In fiction a fight is boring if it’s easy. This may surprise people who have been in fights for real, because no matter how easy the fight is your brain will still dump the adrenaline and kick that cardio into overdrive so you’re ready to fight. It’s exciting even if you win or loose in a single hit. But no matter how invested you are in a story being outside of a fight is not the same as being inside one and some part of your brain never forgets you’re not in any real danger.
All in all, this is a positive thing. The excitement of fighting is hard on the body and mind. But it does make the job of a person (or persons) putting a fight in fiction that much harder.
In essence, in order to make a gripping story you need to create an artificial tension in your audience and, just as importantly, you need to do it without getting caught. The simplest way to do this is through pacing, where a fight consists of a series of ups and downs that switch often enough that tracking them simulates the frantic nature of a fight and keeps the audience invested with seeing how each twist will play out until they reach the end.
A good fight usually starts with the viewpoint character at a slight disadvantage, such as being caught by surprise or facing a much larger opponent, introduces three to five twists that the fighter overcomes through creativity, technique or guts, before reaching a climax where the viewpoint character faces their biggest hurdle yet, digs deep down to make one final push and either comes out on top or winds up losing in spite of it. When done properly the audience is left with a satisfying feeling of vicarious accomplishment regardless of the outcome. Done badly it leaves them scoffing at poorly executed narrative devices.
Great examples of what overcoming obstacles during action sequences looks like are found in the action stars of the 1980s. Jackie Chan is one of the most creative action stars in cinema history, fumbling his way through chases and fights with enough physical humor that it feels improvised and delivering a wonderful ride all the way. Bruce Willis makes his way by grits, digging a little bit more effort out of the depths of himself every time the stakes are raised. His face is practically designed to show grim determination in hard places. Bruce Lee brings us pure technique in every perfectly executed combo move, every moment of brilliant footwork and each brutally hard punch and kick.
But what’s important in each of these things is that we see these action stars bringing their powers to bear during the fight.
I ran into this problem when writing The Face of the Clockworker earlier this year. The Clockworker’s schtick was that he could cheat during every fight because his ability to know future events let him walk into every situation forearmed with knowledge of what the news would say about his battles the next day. The problem was, while magic was a force not even a century’s worth of prediction could fully understand, enemies like Thunderclap were something the Clockworker could come fully equipped for.
When I wrote the fight scenes between the Clockworker and Thunderclap from Sam’s point of view they were very boring. He was fully forewarned and forearmed against what Teddy could do, Sam wasn’t struggling in those moments. He already had his answers in place.
But I didn’t want to write about Sam getting ready for a fight. That wouldn’t be interesting at all and, once Sam pulled a future news report to find he successfully arrested Thunderclap, all tension would go out of the actual fight sequence. I did consider having Sam lose because he got overconfident, in fact that was originally what set up his trip Beyond to meet the Gatekeepers, but ultimately I found the easiest thing to do was just to tell the fight from Teddy’s point of view.
Teddy Clapper was a rookie to his superpower and not a particularly smart criminal to boot. Throw him against a guy with power armor, the ability to predict the future and a better working knowledge of what Teddy was capable of than the man himself and you have a fighter who is at a profound starting disadvantage. It made his struggle against the hero of the story more real, more exciting and ultimately, I felt, more sincere than watching Sam run through a series of carefully planned contingencies to corner a person he already knew he would successfully catch.
There are all kinds of places writing an action sequence can go wrong. They can be hard to follow, too long or too short on top of lacking tension. And good tension will not save an action scene that lacks the other factors. But if tension is what you think you’re lacking, consider changing whose point of view you see the sequence from. Even first person narratives can find a way to put themselves in the shoes of someone else for a little while and letting the audience experience what it’s like to struggle against people they’re used to seeing struggle for a goal can give them a new appreciation for those characters. It won’t work all the time, but sometimes a simple change of perspective is just what the doctor ordered.
Try rewriting your favorite action scenes from the point of view of the other side and see what it feels like. How would the walker assault on Hoth change from the Imperial perspective? Or the lobby shootout from the Matrix if we experienced it as a guard? These kinds of experiments help writers grow, evolve and develop new techniques to make better, more exciting stories.