Writing Nonprofessional Fight Scenes
Authors of fiction can make a fight scene as complicated or straightforward as they wish. The character might have extraordinary capabilities, or they may obviously lack skill.
Writing a convincing fight scene is difficult. It will require many re-writes and may take some days to perfect. A unique treatment is required of characters representing ordinary, everyday people who are not professionally trained fighters. I put in weeks of online research went into many areas to produce a one-minute fight scene.
My characters, and the focus of this article, are ordinary people. My research concentrated on average teens or young adults who are not prone to fighting. They more often than not, will spend more time at a defensive distance from each other while looking for an opportunity to move in to strike. They sometimes tangle up and reduce the contest to a serious wrestling match without a single blow. The release of pent up energy and frustration satisfied their need. I did not need information on professional fighters, martial arts nor hard core street fighters.
I wanted to know how average males ages 12 through 25 would fight. I began with why and general consequences. I quickly learned the term ‘general’ in this sphere is much wider than I would have imagined.
Regarding ‘why’ do young men fight, I found searching the ‘what’ to be more helpful. What did each individual contestant expect to achieve, receive, prove or otherwise accomplish?
What were the motivating factors?
My fictional characters will not deliberate a distinction between why and what, but I had to consider that as an author.
“Why did you hit your brother?” – “He made me mad.”
Find out what it was the aggressor wanted to accomplish. What are the circumstances that make a peaceful resolve difficult for each individual, the age group and local conditions?
A host of other factors may be looked into.
Focus: The Common Unskilled Person
A realistic fight scene for ordinary people will have little in common with writing a scene intended to promote martial arts, super hero abilities, aliens from another world, of highly skilled crime fighters, or hardened street brawlers.
The everyday Joe does not want to fight. He probably has no difficulty watching others pair off and duke it out, but avoids getting into a fight himself.
The characters in my books are not trained fighters. I recall one exception among the cast of characters that received two-years of training in judo, and that was rather unstructured.
An average Joe Schmoe, for example, simply finds his dispute with another escalating out of control. Witnesses encourage the bare-knuckle method for conflict resolution. Male ego, being what it is for teens and young adults, squawk and boast with puffed up chests to intimidate. That works quite well most of the time to save face and circumvent an all-out physical conflict.
We, like other animals, growl a warning when we feel another person infringes on our wellbeing, or poses imminent danger. The more fearsome beast gets his way; or the contests, vicious as they are, are generally short. Injuries tend to be sharp, but modest. The weaker contender runs off to lick his wounds. That is the tendency, but not how it always ends.
Most of us have either not been in a fight, or maybe one or two. Statistics suggest those fights were likely to have been in elementary or secondary school. Fists fly on those rare times one mandates proof of the other’s bold threats. Backing down before peers is the greater embarrassment. So is wallowing in the dust after a knock out, but raging adolescent hormones and self-image rules over common sense at those ages.
Fighting becomes rarer during young adult years, (aside from war.) Most of us develop mature sociable methods of resolution by then. Experience and observation of consequences is also a good teacher.
Writing a Fight scene
Writing a fight scene needs to be active, breath holding excitement for the reader. Stories of an average Joe in an unplanned face off with another average dude need to be realistic. Joe wants it to be quick if he is unable to escape or unwilling back off. Short and decisive description is best. Major bloodletting and maiming or lethal results are best avoided or presented as an uncalculated risk and outcome by the participants.
Hard core, drawn out martial art scenes commonly do not fit these kinds of stories.
The Internet is a marvelous tool for today’s fiction authors. I wish I used it more for my fight scenes as I wrote my first novel, but looking back, I did OK.
- What sort of individual(s) are more prone to getting into a fight?
- Are there statistics on age, economy, race, ethnic, family structure?
- What are the more common injuries?
- What do medical experts have to say about these injuries?
- Think of best, medium and worst outcomes for those hurt in a fight. (Both contestants suffer some degree of pain.)
- Do you want a knock out fight?
Do research on head injuries, brain trauma and TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury. Look over the general information on knockouts as well as fight specific injuries to the head.
