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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Writing Fight Scenes by: Angela Knight

Fight scenes can be one of the most exciting in a romance – or they can fall completely flat. But there are some simple principles you can put into practice that will help your fights shine.

Since fight scenes are often the climax of a novel, or at least major turning points in the plot, if you can’t pull them off, your book won’t succeed with readers.

Fights have a simple internal logic. When someone launches an attack, there are really only two possibilities: either the blow lands, or it misses. Since a blow can injure your character, she’s going to want to do something to make her opponent miss, by either dodging or blocking it. Then she’ll want to launch her own attack. Again, it will either land or miss.

So when I’m writing a fight, I choreograph it by imagining each attack and deciding how the other character will react to it.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my novellas, “Vampire’s Ball,” in the anthology Hot for the Holidays, which is out now.

In the flashing instant it took her to register her lover’s injury, the werewolf was on Kat and the girl, snarling mouth gaped wide to reveal teeth the length of her fingers, clawed hands reaching. Kat shoved the girl clear and swung her sword with all her strength right at the monster’s torso.

He threw himself back, avoiding her stroke, then lunged again. She hacked at the clawed arm swinging at her face.

You can see the action here: the werewolf attacks, dodges the heroine’s initial swing, and lunges at her again. But there’s much more going on than just the physical action.

What really gives a fight its power is the emotion the characters feel – their rage, fear, and pain. Those emotions move the reader, making her anxious for the character’s safety. Because the stakes are so high – life and death – the scene can really engage her sympathies. Here my heroine and hero are trying to defend a girl from a werewolf, so the price of failure is really high. If they lose, all three of them will die horrible deaths, so naturally the reader is going to be really invested in what’s going on.

Think about those emotions, and try to make them as intense as possible.

I’m not going to get out of this alive. The thought cut through the furious blur of action. There was no fear in it, just cold reason. Just her brain’s calculation of the odds.

Fuck it. If I die, I die. But I’m taking this bastard with me.

Kat flew into full extension, the kind of fencer’s lunge she’d used in college, thrusting her blade toward the monster’s chest. And it bit deep.

He roared in pain and fury. She didn’t see the blow coming until it hit her shoulder. She went flying. Hit the ground hard, light bursting in her head as she struck. Blinking, Kat stared blankly at the moonlit trees overhead. She’d never been hit that hard in her life.

You can see the heroine’s despair and determination. Also notice that I keep the sentences short and clear. Long, convoluted sentences can be too confusing in a fight. Also, short, clipped sentences communicate the speed and desperate emotion more effectively.

Another important ingredient in writing a fight scene is sensation. Think about how fighting for your life would feel: the smell of blood, the pain of a blow making you see stars, the cuts and bruises, the desperation of exhaustion and blood loss, the way the character pants for breath. Make the reader experience being in a fight for her life.

It’s also important to give a fight scene enough page count. Generally, I like a fight to be at least five pages, usually ten. Often, with a novel, I’ll go as long as twenty pages building up. You need that length to build the tension and emotion, and to give the reader time to really feel the tension and fear. If the scene is too short, you’re going to risk an anticlimax. And an anticlimax is bad, because it makes your reader feel cheated.

Remember that you’ve been building up to this scene for the whole book, so it needs as big as possible.

Also, make sure your hero and heroine get hurt in the fight. Often romance writers love their characters and don’t want them to suffer. But readers won’t feel the characters are really in danger if they don’t get hurt.

Remember there needs to be a moment in the fight when all seems lost, when the villain appears to have triumphed. The hero and heroine are bloody, wounded, and in pain. It’s at that moment that they figure out how to win.

Right after that, they have to deliver the coup de grace – the decisive blow that takes the villain out. Think how the characters can turn the tables on the villain.

She could feel her muscles strengthening. Her skin felt hot, swollen. She lifted the sword and waited for her moment even as her heart screamed in terror of the risk.

Ridge swung his sword, leaving himself wide open. The Direwolf twisted just as it had before, clawed hand catching him across the chest, ripping through armor and flesh and muscle.

Kat stepped up behind the werewolf, leaped upward with the vampire strength Ridge had loaned her through the Truebond, and took the creature’s head with one flashing stroke of her sword. The fanged head hit the leafy ground and bounced as the massive body toppled in the opposite direction

The hero and heroine defeat the werewolf by combining their strength. Note that I make sure the heroine is involved in the climactic battle. You don’t want to keep her on the sidelines, because she’s the lens through which readers view the story. Readers want to imagine what it would be like to fight a battle to the death and come out triumphant.

Please note that the above applies to the climax of your book. If you’re writing a fight scene that falls earlier, your hero and heroine should probably lose. That’s because you want things to go wrong for your characters. Each defeat raises the stakes, and increases the reader’s fear for them.

I usually have four fights in a book: one in the first couple of chapters, acting
as the inciting incident that brings the hero and heroine together. Then I’ll
have two others, roughly every one hundred pages or so as the hero and heroine lock
horns with the villain and his flunkies. I may have the hero win minor skirmishes
with the villain’s flunkies to establish his combat skills: we don’t want him to
look too weak.

Then I use the final fight to build in the black moment so it looks as if all is lost.

Remember that by engaging your reader’s emotions and sympathies, you can make sure that she becomes your fan for life.


Angela Knight is the USA Today bestselling author of books for Berkley, Red Sage, Changeling Press, and Loose Id. Her first book was written in pencil and illustrated in crayon; she was nine years old at the time. A few years later, she read The Wolf and the Dove and fell in love with romance. Besides her fiction work, Angela's publishing career includes a stint as a comic book writer and ten years as a newspaper reporter. Several of her stories won South Carolina Press Association awards under her real name.

Vampire’s Ball,” a novella in the Mageverse series that kicks off a brand new story arc.

Kat Danilo’s childhood turned tragic when her sister become the victim of a serial killer. Years later, she gets a chance at justice when she discovers she’d the daughter of Lancelot, vampire knight of the Round Table. But first, she’s got to convince a handsome vampire warrior that she’s worthy to gain the magical powers that are her birthright – powers that might help her find her sister’s killer.

If the murderer doesn’t find her first....

HOT FOR THE HOLIDAYS made the New York Times mass market paperback list at #15. It's #6 on the B&N list and #20 on Bookscan.


Mary Marvella said...

Awesome lesson in writing fight scenes. now i need to read the book.

Anne Marsh said...

Fabulous advice! And very timely for me-- I'm finishing up a book for Dorchester and the final fight scene just wasn't clicking. This is very helpful! Passionate Ink (Angela's book on writing erotic romance) has been an invaluable support for me as well, Mary, and it has even more scenes from Angela's book for some really effective show-and-tell of writing techniques.

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Tambra said...

You write the best fight scenes. I try to study and learn from them. You're a master.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.


Angela Knight said...

Thank you, ladies! I appreciate the complement. :)


LynnRush said...

Fantastic post. I love the examples, it helps bring your concepts to life.