JOHN OSTRANDER: Fighting The Good Fight Scene
I was suffering from the condition she described so well in a recent column – being blocked – and she supplied the cure as well. She talked about the difficulty in writing fight scenes in superhero comics and then claimed both I and Denny O’Neil know how to do it. I’m not always sure that’s true with me but it did give me this week’s topic. Thanks, Mindy!
On the surface, writing a fight scene might not seem that difficult. You have two steroid queens pounding the poo out of each other, right? What’s the big deal? Actually, there are a number of things to keep in mind.
Let’s start with the pragmatic. As with movies and television, fights in comics are depicted, not simply described. In the credits for both film and TV, you can find the position of “fight choreographer” and, yes, it’s very like a dance choreographer. Think of fight scenes as very violent dance. Rhumbas with a right hook. Cha Chas with a karate chop.
The fight needs to be imagined in steps so as to be clear, effective and – in movies and TV – safe for the participants. The fight also has to build in intensity. There’s a great film by Walter Hill called Hard Times (1975), starring Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Strother Martin about a bare knuckle fighter working pick-up fights around New Orleans during the Depression. There are several fights in the film and not only do they have to build individually but overall the fights have to build with greater physical and emotional intensity throughout the film to the climax.
In comics a fight scene needs one clear, definable move per character per panel. Also, for best impact, the blow is begun in one panel and then completed in the next. When possible, you end the page with one character about to strike and start the next page with the blow connecting or the other character blocking or dodging. Part of the magic that happens in between panels is that the reader “sees” the motion but only if the action in both panels is clear.
You also want to think of variety. Punch, block, counterpunch, block gets old real fast. In boxing, a boxer will go for the head, the ribs, stomach and so on to mix up the blows. In comics, you can include head-butts, kicks, leaps, martial arts moves and so on. You can also imagine a variety of different settings. Where the fight takes place can determine what fight can take place.
Different characters have different fighting styles. Spider-Man is an acrobatic fighter; the Hulk… well, Hulk smashes. Unless your character has made a change in their fighting style as part of the story, have them fight the way they are supposed to fight.
Just as important as the moves is the fact that the fight is a scene in the story you’re telling. All the rules for a scene apply – what does the character want, how badly do they want it, how far are they willing to go to get what they want? What does it tell us about the character, what does it tell them about themselves? What is revealed, what is concealed? How does this scene move the story ahead? The story is not there to justify a fight scene; the fight scene is there to advance the story. If it doesn’t, it wastes space.
There should be an ebb and flow in a fight scene. The outcome should not be a foregone conclusion for either party. Motivation will play a key factor in any fight. Maybe your character keeps getting knocked down but keeps getting back up. Keep in mind that the opponent is not always another person; it can be time, it can be physical obstacles, it can be the weather, it can be something inside of the characters themselves. All these should be factors in a good fight scene.
Finally, leave room for the artist to work their magic. When working plot instead of full script, I often just gives the basics to the artist – what’s at stake, what are the beats in the action, what is the outcome – and let them choreograph it. The artist is not your hands; the artist is your partner.
It boils down to this: you’re telling a story and that involves conflict. Conflict reveals character – who someone is as opposed to who they think they are. A fight scene is that conflict in its most physical, graphic form but it’s still part of the story. When in doubt, tell the story.
MONDAY: Mindy Newell