I learned that males ages 13-15 are at greater risk to get into a fistfight. Around one in four boys that age have been in a fistfight. The reversal shows that three out of four young teens have not been in a fight. Sizing up who can take who has always been a major interest for kids at that age accounting for around 38% of the fights.
Forty some percent are a result of excessive name-calling, other insults and long standing feuds.
Separate or mixed into the former categories, about 11% of the early teens fight over a girl. That rises to around 20% for older teens and young adults.
The remaining 20% has a variety of reasons. Some are noble such as protecting a friend, a weaker or innocent person. Less noble are those that enjoy fighting, are bullies or do so as part of a gang styled relationship, or are caught up in illegal activities.
Young individuals involved in multiple fights often have a drug and alcohol use. They may also believe that one or both parents expect them to fight rather than walk away.
The potential for serious injury is present in all fights. There are always consequences that need to be dealt with in the aftermath of a fight. General soreness is present at the very least for days after. One is stiff and sore the following day, even after a solid night’s rest.
Medical attention is needed in some cases, and legal issues may arise.
I recalled various news accounts of police detaining or arresting teens for fighting. The juvenile court system often recommends counseling and issues a probationary sentence in a number of those cases.
he more astonishing news accounts include serious injuries, lifelong debilitations or involuntary manslaughter.
Bottom line: Any fight risk substantial dangers. A senior student died in a fight during my high school freshman year, evidence that serious harm was present in the 1960s, just fewer occasions than today. That was a wakeup call to many among us who might not have given thought to how far a fight could go.
Generational differences are important. Illicit drug use among young people was far less in my teen and young adult years than in subsequent generations. We were far less apt to carry any kind of weapons into a one-on-one fight, much less a firearm. Less drug use made us more level headed. Injuries in general were of a lesser nature among sober people than among those under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
On the other hand, I found nothing in my research that suggests the percentage of how many young people got into fights or how many is any higher or less between the 1950s and today, with the exception of those involved in combination of drug use and distribution.
There are fight scenes in all my books. The majority of the pugilists have not studied boxing or any other martial arts. Most of these characters will go to some lengths to avoid getting into a fight. They were either forced (or coerced) into a fight against their will, or their egos over ruled common sense and tempers gave way. The later was more likely and from my point of view when I was that age, more attention grabbing.
Here is a basic list of things to keep in mind in writing a hand-to-hand fight scene. This article is intended for the unprofessional, untrained fighter. Not all of these points apply if your cast of characters is highly skilled in the martial arts, or if you are writing sci-fi or an otherwise high-powered adventure story that calls for greater force or violence.
- Both fighters fear getting hurt.
- One or both might be noticeably terrified of the prospect of getting into a fight.
- Bring out trepidation either or both contestants experience or feel. These are likeable people, who are easy to get along with most of the time. They suddenly found themselves in a tight spot.
- Realistic Time limit: Ordinary human strength and energy will generally not be able to endure a serious fight beyond three minutes. Many fights in real life will last ten to twenty second, though a minute or two is not uncommon. One lucky punch could even end it in a few seconds. Ten or fifteen minute contests are hardly believable.
- Fistfights move amazingly fast. Keep sentences short, quick.
- Dialogue is not needed once an intense face off starts or the first punch is thrown.
Combatants can scarcely afford the time to exchange insults or conversation once engaged. It is highly likely, on the other hand, that plenty of threats, dares, and boasts were uttered prior to taking action.
- These are inexperienced fighters. Chances are they will land few punches. They are likely to tangle up instead and drag the fight to the ground, wrestling for a vantage point to strike, or for one or the other to voluntarily yield.
- Each connecting punch produces some form or injury. Leave some marks on your characters. A bruise or black eye, bloody lips, nose, maybe daze, or knock out the opponent. Other bones risk breaking or cracking. The level of injury may be slight or severe.
- Both parties risk being maimed. All fights are potentially lethal. The combatants abruptly realize this, and the author would do well to treat the situation and each party with the same seriousness.
- Both parties are dog-tired exhausted afterwards.
Do not just have your characters walk off as if they are in perfect health. A two-minute fight burns up as much energy as a strenuous one-hour work out in the gym. They are exhausted and disoriented from the physical beating as well as from the exceptional amount of strenuous activity. They stagger about before walking away, (assuming both of them can walk away). Immediate medical attention might be needed after the fight.
