One thing in fight scenes that I often find is overlooked (or at least not as utilized as it could be) is the setting. Setting is crucial to a fight scene since where your characters are greatly affects what they can do and how they will fight. This is particularly applicable to fantasy, but if you have two characters get into a sword fight in the middle of a large, flat, empty section of land with no one and nothing in it, they can pretty much to whatever they want. They can draw their sword and swing it wildly.
But there aren’t really places like that. Parking lots have cars. Runways have airplanes. Even Nebraska has dips and rises and barbed wire fences and cows that would need to be taken into account. Chances are, if you’re writing a fight scene, there’s going to be something in your setting that needs to be taken into account.
Take a crowded bar. If you have a character challenge another to a sword fight in a tavern, they might not even have enough space to draw their sword. Swords are long and take quite a bit of space to draw. Crowded taverns are often short on space. They are filled with tables, chairs, dishes, food, and other people that might end up as collateral damage. If you need to have a fight take place in a setting like this, you might have to modify things so that it’s physically possible to fight. Maybe they take the fight out into the street. Maybe the ceilings are high and they fight on the tables. Or maybe your characters don’t care about collateral damage and are willing to kill and destroy to get what they want. But you as a writer need to be aware of the situation and know how the setting will affect the way they fight.
The way people fight changes based on their setting. I used to co-teach a martial arts class full of teenage boys. They’d trained together for years and were all higher rank or black belts. Since they were more advanced (and less likely to hurt themselves) we would sometimes let them try out new things. Fighting with different weapons. Simulating different settings. That sort of thing.
One day, we pulled out the ground mats to simulate fighting on top of a building. The rules were that the first person to step off the mat lost (ie, fell off the building). Suddenly these boys, who had spent years kicking and punching together, completely changed their fighting styles. Kicking put them off balance in a situation where balance was vital. Instead, they were grabbing each other by the shoulders and trying to throw their opponent off balance and off of the “building.” A different fighting style for a different situation.
There are even variations in martial arts styles based on the setting they were developed in. For example, there are some subsets of Pencak Silat that were developed in slippery rice fields. Practitioners of those styles use low stances and are often quick to go to the ground in a fight. Their style of martial arts developed in response to the specific challenges of their setting.
If you have an action sequence in your story, how will your setting affect that? How can you use the unique details of your setting to add authenticity to your fight scene?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and is always looking for books that will make her laugh. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys watching Korean dramas, BBC period pieces, and thinks Avatar: the Last Airbender is the best show ever made.