WRITING FIGHT SCENES: A Kick in the Head

By Robert Kramer

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INT. KICKBOXING RING
The OPPONENT promptly walks into a blazing roundhouse kick that rattles his skull. He starts to fall until–

RAVEL’S other foot slams into his rib cage.

Back and forth. Right leg, left leg. Lifting him with each kick and forcing him to remain standing. Ravel wraps his arms around his Opponent’s head and holds him up as he thrusts wicked knee shots into the other fighter’s ribs.

Pain explodes in the Opponent’s chest as his ribs snap. His breathing comes labored. His legs are Jell-O. He wobbles as Ravel punishes him with an uppercut that sends him into the ropes. He bounces between the ropes and Ravel’s ruthless jabs.

Ravel pursues his Opponent and fires foot and fist into him repeatedly, like he’s exercising on a heavy bag rather than hitting a person.

Cross.
Roundhouse kick.
Hook.
Hook.
Jab.

Ravel shoots a back kick into his Opponent’s midsection with so much force that it drives him through the ropes and onto the concrete floor.

His body flops with a wet, fleshy THUD onto the ground.

Writers have many tools at their disposal, but few things have the ability to transcend the words written on the page like a fight scene. Two people in a brutal struggle against each other is one of the most dramatic scenes a screenplay can have. But, what things should you consider before you set your characters against each other? And, more importantly, how do you write a fight scene?

When deciding that you want a fight scene in your screenplay there are three primary concerns you must address. The first is why do I want to have this scene? The second concern is how long should it be? And, the third concern is what purpose will it serve?

Why?

When addressing why you want to have a fight scene you must decide on whether a fight fits within the scope of your story. Are you simply adding a fight scene because you can’t think of another way to resolve the conflict? If so, don’t. A fight scene needs to grow out of the plot. It needs to be nurtured much like a sex scene. If a writer just adds a fight scene or sex scene for the sake of having one in the script then it will undoubtedly detract from the overall product instead of being integral.

The second thing to consider when deciding why to add a fight scene is if the characters would even resort to physical confrontation. Some characters clearly would never fight another human being and forcing them to do so makes the entire story seem phony. For example, in the film As Good as It Gets, if Melvin Udall had punched someone it would have ruined the film. It would have been so outside of his character that the audience would never have bought it.

How long should it be?

One page of screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Even the most novice screenwriter is aware of this fact. So, what do you do if you want a three-minute fight scene in your story? What if you want more than one?

After deciding that a fight scene fits with your characters and story, a writer must then decide how long it should be. One school of thought tells the writer to write something along the lines of “They fight.” And then to let the director and stunt coordinator figure out the details. One problem with this is that the writer then has no creative input into the actual combat. Another problem is that the producer has a more difficult time budgeting for a one-sentence fight scene that could take two weeks to shoot and three minutes of screen time.

The other way is to lay out the fight scene on the page. This method solves both of the problems above, but leads to some problems of its own. By laying the fight scene out on the page the writer maintains some creative input. They can determine that the fight is to last three minutes on screen by filling three pages of the script with the fight. However, this runs the risk of boring the reader. In order to keep a reader interested the fight must accomplish something. This leads to the fight scene’s purpose.

What purpose will it serve?

After deciding that the scene fits in the story and that you want to control it creatively and length wise, the writer must decide the purpose of the scene. Does it further the story? Does it reveal character?

In order to keep the reader of your three-page battle interested, the scene should contain important elements like story and character. Most of the actions should have an element of necessity. If the writer simply writes that “Good Guy punches Bad Guy then Bad Guy kicks Good Guy” the fight doesn’t serve any purpose. If “Bad Guy breaks Good Guy’s leg,” that could further the story and keep the reader involved.

Another way to keep the reader involved is by revealing character in the scene. If “Joe picks up a hand full of dirt and throws it in Mike’s eyes,” then the reader senses that Joe isn’t honorable. Or, if “Joe knocks Mike unconscious but continues to stomp on him” then that would reveal that Joe is particularly cruel.

How to write it.

