December 3, 2018

5 Expert Tips For How to Write the Best Fight Scenes

Writing Fight Scenes
Ready for battle? Here are 5 tips to punch-up your fight scenes!

So you’re midway through act one and it’s time for your characters to throw down. Writing a fight scene can put a lot of pressure on the screenwriter. It’s hard to know how the fight will look on the page. You don’t want it to go on too long, and you don’t want it to be so short there’s no tension. And what if you've got multiple people throwing down at once?

This is also where the internal and external conflict comes into play. Tread carefully!

It's awesome fight scene day at No Film School. And while no fight scene will be as awesome as this one from Undefeatable (1983) - which you can check out in this behind-the-scenes interview here - let's take a look at how you can learn to write some punched-up, high-kicking fight scenes of your own.

How To Write Fight Scenes in Your Screenplay

Writing fight scenes is more than just blocks of action. You need to keep in mind the flow of the story, the tone, and even the characters relations to the setting around them.

If you're new to screenwriting or want to brush up on your action writing techniques, I recommend this video from John August.

For the rest of you, let’s jump right into learning how to write fight scenes.

1 - Make Your Fight Scene Personal

In general, you want the stuff happening in your screenplay to matter to the characters. That’s like... rule one of all screenwriting. And fighting is no different.  

Still, in action scenes, it’s easy just to have random people attacking. You want punches to be thrown, but you want the consequences of those punches to matter personally.

Think about the scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton beats himself up.

_________________________

Jack PUNCHES HIMSELF in the nose.  Blood starts to trickle.

He punches himself in the jaw, throws himself back as if by
the force of the punch, SLAMS against a framed picture and
SHATTERS the glass.  He falls to the floor.

                            JACK (V.O.)
                I Am Jack's Smirking Revenge.

Jack gets back to his feet.

                            JACK
                Please... don't hit me again, please.
                I'm your responsibility...

He PUNCHES himself in the stomach, then in the jaw again.
He reels backward, pulls down a hanging shelf, its contents
 flying.  He hits the floor.

                            JACK (V.O.)
                For some reason, I thought of my first
                fight -- with Tyler.

 Jack crawls toward Boss, dripping blood, grabs Boss's leg.

                            JACK
                Please... give me the paychecks like
                I asked for. I won't be any trouble.
                You won't see me again.

 Jack climbs up Boss's leg while Boss tries to shake him off.
 Boss stumbles back into his desk, knocking off belongings.

                            JACK (V.O.)
                Under and behind and inside
                everything this man took for granted,
                something horrible had been growing.

 Jack crawls high enough to grab Boss's belt, hoisting
 himself up.  He dribbles blood a Boss's clothing, SMUDGES
 blood from his face onto the knuckles of Boss's hand.

                            JACK
                Please... please...

                            JACK (V.O.)
                And right then, at our most excellent
                moment together...

  Two SECURITY GUARDS enter and gape at the sight.  Behind
  them stand CURIOUS WORKERS, looking in.

                            JACK
                      (gurgling blood)
                Please don't hit me again.

_________________________

Now, this scene is exceptionally personal, because its a guy beating himself up. But look at the way the beats are laid out on the page.

The writing is sparse. We feel every punch, but it doesn't go overboard. We know WHY this is happening, and we have the execution for how it should happen as well.

It also reads fast - we are always moving.

It creates tension between two people. In this scene, even though Jack is the aggressor, he's also the one being hit. This juxtaposition gives the audience a clear person to root for, and clear emotions about the scene.

We’re rooting for Jack’s toxic masculinity here. Even though the boss is a victim in this situation.

This fits the theme of the screenplay and leads us into our next fight scene tip.

2 - The Best Fight Scenes Fit the Rest of the Script

Now, all the examples you see here will fit the tones of their respective screenplays, because professional screenwriters wrote them. And I think it would be mean to just grab some bad ones and shame those people.

I’m not into being mean. This is a "writing fight scenes" post. But I don’t want to hurt you.

In a movie like The Hunger Games, the violence is antithetical to the message. That means if you're writing a script about how you want violence to end, you have to make the action on the page both exciting and reconcile that theme.

So let’s look at a fight scene in the middle of the movie.

__________________

Katniss scans the Cornucopia - all those weapons. Knives,
spears, maces, clubs. And a BOW AND ARROWS...
40 seconds, 39, 38...There's nothing but a plain of hardpacked
dirt between her and that bow, except the fact that
the 23 other Tributes might be running for it too.


