A Fight to the Finish

I’ve written posts before about my middle grade years and how rarely anyone at my old school avoided a fight. But participating in a fight and writing about one are two very different things. So, as I approached the end of my young adult fantasy novel, I faced the challenge of writing a fight scene. But how to make it meaningful and avoid clichés—ah, that was the difficulty.


I turned to other authors for inspiration. Let me tell you what I found. In an online seminar on writing action scenes, author James Alan Gardner comments

Roger Zelazny once recommended that fight scenes should have at least two sentences of filler for every sentence of genuine action. . . . . This doesn’t mean useless filler—it means various kinds of reaction shots and other material that contribute to mood or characterization.

Okay. Now I still needed to see how it was done. So I headed to a book written by Markus Zusak, an award-winning author of young adult fiction. Zusak uses filler to showcase character and mood in Fighting Ruben Wolfe, a contemporary realistic novel (in the anthology Under Dogs) about two brothers—Ruben and Cameron Wolfe—caught up in the world of underground boxing. If you don’t like spoilers, you should stop reading now. I can’t avoid them in this post.

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In the following excerpt, Cameron’s viewpoint is the camera that moves us through the opening minutes of the brothers’ last and most spectacular bout—with each other.

In the suffocating seconds between now and the fight, I wait. No practice punches, I’ll need them all. It’s fear and truth and future, all devouring me. It hunts through my blood and I’m a Wolfe. Cameron Wolfe.

I hear the bell.

With it, the crowd comes storming into my ears.

I walk forward and throw the first punch. I miss. Then Rube swings and gets me on the shoulder. There’s no slow beginning, no warm-up period or watching time. I move in hard and get underneath. I hit him. Hard to the chin. It hurts him. I see it. I see it because I want it more and he is there to be hurt. He’s there to be beaten and I’m the only one in the ring to do it. (Zusak 296–97)

Perhaps you’re getting a Fight Club vibe right about now. This is not your typical fight between a hero and a villain. This is a fight between people we care about, and there can be only one winner. Here the filler and action work in tandem like the fists of a fighter to underscore the mood: tense. Zusak’s style is lean like a prize fighter at the top of his game. “The suffocating seconds” in the first line helps us experience the tension Cameron, the younger of the two, feels pre-fight, while “I’m a Wolfe” provides a moment of sharp realization that fits Cameron’s emotional arc. He has always been a reluctant fighter—unlike the more predatory, “wolf-like” Ruben. Now the fight—the need to win this bout—is in his blood, and thus in ours as we move through the fight with him. The short, punch-like sentences, action verbs, and figurative language throughout (“It hunts through my blood”; “fear and truth and future, all devouring me”; “storming into my ears”) keep the tension high and never allows our attention to flag.

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With every jab, Zusak reminds us that while the battle will undoubtedly continue, it is worth fighting and reading about.

So, what did I learn? The right filler can give a fight scene emotional punch. That’s what I wanted for my scene. The key is to carefully consider the details that add emotional weight or develop character in a way that fits the mood.

Facing a fight scene or at least a scene with conflict of a different sort? Get ready to rumble, but don’t forget: character counts.

Gardner, James Alan. A Seminar on Writing Prose. 2001. Web. 28 March 2011. <http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/prose/action.htm>
Zusak, Markus. Fighting Ruben Wolfe in the novel anthology Under Dogs. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press, 2000, 2010. Print.

Book covers from Goodreads. Boxing gloves from macho.com. Fight Club photo from movieroar.com.

25 thoughts on “A Fight to the Finish

  1. What about in films? Who do you think is more rounded-the All American Hero Rocky Balboa or De Niro’s Jake Lamotta?
    And who didn’t cry when watching The Champ?

  2. Knockout! As a person that’s had plenty of fights, you could always run your scene past me! 🙂
    Real fights are never like anything portrayed in movies or TV. They’re usually just a a few punches thrown followed by a lot of grappling, biting, gouging etc. But the one thing that’s always there is aggressive abandon, like two cats fighting. But I suppose you’ll be wanting to say something about your two characters here, or about good end evil, right and wrong? If so, it’s stylised fight, more like a choreographed dance than anything. Nobody thinks of much in a real fight, apart from overcoming the obstacle in front of them – unless of course you’ve had a degree of training, boxing martial arts, sword fighting etc. That discipline usually holds for a while!
    Happy scrapping.

    • Wow. Great. I’m glad I can run stuff by you, John. I have trouble writing scenes with high action. I’m probably the let’s-sit-around-the-drawing-room-and-stare-at-each-other type. But my characters are the opposite. I want to do them justice. So I know I’ll have to come back to these scenes over and over. I didn’t take martial arts (though I love martial arts movies), so I feel like I’m at a disadvantage. But I had in mind Batman Begins. I watched the behind-the-scenes and listened to Christopher Nolan’s discussion of how he wanted the violence to play out. It wasn’t pretty like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (another movie I love). It was swift and brutal. Well, getting that down on paper is pretty tough!

    • Fight scenes are tough. I remember writing one in a past novel and presenting it to my advisor who sent it back with a comment like, “This does nothing for me.” I know what she means. I didn’t know how to make the scene come alive.

  3. This is a very useful post, because I have a fight scene early on in the YA I’ll be serializing starting this summer. The fight is pretty one sided, and the response I got from a beta reader was all action, but we saw the character from the outside. So I went back and worked on seeing the fight from his perspective as the three classmates beat him. It ended up being about three sentences of reaction for each one of action, and when I gave the revised version to a famous author, she told me she loved it. (The blurb will appear with the post.)

    By the way, this is the revision of the piece you read in workshop our third semester, Linda.

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