I had a couple conversations recently about writing fight scenes and how abysmal they usually are to read, even to watch. Action is very tedious, after all. Think of how quickly a car chase gets dull. Or boxing. Those who enjoy it do so for the show of skill and the suspense, same as any sport. For everyone else, it’s boring.
In narrative storytelling, it’s never the fight that hooks you. Ten pages of two men grappling, all of it action, makes a very dull tale. Rather, like sport, it’s the skill and the suspense. In the Marvel films, we enjoy seeing the characters find novel uses for their powers and/or overcome their fears. The fight IS the story. (Even then, those films’ climactic battles often run long.)
In my books, I take a zen approach to action. Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation and practice over knowledge and study with the aim of producing an epiphany in the adherent. Its numerous parables are designed to jolt the listener into comprehension, often with a clever twist at the end, which is the “action.”
Consciously or not, a lot of Japanese narrative fiction employs this approach. In manga, for example, “fight” scenes typically involve several pages of dialogue followed by a flurry of fists or swords that is over in a few panels. The popular comic One Punch Man reduces that to a single move. Not coincidentally, kendo and sumo wrestling work the same way.
(Asian comics often depict action in a completely opposite way to the West. In a classic Kirby battle, Cap’s shield or Thor’s hammer will bear the motion lines as it zooms toward its target. The viewer is in effect sitting still, watching the action like a movie. In manga, Iron Man’s fist would be drawn “still” and the motion lines would be on the surrounding world, which effectively brings the viewer into the comic. We are “riding” the fist to its target versus passively observing it from afar.)
Before tackling any fight scene, though, first it has to matter, same as for any scene. If the fight doesn’t reveal something about the characters or advance the plot, then it has no reason to be there, period.
In other words, it’s not enough that the characters simply be in peril, even legitimate peril. (Very bad writers don’t even accomplish that — in the case of the Mary Sue, for example, who we quickly realize is never in any real danger.) The challenge the characters face must do more than threaten their lives. It has to threaten their sense of self and/or lead to a revelation.
But I keep the action itself quite short. In fact, I aim for it to be over in a dozen lines or less. I suspect those scenes “feel” longer to the reader — hopefully appropriately long — because, as with the zen parable, most of the words build suspense rather than release it with fists or weapons, but they are experienced as a single event.
This is harder than it might seem. You completely destroy all the suspense you just built if, in the climactic resolution, your plucky heroine simply grabs a nearby rock and hits her attacker over the head with it. For one, she has to be someplace where there are likely to be rocks of the requisite size lying about, otherwise it’s clearly a contrivance. Good fight scenes, then, are not only an extension of the characters but the setting, which I’ve argued before is another character and should be treated similarly.
Of course, if you establish that your heroine is in a place with rocks lying about, your audience will see what you are doing — or at least the smart ones will. (Kudos to you if you write for dumb people. It’s easier.) You have to establish the setting such that it’s not obvious what you intend to do, but yet feels completely natural once you do it, and you have to do that without stopping the story for a five-paragraph exposition of the setting. In that case, you still kill suspense, just one level up.
The setting has to be established naturally — in an earlier scene, for example, where it must also be useful — such that the suspense flows naturally to the resolution while at the same time revealing something about the characters or the plot, which is not easy to do.
This is why it takes me about four times as long, on average, to write fight scenes versus any other kind.
Here is such a fight scene from the penultimate chapter of Episode Two of THE MINUS FACTION. Both Episodes One and Two are available for free on Amazon.
T Minus: 036 Days 15 Hours 36 Minutes 10 Seconds
The sun reached its zenith in the noon sky and baked the gravelly lot. A crowd had gathered, but Xana and the dog had been the first to arrive. She wasn’t going to miss her appointment a second time.
Xana had left the McDoom mansion and walked through the night to work, her four-legged friend at her heels. She spent the last of her money on a big meal for both of them. She clocked in at the factory. She washed the heavy grinding blades. She lifted them, moving or turning as necessary a total of twenty-seven times while her co-workers sat and watched. She accidentally cut her arm. On her breaks, she petted her furry friend and gave him water. She looked at the stars. She swept the long factory floors with a four-foot broom. She emptied bins of trash. She heard her co-workers laughing in the hall over cups of coffee. She showered in the locker room. She slept a little.
