06 May, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Setting

Setting means more to me than simply the stage on which the fight takes place. Here I mean setting to include all the factors that influence how the characters (which we discussed in the last post) are going to fight. This includes (but isn't limited to):
  • location
  • environment
  • victory objectives
  • plot outcomes
  • character outcomes

Location and environment are important and can add color. Is the fight on a bridge? Is it raining? Is this a personal combat in the middle of an artillery barrage? Time of day? Position of the sun? Like the setting for a non-combat scene, the more detail you have in your mind the better, but it doesn't all need to come out on the page if it interferes with action or doesn't advance the plot.

Victory objectives is one of those things that might seem obvious in retrospect, but you'd be surprised how often fight writers don't think of an objective greater than 'winning the fight'. Rocky's objective in his first fight against Apollo was to 'go the distance', and playing the fight out that way made it all about the quest for self-respect that defined his character.

What does each fighter consider a win? Think carefully. In my example fight, Batman wants to capture the Joker and his goons and bring them back to his own time. Theodore Roosevelt wants to remove the ability of the Joker to keep the Russo-Japanese War going. Note that the team-mates have slightly different goals: were this not a bedtime story, T.R. might accept killing the Joker but Batman would not. On the other side, the Joker's objective as always is to cause havoc and have a good laugh. His goons want to escape jail and/or serious injury.

Plot Outcomes: Setting your outcomes in advance bounds the problem. You're the writer, you know how it has to end. In the case of a story for a five-year-old, this is easy. The Joker and his goons will be captured. No serious injuries are allowed.

Character Outcomes: Remember, the fight tells a story and it tells us something about Character. I look at a fight as an opportunity to show (not tell) the parts of a character's soul that are only visible under duress.

Action focuses the reader. He stops skimming and starts READING for anything that gets the heart beating faster whether that's sex, terror, or violence. You've got his full attention. What are you going to tell him?

In my admittedly infantile example, we are going to learn that Batman is completely awesome. T.R. is a brave, brave man and a worthy leader of the Free World. Both exemplify Daddy's recurring story theme that it's a good idea to exercise and eat all your vegetables. We will further learn that the Joker is weak and cowardly, mostly because he drinks too much soda. The goons are expendable, there will be no character development for them.

A story told to someone over the age of five will have more complex character development, of course. Rocky proves to Apollo, Mickey, Adrian and himself that he is not a bum. Luke refuses to finish off his father, and his father dies to save him and redeem himself. Achilles shows that he is the finest man of his generation, but that he's just a little too caught up in his own bad self.

Get this right, and your fighter might just dust himself off and find he's the stuff of legend.


  1. Objectives are always good in a fight. Same thing with sex. Too often, I think, I've read fight/sex scenes where it's clear the author just decided 'it's time for my characters to throw down', and the characters resignedly stare back, secretly plot to stick a quill in the author's eye, and half-heartedly do what their told. Baaad.

    The other problem I have relates to your point about setting. It can help stage and choreograph the fight, but how to you pick the details you pass along to the reader. Why describe that crumbling ledge unless someone's going to fall off it? How to put the image into the reader's mind without telegraphing your punch?

  2. Hmmm. Well, sometimes it's good to telegraph a punch... or throw in a feint :) I'd say like any other writing, don't mention it unless it matters. Bring in the crumbling ledge if it affects the fight. Don't forget, dangerous terrain could heighten tension even if no one falls off--a combatant might have to use different tactics if he has to worry about falling into oblivion.

  3. That's a good point. Otherwise it's like the fight choreography blunders you blogged about earlier, where the guy in the white puffy shirt will inevitably be stabbed. The crumbling ledge could be an all-too-obvious piece of the set if pointed out in the scene, but if worked in subtly along with other signs of dangerous terrain, it can serve to heighten the menace.