The best fight scenes take place inside the characters as well as outside in their world. The details of the external fight may or may not carry power. The charge for the reader often comes from the way the fight emerges from and changes the internal worlds of the characters.
In life, a punch to the head is immediate and compelling. In fiction, it can be a weightless cliché. In my novel, The Mighty Oak, about a fading minor league hockey enforcer, there are physical fights. Here’s what I considered in trying to make the fights immediate and compelling for the reader.
Fighters the reader cares about.
I find my connection to fiction through what the characters do and say of course, but mainly I connect through the depth and specificity of the characters’ internal wounds. Characters fight from these wounds.
Creating a charged setting.
If the fight takes place on an empty street, the emptiness needs to be felt as part of emotional world of the story. If the fight takes place in a ring, the insatiable emotional craving of the crowd for self-validation, for misdirected catharsis, charges the air.
The characters bring their whole histories, every lived moment. They fight in a charged external world, shaped by the reader’s felt understanding of the characters’ charged internal worlds.
Any setting, regardless of how familiar, can be charged in this way. In Dana Johnson’s powerful short story, “Melvin in the Sixth Grade,” a common schoolyard fight becomes wrenching not because of the externals of the all-too-familiar setting itself—Avery, the story’s protagonist, does not even participate in the fight—but for the crushing pressure the setting exerts on Avery’s internal wounds.
Avery, in love with Melvin, is a Black girl in a school run through with racism, and a nerd to boot. She’s in love with the genuinely cool, thus widely ignored, titular character, the white, Oklahoman transplant Melvin whose prize denim jacket spells his name across the back in rhinestones. Melvin sees what Johnson gets us to see in Avery but what Avery does not see in herself: her good heart, her smarts, her creative spirit.The climax of a fight needs to affect the reader beyond the moment itself.
Avery desperately wants to fit in at school; she wants to be liked by kids who do not and will not like her. This is one wound, the universally adolescent desire to fit in. But this wound is compounded—and the familiar setting charged—by the wounding of racism. Avery is bullied for being Black. Melvin is disliked for being her friend. The commonplace is charged and becomes heartbreaking.
Melvin doesn’t expect Avery to fight, only to be there for him. As he doesn’t want his prize jacket to get bloodied, he turns to the girl he thinks he knows. But he has not, cannot, feel the depth of her wounds.
“Av’ry, hold my jacket, will you?” Melvin held it out, and his nostrils flared a little bit when I hesitated. I glanced at Terri, who was looking straight at me with a psychotic grin on her face. Melvin thrust the jacket at me. I took it. And then, well, it slipped from my fingers and fell to the ground. Melvin looked at his jacket and then at me, those pale blue eyes staring at me brand new and different from any time before. We both left the jacket there, and then he beat the shit out of Harry, then Hector, then Eddie. Not Terri, because she was a girl, but she chased me home for two weeks straight, even though I didn’t hold the jacket…
Avery’s charged inner world freezes her inside the charged setting. Her action is tiny. But in the emotional context of the story, it’s massive.
Use direct language.
The language of the fight—the word choice, cadence and rhythm—arises from the emotional world of the protagonist(s), shaped for the story.
A punch to the head is a direct physical experience most likely requiring direct language. This direct language arises from—is shaped by—the interior worlds of the fighters. The scene’s language is expressed out of a felt sense for the writer of all that a character brings to the moment. Directness here does not mean plainness, but trueness.
A fight scene might use short sentences or long, quick or slow. At the climax, the speed of the scene may in fact slow down, with the character’s sense of time expanding. A fighter might see more sharply and precisely when she is inside of the adrenal bubble, when she feels, for an instant, timeless rather than time-bound. Or a fight scene might, as expected, speed up at the climax. But if this is the case, that speed likely arises from the character’s inner avoidance of what brings them to fight (that’s what they’re fending off), or maybe as a full explosion of an aspect of the internal into an action that they know—in another aspect of their internal—is wrong.
In Colin Barrett’s violent, surprisingly tender short story “Calm with Horses,” twentysomething Douglas “Arm” Armstrong is defined in his small Irish town, and self-defines, as the teenaged boxing champion he once was. Arm shows flashes of heart across the story, increasingly with his autistic son, and flashes of self-awareness. The subjects of his violence are men who have done wrongs, they are not innocents. Arm’s wound is his inability to see a future for himself beyond the fists he’s always been celebrated for and called upon to use for others’ gain. In the attack below, the straight-forward language rises from Arm’s directness. The charged setting is Fannigan’s living room, charged because it was in such a commonplace domestic setting that the fiftysomething Fannigan assaulted a 14-year-old girl.
“Have a seat,” Fannigan said.
Arm stepped forward.
“Arm—” Fannigan said and raised an open hand.
Arm grabbed the back of Fannigan’s head and flipped him off the couch onto the floor. Fannigan’s cheek smacked the coffee table. He moaned, and a dark rivulet, meaty and viscous, slipped from his mouth. Arm stepped back and guided his foot up under the old man’s ribs.
“Up,” Arm said, “look, Fannigan. Look.”
Fannigan raised his face as requested. Arm hit him two, three, four times. To his credit, Fannigan was still conscious after that, though swimming on his elbows on the carpet. It was often hard to tell if a person was crying in that state—there was usually a lot of liquid running from their face, necessitating all manner of soggy expulsions and clogged snorkeling noises. But Arm thought Fannigan was crying. Certainly, Fannigan was struggling to say something.
