I love a good fight scene. Not every story needs to be a slugfest, but I do love a really good session of slugging.
When we talk about fight scenes, we tend to speak in terms of choreography and editing; how the characters move and how those movements are shown to the audience. And those are important, don’t get me wrong! But I want to talk about three other factors that go into a really great fight scene. And I’m going to do it using what I think it one of the best fight scenes ever put to film, the trailer fight from Kill Bill:
God, I love that fight. Unfortunately, this version cuts off before the final confrontation but the only other version of it I could find on YouTube was absurdly low quality, so here we are I guess.
If the Bride had fought Elle in the middle of a field, she’d have gotten pasted. At this point the Bride is unarmed, exhausted, and still recovering from being blasted in the chest with rock salt, anaesthetized, and buried alive. She’s not having her best day ever, and she’s not in a fit state to fight Elle in peak health armed with the Bride’s own sword. Fortunately, the fight doesn’t take place in the middle of an empty field. It takes place in Budd’s trailer, where the close confines prevent Elle from drawing or effectively using her sword, and the junk Budd has lying everywhere provides a treasure trove of improvised weapons for the Bride to use against her. The setting dictates the fight’s progression and outcome. If this fight was set anywhere else, it would have gone down in a very different way.
In fact, that sentence makes for a good litmus test for whether a fight scene is taking full advantage of it setting: if the fight took place somewhere else, would it be meaningfully different? For the trailer fight, the answer is clearly yes.
Here’s another good example of a fight scene that takes advantage of the setting:
Yes, it’s good old-fashioned Dragon Ball! I chose this example because it’s a good deal more subtle than the trailer fight. There are big chunks of this fight between Goku and ‘Jackie Chun’ where the setting is pretty irrelevant. But even the addition of something simple like an out-of-bounds rule can add to a fight scene by giving the author more knobs to turn in determining the outcome.
This is particularly important to bear in mind in long-form action series, which by design contain fight after fight after fight. If you’re going to put your protagonist through repeated series of fights, and the only lever you have available to you to determine who wins and who loses is ‘which person is stronger’, you wind up having to constantly escalate in terms of power level until it gets truly silly. And not to mention repetitive!
Kentaro Miura, author of Berserk, clearly understands the value in this, as shown any time when Guts and Serpico fight.
Serpico is not Guts’ equal as a combatant. In a stand-up fight, he would lose each and every time; and on more than one occasion, not being suicidal, he’s refused to fight Guts on those very grounds. But he’s also a fairly bright fellow, and when he can create circumstances that give him the advantage, he’s more than willing to go for it. By making the setting an important part of these his fight scenes, Miura enables these sorts of unusual fights which provide variety and make the series more exciting.
What happens if you completely abdicate setting as a component of your fight scenes? Well, you get Bleach.
No, uh, the other Bleach. In Bleach, every character gets, as a free power, the ability to stand on thin air. The upshot of this is that every fight scene takes place in mid-air, and so the setting never matters to the fight’s outcome. As a result, whenever Tite Kubo wants his protagonist to lose, the only way to do it is to make the enemies absurdly powerful…which then necessitates making him even more powerful later on. The result is a series of fights which constantly escalate in terms of power level, but which ultimately feel pretty same-y. It’s a real problem, and I think Kubo eventually realized it was a problem, because near the end he changed the rules so that characters could no longer stand on air, resulting in the first set of fights in the series where the setting actually mattered.
Of course, it’s not always appropriate to make use of the setting. Sometimes you really do want a fight to be a power struggle between two characters, with no externalities getting in the way.
But if you’re not deliberately isolating the characters for a purpose, you should at least bear the setting in mind. If you ignore it completely, you’re leaving a lot of dramatic tension on the table.