Media Entertainment vs Reality
Television and movie knockouts are often a convenience for the writer not to have to deal with at least one of the characters while attending to other details. A so-called ‘simple’ knock out lasts only a few seconds. The victim will be extremely disoriented, confused and lack coordination for another several seconds or even for a few minutes; but ordinarily will not be out cold for several minutes or even hours. A loser who is unconscious for several minutes or hours will likely have long-term medical problems. Some might be overcome in a few days.
TBI, Traumatic Head Injury may have affects that last for days or a life time, and could substantially shorten the loser’s life span. We read or heard of TBI complications lately in the sports world. I did not give much thought to TBI in my earlier writings.
A later story includes an account of sixteen-year-old Mark Douglas as such a victim. He was hit over the head with a tire iron. He spent months in physical therapy and will have minor though noticeable coordination or cognitive snags the rest of his life. Strangers who meet him since the assault are apprehensive of how Mark stares at them. His eyes are not set right anymore and his speech suggests to them that he might have a low IQ. Finding employment is particularly challenging for him.
Dean suffered blurred vision in one eye for some days after a knock out fight at age 18 and had some problems concentrating for a few months.
A fistfight will be on the participants’ minds for days after, even if injuries are insignificant. They will wake from sleep stiff and sore. People will stare at any facial bruising. Friends and associates will ask what happened.
For example: I recall watching a man who looked to be between eighteen and twenty-one exit the passageway from the airport gate area. He wore very tight black skinny jeans, a black long sleeve shirt and a yarmulke. Most of the right side of his smooth face was a bright reddish purple. He smiled for whoever was there to pick him up; glad to be home, no doubt.
I wished I knew how he got such a pronounced bruise. I felt bad for him, but I know I would like to have witnessed that if I was near his age.
Thieves knocked out 15-year-old Randy in the novel, Hawk Dancer, page 190. He woke up to find himself tied up, hands and feet and gagged, and more rope around his chest and upper arms. That had to take some time.
That was not a fight scene, but I saw my mistake a few years after publishing the book. It is too late for amendments. I reviewed that section after what I learned and am relieved that the scene is plausible and that some vital aspects were attended to, though somewhat vaguely.
The logistics suggest it would take at least three minutes for the thieves to tie him up, gag, frisk him for money and valuables, and then escape from sight with Randy’s bike. Randy remained unconscious until some point after the muggers were out of sight. The period of unconsciousness may have been longer than three minutes. Fortunately, I did not say how long he was out.
I described his disorientation. He did not know how he got into such a terrible predicament. His first thought was that he hit a low hanging tree limb. He had considerable difficulty figuring out what held his wrists agonizingly tight. It felt like a bear trap. He gradually realized he was tied up with rope. He saw no one assail him, so he deduced from reasoning someone knocked him out in order for him to have no recall of how he was on the ground and his hands already tied behind his back the instant he hit an overhanging tree limb.
Although I gave no significant medical analysis, his parents and emergency medical personnel expressed concern that a more serious brain injury was possible. Thus, I was sufficiently covered and that scene remained realistic enough.
A later short story, Start the Day Right, in the book, Ten Things: Birch Clump Village Reader 4 includes a knock out fistfight in which the victim is tied up. I decided this victim would be out a minute or less, though I would allow for a minute and half. In this case, the victim is unconscious just long enough for the victor to begin the process to tie his hands, and is able to continue binding the now restrained loser as he comes to.
Cognitive brain to muscle messaging is strictly limited when a person regains consciousness. He (or she) will not immediately realize he was knocked out. He is simply in a strange and confused state.
For instance: He was on his feet. In a split second he is face down in the dirt. There is no space of time in his memory between standing and being on the ground. He was violently engaged, people were yelling and suddenly things are quiet. The fight is over, but how did that happen in a split moment without any physical transition?
The winner in the Start the Day Right fight had a number of advantages that I learned about via the research I made since writing my first two books.
According to the story, the victim walked in on a breaking and entering type of robbery. The environment should have been void of anyone but him. The thief easily took him by surprise. He had the foresight to prepare a club, rope and Duct Tape in case an employee opened the store earlier than expected. The idea was to whack a potential witness in the head before he had an opportunity to identify him.