Xana and the dog walked across town in the early hours of the day and arrived at the junkyard alone. They sat in the shade. They walked around and poked at the piles of junk, mostly auto parts and old furniture. The dog sniffed and peed. Xana found a dirty ball inside a sheet metal shed, the only structure in the enclosure, and she threw it for her friend, who returned it with a smile every time.
The police were the next to show. They said nothing. They didn’t even look at her. Five men piled out of a van with bars over the windows. Two more stepped from a car. All of them had guns. They sat on the hood or paced about smoking cigarettes while the sun moved higher and the heat woke the insects.
Xana looked at the van. It was for her. It sat ready to haul her to jail. Or the morgue.
Then people came. First it was just a few stray locals who wandered by and saw the police and stayed for the show. Those without work have nothing better to do. But soon families appeared. Some had packed lunches. Children scratched in the dirt while their parents laid blankets in the shade and opened warm beers. They chatted with each other, and as the impromptu congregation grew, their voices eclipsed the insects.
No one looked at Xana. No one spoke to her. Not even her cousin. Oja appeared at the gate in tears. Xana stood to greet her, but Morin stepped forth, arm in a sling, and waved her off. He glared at Xana and led his crying wife over to their friends in the shade. Trees from neighboring lots had grown over the block wall that bounded the yard. The crowd filled every shady inch and then spilled into the sun.
At three minutes to noon, Mama’s Mercedes arrived. Tinted windows obscured the interior. The engine shut off. For a moment, nothing happened. Then a door opened and the little girl appeared. She was clutching something.
“Maisie!” Oja called and rushed forward, but Morin grabbed her and held her back. He wasn’t going to risk his wife as well.
A boot hit the dirt, and Boraro the Disemboweler stepped from the car. He surveyed the scene in a dark tank and camo pants. He held the little girl’s arm, shut the car door, and led her to the middle of the clearing.
Xana squatted in the shade, alone. Those in the sun had chosen to brave it instead of her. She had never seen Boraro before. He was worse than she imagined. The frayed leather strap that held his mask to his face looked like it had been tanned from human skin. His arms were massive. She couldn’t tell whose were bigger.
Boraro raised a hand and the whispering crowd went silent. That’s when Xana saw what Maisie was clutching. It was a dead cat. Road kill. Days old and matted. Its mouth was twisted into a silent shriek. Its eye sockets had been picked clean.
“You see?” Boraro called. “I am generous! I accidentally killed her last one, so I got her a new pet. I think she loves it very much, yes?”
Maisie clung to the rotten corpse like it was a stuffed toy, but her face was contorted in disgust. Boraro was making her hug it. Tears traced a single wet path under each of the girl’s eyes. She’d been missing for a day. She was terrified.
Xana pulled the leather gloves out of her back pockets, put her hands in, pulled tight, and made fists. Boraro smiled.
She stepped into the sun. “I’m here. Let her go.”
Boraro released the girl’s arm and raised both hands in a shrug as if to say he hadn’t done anything wrong. Maisie dropped the carcass and bolted through the dry dust to her mother.
“Maisie!” Oja’s arms were outstretched. They hugged. Morin tried to drag them away but Oja objected. She wasn’t going to leave Xana. The pair quarreled quietly in the shade.
Boraro bent and picked up the road kill. He held it in one hand and stroked it with the other. “Do you think she liked my present?”
Xana didn’t answer.
“Who’s your friend?” Boraro motioned to the dog sitting next to Xana’s feet.
Xana looked down at him, then at the masked man. “Just a minute.”
Boraro paced. “Take your time.”
“Come.” Xana led the dog across the lot to Oja and her family.
Morin saw her approach and stepped from the shade. He raised his hand and opened his mouth to object, but Xana pushed him into the dirt with a single jab of her gloved finger. People laughed.
Xana looked at her cousin. “Watch him for me?”
The big dog sat. He was eye-to-eye with Maisie, who reached up and rubbed his head with a smile.