“I-I-I didnnn efffin ged, ged haa nnnnnnickers off!”
Arm hit Fannigan again. There was the wishbone snap of his nose breaking and the old man was clean out.
Direct language doesn’t necessarily mean plain language. In James Kelman’s startling, wildly humane novel How Late It Was, How Late, the protagonist Sammy wakes at the start of the novel, in the weeds, shattered from the night(s) before, his shoes stolen and swapped somehow for cheap trainers, with the morning commuters eye-balling him. A charged setting for sure. A fight comes early, and again the language is shaped from the protagonist’s emotional world, this time from an inner wound that tells Sammy he deserves punishment, or at least that this is how life goes. The language, for Sammy, is direct.
He caught sight of the tourists again. Only they werenay tourists, no this time anyway they were sodjers, fucking bastards, ye could smell it: even without the uniforms. A mile away. Sammy knew them, ye can aye tell, their eyes; if ye know these eyes then ye aye see them, these kinds of eyes, they stay with ye. And he even fuck he thought he knew them personally from somewhere, who knows.
But he had decided. Right there and then. It was here he made the decision.
Sammy relentlessly badgers the cops for money.
Naw but I’m telling ye
Ya fucking idiot… The one that spoke had his hand up covering his mouth like he was hiding the fact he was talking.
Ye alright mate? Ye got a sore tooth?
…Move it ya fucking pest. This was sodjer number 2 talking; then his hand was on Sammy’s right shoulder and Sammy let him have it, a beautiful left cross man he fucking onered him one, right on the side of the jaw, and his fucking hand, it felt like he’d broke it. And sodjer number 1 was grabbing at him but Sammy’s foot was back and he let him have it hard on the leg and the guy squealed and dropped and Sammy was off and running cause one minute more and they would be back at him for christ sake the stupit fucking trainers man his poor auld toe it felt like it was fucking broke it was pinging yin yin poioioioiong
Direct language connects the reader to the inseverable internal-external loop of wounding.
Write toward a compelling climax.
The climax of a fight needs to affect the reader beyond the moment itself. Here, if the writer has done the job, is where the reader might, in an instant, recall an incident in a character’s established history, charging the scene into resonance. The climactic moment of a fight scene challenges the physical bodies of the characters but also it challenges and attacks the characters’ internal worlds, reshaping some part of what the reader knows the characters carry inside. The larger felt sense for the reader, accompanying the likely pop of the exterior scene, comes in how this climax affects what has been established about a character’s inner world and history. The internal and external are inextricably woven.
With Avery, we remember her writing Melvin’s name over and over in her school notebook. We remember them sharing illicit cigarettes. We remember the gang shootings that compelled her father to move his family to a new town. We remember the racist bullying. We feel and understand her betrayal of Melvin at the school yard fight.
With Arm, we remember him having only recently, awkwardly, ridden his first horse, at a program with his autistic son. We remember his remorse for the relatives of the man he kills, a man he kills to spare the man a more brutal murder and to disentangle a friend. At the story’s climax, the violence around Arm entraps him. Recalling these softer moments, Barrett gets us to feel at the climax what the wounded protagonist might have been but will not become.
With Sammy, the novel’s lack of a traditional climax serves as one. The story is not shapeless; the pressure on Sammy’s internal wounds—his pride in a stubborn self-sufficiency that excuses self-harm and shuts out connection—builds across the novel, culminating in a sequence with his 15-year-old son from an early marriage that doesn’t necessarily suggest much further connection or change. Kelman’s climax is made compelling by the reader’s growing understanding that the story may not have the typical narrative shape of most fiction, may not have shape outside of Sammy’s everyday struggle. Sammy tells his son, on considering leaving Glasgow, “The worst of all this is saying cheerio to the likes of yerself, but what can ye do, ye’ve got to batter on, know what I’m saying, ye’ve got to batter on.” The reader recalls the batterings Sammy’s taken, and feels the sweep of life’s indifference.
Create a felt resolution.
Resolutions of fight scenes also take place most profoundly in the internal worlds of the characters in relation to the reader’s expectations. A fight might physically end, but the fight scene is not resolved until the inner world of the character is felt by the reader to have shifted.
Avery goes home after the playground fight and feels things are wrong. She stands in front of the mirror and imagines her nerdy self as Foxy Brown, of how Foxy might have handled the fight very differently. She bumps into her older brother in the hallway of their home. Here’s the last paragraph of “Melvin in the Sixth Grade,” also the story’s resolution.
“Hey Owen,” I said.
“Isn’t it weird going to school with all these white people sometimes? Don’t it make you feel . . .” my voice trailed off. I was looking for the word. “Bad? Doesn’t it make you feel bad?”
“What?” Owen rolled his eyes. “I’m graduating this year, Ave. I ain’t stuttin’ these white folks.” He went into his room and closed the door, and soon I could hear Peabo Bryson blaring from his stereo, I’m so into you, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
Stuttin’, Owen said. Stuttin’ meant “studying.” I repeated the word in my head. I’d heard that word my whole life from my Grandmamas, Mama, Daddy, everybody. But when Owen said it then, stuttin’ sounded like a word he’d just made up. For the first time I really heard what the kids in school heard when I spoke. Owen sounded strange to me, from someplace else, using that word. Part of a language I knew but was already beginning to forget.
We feel her shift.
Coming back to The Mighty Oak, I wanted immediacy, for the reader to feel what Oak feels, in settings charged by what Oak reveals and conceals. When Oak fights, I want the reader right there.