As a writer, it is easy to start a fight. Just walk into any college library and shout, "I think the Oxford Comma is redundant and feckless!" Full on fisticuffs inside of 20 seconds. But what if you just wanted to write about a fight? More specifically, you want to describe a b's-to-the-w's throw down. How do you do that? What are good fighting words?
First and foremost, use onomatopoeia. "He SMACKED him across the face." "He CRACKED him with the bat." "He SLICED and SLASHED with the sword." Those types of words attack multiple senses, adding a depth to the fight that is otherwise missed.
Writing a solid action sequence is a test of a writer's skill. It's not just about slapping together a collection of punches and kicks until one side or the other relents, it's about finding the narrative journey and exploring it through violence.
Did that seem to nose-in-the-air snobbish? Allow me to explain.
Violence in narrative isn't meant to be there just for the sake of a good blood-and-guts moment. These sections are meant to express a key part of the hero's journey. It is a physical expression of their character arc, a way to connect their mental progression to the next key moment of the quest. Violence, when carefully executed, resonates as more than just a crowd-pleasing brawl. It can be cathartic, satisfying a primal urge that the protagonist, and the audience, has longed for.
Take Batman. More specifically, take him in The Dark Knight. That is a movie that uses violence as a punctuation. Sure, Batman punches things right in the damn face. His fist is both the beginning and end to many conversations. However, it is his fight with the Joker that really demonstrates the use of violence as a narrative tool. During the famous interrogation scene, we see that the Joker can push Batman's buttons. He can get a rise out of the world's greatest detective without living a purple-gloved finger. But Batman learns to curb his violent tendencies in favor of pursuing justice. By the end of the film, when the two fight for real, Batman is able to stop the Joker without resorting to unseemly violence.
Sure, he punches the crap out of him, but the Joker makes it out alive.
Another brilliant use of violence in film is from Children of Men. Throughout the bleak and endlessly breathtaking movie, Clive Owen's character is faced with all manner of violence. He is beaten, shot, stabbed, and choked. His life is in constant peril. And, lest we forget, this is a distopian future where children are no longer born. Seems like the perfect place for some Wick-level gun play to save the day.
But Clive Owen doesn't touch a gun the entire movie. By the end, as the credits set, he has shown us a better future. Through the character's decisions in the face of violence, we see that our future will not be bought with the sword, but with the mind. With the spirit.
Sounds a little hokey? Not to worry, this next entry is all about violence!
Let's say you want to tell a revenge story. Your character is, perhaps, a retired mercenary of some sort. They've done terrible things and only want to forget, but fate drags them back into that world. While they aren't dumb people, they are also gifted practitioners of violence. What movie do you think I'm talking about?
If you said John Wick, too bad. You lose all the points. Go home.
While John Wick may be one of my favorite movies of recent memory, I am referring to The Count of Monte Cristo. As far as revenge stories go, this is the king. It has everything: Betrayal by a dear friend, false imprisonment, an escape, sudden riches, becoming an aristocrat overnight, sword fights...it's possibly the perfect story. That's why it has been duplicated so many times.
Dante's journey around Europe, setting up the dominoes that would eventually destroy his former friends, uses a sparing amount of violence. There are stabbings, fights, and the aforementioned swordplay. Each time, it is handled with a sudden rush of adrenaline, surprise, and exhaustive repose. Like actual violence, it arrives and leaves without stopping to see if you were ready. It is visceral and beautiful.
Good violence in a story serves the plot. The fight is a culmination of several threads coming together. The swords represent something other than penises (because, let's face it, every weapon ever developed is a phallic symbol), and death serves a purpose in carrying the narrative forward.