Xana looked down at her friend. He looked up, panting. “Stay,” she said quietly. Then she turned and walked back.
“Xan?” Her cousin called.
But Xana kept walking. She stopped in front of Boraro, blocking him from the family. “Alright. I’m ready.”
The masked man smiled. “I doubt that.”
Xana clutched her gold cross through her shirt. She closed her eyes, lifted her face to the sun, and began to pray. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
Boraro laughed and kicked Xana in the gut. She lost the air in her lungs and bent over. The crowd gasped. The Disemboweler took a running step and kneed Xana in the face. The crowd yelled. Some turned away as Xana clutched her face and stumbled back.
Boraro held up his hands and paced in a circle. He was putting on a show. He turned and ran at Xana. She held out her arms, but the man jumped high and plowed her face with his fist.
Xana went down.
Boraro started kicking. He kicked her chest. He stomped over her womb. He kicked her head. Xana curled into a ball in the dirt and protected her face with her leather-clad arms.
Boraro snorted in disgust. He walked over to the road kill. “You see?” he yelled to the crowd. “You see what happens when you do not do as you are told? Today she is like this cat. Today she is road kill. And I am the truck.” He walked to Xana and rubbed the carcass over her face and ponytail.
Xana could smell the sweet stench of decay, could feel bits of hair and hide break into her curls. She shut her eyes.
“Get up!” he yelled.
Xana spat and squinted in the bright sun. She got to one knee. She heard a zipper.
Boraro had opened his pants. Xana could tell by how he held himself that he was going to piss on her, on her head. After rubbing them with filth, he was going to urinate on her face and hair. In her curls. The very last piece of the woman she used to be. In front of Oja and Maisie and everyone.
Xana made a fist.
§ § §
A blow to the chest breaks superficial blood vessels, causing a bruise. Depending on the strength of the attacker, the victim’s rib cage might also flex, creating some stiffness and discomfort, or, if the assailant is very strong, pain and shortness of breath.
That is, a blow from anyone but Xana Jace.
With a pivot of her knee, Xana struck Boraro at center mass. This time there was no hesitation. She held nothing back. She kept her eye on her target and followed through just like her softball coach had taught her.
The Disemboweler’s sternum buckled as the kinetic force from her arm moved into his body. His ribs absorbed what they could, but three fractured and two outright snapped as they transmitted the energy to the rest of his body. As the man’s thorax compressed, his lungs collapsed and his heart was bruised against the back of his rib cage. His chest flew back, pulling his body off the ground and forcing his head, arms, and legs to whiplash. His lower jaw struck his chest, which slammed his mouth shut and sent a stream of spittle into the air. His teeth severed the tip of his own tongue.
Boraro the Disemboweler soared backwards across the lot. His body struck the sheet metal shed, crashed through, and flew out the back. Onlookers dove out of the way as his flight ended at the block wall that bounded the junkyard. His body stopped dead, and his masked head followed with a thud. He fell limp into the dust.
It took only a second. The heads of the crowd whipped as they watched the most feared man in Guyana beaten and destroyed in one blow. He was alive, or so it seemed, but everyone knew. He would never be the same. He couldn’t be the same.
They turned from the crumpled, motionless bag of human trash and stared at Xana. They were silent. The clatter from the fallen shed silenced the nearby birds and insects. Only the ocean made noise, and that was a distant rumble, like thunder.
Xana Jace rose from her crouch and stood on two feet. Her brown curls had come free and shimmered wildly in the sun. She stood straight and felt odd. She clenched her fists and hunched her shoulders forward, then back, stretching as after a long night’s sleep. She turned her head to stretch her neck, first to the right, then to the left. She felt the muscles along her spine and arms tingle and gorge on the oxygen from her blood. She looked around at the silent crowd, at the faces. Everyone looked back. And standing there with her back straight, she finally saw.
She was big. She was bigger than everyone.
They stared at her in silence.
A car rumbled to life. Mama was leaving. When Xana turned toward it, the policemen stepped forward.
