How long does a movie’s intense action scene last? It’s not just “Bang, pow; kick, punch, roll, jump,” without pause; movies throw in little “breathers” of comedy or surprise so that the audience can take a breath or laugh to relieve the build-up of tension. Then they go back to building it up again. This way the audience’s excitement doesn’t peak and then fall, but rather is built up in smaller increments, like an up-hill hike. You might want to run the whole distance, but you’d end up burning out without breaks. However, if you time your breaks strategically, you can build up your momentum and finish with a feeling of accomplishment, rather than collapsing in relief that you’re done. So how do you do this in fiction?
Have your characters run away to get a breather (and to strategize while being chased). Introduce a third participant so that the two combatants have to step back and reassess. Perhaps their fight is part of a larger conflict happening in your scene, and a bomb goes off, or the lights go out, or police arrive (assuming neither combatant is with the police). Readers need breaks in the action just like an audience does. And of course, the type of fighting your characters are doing also determines what kind of breaks would naturally occur.
Think of kung-fu movies. Someone gets a hard hit in, and the attacker then has two choices: to either try for a KO (or a killing blow), or to take a step back and gather their energy for the next round of the fight.
Say it’s a sword fight. Depending on what setting your characters are in, one or both swordsmen will try to use the terrain to their advantage, tripping the other into a stumble or backing them into a corner.
What about gun fights? If you’re trying to drag out the fight, there will probably be lots of objects for characters to hide behind or use as shields if they’re not going to be incapacitated (or dead) really quickly. People will try to listen while hiding for where their opponent is going to come from or what they’re going to do.
There are endless kinds of fights you could be writing (I’m haven’t even touched on magical fights, which require a totally different style of pacing based on your chosen magic system). What will you do with your next fight scene? How will you keep the momentum going, without your reader losing that edge-of-your-chair tension? What insights do you have for writing good fight scenes?
Looking forward to your thoughts!
Photo credit: The Forbidden Kingdom (Jet Li & Jackie Chan).