I love fight choreography. I love reading a particularly clever combat scene that makes use of its characters and setting in creative, yet realistic ways. This post is intended as a way for readers to learn techniques for writing fight scenes and stepping outside the easy and expected choreography. It’s the third in an ongoing series of them, the rest of which can be found here.
As a quick note, I’m not a grandmaster of martial arts or anything like that. I hold a black belt in Tang Soo Do, and have also trained in Isshin-Ryu Karate, Eskrima, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and stage choreography using rapiers and medieval broadswords. So that gives you an idea of my knowledgeable areas.
Now let’s get to the fighting!
Author: Mary Maddox
Book: Darkroom, work in progress
Buy Link: Work in Progress
Combatant 1: Kelly, a woman in her late thirties. 5’7″, medium build. Works out, but no combat training.
Combatant 2: A man, former cop, 6’0″, trained in combat. Armed with a gun.
Scenario: The man is pursuing Kelly in his vehicle, but does not want to kill her immediately because police are around. High intensity, high anxiety.
He got out and circled the hood, in no hurry. Kelly lurched away from him. He caught her in seconds. With his thick forearm wedged under her chin, pressing her throat, he dragged her to the Land Rover. He yanked open the passenger door and shoved her in. Braced against the seat, she kicked blindly and struck somewhere soft. He grunted. He lunged and punched her ribs, three sharp blows that left her paralyzed and breathless. The door slammed, loud and final like a sprung trap. He slid behind the wheel, pulled the door shut, and shifted out of park. The Land Rover bumped across the field.
Kelly raised her head and glimpsed lights flashing through smoke before he slammed her face against the console. She screamed at the pain exploding in her skull.
The Land Rover swung right and began climbing an embankment. A few more seconds and they would reach the highway. He would take her to some isolated place, kill her, and dump her body.
The man’s hand brushed her head as he pocketed the phone. Her chance. She grabbed the wheel and yanked. The Land Rover crested the ditch, accelerating. For an instant it hung, balanced on two wheels, engine screaming, and then it crashed on the passenger side and slid, grinding and shrieking against the asphalt. Kelly bounced off the door and struck her head on the roof. The Land Rover skidded to a stop.
Suspended above her in the seat belt, her kidnapper struggled to free his right arm, which was caught between her body and the car seat. She pushed her hip to pin his arm tighter. He cranked his left arm and began punching her shoulder. Weak blows. But they hurt. Then he reached toward his armpit. Where the gun was. She grabbed his forearm and clung. Hanging, he couldn’t use his body strength. He thrashed and jounced in the harness of the seat belt. Both of them huffed with effort. His jacket hung open and the gun was right there. She released his arm and seized the butt. The gun stuck in his holster. She pulled and wiggled the butt, and finally the gun came out.
The thought of shooting him — of shooting anyone — repulsed Kelly. Better to throw the gun in back, out of reach. Or fire through the window. Someone might hear. She had her finger curled on the trigger when he punched her face. Her head snapped sideways, her teeth bit into her cheek, and the gun fired. She saw the flash, heard the explosive crack, and felt the recoil torque her wrist. Then the world was silent. She couldn’t hear her own squeals of pain or any sound from him. Her wrist throbbed. Above her, the man caught in the seatbelt was flopping and heaving like a fish in a net. Then she noticed the wetness on her face. Blood. She couldn’t see where he was hit, but he was bleeding hard. Kelly wasn’t sure how long he thrashed. Maybe a minute. Maybe five. His thrashing grew feeble and finally stopped.
This scene makes good use of its setting – the tipped car – to create some interesting visuals. That sort of unique detailing is what tends to make a fight stand out, so already we’re on the right track here.
“… three sharp blows that left her paralyzed and breathless.”
Be careful in fight scenes when using words like “paralyzed” or “dying,” since readers may take them literally. I read “paralyzed” and started thinking her spine was snapped. Adverbs can be your friend here (“momentarily paralyzed”), but in this case I’d switch the word entirely to “gasping” or “stunned.” Rib strikes are unlikely to cause paralysis, but they can certainly leave you out of breath and unable to move in pain for a few seconds.
