Writing the Fight: Roundup

As part of my graduation requirements for the Stonecoast MFA program, I delivered a presentation on writing fight scenes. [1] Though it was well received, the biggest criticism was that I didn’t include a handout. I promised to post my notes, and four years later, I finally got around to it on this blog as a series of posts on Writing the Fight. This post is an overview and index to the whole series.

1. Violence vs. Action
Why even have a fight? Because it’s a trope of your genre? Or because you want to put your characters in jeopardy? 

2. The Story of the Fight
Just as every story has a beginning, middle and end, so too does a fight.

3. Storytelling Toolkit
What sticks with your readers? Not the mechanics of the weapons or the intricate details but the storytelling moments.

4. Filling in the Structure
So you’ve got a great fight story and some storytelling moments. Now what?

5. Breaking Symmetry
The ultimate storytelling tool? If it works for fights, it should work for everything.

6. Fight as Dialog
Fights as a form of heightened speech, when the emotion of the scene is too great to be contained in words.

7. Analysis
A critical examination of one of my own fight scenes, according to the principles I’ve discussed so far.  Spoiler: it does not fare well. Ouch.

8. Detail and Sophistication
Who’s your audience? How much do they need to know?

9. The Danger of the Weapon
Revisiting the contrast between action and violence, and creating jeopardy for your characters by selling the danger of the weapon.

10. Rewrite
A rewrite of the Young Siward fight scene from installment seven to address some of my own criticisms. Better? Or just different?

I’m putting a pin in this series for now. There are still topics I’d like to cover (weapon terminology, using the environment, analysis of some favorite fight scenes), but this will do for now. This is most of what I covered in my graduate presentation and much more that I didn’t. 

If you have a particular topic you’d like me to cover, though, leave me a comment, and I’ll get to it sooner rather than later.


1. Here’s the description:

They Fight: Writing the Fight Scene
Tony Pisculli

Shakespeare wrote one of the greatest fight scenes of all time, the epic three-way duel between Romeo, Tybalt, and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. His entire physical description of the fight is the simple, two-word stage direction: They fight. We’ll analyze this scene, and others (Dumas, Goldman, Heinlein), looking primarily at the story of the fight (character, stakes, initiation, escalation, reversals, etc.), then later digging into mechanics (body logic, the danger of the weapon, targets, technique, fight terminology). We’ll also get into questions of historical accuracy versus excitement, technical jargon and how much detail to include in a description of your fight. Drawing on twenty years of experience as a fight choreographer, this presentation will feature live fight demos. And writing exercises. So bring a pen or a laptop. And bandages.

Required reading:
William Goldman, The Princess Bride, Chapter Five, and/or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUczpTPATyU
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1, and/or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADvHO-lGjOs

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