Daily Dojo

Writing Fight Scenes - Stakes & Acts

I’ve got a little bit of air space this morning, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to write about writing FIGHT SCENES.

I have a lot to say about it, but let’s begin with the basics. Fights should never happen just for the sake of a fight. Nah. Just like in the bad kickboxing movies of the 90s, wherein everyone started kickboxing just to do it and then it was done, and we were like, “eh” … it means nothing if the fight doesn’t mean something to the people involved.

In other words, stakes are as important in a fight scene as they are in a whole screenplay. Learn it, know it, live it, as the master once told me.

But besides stakes, there are technical aspects to creating a fight scene one should be aware of. Just like any story has a beginning, middle and end, so should your fight scenes.

Look at it, in a sense, like a three act play. Let’s look at this epic fight scene between Bruce Lee and O’Hare (Bob Wall) from ENTER THE DRAGON.

Backstory. Lee’s a Shaolin monk who’s traveled to Han’s Island. Han is a renegade monk who’s using his martial prowness to build an evil drug empire, holding this tournament every year to recruit new brutes. O’Hara is Han’s chief enforcer.

Add to that, O’Hara is responsible for the death of Lee’s sister. Stakes, baby.

It’s no accident that Lee, whom Han suspects is a monk, is matched up with O’Hara. That’s the backstory going into it.

Now, watch it again.

We have the teaser, where the fighters are chosen and face off with each other. Lee bows, still showing respect to a man he hates. O’Hara breaks a board and Lee has that infamous line “boards … don’t hit back.”

ACT ONE - The hands.

Act one of the fight scene is the hands. We see that Lee is too fast and strong for O’Hara, who cannot stop him. This draws applause from the crowd, many of whom probably secretly hate O’Hara. O’Hara’s supposed to be the best and he’s getting humiliated.

ACT TWO - The feet.

Enraged, O’Hara grabs at Lee’s feet, (earning a rebuke from Han) and gets a spectacular flipping kick in the chops for his trouble. He gets to his feet, only to be just as outclassed by kicks as he was with the hands. He’s kicked so hard he’s knocked right into the crowd (and, according to legend, broke the arm of an extra who was supposed to catch him). He’s been obviously beaten and beaten good.

ACT THREE - Death.

The clear victor, Lee turns and walks away. O’Hara grabs some bottles, breaks them and faces off with sharp weapons in his hands, oblivious to the calls of Han for him to stop. Lee turns, sees that O’Hara has just made this into a game of life or death … and attacks, knocks the bottles out of the man’s hands, kicks him to the ground, jumps up in the air … kills him.

The end of that sequence.

Watch it again, and you’ll see that there’s clear acts to it, three acts once the action starts, and, in my opinion, that’s one important thing that makes an action scene work. There are others, but that’s the start.

Lee did all the staging of his fights, and he really knew how to break them down so that they meant something.

Now that you’ve got that under your belt, watch the classic fight scene between Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in Return Of The Dragon (the film before Enter The Dragon) and see if you can identify the acts:

Can you see them?

They are there, and what’s fascinating is the amount of time and change Lee allows his opponent to undergo. The fight evolves, and that involves us. It’s a classic for a reason.

Let’s go a little more modern.

Lethal Weapon (which I cannot, for some reason, embed) the classic fight scene between Mr. Joshua and Riggs at the end … can you identify the acts? Watch it here: Mel Gibson vs Gary Busey - YouTube.

Can you identify the acts in that fight. They’re there.

One. Two. Three.

One of the more important things to crafting of something, be it a joke or poem or story or movie, is understanding that everything has a beginning, everything has an end, and that what happens in between is the middle … and that the three are linked with a clear causal relationship (in other words, act two NEEDS act one before it to work, etc).

That’s a start to writing action / fight scenes. Let me hear your thoughts and hopefully I have more to share coming up.

See you on the mats.

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