“The door slammed, loud and final like a sprung trap.”
There needs to be a line explaining why Kelly doesn’t unlock the door and jump out while her attacker is rounding the car to get in on the driver’s side.
“She screamed at the pain exploding in her skull.”
The placement of this as a separate line after the actual head wound implies that she started screaming after the fact. Combining the two, e.g. “… against the console, wrenching forth a scream” keeps the two actions in the same time period. I’d also consider switching to something a little less active than a scream, since blows to the head tend to daze people.
“The man’s hand brushed her head as he pocketed the phone.”
Restaging is needed here. Even if she’s laying down, she’d have to be literally in his lap for this action to happen.
“Kelly bounced off the door and struck her head on the roof.”
This is now two blows to the head, plus multiple scrapes and bruises from the initial struggle and the car accident. Kelly should be moving slowly and with quite a lot of pain for the rest of this scene. Also, both combatants should be momentarily stunned from the impact here, so I’d like to see a line showing that.
“… her kidnapper struggled to free his right arm, which was caught between her body and the car seat. She pushed her hip to pin his arm tighter.”
Some restaging is needed here. I’m picturing the guy’s arm being splayed out across the passenger seat, and Kelly being upside-down, with her shoulders against the window and her legs in the air, across the seat, in order to pin him this way. This positioning is hard to visualize, and also makes it impossible for him to begin punching her with his other arm, as he does in the next sentence. To simplify, I’d have him go for his gun and her grab his arm to stop him, skipping straight to the line about clinging to his forearm.
“Weak blows. But they hurt.”
With her head wounds and the adrenaline of combat, either the blows should be stronger, or she should barely feel them.
“She grabbed his forearm and clung. Hanging, he couldn’t use his body strength.”
This is a great example of using your setting creatively to write an interesting fight scene. Love this.
One note, though: When writing fights, you need to keep track of all four limbs for each combatant. I would add a line stating that her dangling body is obstructing his right arm’s ability to reach the gun. He is probably continuing to hit her with that hand, too, since it’s free.
“His jacket hung open and the gun was right there.”
Too vague. Was it in a shoulder holster? Hip holster? Tucked in the back of his pants? Is the holster buckled or open?
“The gun stuck in his holster. She pulled and wiggled the butt, and finally the gun came out.”
The man should attempt some sort of counter move as she goes for the weapon. I’d also rephrase “wiggled the butt,” and find a more active verb for the gun’s release from the holster to keep things high-intensity.
“She had her finger curled on the trigger when he punched her face.”
A punch is a terrible move to use against someone holding a gun, and this ex-cop would know that. I would only believe he tried to punch her if he was already in mid-strike when she retrieved the weapon. Otherwise he’d have gone for a disarm.
There also needs to be some address of the weapon’s safety. Since this man is a hired killer and probably not too cautious, he might just leave it off, but somewhere in the book I would want to see that mentioned.
“Her head snapped sideways, her teeth bit into her cheek, and the gun fired. She saw the flash, heard the explosive crack, and felt the recoil torque her wrist. Then the world was silent. She couldn’t hear her own squeals of pain or any sound from him.”
I love these rapid-fire, short phrases that just give you glimpses of activity. Very high-energy. I’d reconsider the word “squeals” to preserve the moment.
“She couldn’t see where he was hit, but he was bleeding hard.”
If she can’t see where he’s hit, I’m not sure how she knows he’s bleeding a lot. She needs to see the bloodstain for that, and the blood on her face, to make sense.
In summary, this fight makes good use of setting to create a memorable set of choreography. Some of the movements should be restaged and some of the descriptions revised, but the overall concept is solid.
What did you think of this fight? What other creative ways have you seen cars used as battlegrounds? I’d love to chat with you, so scroll to the comments and say hey!