Imagine you’re stopping off at the supermarket on the way home from work. It’s later than you had intended and the sun is already down. You’re tired, irritated by a meeting you had earlier in the day, bits of which are replaying in your head as you start manhandling bags of groceries into the car. It’s raining and one of the paper bags you insist on getting as a vague gesture towards being environmentally responsible has started to tear at the bottom. You figure that if you’re quick you can get it inside before more damage is done, but a can of tuna rolls out of the bottom and under the car. Cursing you stoop to pick it up, and that’s when you realize.
There’s someone behind you. Someone who has moved quickly and quietly. Someone who means you harm.
You turn, rising, forming a defiant question that will mask your sudden panic, and that’s when you see his fist and the blade it is wrapped around…
OK. So for most of us, writing the rest of this scene will—mercifully—be an act of imagination rather than memory, and it’s a tricky thing to do. Partly, I think, the problem is with the medium itself, words on a page being—perhaps—better suited to reflection than the furious chaos of physical fighting, the danger and exhilaration of which comes across so much better in a visual medium like film. It can be done in fiction, of course, but how do you pull it off?
Let me start with one of my usual calls for balance. On the one hand, we need to know what’s happening so we can picture it, but on the other we want to feel what it’s like to be in the fight, and those two impulses can be contradictory. Unless your protagonist is a very cool headed martial arts expert (and I’m assuming a limited 3rd person narrative here), describing every move of the struggle so that your reader can act them out is going to feel stiff and dull. As with larger plot points, the important thing is to remember that the meaning of the action is finally about its effect on the reader and its consequences for the characters, so that you don’t get mired in the mapping of its logistics. Real fights—even some verbal arguments if you’re angry enough—don’t feel choreographed. They feel irrational, a swirl of gut-level, thoughtlessness. If your character feels like his or her life is in danger, we need to sense that, and we won’t if it comes across as either a ballet or (and this picks up on other conversations we’ve had here recently) like the blow by blow account of a role playing game.
Different writers tackle this balance in different ways, of course, and it may depend on what you want from the sequence in terms of the larger narrative, but I would caution against too much reflection during the fight. As with any action sequence, you probably want to keep the specifics tight: short, breathless sentences, setting up (and balanced by) occasional longer and more reflective beats. The reading eye leaping quickly from sentence to sentence echoes the speed of the action and (hopefully) gets the adrenaline pumping, then you can move from the staccato to something with more detail or mood. Try this:
The knife flashes up at your face. You block wildly, stumbling, and his other fist swings in. It lands hard on jaw. Your head snaps back, and the night brightens. You taste blood against your teeth, and suddenly there is only panic and defiance and a wild, terrible fury. You lunge for his throat, forgetting the knife, your knee snapping up into his groin.
And so on. The first 4 sentences are short and physical, as is the last one. In the middle is something a bit longer, a bit more abstract, which provides a turn for the paragraph, a transitional moment in which the attacked becomes the attacker. The next longest sentences (the 2nd and the last) still feel short, because they’re made up of three almost separate phrases which each convey an action. The longer transitional sentence is not much longer (though the repeated “ands” force a fractional slowing of tempo, I think, which gives weight to “panic” “defiance” and then “fury” [itself loaded with two adjectives to give even greater specificity and weight]), because action has to feel almost like it’s happening in real time: that the number of seconds it takes to read the passage are about the same as how long the action takes to happen.
Action demands that you prioritize. What should be part of the character’s or narrator’s experience here? Should he/she (or “you”) be aware of the color and model of the car? Probably not. Adding that kind of detail at this point is likely to make the whole feel like an out of body experience, where the readers and those involved in the event are surveying the scene placidly, taking in the clothes of the people, the temperature of the night air and so forth. There may be good reason to include such information, but for most action sequences those things are going to feel digressive and irrelevant. When describing fighting well, the reader is most likely going to be thinking very simple things as the sequence taps into his or her own feelings of fear or exhilaration, and what will keep them reading is a focus on answering equally simple questions: will the protagonist survive and how? A secondary question might be ‘who is the attacker and why is this happening?’ but you barely want even that in the reader’s mind during the fight itself. As the struggle goes on, you want the reader’s response to be visceral, animal, rather than analytical.
The ‘show/don’t tell’ rule is especially applicable here. Each moment should feel immediate so beware those anti-suspense phrases which telegraph how things end up before you get there: “He didn’t think he had the energy but…” “The first two ax blows barely made an impression on the armor but…” “Only when he was down to his last bullet…” These are lazy phrases which effectively skip over time and ask the reader to pretend it was all gripping. Either make us experience each stroke, each shot, or leave them out.
Lastly, keep it short. Even in action-driven books the action is usually delivered in discrete episodes, because if the fighting (or whatever) starts to flag, the whole purpose of the scene has collapsed. If it starts to lag or otherwise loses its edge—even in the description of a big action event like a large scale battle—it has started to subvert its own purpose and needs cutting. Dialogue and exposition can occasionally get away with being a bit boring (particularly if their pay-off is elsewhere): action can’t. Action exists primarily for the thrill or horror they provide in the moment of reading. If you can’t feel your pulse starting to race as you read what you’ve written, it probably needs attention. Thoughts? Favorite authors for action sequences?