In Fight Scenes that Resonate I break down a half-dozen basic considerations for scripting effective fight scenes.
Welcome to the Pro class where we go “a bit” further and break down, the ultimate fight (or battle) scene. In truth, it would be more accurate to call it the complete fight scene or narrative fight mechanics–I took a little creative liberty with the title.
Every fight scene can be measured on a scale, with one end delivering a complete, engaging narrative and the other delivering and incomplete or non-existant narrative.
Below are the narrative fight mechanics for a complete fight scene. I recommend building out as much as you can into the main fight of your issue. Though in a perfect world, you will also apply as much as you can to each and every fight in the story (discussed more shortly).
First, let’s define what a fight (or battle) is.
Fight: A violent struggle involving the exchange of physical blows or the use of weapons.
The Struggle is Real
Notice that by definition, a fight is a struggle–a pursuit of a goal through violence. If you reach (or are definitively denied) the goal right off, there is no struggle.
Watch any boxing match where the boxers come out at the bell, one throws a punch and the other is knocked out, and you’ll immediately feel robbed. “Hell, that wasn’t a fight!” But in contrast, watch those fighters go back and forth, watch the outcome teeter between the two, watch them earn it, and you’ll have a satisfying, engaging fight.
This begs the immediate question, how long does the struggle need to be?
For all intents and purposes, we can look at the struggle as the second act of the story–we’ll talk more on this in a second–so, just as you would not want a lopsided, out of balance act structure for your overall story, the same goes for the fight. As the second act, the struggle is larger portion and backbone of the fight, consisting of the most panels.
You can imply struggle with one panel, especially when supported by dialogue. Think of Thor holding the Hulk, “By Odin, I’ve never encountered such strength! Can’t… hold him… much longer.”
However, one panel gives no visual comparison of the struggle. So while we understand the one panel struggle logically, we don’t see it and feel it viscerally.
Two panels is better. It allows us to convey distinct change. Picture an extreme close up of Thor and Hulk’s arms, locked in an arm wrestling match. The first panel shows the arms upright, Hulk bending Thor’s hand back slightly. Let’s add the same dialogue, “By Odin, I’ve never encountered such strength! Can’t… hold him… much longer.” In the next panel, Thor’s hand hovers just an inch above the table. WE SEE THE STRUGGLE. We’re there in the moment, experiencing it as it unfolds.
Three panels is even better.
Arriving at our magic number of three, three panels allows us to break the struggle into a distinct ‘core narrative structure’, beginning, middle and end–introduction, complication, resolution. In turn this allows us to capture even more dramatic change and clearly, effectively express the struggle.
Of course, this 3 panel breakdown is really a minimum.
The best fight scenes have complex struggles, limited only by your imagination, skill as a writer, narrative needs and to some extent, space.
* Running Panel Count: Focusing on minimums (to give us a benchmark), that puts us at 3 panels for the struggle–but we’re not finished with the struggle just yet: