Writing Fight Scenes 3: Getting the Details Right

By Matthew Lowes

gun guys

Photo by Yoni Hamenachem, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

I’ve been rewatching Lost on Netflix, and once again, I’m surprised by how many writers, producers, and directors get certain details “wrong” when it comes to orchestrating their fictional violence. Much of it can be excused under the guise of serving the story (see my previous post on Graphing Fictional Violence), but some of it is just laziness or a refusal to learn how things really work.

So this brings me to my third installment on Writing Fight Scenes. I want to talk about some details frequently misrepresented in stories. As I said previously, if you’re doing something on purpose to serve a particular story, or a sense of fantasy, that’s one thing. But if you just don’t know any better, that’s another matter. We’ll take some examples from Lost since it’s on my mind.

A lot of people get knocked out in Lost, usually with a blow to the back of the head. This is a common event in a lot of action stories. I get it. It’s convenient. It gets the character out of the way for while without killing them. But while a blow to the head could knock you unconscious, these people are unconscious for a long time, like ten or twenty minutes, even hours. Then they wake up and they’re fine. The reality is, if you’re unconscious for that long, you’re looking at some brain damage and a very serious medical situation.

Likewise, a surprising number of people get beat up on Lost, and while only a few people know how to sail a boat, hunt a boar, or fix a radio, almost everyone can throw a wicked right hook. To their credit, it makes sense for a few of the characters, and they go to some pains to establish an explanation for others. But you see this in a lot of stories, as if boxing were a universal sport. The truth is, I know a few martial artists and not even all of them are good at punching. Most people have a strong psychological aversion to really punching someone, and it’s definitely not a ubiquitous skill.

And now for the guns! There are a lot of guns in Lost, and who controls them, and uses them, rightly or wrongly, is a big topic. Use of firearms, like punching, is not a universal skill. Lost does a pretty good job with establishing this and why some characters have this skill and others don’t. Where they go wrong, and where so many stories go wrong, is in the details. The biggest offender these days is in the constant slide racking of automatic pistols. It’s dramatic. It’s a sound that gets your attention. Sure, but in most cases you’re just wasting valuable ammunition. The slide needs to be racked to load the first round into the chamber. This is usually done when the weapon is loaded. After that, manually racking the slide would just eject an unfired round.

The other mistake with guns is characters who should know better walking around with their fingers resting on the triggers. But I’ll leave it for another day, along with reloading.

Finally, I have to add, I have it on good authority that shocking somebody who has flatlined will not revive them. CPR is good, but forget about the paddles. Those are used for reestablishing a normal cardiac rhythm in cases of life threatening dysrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation. Once the heart stops you have other problems.

So what do you do? Do your homework. Educate yourself on the technical aspects of a scene. If you want a character to be unconscious for a long time, but you need them alive later, maybe a drug could work. If a character is an awesome fighter, consider establishing why. If you hand a gun savvy character a gun before battle, have them check that it’s loaded, but not rack the slide with abandon. If you’re going to show somebody flatline on the operating table, find out what a surgeon would really do. If you still want to ignore reality after you’ve figured it out, at least you’re doing so consciously, and presumably with good reasons.

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2 thoughts on “Writing Fight Scenes 3: Getting the Details Right

  1. Thanks Matt! I appreciate the details-and referenced your posts when I had to write a fight scene last time. It’s hard to write a fight scene without all the research unless you want to go out and get into a fight to validate your approach (which is not preferable)…

    • Thanks, Cynthia. It’s true, it’s hard when you don’t have a direct experience with something, but you can always consult people with some experience. And a lot of the choreography can be hand waved in writing. I don’t recommend getting into fights though. 🙂

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