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For my story I have been doing research on fighting in order to better write the fight scenes. However, once I got a better handle on how fighting in real life works I've noticed I've started nit-picking actual fight scenes in movies.

I'll watch choreographed fight scenes and cringe at how the characters leave themselves wide open, or they'll ignore an opening that would result in victory, or refuse to fight dirty in a matter of life or death (and they aren't written as some paragon who would avoid stooping that low). Especially fights that in-story are supposed to be matters of survival rather than non-lethal. Of course, taking that logic to its fullest conclusion results in a brutally efficient method of fighting like "kick them in the crotch, cut their throat while they're reeling, boom, dead in two moves", which isn't very interesting to read. And unfortunately that kind of mindset is the kind of mindset I feel most of my characters have.

It’s also pretty unrealistic because for a fight to be prolonged that long requires both combatants both be equally matched in combat skill (or, alternatively, equally incompetent to avoid noticing openings) in order to appropriately match blow for counterblow, which almost never happens in real life. Someone would get tired or accidentally let down their guard.

I understand there are very good narrative reasons for doing this. For one, in real life fights usually only last about a few seconds and one person is either dead or incapacitated within the first couple of blows (with the person who strikes first usually winning). Not very dramatic. On top of that writing every fight scene “perfectly” wastes potential characterization. A lot of fight scenes use individual differences in combat style and their approach to fighting to reveal character, as shown in every martial arts movie or shonen anime ever made. That includes experience and skill level. Writing every character as a technically flawless combatant is unrealistic. It's the combat equivalent of every character, from gutter urchins to upper-class snobs, speaking perfect RP English with no variation in slang, accent, or personal tone.

As a result, fight scenes generally have to be "suboptimal" and not flawless on a technical level in order to be interesting. And, in fact, my fight scenes are pretty boring because there's little variation in how the characters approach the problem. When I try to choreograph fight scenes I tend to think "what would I do if I was in the character's position" and that tends towards brutal efficiency. In fact, it makes the characters who are supposed to be "brutally efficient" not stand out. I think a lot of it is my plot was originally written as a screenplay and so focused on visual spectacle, whereas in writing the draw of fight scenes is primarily (that isn't to say screenplays can't have fights reveal character, just that the crutch of visual spectacle isn't there). I just have trouble getting out of the brutally efficient "point A to point B" mindset and allow myself to write something flashier.

I understand that fiction does not reflect reality, and reality can often be less believable than fiction. What I’m trying to figure out is how can I write my fight scenes to be dramatic without cringing at how sloppy the characters are fighting (i.e., breaking suspension of disbelief)?

  • So, you are asking how to write "long" fight scenes without being unrealistic? – Alexander Jun 22 at 18:19
  • @Alexander I would more say "write a fight scene that comes off as believably competent rather than unrealistic" in either direction. It's like the saying about when you want to fail a test without suspicion you don't mark every answer wrong, you mark enough so that your failure is believable. The problem is when I write fight scenes and deliberately put in mistakes I think "there's no way someone wouldn't notice that opening and end the fight right then and there". – user2352714 Jun 22 at 20:33
  • With most proper fighting stances, it becomes much more difficult for your opponent to kick you twixt the legs. Your "effective" method is then... ineffective, unless the target is an amateur. Also, there's a big difference in seeing an opening from 10-feet back, and seeing the same opening from 3-feet away from someone who's trying to punch you in the face - try it in front of a mirror. (That said, I also find a lot of fight scenes in movies cringeworthy, but understand its usually because the choreographer is trying to make it look interesting and impressive, not realistic.) – Chronocidal Jun 23 at 13:06
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This is a complex question and it deserves a full answer, so I'll break my answer into two parts: how to write an interesting fight scene and how to specifically explain why a character wouldn't make optimal moves in a fight.

How to write an interesting fight scene

The best advice I have ever received about writing interesting and exciting fight scenes that have variety, while also portraying the competency of the characters, was this:

Fight scenes should tell you more about the characters who are fighting through the way they fight, the moves they use, and the choices they make in the fight. In other words, the most well-written and interesting fight scenes in books and movies don't focus on the coolness or efficiency of the moves, or the technical nitty-gritty details of each move; rather, they give insight into the characters and their personality, and that's what makes them interesting. It's less "what move would be best and most efficient to kill this guy" and more "what move would be really interesting for this specific character, with his unique training and personality, to use in this moment?"