“WAIT!” Xana boomed. She raised a gloved finger to the men and they stopped in their tracks as if the command had been delivered right to their brain.
Mama’s car sped. Tires belched gravel. People jumped out of the way. Except for one.
The car lurched to a halt, and Xana reached the front in two easy strides. She could see nothing through the dark windows, but on the other side of the windshield the driver’s face twisted into confusion, then horror, as Xana bent and lifted the front of the vehicle into the air. Metal groaned. With its forward tires four feet off the ground, the front-wheel drive was useless. The engine revved, but Mama was trapped.
Xana took three shuffling steps, pushing the automobile, but it was heavy. Her joints screamed in agony. Bones pulled from one another. The metal tore into the leather gloves and pressed through to her skin.
But Mama was a big woman, and she sat behind the driver. With both occupants’ weight pulling to the same side, the vehicle was easily tilted, and Xana dropped it on its doors. Glass broke. Tires spun. Mama screamed.
The policemen put their hands on their weapons. They weren’t sure what to do.
Xana walked to the passenger window now pointing up to the sun. She smashed it with her gloved fist. Shards and sunshine rained down on the woman inside. Xana Jace stood seven feet eight inches tall and stared at the cowering woman. And she saw.
Mama Enecio was nothing. She was perfectly ordinary. She was a big woman, to be sure, but not so much as to be memorable. Her clothes were plain. Her face was wrinkled. Her hair was greasy from the sweat of the day. For all Xana knew, she had passed Mama on the street or in the market, and for a second, she wondered if it was some kind of trick. A decoy, perhaps.
But she saw the woman’s eyes, both terrified and defiant, and she understood. People don’t fear the ordinary. That was Mama’s mask—the invisible mask of fear.
Xana grabbed the door frame and yanked back hard. The lock snapped and the door flung open and banged against the side of the car. She pointed a leather-covered finger. She was no longer afraid.
“You do what you want to me, but you leave those people alone. Do you hear?”
Mama whimpered, hands to her face, blocking the bright sun as it invaded the dark car.
“DO YOU?” Xana’s voice was an explosion. It kept the crowd and the police at bay.
“If you hurt anyone because of me, EVER, there is no wall you can hide behind that I will not smash. Do you understand?”
Mama nodded again.
Xana shoved the car with both hands and it slid in an arc through the dust. Mama would have to climb out of there eventually, then everyone would see. She was nothing to fear.
Xana spat the dust and anger from her mouth. She turned and walked toward the policemen, who stood with their hands frozen to their pistols. Xana stopped, took off her gloves, and extended her palms with a scowl.
A lean, thin-haired policeman stood safely behind two of his lackeys and ordered Xana to put her hands behind her back. He acted tough, but he kept the others in front of him.
Xana didn’t move. “No.”
The handcuffs barely fit around her wrists. The patrolman had to pinch them shut with both his hands just to reach the first notch. Xana felt the metal bite into her skin, but she didn’t struggle. She gave a small smile to Maisie. The girl crouched next to her mother and clung tightly to her new best friend. The big dog had a big grin. He had something to protect.
“Take care of him,” Xana called, “and he’ll take care of you.”
Maisie nodded and hugged the animal about the neck.
Xana looked at the bright sky. She closed her eyes and felt the sun on her face. “Thank you, Lord,” she whispered.
“Alright, let’s go.” The thin-haired bully motioned her toward the van.
At the far end of the lot, two more patrolmen stared at the limp, nearly lifeless body of Boraro the Disemboweler and scratched their heads.
Oja waved. She was worried.
“I’ll be okay.” Xana smiled.
The policemen led Xana to the van. The cab rocked back and forth as she climbed inside, and when she plopped onto the metal bench, the whole thing squeaked and shook. Then the door slammed shut and she was locked inside.
As they drove away, Xana squinted out the small barred window at the back. It was only then that she noticed why Mama’s car had stopped. There was a man in the way. He was in some kind of motorized chair. He had stopped directly in the car’s path and surprised the driver, giving Xana the extra few strides to reach it.
She studied the stranger. Why would he risk himself to help her?
But the burned man in the wheelchair only watched in silence as the van drove away.