving parts must be tracked easily by the reader, and the characters’ motivations and emotions must engross the reader. When you approach a fight scene with the right tools, you will be able to write clear, powerful action sequences that are packed with excitement and easily followed by the reader.

Strong Pacing Comes from Tidy Beats

Story Units

Stanislavsky, the great Russian collector of acting advice, was fixated on the use of “bits” in stage work. When his students, the elite Russian theatre artists, came to the United States to teach his methods, their thick Russian accents transformed this word, “bits,” into the word “beats.” Today, if you take an acting class influenced by Russian methodology, the teacher will direct you to break each scene down into “beats.” (Now imagine a burly Russian man with an immense beard shaking his hands vigorously, and saying, “You must find out all the beets! Where are the beets?!”)

Moving Pictures in Your Mind

The reader is capable of seeing only one thing at a time. Spongebob, the hit children’s cartoon, and The Emperor’s New Groove, the film about the selfish Kuzco, are excellent ways to study the construction and ordering of isolated beats. In these cartoons, you will see one act, one emotional picture, at a time. Fiction writing easily becomes overwhelmed with things; you may be writing about a sword fight, and you want to convey the clash of the blades, the look of anger on one character’s face, the shadows falling over the area, and the sensation in the opposing character’s heart. You cannot contain all these images and impressions simultaneously in one phrase or sentence; they each must be put in order of significance and timeliness. If you go to one of these cartoons, you may see Spongebob express some striking emotion. In the following moments, Patrick or Squidward will show a reaction, and then we will be shown Spongebob’s reaction to their input. In this way, a successful scene builds on tiny units of action.

Emotional Action Counts, Too

One of the biggest mistakes I see in fiction is the neglect of internal action; a character’s internal experience of the fight scene is in many ways more important to the reader than the action of the fight itself. Too often, we as writers are drawn into the excitement of writing the sweeping conflict, and the pounding, thrilling clash with danger, and we neglect the experience of the reader. Action is only significant when it moves forward the plot, the development of the characters, and the overall meaning of the story.

So, How Is It Done?

Take your fight scene, and break it down into beats (or bits, if you will). These beats may look something like: 1. Cam confronts Gavin; 2. Gavin threatens Cam; 3. Cam draws his sword; 4. They fight; 5. Gavin reveals his secret liaison with Cam’s mother; 6. Cam utters a cry of rage; 7. Cam kills Gavin. Now we will take these steps and begin to write. (Note that when you write from a structured outline like this, the scene will grow organically, and may change dramatically. This is good.)

“I know you’re keeping something from me,” Cam said. He moved his shoulders to block the door. Gavin’s eyes went directly to his face, and Cam saw his friend’s hand inch towards his blade. A bubble of amusement flung up in Cam’s heart. “Are you threatening me now?” he demanded.

“You’ll know it if I threaten you,” Gavin said.

Cam’s mouth and nose wrinkled with anger; he put his hand on his own sword. The edge of the metal let out a ringing noise as Cam drew it.

“I won’t fight you,” Gavin sneered, and he stepped to the side, as if to pass by. Cam moved to block him, and Gavin hissed, and drew back his arm, his hand closed in a fist.

“Tell me,” Cam said. Gavin watched his eyes, his own mouth drawn in a furious scowl.

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Yeah, because you won’t tell me,” Cam snapped.

“I won’t fight you,” Gavin said, darting forward with a movement like a snake. Cam raised his fist, gripped around the haft of his weapon, and brought it up against his friend’s temple. The impact made a sickening thud. Gavin’s sword made a shattering clatter as he wrenched it from its sheath, and readied himself. “Shouldn’t have done that,” Gavin warned, shaking his head, and blinking hard.

“Tell me what you’re hiding.” Cam’s sword came down in a flashing arc; their two blades were like rods of lightning in the darkness. Gavin was faster than Cam remembered; the rush of violence was around them both like moonlight on splashing water. Gavin blocked Cam again, and again, and then moved to attack. Cam took his opening, and brought his blade hard against Gavin’s wrist; a stream of blood accompanied the clatter of Gavin’s weapon as it dropped to the floor.

“Now,” Cam said, breathing hard, and lifting his bloody blade to Gavin’s chest. “Tell me.”

“You’re making an awfully big deal out of this,” Gavin observed. A wrench of pain was in his cheeks; he closed his whole hand over the ugly wound on his wrist.

“If it wasn’t a huge deal, you wouldn’t have lied to me about it,” Cam told him. Gavin’s face betrayed him at this; his eyes flickered to the side, and the corners of his mouth drew down. Cam pressed his blade gently against Gavin’s breast. The injured man laughed.

“I suppose you’ll kill me, when you know,” Gavin said. His jocular tone betrayed the whiteness that was in his cheeks. Cam waited, his blade unwavering. Gavin let out a chuckle, but he sounded distinctly unamused. “It’s your mother. It’s your mother I’ve been seeing on the sly. Your father doesn’t know.”

Gavin’s voice was cut off by a dry wail of rage; Cam drove his blade through Gavin with all the fire of a lion ravaging a kill. Gavin’s cry, and the hideous blossom of blood that spurted from the young man’s bosom, were muffled under the wrenching roar of misery that tore endlessly out of Cam’s throat.

One Step, Followed by Another

The key to writing great action scenes is to line up one moment, one emotion, one strong picture, after another.  Imagine your scene like a chain made of thick iron links; each link is vital to the whole, but only one piece of the chain can be conveyed at once. Focus your mind on one step, and then link it to the next step, and the next. Suspense, excitement, and power will come when your writing follows a clearly-linked chain of events.

Bringing It All Together

Remember, keeping track of your beats, or bits, is the key to writing a perfectly-paced action sequence. Order each individual step according to importance or timeliness, and remember that you can always find more examples of clear action in my novels.

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