Writing for Comics, part 3 : The Fight Scene

Conflict, in any form, is central to both the development of a story and the enthrallment of the reader. Sometimes it’s an emotional conflict, a personal conflict, or an environmental conflict; other times, it becomes physical. As comics are steeped in the pulpy traditions of adventurers, gangland violence and super-heroics, it seems that comics just aren’t comics without a good ol’ bout of fisticuffs – and modern comics are no exception.

Artists are far, far more detailed today than they were at the beginnings of comics; one look at Bob Kane’s and Andy Kubert’s respective takes on Batman, and it’s fairly plain to see that. But our expectations have risen, along with our more sophisticated tastes; we have become used to artists doing fantastic renditions of people and characters in comics. It’s only natural that we want to see these fictional entities beat each other to a pulp, in new and amazing ways.

As a writer, you can take a very laissez-faire approach to writing a fight scene, or you can be very involved. In the case of superheroes, one can rely on powers to replace physical actions, which eases the burden a bit. However, in the case of normal, un-super folk, it’s a bit more difficult. But this isn’t something to be feared; it’s an opportunity.

While I was writing an early draft of the project I’m working on now, I had a great fight scene planned out; I took a lot of inspiration from the martial arts films that peppered my childhood, and did a classic multi-layered, multi-opponent battle with two sections – a martial arts section, and a sword-fighting section. The martial arts section was great fun to write; I had two female characters, and gave them fighting styles that suited their personalities. One was more of a brawler, sticking with her fists and seizing advantages; the other relied on tae-kwon-do rooted legwork, and planning ahead.

You’d think that these restrictions would be limiting, but in fact, they’re not. The two women took on a single opponent with aplomb, and allowing their styles to play off each other as they attacked him would work very well, visually speaking.

When you’re writing a fight scene, you’re forced to think along three separate lines; visually, dramatically, and contextually. Your goal is to ensure that all three run concurrent with each other, and that you aren’t sacrificing one for the sake of the other. If you write a character to say, “I don’t like swords!” but later, show them whipping a scimitar that they oh-so-conveniently-forgot-that-they-DIDN’T-hate for the sake of a cool-looking fight scene, change the dialogue or change the fight scene.

Also, despite how cool and dramatic something may be, if it doesn’t play visually (A random pregnant woman, wandering into a fight between Superman and Braniac ON THE MOON), or contextually (same example, emphasis on THE MOON), don’t do it. A fight scene is all about flow and continuity. The best fight scenes explore the space as well as the restrictions, and create a unique experience out of it.

So, coming back to my fight, it worked contextually (two women, fighting one man with their hands and feet), dramatically (for their lives), and visually (one’s going high, the other’s going low). One character plans two moves ahead, the other seizes opportunities. Even though, in real life, the man would’ve gotten his ass kicked, for the sake of heightened drama, we assume he’s good enough to fend them off; and thus, it becomes a dance of back-and-forth, seeing who can land the blow that – a minute later – will help end the fight.

I hope you all understood what I’m trying to get across here; there’s a lot more to writing a good fight scene than just “oh, four panels each page, and a big splash on the last one for the finish”. Understanding the underlying art behind it is crucial to bringing your work to the next level; when I get a chance, I’ll amend this entry with a small list of comics that I think have had stellar fight scenes, for reference. I’m on a real Matt Wagner kick right now, though, and I think Grendel : Devil’s Legacy definitely takes the cake.



3 responses to “Writing for Comics, part 3 : The Fight Scene

  1. Regarding random pregnant ladies on the moon… Do people really do things like that? Just have something come in from outer space during a fight scene because they thought it would look cool? Hrm. I wonder what you would say about my fight scenes?

  2. Brian St. Claire

    I’m being ridiculous, of course, but I wouldn’t put it past somebody. I mean, you see the pregnant lady / stroller cliche come up every now and then in cheesy movies, so why not the moon?

    If you’re doing a fight between superheroes, feel free to be a little ridiculous. Case in point – the last issue of Wonder Woman that came out, Power Girl punches Wonder Woman from Washington, DC, all the way to Canada. It’s ridiculous, physically impossible, and completely awesome.

    I’d be happy to take a look at your fight scenes! Just send me the script excerpts with the fighting (so you don’t have to compromise your brilliant ideas and plot twists), and I’ll let you know what I think. I’ll be totally honest – so I’ll tell you where you’re on the right track, what could use some improvement, et cetera.

  3. I’ll send it but it’s not in the traditional comic script format because I was going to get friend to do my artwork and he said it didn’t matter. In fact he stated he didn’t want any direction from me.

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