The club wedged instead forcing him to deal with the unwanted witness with bare knuckles at the back entrance. The life or death fight immediately spilled out into the alley.
He was able to get a good start tying the employee’s hands after knocking him out cold. The loser of this fight was too groggy and disoriented upon waking to resist. Thus, the thief was able to finish tying him up hand and foot, tape a gag and blindfold him.
The motor to muscle control capabilities needs time to reset after a knock out. That is why video of live fights show the loser wallowing some moments on the ground after coming to. Leaping to one’s feet with full mental faculties and physically coordinated is highly unlikely after a blow strong enough for a knock out.
An author intent on portraying as much realism as possible can succeed if he or she takes the time to research and mentally role-play the variables and possibilities. Think of things that are likely to be in the setting. In my last example, the thief was in a general store that contained foods and a compliment of hardware and household needs. This accounts for the availability of replacement ax handles, rope and duct tape.
A thief will naturally seek the path of least resistance to get what he wants and not be caught. This thief spent some days to study the business establishment sizing up when and how to do a forced entry. He looked for his best escape routes before selecting a day to break in, as well as how take a potential witness by surprise if encountered.
Consider common age appropriate routine and obligations for those involved. Should they be in school? How late would they be able to be out working or socializing? This will vary from age 13 through 19.
How far would a 14-year-old go in executing the robbery vs the extent an older teen?
A smaller, less experienced and obviously weaker teen would run away or surrender immediately if caught by an adult. An older teen might be capable of assaulting an interfering adult, to protect his loot.
This thief was a 17 or 18-year-old high school senior. He had not gotten to the point this early in his criminal vocation that he was willing to carry a firearm, (or he was unable to obtain one). Yet, he armed himself with a club, which is potentially lethal. He was therefore willing to disable any human resistance via decisive violence if it came to that. He might not have had the maturity to understand his actions could lead to murder. The good and the bad alike, after all, usually make remarkable recovery from a blow to the head in run-of-the-mill movies and TV series.
What drives this thief? Hunger, drugs, easy gain, difficulty finding a job?
Stunned over the turn of events, this thief might give a moment thought to murdering the witness. The helpless victim fears his end may be at hand. An author musing on the thief’s deliberation and the terror of the tied up victim can make the situation a real page-turner.
This is an excellent time for a commercial break if it was televised.
The Build Up
Mutually agreed upon fistfights have other considerations worthy of an author’s careful research and consideration. A normal person does not strike out immediately after every insult or disagreement. The build up to the point that two people find themselves in a spontaneous face off with each other can be as stimulating for participants and reader-witnesses as the actual fight. Even at that stage, the average conflict goes through a complex disengagement rather than coming to blows.
A writer might consider giving greater attention to the buildup and aftermath. An unprofessional fight may take only ten to thirty seconds. Its description requires short, spurts of vocabulary. The emotional grab described in the buildup can serve for what carries on for the opponents endure during the skirmish.
Economy of words is needed during the fight. A slew of adjectives pouring through the author’s mind would slow the action down for the reader. We feel the wrenching pain of a punch to the nose as we write and taste blood in the mouth. We can feel and hear the crunch of nose cartilage and trauma to the jaw and teeth but we have no time to lay all that out to the readers. The one that was just hit has no time for it either.
Look up what blood in the mouth taste like. Most sites compare it to a metallic taste from iron released from the blood after dental trauma.
Give quick reference to the metallic taste in the mouth. Relate it to the person returning an even more powerful blow. Make it quick. The distractions are dangerous for both your fighters.
The pain of each received injury or blow is not needed; though some mention is warranted. The immediate and long term aftermath can attend to additional details of pain and injury, memory of the fears and fiery anger.
“A right whipped his head and neck. He snapped into the life and death mode.”
The second sentence already stole three seconds. Phrases like that can be used sparingly only if it truly gives the sense of increased drive to the fight and fighter(s).
An author might want to include the liveliness of witnesses. The fighters can’t take the time for what onlookers are doing or saying, therefore the writer is cautioned on time as well.