ROCKY

Knowing that the fight scene is necessary, how long it’s going to be, and what purpose it will serve you now decide to write it. But how? Make sure that the scene carries the story forward by including events that have been set up earlier. For example, in Rocky, Apollo Creed has never been knocked down in a fight. Stallone keeps his reader interested by lacing this element into the fight. He writes:

Rocky suddenly explodes with an upswing hook to the jaw. Creed is dropped. The arena EXPLODES. Creed’s eyes show disbelief. So do Rocky’s. Rocky backs into his corner … Mickey and Mike yell at him.

MICKEY
You can do it! Goddamnit, you
got the power! The body, get
the body!!! Ya got him goin’!

REFEREE
Six! … Seven! … Eight! …

Creed is up … His playful attitude is gone … he is now all business. His lightning jab stings Rocky’s face repeatedly.

APOLLO
… Come at me, sucker!

Rocky charges and a terrific right crashes against Apollo’s chin, followed by an uppercut to the liver that causes Creed to cringe …

Apollo counters with jabs and Rocky whips brutal combinations to the body.

The BELL RINGS.”

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Stallone, Sylvester., Rocky. MGM 1976

Stallone also keeps the reader in touch with the emotions of the characters in that scene. We can see the astonishment in both characters at Rocky’s unbelievable feat. But, more importantly, Stallone carries the feel of the scene as a fight. Surrounding the knockdown, Stallone writes in a flurry of punches exchanged between the combatants. He maintains the feel of a fight while incorporating character and story.

That is the key to a successful fight scene.

Another example of a fight scene that carries the story forwards is Trinity’s opening battle in The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers write:

MATRIX

INT. HEART O’ THE CITY HOTEL
The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a bead. They’ve done this a hundred times, they know they’ve got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs and Trinity moves-

It almost doesn’t register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly fast.

The eye blinks and Trinity’s palm snaps up and the nose explodes, blood erupting. Her leg kicks with the force of a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop farthest from her.

Trinity moves again, bullets raking the walls; flashlights sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a leather-clad ghost.

A gun still in the cop’s hand is snatched, twisted, and fired. There is a final violent exchange of gunfire and when it’s over, Trinity is the only one standing.

A flashlight rocks slowly to a stop.

TRINITY
Shit.

The Matrix. Warner Brothers 1999

The Matrix. Warner Brothers 1999

Their detailed descriptions allow the reader to stay involved with the combat while revealing Trinity’s character with one word at the end. This scene also introduced the fact that the world isn’t quite what it seems.

Both of these examples came from successful films. They are also both fight scenes that a viewer doesn’t forget. But it doesn’t have to be done that way. In fact, some readers prefer a fight scene as basic as, “They fight.” And, this can be done well and make for a scene just as memorable. The authors of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon simply write:

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

EXT. PEKING ROOFTOP – NIGHT
The thief runs atop a roof — right into Yu. Yu and the
hooded figure face off.

YU
Return the sword, and I’ll let you go.

The figure just regards her, slightly shifting weight.

Yu attacks, but the figure repels her.

YU
You’ve been trained at Wudan?

The figure answers by leaping to another rooftop. Yu catches up, and resumes her attack with a relentless series of lightning-quick blows.”

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon., Columbia Pictures 2000

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon., Columbia Pictures 2000

That fight scene was much longer and more elaborate when actually filmed. This is where the fight choreographer and director played their role. The dazzle of the scene was the result of Yeun Woo Ping’s fight choreography more than the words on the page. The writers simply covered the basics and focused on the elements of the plot instead of the action. The difference is that reading Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it doesn’t feel like a fight on the page. Rocky and The Matrix do. That is a choice that the writer must ultimately make alone.

A fight scene has the ability to transcend the words on the page and make or break a script. If it’s done well, it will be a scene that the reader and viewer will not forget. And, if it’s done poorly, it will be a scene that the reader and viewer will not forget as well. How will you write yours?

ws_furiouswriting-500_mediumGet more tips on writing action scenes in William Martell’s on-demand webinar
Furious Writing: Car Chases, Shoot Outs & Action Scenes

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