Fight scenes are miniature novels contained within a larger story. A good fight, like a good story, requires a steady buildup to a peak of dramatic tension, followed by an inevitable tumble to a satisfying conclusion.
In my next five blog posts, I’ll cover the basic structure of what should happen in a fight scene through the five-act story structure used famously by Shakespeare.
Stage 1: Inciting Incident
A fight must have a beginning, something that kick-starts the action by prompting two characters to look at each other and decide, “Yeah. Let’s do battle.” A fight’s inciting incident can be simple as a shoulder shove between strangers in a bar, or complex as rival clan leaders drawing dueling pistols at midnight beneath a darkened moon.
More precisely, the fight’s inciting incident occurs when the first blow of the fight is thrown (or fired, or struck, or cast, etc.). See if you can spot the inciting incident in the fight setup below:
Cold wind whipped Megan’s hair into her face as she hurried down the alley. She shouldn’t have stayed so late at the clinic, but with Jensen finally out of his stupor, she couldn’t leave. If she didn’t get his testimony about the murder tonight, he would be drunk again in a few hours and she’d have lost his evidence forever.
A lanky figure leaned against a dumpster up ahead, a roll of something illegal glowing in his mouth. He removed the smoke and eyed Megan. “Hey, loner.”
Megan pulled her jacket zipper closer to her throat. She kept walking, past the man.
He followed. “What’s the hurry?”
She didn’t turn. She also didn’t increase her pace. Slow and deliberate, she told herself. Confidence deterred predators.
Not this one. Wiry fingers closed around Megan’s wrist, jerking her to a halt. “I said, what’s the–“
His words ended in a yelp as she drove a fist into his nose.
Did you catch it? The inciting incident happened when the man grabbed Megan’s wrist. Before that, he was harassing her, but only using words, meaning there was still a chance the incident would resolve without a fight. Her punch was a reaction to his laying hands on her, and therefore wasn’t the first incident of the fight. The moment he grabbed her wrist was the moment the fight became inevitable. Even if she had reacted differently, by pulling away or demanding he let her go, a fight scene had begun.
There are a few tests to identify the inciting incident of a fight:
1. When does the fight become inevitable? (We just covered this one.)
2. When does each person’s action become a direct reaction (or counterattack) to their opponent’s previous action? (Megan’s punch was a direct reaction to the man grabbing her wrist. His next action will be a direct reaction to her punching him in the face.)
3. When is someone’s physical body threatened? (The moment one person touches another against their will, or attempts to do so, you have a fight scene. This includes “touches” from afar, such as arrows, bullets, or magic spells.)
4. If the other tests are unclear, you can try this fourth one, though it’s sometimes harder to apply: What is the first action that would result in legal prosecution? (The man grabbing Megan could be prosecuted for assault.)
Whichever metric you use to evaluate the inciting incident of your fight, make sure you identify that incident clearly, because after it, your fight needs to ramp up and ramp up quick.
Ideally, your inciting incident should be given a full sentence or two on the page, to draw the reader’s attention to it. Other than that, there aren’t too many guidelines to follow when writing this part of the fight. Any action that meets the above criteria can work as an inciting incident. Your real work begins as the fight intensifies. We’ll cover writing strategies and structure for rising action in the next post.
Coming Friday: Rising Action (Keep Your Fight Scenes From Dragging!)