Rework sentences for a total elimination of passive voice in the fight action.
I violated these guidelines in my earlier writings. I wrote largely from the witnesses’ viewpoint, which I hope gives me a partial allowance.
More description is justified in the case of an unskilled fight lasting beyond forty seconds. The fear of getting hurt combined with the determination to inflict pain on the other may keep the fighters at arm’s length or engrossed in wrestling more than punching. Few hits due to inexperience make stretching a fight to a minute or two is very acceptable. Consider three minutes the absolute limit. That is very hard to sustain in real life.
The longest fight scene I have is in my first book, Hawk Dancer, pages 310-313. The buildup took two pages. I did not measure a period for the actual fight between the eighteen-year-olds, though I estimate it lasted around three minutes including a number of brief breaks and wrestling engaged most of that conflict. The well-match pair was not capable fighters, factors that are plausible to stretch a fight. I would have reduced that section if I had more research at the time. Nonetheless, I am confident I did not over treat the scene.
Try a touch of humor if appropriate.
Two guys have an ongoing disagreement. Conversation days before they tangle includes the first hint or invitation to duke out differences. “What if I pushed your face in?” The other party might respond, “Yeah; you and what army?’
A day or so after the one-on-one fisted engagement someone might inquire about the bruises, “Who did you get in a fight with?”
The jovial boast might be, “I didn’t know all their names.”
Incidentally, it is legal for two people to resolve a disagreement in a purportedly ‘fair fight’ by mutual agreement, or to simply see who can take who. It might be imprudent, but not against the law. Mutilation and manslaughter, on the other hand is illegal. There is no way to guarantee this will not happen once engaged. Forcing another to fight is unlawful assault and battery.
There was a real case in my hometown, 1980s, of two sixteen-year-olds who agreed to settle a standing feud off school property. A sizable contingent of fellow students was thrilled to come along to watch. The winner suffered a dislocated eye, (it popped out of the socket,) and remains blind in that eye. His opponent died in the ambulance. The champion, if one dare assess the loss of an eye as victory, served six years for manslaughter.
True Physical and Emotional Repercussion
An author does well imaging for him or herself, a complex spectrum of what the characters go through as they condition themselves for fight or flight. The changes are so swift that the preliminary narrative needs to move also.
Expressing the anger, issues and fear is relative to physical changes. More description fits in the preliminary than in the actual fight. Do not overdue it unless a long face off compliments your characters and this portion of the story.
Adrenalin kicks in. This hormone flashes through the veins, expanding and thickening muscles. All mammals have this hormone. It is triggered by sudden danger. It’s been dubbed the fight-or-flight hormone. It has an impressive control on the individual’s instinctive emotion and reflex and short-circuits our power of reasoning. The sense of imminent danger sparks the adrenalin glands. The character has the choice to run or fight with little or no time to think.
Adrenalin also provides a person with accelerated strength he would not have been able to call upon under normal situations. It takes total jurisdiction of younger teens, thus the reason they are more prone to go through with a fight. The hormone brings on the same instinctive reaction in older teens and young adults, though experience allots for varying grades of reasoning.
Witnesses can see the physical changes in the face, neck, torso and arm muscle if exposed, and even flexing muscles below the waist and through the thighs if they have shorts or tight fitted trousers. An enormous amount of energy is produced in the initial seconds of an adrenaline rush.
Levels of Aggression
Young males interested only in a jovial sport of wrestling go until exhaustion over takes one or the other, or a consensus decides which lad is stronger.
The next level, still considered somewhat amiable, is when two people agree to duke it out merely to see who the better is. These fights usually end after the first significant punch decks the opponent, or may continue until the first bloodletting, such as a split lip or bloody nose.
A highly aggressive fight, committed to do opponent in, goes beyond a burst of pent up emotional energy. Extremely tense boys or young adults in these situations do not simply exchange a couple or so punches and go their separate ways. They invested far too much emotion, anger and personal ego. Their intent is to cause substantial pain to the other and ends when one or the other protagonists’ is incapacitated.