She swallows hard, her breaths shallow. Watching the others:
Cato, Clove, Marvel, Glimmer, Thresh, Bravura - they all look
so steely. Aren't they terrified too? They don't seem it.
But Rue does. The little thing is trembling. Fox-Face too ...
 

20 seconds, 19, 18... The whole world is that bow. Katniss
has to have it. Then she sees Peeta, looking right at her...
shaking his head as if to talk her out of running for it.
Concentration broken, that fast. Katniss loses her edge.
 

Nine seconds, 8, eyes darting, 6, 5, hands clenched, 3, 2 ...
until Bravura can't wait any longer. He steps off his
platform just as the clock hits one, and:
... he EXPLODES, just like that. A LANDMINE - sending pieces
of him spraying in all directions. The countdown stops.
No one breathes. Or blinks. We hear a CANNON BLAST.
Then the clock resumes - ONE, ZERO - before Katniss can
regroup. And a LOUD GONG goes off…


... and it has begun. The Tributes burst from their platforms,
racing for the Cornucopia.


It's a dizzying, chaotic blur - CHILDREN, running for
weapons. We hear our first SCREAM. Katniss turns. A GROAN
nearby - someone dying. CANNON BLAST #2.


There's a loaf of bread ten feet away, beside a folded up
sheet of plastic and an orange BACKPACK. Katniss lunges
forward, grabs the bread, the plastic, and…


Wait, there are suddenly FOUR HANDS on the backpack: hers and
those of the BOY FROM 9. They grapple for it. Both confused,
disoriented, desperate. His eyes narrow, determined.

Then a lost look crosses them. And red spray plumes from his
mouth. He staggers forward, releasing his grip on the pack.
... revealing a knife in his back - thrown from 20 yards away -
by Clove, who has two more knives in hand. Katniss freezes.
Then she wheels, sprinting away while throwing the backpack
over her shoulders. We hear a deadly WHIZZING sound...
This knife implants itself in the backpack. Katniss keeps
running, doesn't look back, leaving behind the horror of the
Cornucopia. Adolescents killing each other.


And each time a body falls, another CANNON BLAST can be
heard. Three, four, five... Katniss keeps running.

__________________

Okay, so let’s talk about how this fight scene works within the story’s tone, and the screenplays flow. This script is all about a unique world it’s building, and the inhumanity of that world.

This scene ramps up the excitement. We can feel the countdown. The beginning of this scene sells us on how and why the Hunger Games have survived all these years.

But then we are reminded of the death that comes with it. Of the children who are going to die during it.

This is an excellent reminder of the moral complexity at the heart of the film.  

The style here is also important. Short bursts of action, followed up by consequences. A mood is set and followed up on.

We don’t spend time beating this information into the people. Just deliver it and move on.

If you want to know how to write good fight scenes, you need to focus on your story.

3 - The Best Fight Scenes Don't Beat a Dead Horse

You’re writing the blueprint for a movie. We can debate whether or not the screenplay is a literary artifact all we want but at the end of the day, this needs to hit the screen.

That means, don't waste time reiterating what’s happening. Just show it to us and move on. Write like you're editing the movie in your brain.

This platitude works in even the most complicated of fights scenes. Like Helm’s Deep, from The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers.  

__________________

WIDE ON: THE URUK-HAI continue advancing on HELM’S DEEP. VOLLEY
after VOLLEY of arrows are launched into the fray felling the
frontline over and over, but the advance cannot be halted...

ANGLE ON: URUK-HAI launch arrows from crossbows into the

ALLIANCE...ELVES and MEN fall to their doom among the
approaching throng...the URUK-HAI produce ladders and mount them
against the WALL.

ANGLE ON: ARAGORN looks down to this new peril.

ARAGORN
(in ELVISH; subtitled)
Pendraid!
Ladders!

ANGLE ON: GIMLI jumps with glee.

GIMLI
Good!

ANGLE ON: Ladders with URUK-HAI riders are raised against the
WALL.

ARAGORN
Swords! Swords!

ANGLE ON: The ELVES draw their swords and prepare for close
combat.

ANGLE ON: The first URUK-HAI comes over the wall and GIMLI is
the first to make contact.

QUICK SERIES OF CUTS: The URUK-HAI begin pouring over the
wall...the MEN and ELVES battle against them.

__________________

First off, this is a truly bad-ass scene. One of the best action scenes of recent memory, and a great piece to study if you want to learn how to write combat scenes in general. 

