Alexander Darwin is author of the fightpunk novel The Combat Codes as well as an avid student and teacher of Brazilian jiu jitsu. He spent his early years devouring the action-pact science fiction and fantasy works of R.A. Salvatore, Orson Scott Card, Richard K. Morgan, Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. He now fills his days getting humbled on the mats, staring at the unwritten pages of his next novel, and questioning the dumb luck that landed him such a beautiful wife and daughter.
You can find Alexander online at www.combatcodes.com or on twitter and instagram @combatcodes.
Ender’s vicious bathroom brawl against Bonzo. Obi-Wan’s light saber duel with Vader in the halls of the Death Star. Takeshi Kovak’s ship hangar fight against the bio-enhanced Kadmin. Drizzt Do’Urden’s dance of death with Artemis Entreri on the cliffs of Icewind Dale.
These fights stick with us. Something about these one-on-one duels stand out from the many other fights found in sci-fi and fantasy stories. These scenes possess some combination of elements that makes them epic, while so many other fights are easily forgotten.
I recently did an AMA (ask me anything) on Reddit to promote my new book, The Combat Codes, and this question stumped me. I’d created a fightpunk world – one that fully revolves around unarmed combat – and yet I couldn’t easily rattle off what goes into a good fight?
Determined to answer the question, I decided to go back through the Combat Codes, along with a few notable sci-fi and fantasy favorites, to find the formula for a good fight scene.
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone.” – Ender Wiggin
Every good fight involves technique. Not necessarily technique in the realistic sense of the word – martial savvy that would work in our world – but technique that is applicable to the world a fighter lives in. The best fights also contain technique that has been nurtured over time, often intricately woven into a character’s backstory.
The Bride’s five-point palm exploding heart technique. Neo’s time-warping blur of punches. Ender’s brutal kicks to a downed opponent. Miyamoto Musashi’s Niten Ichi-Ryu style of swordsmanship.
Whether learned on a mountain peak from a kung fu master or within a virtual reality dojo, techniques can be a definitive part of a character’s development. Just like any other part of their past, from childhood memories to failed relationships, techniques can serve as the building blocks to a character’s central challenge (in our case, the fight scene) and their subsequent transformation.
Of course, not every fight scene can be full of moves that have their own story. Sometimes a punch is just a punch. Even so, techniques need to at least seem believable in the world they take place in. Any technique that falls outside the realm of plausible will lessen a fight.
Julie Mao’s low gravity jiu jitsu training in James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes is very plausible, not only due to the zero-g environment but because she had previously been assaulted and needed to learn how to protect herself. Similarly, in Asimov’s Foundation series, Hari Seldon learns a martial art called Heliconian Twisting that helps him defend himself and achieve his lofty goals on the planet Trantor. Even Captain Kirk built up a steady cadre of techniques that were somewhat believable, such as the axe handle strike which he utilized both in his clash against Khan and his famous fight against the Gorn.
Just as any well-crafted magic system needs to introduce and describe spells, any convincing fight needs a preamble to the available techniques. In Harry Potter, readers are introduced to the spells of Hogwarts at a methodical rate. Rowling first describes the intended outcome of expecto patronum, then shows readers how Harry fails to cast the spell, and finally builds to his successful attempt in the Forbidden Forest. Soon, Harry can simply yell “expecto patronum!” and readers can easily conjure the image of his shining stag to mind.
The same goes for fighting technique: a reader needs to be exposed to what characters are capable of before getting thrown into a dramatic fight scene. In The Combat Codes, readers are introduced to the variety of techniques utilized by the Grievar, a race that has been bred and genetically enhanced for the sole purpose of one-on-one combat. These techniques are woven into each character’s past and play a pivotal role in their stories.
If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine. – Obi-Wan Kenobi
Not everything lies with technique though.
Without stakes, a fight can be full of flashy techniques, and it still will fall flat. Just look to two examples from the Star Wars universe. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader in Episode IV and Yoda vs. Count Dooku in Episode II, both pivotal fights in each film.
By far, the fight with the more discernable technique was Yoda’s – both he and Dooku employed the variety of spinning and twirling lightsaber maneuvers that were prevalent throughout the prequels (likely an attempt to mimic the style of Crouching Tiger martial arts choreography popular in the early 2000s).
In comparison, Obi-Wan vs. Vader was simple and straightforward: no spinning or jumping, not even any use of telekinesis. Just plain, old-fashioned, back-and-forth lightsaber play.
Despite the seeming disparity in technique, most would agree that Obi-Wan vs. Vader is the better fight. We all can remember the famous line Obi-Wan recites prior to his defeat. Few remember the words exchanged between Yoda and Dooku. The difference between these two fights lies with the stakes.
The fate of the galaxy, Luke’s ongoing journey and Obi-Wan’s tumultuous past with Vader all hung in the balance in the fight from Episode IV. Yoda’s confrontation with Dooku certainly had stakes (he was helping Anakin and Obi-Wan) however, the risk was not as palpable. There was no flashback showing Yoda training Dooku in the art of wielding a lightsaber, or even much backstory at all to their relationship. In this case, it was simply another cool fight.
Never in his life, he thought, would he meet another opponent like this. A wave of admiration and respect flowed over him. He was grateful to Kojiro for what the man had given him. – Miyamoto Musashi
Even with storied technique and high stakes, a fight can never be great without a worthy opponent.
We only need to look to the great fights in our own history to realize that the best scripts are written when our heroes have stiff competition. Muhammad Ali would not be as revered a boxer without his worthy nemesis, Joe Frazier, and their Thrilla in Manila. Two of the UFC’s most venerated mixed martial artists, Chuck Lidell and Randy Couture, would not be considered with the same awe if they hadn’t engaged each other in a trilogy of grueling contests.
If a fighter makes it look too easy, the audience doesn’t appreciate it as much. A perfect, untouchable record surely is enviable, but it doesn’t provide the same dramatic effect that a gritty, Rocky Balboa-style comeback does. It is when our heroes fight through adversity that they seem the most human.
R.A. Salvatore, author of the Dark Elf trilogy, embraced the concept of the worthy adversary when he wrote Artemis Entreri, the foil to his hero, Drizzt Do’Urden. Though it was surely satisfying when Drizzt displayed his virtuoso scimitar skills by slaying an entire horde of orcs with barely a scratch on him, it was something more when he and Entreri clashed. Their numerous fights became an ongoing conversation, a series of debates that were won and lost only by a razor-sharp word.
Miyamoto Musashi, often considered the greatest fighter of all time in both history and fiction, would not have been the same without his rival samurai, Sasaki Kojiro. After Musahi finally defeated Kojiro, he was said to have dropped his katana and never dueled again, as if he couldn’t exist without his adversary.
In Eiji Yoshikawa’s epic novel, Musashi, the final duel with Kojiro was certainly a memorable one. Musashi’s unique two-sword technique was something that he had developed over countless duels throughout the story; it not only defined his fighting style, it shaped his character. The stakes in the fight were as high as they could be with Musashi’s reputation and legacy on the line against his chief rival. And his opponent, Kojiro, was truly a once in a lifetime adversary, so much so that Musashi could not exist as a fighter without him.
When these three characteristics are met – storied technique, high stakes and a worthy adversary – a fight becomes far more than a physical altercation between two characters. A fight becomes the pivotal point in a narrative, a climax of past and present that gives shape to a story.