After a fight’s inciting incident, your audience will be reading faster, their fingers tightening on the edges of the book. They know you’re setting up some drama, and they’re ready for it.
The worst thing you can do next is deliver a bunch of exposition.
All backstory, setup, introspective character thoughts, and long dialogue must happen before the fight’s inciting incident. The second you write the inciting incident, your fight needs to go.
This doesn’t mean the rest of the fight has to be a blinding flurry of sweat and punching, but the moments immediately after the inciting incident must gratify the tension you’ve created by setting the scene. Consider these two possible follow-ups to our inciting incident from earlier:
His words ended in a yelp as she drove a fist into his nose. He staggered back, one hand stemming the tide of blood from his nostrils. “Bitch!” he screamed. He lunged for her, free fist swinging in a heavy punch.
– or –
His words ended in a yelp as she drove a fist into his nose. Megan contemplated what she’d just done. The commissioner wouldn’t be thrilled that she’d gotten into another incident, but then, this one wasn’t her fault. She thought back to that other fight three years ago, the one that demoted her back to street detective work, and sighed. The job wasn’t the only thing she’d lost that day …
The first example launches us straight into a fight. The second one uses the fight as an excuse to monologue. From the words “Megan contemplated,” the reader is wondering, “What’s the guy doing? Is he bleeding? Is he attacking again? What’s going on?” Worse, those two words, “Megan contemplated,” completely suck out the drama. The reader sits back and goes, “Oh, this isn’t going to be exciting after all.” You want at least a few lines of explosive action to follow the build-up you worked so hard to create.
Now, it’s perfectly fine to use a fight scene as an excuse for character building. If Megan thinks about her past while she manhandles her opponent, it tells us something about her character. She’s unfazed by violence. She’s so capable that she doesn’t really need to focus on dishing out justice.
But this scene also has no tension in it whatsoever. If the point-of-view character has time to think during a fight, then the reader can think, too. And if the reader is thinking, they’re not holding their book with white knuckles, heart racing as they rush to find out what happens next.
This boils down to whether your fight focuses more on what happens, or what the character thinks about it. If you write a “stuff is happening” fight, you’re writing a thrilling fight. If you write a “character is contemplating” fight, you’re writing a thinking fight. Every fight will lean toward one or the other. The most successful fights I’ve seen lean very far to one of those sides. Rarely does a fight waver between the two and remain memorable.
So, do you want a thrilling fight or thinking fight? Here are some questions to consider:
1. When does the fight take place? If the fight happens early in the story, thinking is fine. If it’s your dramatic climax, go for thrilling.
2. What is the tone of the overall book? If you’re writing a gritty detective story, thinking will feel like you’re cheating the readers out of the good stuff. If you’re writing a cozy romance, too thrilling a fight might make your readers uncomfortable.
3. Do you want to be funny? Thinking fights can be hilarious, especially if the inciting incident comes across as very serious. It’s much harder to be funny with a blow-by-blow fight scene.
4. How long is the fight? Thinking fight scenes can last longer than straightforward thrilling excitement, because the reader can only sustain edge-of-the-seat suspense for so long before it wears off.
No matter what you choose, your fights will likely include elements of both styles.
If you’re writing a thrilling fight, thinking moments are your commas, your pauses. Sprinkle them throughout so the reader doesn’t lose interest. For example, many thrilling fights start off with a paragraph of fast-paced violence, then back off for a moment to allow the reader to breathe while the character thinks about something. Then it’s back to the action, then another respite. To err on the side of thrills, write no more than one or two exposition lines per one or two paragraphs of action.
If you’re writing a thinking fight, remember that you’re still writing a fight. Violence must occur at least once every paragraph, even in the talkiest of talky fight scenes. Otherwise the reader thinks, “Is the other guy just standing there?” and your scene looks silly.
We don’t have time to get into specific moves and how to use them, but check out my Weapon of the Week posts for detailed breakdowns of combat styles. To close this post, here are some general insights into the type of drama you should put into your rising action:
Do vary it up. Don’t just have your characters punch each other for two pages.
Do escalate through the rising action. Don’t start with a face punch, drop down to throwing sand, and then have them toss pillows at each other until suddenly you reach the climax. Instead, build up the level of damage being dealt.
Generally speaking, punches are weaker than kicks, which are weaker than weapons.
Similarly, attacks to the legs look weaker than attacks to the chest, which look weaker than attacks to the face or head.
Start on the lower end of those spectra and work your way higher. You don’t have to escalate all the way to weapons, but if you do escalate that far, don’t drop back down to punches while still in the rising action. The greatest danger should come right before the fight’s climax. Speaking of which, next week we’ll talk about how to write the climax, or the dramatic peak of your fight scene.
Next Time: The Climax (The Moment of Highest Tension!)