Peter Jackson is a master director, but when we look at the blueprint of the screenplay, it’s pretty sparse.

We’re not going overboard on the amount of Uruk-hai charging. Or the death and arrows. This is a great way to put a massive battle out onto the page. We have a clear idea of who is commanding what, and how the shots will line up in the edit.

This awesome fight scene helps push the drama to the next level.

The action is balanced. It reads quickly, and we can imagine each snippet as they pass through our brain.

And imagination is important. Especially as emotions take over. If you're trying to write action scenes you can get lost in all the details you imagine, but a better method is to give a few key details and let the other ones be imagined by the reader.

4 - Learn How to Write Good Fight Scenes By Putting the Emotions on the Page

We talk a lot about how to strategize your fight scenes when it comes to action writing, but you also want to clue the audience in on how they should feel when it’s happening.

Much like when The Hunger Games emphasizes the death of kids, you want to audience to either revel in the battle or deal with the complicated emotions that go along with violence.

For my money, John Logan is one of the greatest writers of all time.

And his script for Gladiator demonstrates how to write a fight scene.

__________________

INT.  COLOSSEUM - ARENA - DAY

Tiger waits.  He stands in the center of the arena.  He
has only a traditional short sword.  The crowd is
breathless with anticipation.  As:

CASSIUS
(orating)
And from the rocky promontories and
martial bloodlines of Spain...
representing the training lyceum of
Proximo Antoninus... I give you...
THE WARRIOR MAXIMUS!

The crowd cheers.  Maximus appears from his gate.  His
fans have increased in number considerably.  They eagerly
crane forward and celebrate him.

Meanwhile, Maximus looks at Tiger.  Only one man with a
sword?  Maximus approaches, cautious but confident.

He stops a few feet from Tiger.  They lock eyes, salute
each other and then turn to the Imperial Box, raising
their swords.

The crowd waits eagerly for the immortal words...

MAXIMUS AND TIGER
We who are about to die salute you.

The crowd cheers and Maximus immediately turns and starts
slashing -- Tiger easily blocks and strikes back --

The swordplay is very fast -- they block and parry and
hack like lightning -- constantly attacking -- they are
perfectly matched --

As he fights Maximus becomes aware of a strange sound over
the roar of the crowd -- a low rumbling -- then he feels
something -- a vibration in the ground --

Suddenly traps doors swing open and four enormous
platforms rise into view.  On each platform is a snarling
Bengal tiger restrained by a chain.  Tiger's teams of
"cornermen" hold the chains through a pulley system.  The
cornermen are safely inside cages.  The platforms stop at
ground level.

The four ferocious tigers now mark the four corners of the
battleground.

Tiger takes advantage of Maximus' momentary confusion and
assaults brutally -- forcing him back toward one of the
tigers -- the tiger claws for Maximus -- Maximus just
evades it claws -- rolls for a new position -- another
tiger snaps at him --

Tiger attacks -- Maximus is on the defensive -- fighting
off Tiger and evading the four snarling beasts --

And then all four tigers are suddenly closer.  The teams
of cornermen are letting the chains play out, bit by bit,
gradually reducing the size of the battleground.  The
crowd roars.

But the fight is hardly fair.

Whenever Tiger is near one of the tigers the cornermen
pull back the tiger slightly -- when Maximus is near a
tiger they let it out a bit.

Maximus and Tiger fight -- swirling action -- finally,
Maximus has the edge -- he circles so that the sun stabs
into Tiger's eyes -- then Maximus lunges forward under
Tiger's swinging sword and SLAMS into him -- they fall --
a tiger swats at Maximus' face -- he jerks his head back
-- he shoots out a leg and kicks Tiger's sword toward one
of the tigers -- it is out of reach -- Maximus leaps up
and stands over the winded Tiger, sword to his throat.

Tiger is gasping for breath, crushed.

Then one of Tiger's corners suddenly cheats -- they
completely release a tiger -- it leaps for Maximus --

Maximus barely has time to turn -- the tiger crashes into
him -- its claws slashing into his back, cutting through
his leather armor -- Maximus shoves an armored forearm
into the tiger's jaws and stabs with his sword --

Tiger takes this chance to pull himself up -- one of his
corners throws him another sword -- the crowd boos --

Maximus wrestles with the tiger -- spinning it around with
superhuman effort so it is always between himself and
Tiger -- so that Tiger can't get at him --

Maximus finally kills the tiger and leaps for Tiger -- he
quickly disarms him and tosses him to the ground --

Maximus stands over him -- ready to administer the coup de
grace.