Conceding victory to the stronger party any earlier may or not be accepted. Sympathetic bystanders might interfere to separate combatants if they fear the fighters are about to go too far. Unfortunately, the measure of ‘too far’ is purely arbitrary. Witnesses congregated to watch a fight, not break it up. They crave the opportunity to watch two guys mess each other up, and the more so the better. There is something in base human nature about a fight that excites and thrills along with being frightening and repulsive. A battered bloody face is riveting to some. A knock out, in the minds of most, would be impressive.
That is, unless at least one or two of the observers squirm at the cold hard reality before them and finds it inhuman to let the combatants inflict or suffer any more harm.
Pain and Injury
Bring it on. Fighting is all about inflicting pain and injury, though there should be some purpose no matter how senseless or noble. The strain alone will cause muscle soreness. Each punch will have a variety of affects an author can mention. Press your fist against your temple, cheekbone or jaw to get some sense of all the parts in the immediate area that will feel the full impact of a well-executed punch. What can be bruised, chipped or broken? The entire body is pushed back or aside with each punch. Long hair is whipped around, the face is turned and the neck may be whiplashed.
Blocking a punch brings a high degree of pain to the forearm. The slugger’s arm also suffers from the impact of the block. The knuckles and hands of a successful strike experience a fair amount a pain as well. This is particularly true for fighters who do not know how to form a proper fist. Unproven fighters rarely make a rapid exchange of two-in-a-row punches. Do not overdo it for nonprofessional fighters. Four completed punches are plenty in an unskilled sixty to ninety second fight. Fewer hits, obviously, connect during engagements under a minute.
The action can be increased or sustained longer if the participants are in an out-and-out life or death battle. In that case, they might have opportunity to scramble to their feet two or three times. They must ‘suck-up’ or endure more punishment if they genuinely fear their life depends on the ultimate disabling of their opponent. A fast steady action is generally required, but timing kept accordingly.
The average person will not reach this degree of resolution in a common fight.
Morals and the Aftermath of a Fight
Fighting is wrong, and my writings do not glorify it, even though I enjoyed writing the pieces. It is inevitable and the Bible is full of violence.
Many stories, movies and television stories bypass the aftermath for the characters. This is a prime place to sneak in morals. No soapbox is required. Be straight about the conditions of the characters after a fight, but subtle in the rebuke or moralizing.
The victors in some of my stories might be proud of winning, but some level of remorse sets in quickly. They are broken and weary in spirit, mind and body in the follow through.
Racial prejudice and other biases are at the basis of nearly every fight in my books. This is not always clear at the time of conflict, but expressed biases by many of my characters are evident in other parts of the two novels or in the Birch Clump Village Reader series.
Overt and hidden institutionalized bigotry based on race, ethnic origins, class, religion, gender or sexual orientation (and other negative biases) is a major cause of violence in our society. I am not stating anything new.
St. Paul’s preaching is a sore point with the silver smiths of Ephesus resulting in a citywide riot; Acts 19:23-4. Most of us can recall the brutal torture and murder of twenty-one-year-old Matthew Wayne Shepard by homophobes. The 1960s and 70s were rife with racial rioting in America, and again in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the 1990s over treaty rights made by the USA with Native American sovereign tribal nations.
Ordinary residents in my stories limit the violence to one-on-one conflicts, treat the issues in their own local towns, schools, neighborhoods and Churches. I do not elevated any particular group or sector over another, though the marginalized least able to defend their rights might receive somewhat more sympathetic treatment.
The aftermath will conceptualize and solidify former biases for a few characters, but overall, lessons are studied and effort graduates progress for intercultural or interreligious relations. I am careful not to present my stories with a fully restored community as in many made for TV movies.
My characters need time to heal. The process enhances the story, makes the development of fictional characters more believable. Some folks learn from the incidents. Others do not. Full physical, emotional and spiritual recovery does not always take place. Sometimes resentment festers, building a greater dislike for each other and towards whatever segment of society their opponent belongs.
It is the same for society in general dealing with social injustices. Progress is evident. At the same time, pained memories are not gotten over with an apology from politicians or teams of religious clerics, nor through legislative action. Religious denominations are famous for issuing teary-eyed statements promising resolve with quivering voices and staging pained expression, yet file them away taking no action. The violence their pious declarations hoped to avoid awaits them down the road if they do not follow through on promises.