Ah, the Fight Scene. A hallmark of any action movie or Fighting Series. Depending on who you ask, they're either the high point of any movie or TV show or the low point. Regardless, if you want to write an action story of any kind, you'll need a Fight Scene.See also the Fight Scene index.
Necessary TropesFor starters, you'll need two characters who are rivals or enemies. You'll need them either to have weapons or be proficient in martial arts. And you'll need them to have a reason to fight—whether one fighter wants revenge, justice, or money from defeating the other or they're both fighting in a tournament, they need to have some reason to get into the ring. And speaking of a ring, you'll need an arena of some sort (see Set Designer below for details)
Choices, ChoicesDo you want your fight scene to be a bare-knuckle brawl or do you want your characters using weapons? Is it going to be one-on-one or between teams? Generally speaking, if you put down the rules to one fight scene, pretty much every other fight scene in your story will follow the same rules for consistency's sake.
Unarmed CombatFor unarmed combat, you will need to familiarize yourself with a plethora of unarmed fighting styles. You'll have to look at boxing, savate, karate, taekwondo, muay thai, wing chun, capoeira, wrestling, judo, aikido....You get the idea. This type of combat is usually one-on-one, with a few exceptions (think of tag-team wrestling, for example), and normally makes for a much cleaner fight than most others, although not always—Kick Them While They Are Down is a staple of wrestling, for example, and Useful Notes/Karate and Jeet Kune Do both have a groin strike move. Also use Rapid-Fire Fisticuffs, but use them sparingly—you don't want every fight degenerating into a Pummel Duel.
Sword FightingThe first rule of a sword fight is making sure that your characters use a fighting style appropriate to their particular type of sword. A character who wields a Sinister Scimitar isn't likely to use Kenjutsu or Historical European Martial Arts, unless he knows how to adapt the techniques of either style to better suit his weapon, or, alternatively, he genuinely doesn't know how to use the sword he's holding properly and is just making it up as he goes.The same rules apply to all medieval weapons—polearms, whips, axes, hammers, maces, nunchaku, sai, eskrima, etc.) Figure out how they work before you put them in your fight scene, unless you don't want your character actually knowing what to do with them.When it comes to this type of fight scene, don't think you have to have your characters stay in the same spot. Not only does Wuxia set a precedent for high-flying acrobatics to spice up a sword fight, but even without it, Chase Fights are common—the duel between Westley and Inigo in The Princess Bride, the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, and the three-way fight between Jack, Will, and Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
GunplayAh, guns. The black sheep of the family. John Woo had to invent Gun Fu because Chinese audiences found gunfights boring, and there is indeed a certain wisdom to breaking out of the classic "We stand over here and shoot you while you stand over there and shoot us" mold of gunfights, no matter how realistic it may be. Thus, John Woo's methodology of using Combat Parkour to spice up the gunplay must be implemented, maybe even brought Up to Eleven with Flash Steps. Also, the Gun Kata of Kurt Wimmer's movies is something to look into, both the long-ranged Death Blossoms and the short-ranged "Sticky Hands with guns."
Supernatural ElementsIf you want to spice up any of the above with Supernatural Martial Arts, Ki Attacks are your bread and butter. A Kamehame Hadoken for the bare-knuckle brawler as well as a Shoryuken and Hurricane Kick to complete the whole set, a Sword Beam for any swordsman worth his salt, or you could even go full-on Full-Contact Magic. An outright Wizard Duel is a tricky thing, though, as it can quickly degenerate into a standard Beam-O-War, which can entertain for only so long as the viewer realizes that all the wizards throwing around epic magic beams are doing is standing still. To get around this, use such tricks as the Shapeshifter Showdown and the Fighting Spirit to make a magic duel more interesting.
- The Inaction Sequence. Dear lord, the Inaction Sequence! Any fan of Dragon Ball will tell you that much of an episode's length revolves around characters talking, delaying fights, or gathering energy. The audience will want you to get down to brass tacks, and you should oblige them.
- While having one character attempt to getting into his opponent's head isn't a bad idea by any means, it should be used in the same way a chef uses cayenne powder when making chili—in moderation. If you put too much cayenne in your chili, it goes from having a mere kick to a mouth-burning monstrosity, and if you put too much talking into your fight scene, it goes from a battle fought on the physical and philosophical levels to a philosophical argument with punching and kicking.
- For sword fights, two things you should avoid are Flynning and Slice-and-Dice Swordsmanship.
- The former is actually fairly easy to avoid—all you have to do is have your characters trying to hit each other and not each other's weapons, unless one of them is an Actual Pacifist who wants to avoid hurting or killing his opponent. The hard part of avoiding Flynning is not having the defending party moving to party strikes before he knows they're coming.
- The latter is the comic book artist's and animator's friend, as slashing is a great excuse for Speed Lines and Motion Blur, and directors also like it for the various reasons discussed on the trope page (to make a long story short, it's flashier and less dangerous). However, limiting yourself only to slashes is not only unrealistic, but it also leaves you and your swordsmen with less options. For the inexperienced artists and animators, the best way to draw or animate a thrust is also the best way to do it in real life—treat it as an extension of a straight punch. For directors, try your best to get protective gear that can fit under the costumes.
Set Designer/Location Scout
- For unarmed combat of any kind, nothing beats a good old-fashioned boxing/wrestling ring in a room lit just right to ensure that the focus is on the fight rather than the audience (unless you want a Funny Background Event, but you don't want those taking the audience's attention too far away from the actual fight).
- Other options include an underground fighting tournament, in which case the place will be dirtier—maybe it takes place in a dingy old warehouse and the ring only has three sides.
- For any Heroic Bloodshed or contemporary action movie, anywhere in a city works. Tea houses and hospitals, a church, you name it, you can have a gunfight in it.
- If you're making a fight scene for The Western, you'll always want it in the middle of town at high noon, where everyone can see it. Don't bother with anything less unless you're going for the Fight Un Scene. The same rules apply for Jidai Geki works, as the two genres are infamous for borrowing from each other—Akira Kurosawa was a huge fan of John Ford, so it goes both ways.
Props DeparmentAnything in the Weapons and Wielding Tropes index and its various sub-indexes is fair game in a fight scene. Hell, anything period is fair game if at least one of your characters is enough of a Combat Pragmatist!
- Anything by Bruce Lee is a good guide for realistic martial arts scenes. The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is particularly good for both learning martial arts and figuring out how to have your character come off as an experienced fighter
- On the opposite end of the spectrum, any Wuxia movie is a good guide for the Rule of Cool and Supernatural Martial Arts.
- Anything by John Woo, particularly The Killer and Hard Boiled, are the best sources to learn about Gun Fu.
- For Gun Kata, on the other hand, you'll need to look into Film/Equilibrium and Film/Ultraviolet, both by the same director.
- For a mix of the above two, nothing is better than the climactic gunfight of The Art of War.
- For Car Fu, look into all four of the Mad Max movies and Speed Racer.
- For epic fights of an epic scale, look into Dragon Ball, Justice League Unlimited, and The Matrix, which involve collateral damage and high-flying fisticuffs galore.
- For sword fights, look into The Princess Bride, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, and any Jidai Geki or Wuxia film.
- For a Battle of Wits, the best place to look is JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
- If you want to mix Slapstick into your fight scene, check out the works of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow.
- The Wizard Duel of The Sword in the Stone is a great Shapeshifter Showdown that showcases that Disney still had it in The Dark Age of Animation.