All eyes turn to the Emperor.

Commodus slowly stands and steps to the edge of the
Imperial Box.  He raises his arm and gives the fatal
thumbs down.

Maximus looks up at him.

And then defiantly tosses the sword to the ground,
refusing to kill Tiger.

Commodus is stunned.

The crowd gasps -- a collective intake of breath -- and
then an enormous roar building.  It cascades around the
Colosseum.  It is a roaring celebration of the unexpected
act of mercy.  And the delicious act of defiance of the
Emperor.

Commodus slowly sits.

Maximus walks across the arena -- the people stand and
cheer for him.  Cries of "Maximus the Merciful" can be
heard.

It is the birth of a hero.

__________________

Wow.

I mean W-O-W.

Logan is a master, so I want to take this moment to apologize for not being him for you readers, but I’m gonna spend my life trying.

Think about how you felt the first time you ever saw that scene. If you haven't seen that scene yet, then just go watch it now and thank me later. 

How can we tell what emotions are present in this scene?

Well, in the beginning, we can sense the foreboding, but as the fight begins, Logan takes special care to annunciate the facts to use. We know the fight isn't fair, and we know the crowd matters. As he takes us through this, he’s building up for the mic drop.

“It is the birth of a hero.”

Okay, now we not only know what happens in this scene, but we also know WHY the scene matters outside of the fight.

Little touches like this accentuate your writing style and take your writing to the next level.

Sometimes it’s not just about the fight, but what happens after. It's about what the fight means. Stakes. 

Writing fight scenes is not unlike writing every other scene; the stakes and the drama make all the difference. 

5 - Spending Time on the Aftermath is Key to the Best Fight Scene  

Where does this fight take you?

Is a hero born?

A new confidence found?

Does someone die, or maybe some part of them dies?

After every battle, give us a second to breathe. And To set up why this fight meant something. Win or lose, we need to know the repercussions that follow.

__________________

EXT. BRIDGE STREET ­ DAY

         HULK throws IRON MAN off him. Thor and Cap run over to him. Thor
         RIPS off Tony's helmet. He appears to be dead. They stand around
         not sure. Then... THE HULK YELLS IN FURY. THE NOISE STARTLES

         TONY AWAKE.

                         TONY
          What the hell? What just happened?
          Please tell me nobody kissed me?

                         CAPTAIN AMERICA

                         (A BEAT)
          We won.

                         TONY
          Alright. Hey. Alright. Good job, guys.
          Let's just not come in tomorrow. Let's
          just take a day. Have you ever tried
          shawarma? There's a shawarma joint
          about two blocks from here. I don't
          know what it is, but I wanna try it.

                         THOR
          (looking up at Stark Tower)
          We're not finished yet.
         A beat.

                         TONY
          And then shawarma after.

         INT. STARK PENTHOUSE ­ DAY

         Loki crawls onto the stair, looking like a piece of shit rag
         doll. He takes a few breathers, senses someone is behind him. He
         turns TO FIND THE AVENGERS STARING AT HIM, PISSED.

                         LOKI
          If it's all the same to you. I'll have
          that drink.

         THE HULK SNORTS AT HIM.

__________________

Aside from humor, the aftermath of this scene ties up the whole movie. The Avengers was about this team coming together as one.

By spending time in the aftermath of this insane battle, we get to solidify the theme, get some levity out, and nail that this team will be together for a long time.

At least, until there’s a Civil War.

Make sure that when your characters take a break, we feel what they feel after its over.

Whether they are protagonists or antagonists, their feelings matter.

Look at the polar opposite of this Avengers battle. The neck-break in Man of Steel.

In these moments of the aftermath, we see a guy who compromised everything he believed in to save a city. It ruins him. And contributes to the downer of an ending.

Your fight scenes matter. Figure out how they’ll affect the characters moving forward. And the audience too.

After all, you want your screenplay to be successful. You can always rewrite!

Summing Up 5 Tips for How to Write the Best Fight Scenes

Now that you understand the five tips on how to write good fight scenes, I can’t wait to see them in your own writing.

Join us for the Free Screenwriting Seminar, or just add these scenes to that pilot you've been working on for staffing season.

Remember, make it matter to the characters and always appeal to the emotions at hand.

Now go back to your corner, take out your mouth guard, and get writing!      

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