Friday, April 26, 2013

How to write a fight scene


Fight scenes. People ask all the time, how does one write them? My advice to them is usually, "Read The Matrix." The Matrix does a phenomenal job of it. Lookit:

[scrippet] INT. SUBWAY STATION Neo whip-draws his gun with the flashpoint speed of lightning as!-- Smith OPENS FIRE. GUN REPORT THUNDERS through the underground, both men BLASTING, moving at impossible speed. For a blinking moment we enter BULLET-TIME. Gun flash tongues curl from Neo's gun, bullets float forward like a plane moving across the sky, cartridges cartwheel into space. An instant later they are nearly on top of each other, rolling up out of a move that is almost a mirrored reflection of the other -- Each jamming their gun tight to the other's head. They freeze in a kind of embrace; Neo sweating, panting, Agent Smith machine-calm. Agent Smith smiles. AGENT SMITH You're empty. Neo pulls the TRIGGER. CLICK. NEO So are you. The smile falls. Agent Smith yanks his TRIGGER. CLICK. Agent Smith's face warps with rage and he attacks, fists flying at furious speed, blows and counters, Neo retreating as -- A knife-hand opens his forearm, and a kick sends him slamming back against a steel column. Stunned, he ducks just under a punch that CRUNCHES into the BEAM, STEEL CHUNKS EXPLODING like shrapnel. Behind him, Neo leaps into the air, delivering a necksnapping reverse round-house. Agent Smith's glasses fly off and he glares at Neo; his eyes ice blue. AGENT SMITH I'm going to enjoy watching you die, Mr. Anderson. Agent Smith attacks with unrelenting fury, fists pounding Neo like jackhammers. [/scrippet]

 So what can we learn? Before we begin, let's get something straight: never ever - never never never ever ever, like ever - write "They fight." Ever.


Each fight scene has to have its own identity.
Look at the scene above. This is the first time Neo and Agent Smith will face off against each other without interference. This is the first time we've seen two dudes go at each other, so it's different from every other fight we've seen. The rest of the film was an agent chasing down a free man who was just trying to survive the battle. So already we have something new. That's important. Every fight scene has to offer something new, something we haven't seen already seen even in this very screenplay. A different location, a different goal, a different style of fighting. But if you find yourself writing the same fight in the same spot over and over, your script sucks.

Each fight scene must have its own plot.
Just like every other scene in your script, the fight has to have a beginning, middle and end. Your fighters have to have their own goals. What do they want out of this fight? What are they doing to get it? If one wants something the other one has, he needs to be pushing to get it while the other is pulling away. If one wants to destroy the other for revenge, the other one needs to be defending himself. And as these characters fight for what they want, a story emerges. Look at the above example. Agent Smith starts off calm and cool, thinking this will be just like every fight he's ever had: quick, easy, ending in certain death for his opponent. Neo starts a little nervous, panting, struggling to keep up, but then something happens. He gets one up on Agent Smith. Smith is PISSED. Neo is confident. There's a switch that happens. Agent Smith turns on the rage because he's never had to work so hard, and suddenly he brings the pain.

Which leads me to....

Fight scenes need reversals.
Your hero is winning, then losing, then winning. He gets backed into a corner. How's he going to get out. Oh yay! He's winning! Oh wait, not he's not. Oh no! He's going to lose! Oh yay! He did it! He won! - That's how a great fight scene should feel. Look at the above example. Neo starts out at a disadvantage. Then he gets the upper hand, but his victory is short lived because Agent Smith comes back with a vengeance. But just as you think Neo is toast, he flips the script. A fight scene where the good guy is always winning is a really boring fight scene. We need to worry in order to get any real joy out of it. So a fight should be equal parts badass moves and worrisome moments. There should always be a moment where we're cheering the victory and a moment where we're genuinely wondering if we're about to watch our hero die.

And one more thing....

Learn the terminology.
Fights have a language. You don't necessarily have to know what a triangle choke looks like, but if you want to write fight scenes you should at least know the difference between Jujitsu and Judo and Muay Thai and Krav Mga. Know which style you want to see, because that's what sets the tone for your fight. Different styles create different types of fights, and you can use them to create variety in your script. A Muay Thai fight is prettier. A Jujitsu fight is going to involve a lot of wrestling on the ground. Krav Mga is great when you have multiple opponents. Sometimes you may just want a really ugly brawl. Say so in your prose. Know what you want this to look like depending on the plot of the fight.

You don't have to detail every single punch, but you do need to know what the point of the fight is. You should know the plot and the tone, just like any other scene in your script. Now go kick some vicarious ass!


  1. Do all of the the minimum amount of lines.

  2. Nice post. Thanks. Keep blogging as long as it doesn't slow down your script work.

  3. Well said, Daniel. Well said indeed.

    Bruce, thanks! Never worry about me and productivity. We are buds.


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