Writing the Fight: The Single-Move Fight

Long, long ago, I took a stage combat workshop where we had to choreograph a fight scene but were limited to a single move (for contrast, a typical stage fight might be 10-20 moves long). [1] What could we do to make one move interesting? Eventually we realized that we’d have to focus on the build up to that move rather than the move itself. Which was, indeed, the intended lesson.

We think of fight scenes as the exciting bits, but (with rare exceptions [2]) the excitement starts long before the first blow. It begins with the characters, and what brings them into conflict, how they posture and escalate to the point of physical violence. When weapons are drawn, it’s almost a release of tension. If you’ve set the scene properly, you can end the fight with a single stroke. If you haven’t, no amount of flashy choreography and purple prose will save you.

My favorite example of this comes from Sanjuro. The final showdown between opposing samurai runs about two minutes, of which the first minute is heated argument and most of the second minute is still silence punctuated by a sudden, shocking flash of swords (and an almost comical, Monty Python-level gusher of blood). 

Could that fight be improved by extending it with additional swordplay? I don’t think so.

Another great example, if you’ll permit me stretching the definition a bit, is the end of the original The Karate Kid. After developing the tension between Daniel and Johnny over the course of the film, and amplifying it throughout the tournament with the dirty tactics from the Cobra Kai fighters, it all comes down to the final round in the final match and its single, iconic move.

Yes, the fight is more than just one round, but it’s plausible to think of the final round as an individual fight because the referee separates and restarts them and Daniel has the option to drop out of the fight due to his injury but declines. More to the point, the final round would work as a fight even if it were the only round. We’d miss out on a couple of wonderful moments (“Sweep the leg!”), but the emotional payoff would be there. The fight works as a whole because of the final single-move fight and the groundwork that has been laid over the rest of the film. The rest of the fight is a grace note.

One more example, stretching the definition in a different direction—the marble competition from Episode Six of Squid Game. [3] We see the details of four contests of various lengths. The one that packs the greatest emotional wallop is the one with a single move. [4] The one with the least emotional impact has the most moves and relies entirely on the artificial stakes for drama. (I’m being cagey with the details because I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it yet. See it! [5])

Here’s the take-away: storytelling trumps action. Extended fight scenes are almost always just action. How many moves do you need to tell your story? I’m not saying action is bad. I love action. But when it starts to crowd out storytelling, as it does in a lot of modern action films, that’s unsatisfying. [6] Empty action is the junk food of thrillers.

A true minimalist can create a fight scene with even fewer moves. How many moves? None moves.

My favorite example of a zero-move fight comes from the criminally underrated The Best of the Best. [7] The US taekwando team is invited to compete with the Korean national team in Seoul. Tommy Lee, fighting for the US, is paired up against Dae Han Park a ferocious fighter who killed Tommy’s brother during a previous tournament. The US team are underdogs and behind on points as Tommy and Dae Han begin the final match.

The early rounds are punishing. Dae Han seems to enjoy brutalizing Tommy as much as scoring on him. But Tommy turns things around by matching Dae Han’s ferocity. He catches up on points, bringing the entire tournament to dead even, then sends Dae Han to the mat with a  blow that should end the match.

Somehow, miraculously, Dae Han gets back to his feet, but he’s finished. All he can do is stand and sway like a potted plant. All Tommy has to do is reach out and tap him for a point. Or he could deliver a literal killing blow to his defenseless opponent—vengeance for his brother.

The clock ticks down as Tommy fights with himself not to kill Dae Han in revenge.

The final seconds run out.

Tommy loses.

The USA loses.

The villain wins.

It’s gut-wrenching. Probably the most riveting fight I’ve ever seen, and nothing happens. It’s all in the setup.

As with The Karate Kid, there’s a lot of fighting leading up to this point, but this is absolutely the moment of greatest tension in the film. You’re bracing yourself for an explosion of violence, and then … nothing. It’s devastating. (A clip doesn’t do this moment justice—watch the entire movie.)

Not every fight should be one (or fewer) moves long, of course. You want rhythm, variety. But if you can write a single-move fight, if you can make that work, then you have the tools you need to make a longer fight work. (Conversely, if your fight scene isn’t working, ask yourself—what would I lose by cutting this? If it’s just action, maybe you don’t need it at all.)

The best news for writers is you already do have those tools. You just have to write a scene of increasing tension between characters with conflicting needs and then add one move. Or none.

Next time: the Young Siward fight in the style of Mark Twain or John Scalzi. Drop a comment if you have a preference.


[1] I wish I could remember who taught it to give them credit. It was a Paddy Crean workshop back in … 2004?

[2] The first duel in Ridley Scott’s The Duellists is one of the greatest fights ever committed to film, and it’s the opening scene. We know nothing of the characters or their quarrel.

[3] Spoiler warning for Squid Game. I’m stretching the definition here to include a game of marbles as a fight. Which, for the purposes of this post, makes sense. Any contest can be viewed as a fight, even if there are no weapons involved. That’s exactly the point I’m trying to make here. It’s the struggle that makes the fight, not the choreography.

[4] Spoiler warning for Squid Game! To be fair, the contest that the creator probably intends to have the greatest impact is that between Gi-hun and Il-nam given that the episode title is “Gganbu,” but that impact is muddied by the length and complexity of their contest, in contrast to the clean, devastating competition between Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong.

[5] I wrote this just after watching Episode Six, but the series goes downhill fast with the introduction of the cartoonish VIPs. Maybe just watch Episode Six.

[6] Cast your mind back (this is going to be painful for some of you, I’m sorry) forty years to Raiders of the Lost Ark—a fantastic film with a lot of action but even more storytelling. Quick: what’s the one fight you remember from that film? I’d bet money it’s this one.

[7] Tomato Meter: 40%, Audience Score: 70%—suck it, critics.

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