In the trailer fight, both participants have a strong personal stake in the conflict at hand. Or, to put it another way, they hate each other’s guts. The Bride’s hatred is simple: Elle was one of the people who participated in the massacre at the El Paso wedding chapel. The movie may be called Kill Bill, but Bill’s underlings are on her list as well. For Elle’s part, one of the very first things we learn about her in the movie – indeed, one of the first lines of dialogue in the movie at all – is that she both hates and respects the Bride:
You can see the same thing in play with her behavior in volume two: when Budd tells her that he has the Bride at her at his mercy, she tells him to make sure she suffers to her last breath, but she also kills Budd afterwards, saying:
[I feel] regret that maybe the greatest warrior I have ever met, met her end at the hands of a bushwackin’, scrub, alkie piece of shit like you. That woman deserved better.
The exact reason for her animosity towards the Bride is unclear, but a lot can be inferred. They’re both Bill’s proteges and lovers, but the Bride was always his favorite. They trained under the same masters, but the Bride was always just a bit better. And they’re just a little too much alike for Elle’s taste; they’re both blondes with long hair, they both use the same style, and they even both have names that can be shortened to a single letter (L and B).
Tarantino makes excellent use of this character dynamic to make the fight more intense. At one point, Elle and the Bride kick each other in the chest at the same time, knocking both on their asses, and the screen splits, showing each of them get up in identical shots, emphasizing the parallels between them. It gives Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah’s respective performances an extra edge. It makes for a more compelling watch than, say, the Bride’s earlier fight with Gogo Yubari:
And that’s not to hate on the Gogo fight! It’s pretty good. But it lacks the sort of intensity that oozes from every frame of the trailer fight.
Of course, it’s not always possible to put two characters with this mix of respect and hatred together. And, frankly, you shouldn’t try; that would get repetitive quickly. But you should generally try to give your characters a personal stake in their fights. That stake might be a grudge against another character, but it might also be that the fight is tied up in something they really care about, or even function at a thematic level.
Elaborate fight scenes should reveal something about the characters, build on existing characterization, or resolve a conflict between two characters. If it doesn’t, why are you spending so much time on it? Just for spectacle’s sake? Spectacle is as spectacle does, but without character action to back it up, it can feel pretty empty. Like this.
Okay so this is kind of related to the choreography. Sue me.
In an action scene, when someone gets hit, it should look like it hurts. Watch the trailer fight again; you’ll notice that whenever Elle or the Bride lands a solid blow, the fight pauses for a moment so we can see them reel from it. Even when the Bride whips the sword out of Elle’s hands, even though Elle wasn’t actually hurt, it still stops so we can see her flabbergasted expression.
What’s more, they show battle damage. The Bride’s nose is bloodied, and Elle’s face gets all cut up from a TV antenna. By the end of the fight, they both look roughed up. Between all of this and some really beefy sound work, the fight has serious weight behind it.
Now, here’s an example of a fight scene which doesn’t do a very good job of conveying impact:
I know this scene was the shit in 1999, but let’s let our nostalgia drop for a moment. There are a few hits in there that carry good impact (specifically, most hits that send Neo flying) but there’s a lot more that feel really weak. And not just when Neo hits Smith, which you might expect (and would have actually been a good way to convey the difference in their physical power); there are a bunch of exchanges where Smith hits Neo and he reacts about as much as a training dummy would. Even when he gets knocked down, he just gets back up every time, as if hardly discomforted at all. “Jesus, he’s killing him,” Trinity says, but at the end of the fight the only mark left on him was a cut lip. Pretty weak.
Impact’s important because without it, fight scenes seem weightless and without consequence. If you want viewers to believe that the characters are engaged in a struggle for their lives, you need to sell it to them. The more impactful you make the blows being tossed around seem, the easier that sell is.
Mind you, if you start repeating your sells, you’ll start to see diminishing returns pretty quickly. The first time you show off how fast someone is by having him instantly appear behind someone else and stab him, it’s cool. If you do it twenty times, it turns into a joke. Likewise, if one character gets their arm cut off it feels meaningful, but if people are constantly having their arms chopped off and regrown, nobody cares.
Ground your fight scenes in the setting, give every hit impact, and make it meaningful for characters the viewer cares about. If you can do all of that, you’ll probably have a pretty solid fight on your hands.