So in order to write a fight scene that is dramatic, has some variety, and doesn't break suspension of disbelief, I'd say the number one thing to focus on is portraying characterization through the way each character fights, without necessarily splitting hairs about how competent or efficient they are coming across or what the most effective move to use would be. Don't focus on what is best, focus on what is interesting and makes sense for the character to do.

One way you can do this is for each "move" or action each character has to take in the fight, ask yourself:

  1. What choice will this character make in this moment, and why would this character make that choice? What does it say about them and why did they pick that move over all the others they could have used? Is it meaningful to them in some way? Perhaps it could tell us more about what kind of combat training they have, or who trained them to fight.
  2. Does this choice advance the fight scene in an interesting way or result in an interesting reaction from the opponent? It's fine to have a character just punch and kick their way out, but there's not really an interesting way for the opponent to respond to a punch besides dodging or getting hit. What if instead the character used the objects in the environment, i.e. smashing a chair over their head or breaking a wineglass or throwing sand in their eyes? What if they changed weapons or fighting styles in an unexpected way, to force the opponent to adapt and react?
  3. Does the choice give us an important clue about the character's personality, motivations, alignment, etc.? It means something when a character decides to fight dirty and kick their opponent in the nether regions, or waits for their opponent to get back up before continuing the fight instead of beating them while they're down, or specifically brings a knife to a gun fight because they're more confident in melee weapons (or maybe they just don't like guns). It tells us more about who they are as a person, and makes it more interesting to watch them fight.

But this doesn't answer your main question, so on to part two.

How to explain why characters don't fight optimally

When you have characters fighting who are supposed to be highly trained and extremely competent, it might be hard to explain why they would miss an obvious opening, fumble a move, etc. But a "perfect" fight scene isn't very interesting to write or read, so in order to have some fun in your action sequences, you almost do have to have your characters fight imperfectly.

But here's the thing: even highly trained professionals will never fight perfectly or optimally, even in the best conditions. Fights are incredibly stressful, violent and fast-paced encounters, and you are under a great deal of pressure, because often you are literally fighting for your life. It is a do-or-die scenario. As a result, unless you are superhuman and capable of completely suppressing every emotional response and pain response in a fight, you will make mistakes. So it's not entirely unreasonable to say that your characters will mess up and not fight perfectly.

Here a few plausible reasons why you could have your characters fight "suboptimally" while preserving the suspension of disbelief.

Maybe they're in pain.

Injuries received during fights hurt, and they will distract you and throw you off your game. In action movies this is often downplayed by the character just wincing for a second and then "toughing it out" and continuing to fight normally, but in reality, injuries taken in a fight are really, really painful and adrenaline will not save you from feeling that pain. If you take a hard hit to the face, are cut by a weapon, shot by a gun, etc. it will severely impact your ability to keep fighting.

Maybe they're distracted, emotionally vulnerable, or just weren't ready to fight.

If you're not prepared and in a good mental head space to get into a tense fight, it can be really hard to put yourself there in the middle of it. If you haven't braced yourself, you're absolutely going to make mistakes. Some people have to meditate before combat, or stretch, or just generally make mental preparations for a life-or-death encounter. But being thrown straight into one without any warning, especially when it's just out of the blue, is going to affect your performance dramatically.

Maybe this is an opponent they've never fought before, and they can't predict what they'll do next.

A brand-new opponent whose fighting style you don't know very well is going to impact your fighting performance. If you know ahead of time that they're trained in martial arts or served a year in Afghanistan, then you can at least get a general idea of how they'll react in certain situations, but if you know nothing, you're going in blind, and that's also where you can make mistakes if they do something you weren't expecting.

I hope this helps! I will link a few sources about how to write good fight scenes that helped me, for future reference. Here's a good one, and this is the one I referenced to write this answer.

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