09 June, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Pacing

Legend has it that during times of foreign occupation in China, rebel fighters practiced their forbidden martial arts in the open and explained that they were only dancing. It's not that far-fetched. A fight has rhythm and pacing. Part of writing a good fight is making that rhythm of blows and holds come out in the words.

For pacing my fights, I have just a few cardinal rules. One of them is, Vary the steps. This ain't a waltz.

Alex hit Bob over the head with a two-by-four. Bob staggered, and then smacked Alex in the gut with his tire iron. That hurt Alex quite a bit, so he could barely lift the sack of potatoes high enough to drop it on Bob's toe.

Among the many things wrong with that sequence, every action is the same: one fighter hits the other with a one-step move. You want the notes to come in a surprising but sensical sequence, kind of like a Coltrane solo. A one-step here, a two-step there, a hold, a stop-hit, etc.

Wait... what did I mean by that?

ONE-STEP: a direct attack--a punch, kick, throw, gunshot or whatever. It could hit or miss, but you can describe it with one verb.

TWO-STEP: a compound action, either a two-step attack (Alex grabbed a fistful of Bob's hair and punched him in the nose.) or an attack with a defense (Alex swung the hammer, but Bob snapped his hand back just in time)

HOLD: A long action. It could be an actual hold (Bob tightened his grip on Alex's carotids. His face reddened at first, and then blanched white. It was in that moment that Bob realized he was on to something.) or maybe a pause ("I suppose you're wondering why I just punched you in the kidney," said Alex. "It's only because you should have given that kidney to your poor dead cousin! OUR cousin!") Anyway it takes significantly longer than a punch.

STOP-HIT: An action that interrupts another action. (Bob lobbed a wild hook at Alex's cheek, walking into a straight right. Bob wobbled and said, "Let me try that one again."

I like fights that are chaotic and unpredictable. Mayhem! When did a real fight ever go according to plan? So that's why I want the pacing to vary. A fight that beats one-two-three-four like my first example is just too predictable to thrill a reader. Go one, one, one-two, hold, one-two, hold, stop-hit and now maybe you've got something.

Bob's fist just grazed Alex's temple. He swung again as Alex stepped back, this time landing a hook just under his ribs. He struck again, but this time Alex intercepted his fist with a large unbound manuscript.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," said Alex, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked the manuscript out of Alex's hands. The cloud of papers masked his next kick, straight into Alex's solar plexus. Alex doubled over, wheezing.

"You... you animal," Alex said. "I never numbered the pages!" He sprang up, fingers clawing for Bob's throat--but Bob dodged aside and kicked Alex's ankle out from under him. His face hit the ground like a flipped pancake and the pages of his manuscript settled over him in a pile of 8 1/2 by 11 inch futility.


Did I get the rhythm right in that sequence? One, one, one-two, hold, one-two, hold, stop-hit aaaannnd faceplant.


  1. This is a nice breakdown of what makes good pacing good. For me, pacing is one of the hardest things in a fight scene or any other quick-paced scene. I think this will help me see where the beats rest. Thank you!

  2. You did another thing right that you didn't mention, Richard - ending the fight on a strong, visual image. Even though the memoir-fight cracked me up, the image of papers fluttering down on the vanquished foe left an impression in my mind. And it's a great 'hold', as you put it, to put an exclamation point on the fight :)

  3. True, true... I covered working towards a satisfying end to the fight in a previous post, but it's worth remembering that the ending note has rhythm too, and just like in music it's usually a hold.

    Also I neglected to mention again the Miles Davis dictum: Sometimes it's the notes you don't play that matter most.