Writers in the Storm

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December 18, 2013

Crossing Physical Barriers in Fiction, Part 1

by Tiffany Lawson Inman

Hello and Happy December! I’ve kept my blog a little shorter today because I know you all are busy busy busy with festivities writing. *wink wink* My hubby is currently wondering when I will put the laptop away and finish wrapping presents.

Here is Part One of my new series here at WITS: Crossing Physical Barriers. Enjoy!

The in-laws will be on your doorstep in 7 hours. The holiday meal must be unique-yet-likeable to nine adults (plus 4 kids) and, um, perfect!

Your house, marriage, holiday décor, life path, parenting skills, current and past weight and hairstyles will be under close scrutiny for the next week. And you are eight days away from the end of the year, realizing now, you are lacking in accomplishments.

Can you think of a better combination for stress, physical outbursts and acne?!?!?

Just from reading the above passage, did you have a fleeting awareness of your own holiday pressures?

Yeah, I did too.

That’s right. I am not on WITS today to talk about the warm n’ fuzzies that usually adorn holiday festivities. I am here to put the focus on writing physical violence.

What can prompt your character to want to physically lash out at another?

Well, let’s see, how many times can your mother-in-law remind you how she makes whipped potatoes before you dump the gravy on her head?  


Oh, but seriously now, according to humanillnesses.com violent behavior stems from:

  • genetics
  • brain injury
  • antisocial personality disorder
  • alcohol abuse (other substance abuse)
  • desensitization
  • learned behavior

Yes, keep those in mind when you are developing characters, especially characters that you predict will be involved in some kind of violence in your novel.  Fabulous starting points for your character’s backstory. But today we are only going to look at the different levels of emotional intensity in fictional fight scenes, starting with the Moment Before the fight.


Because the Moment Before affects the intensity of action that will unfold.  (And because that is all I have time for in Part One!)

  • Surprise attacker. Character has no time to think, just respond.

~ Usually results in high intensity level from start to finish as a result of the immediate adrenaline

  • Lay in wait. Character knows the attack is coming and is at the ready with self and or weapons.

~ High or medium intensity depending on characters attack plan, if there is a plan.
~ High or medium intensity depending on level of threat: scare, maim, maim and capture, or all out destroy.

  • Avoidance tactics. Character knows attack is coming and is on the run or hiding.

~ High or medium intensity depending on how big a head-start character has, decent hiding spot, and what they imagine will happen to them if they are caught.

  • Verbal attack turns physical.

~ Low, medium, or high depending on argument, characters involved, and location.

Think about how these elements affect the action in the fight.

For example in The Princess Bride, there is a BIG difference between the emotional intensity of the fight scenes.

A great example of a low intensity fight is between Inigo Montoya and The Man in Black after they’ve both climbed the Cliffs of Insanity.  It’s not a personal fight. These two men do not know each other. They both know the fight is going to happen before it happens.

  • One man is under orders to fight and kill (reluctantly)
  • The other man is resolved to go ahead with the fight because he desperately needs to move forward on his journey and this man is in his way.

They start the fight with swords and end it with swords because that was the plan. The Moment Before is a somewhat relaxed discussion of fighting terms for their inevitable fight. Even when one loses his weapon, the other allows him to retrieve it before moving forward.

You will also notice the writer allows for some comedic banter between the fighting fellows.  Another way of showing the low intensity level of the violence.

An example of a high intensity fight involves Wesley (The Man in Black) in the Fire Swamp and a Rodent of Unusual Size (ROUS.)

The Moment Before happens without the antagonist. He is a surprise attacker; therefore the fight starts with a zap of adrenaline for the character and the viewer. Because of the shock of the Moment Before the level of intensity is much much higher than before.

ROUSs motivation is to kill and eat. Wesley’s motivation is to keep himself and his bride alive, preferably with limbs intact. The audience can feel the emotional intensity as Wesley and his bride struggle to survive in this fight. He goes through a variety of approaches. When one fails he is forced to scramble for another, and with each change the intensity rises. Hand to hand, big stick, fire, and finally sword.

And I will ask you to notice here as well, how much or really how little dialogue happens when the intensity is this high. There isn’t any time to talk when you are fighting for your life.

I could go through every fight in that movie and for each one we would get to see a different level of emotional intensity.

Why did the writer do that? Because the audience will get desensitized to your violence if it’s all at one level. There will also be a loss of meaning behind the altercations and the reader will probably question the characters in these fights.

What you need to consider for a fight scene’s Moment Before:

  • Was there premeditated motivation going into the fight?
  • What were the premeditated motivations?
  • How long has your character been plotting this action?
  • How big of a change is your character needing/wanting/going to get as the fight’s outcome?
  • Was it a spur-of-the moment response to an emotional or physical attack?

Break down:

Was there premeditated motivation going into the fight? If there was, then your instigator probably knows a lot about where the fight will take place, giving him/her the upper hand or the element of surprise. Premeditated usually means there are many emotions backing it up.

What were the premeditated motivations? Fight can’t happen if you haven’t made it clear what the motivations or circumstances behind attack are.

How long have your characters been emotionally plotting this action? Easier to show emotion behind plotting from POV character, but is also nice to know the duration of opposite side of the fight.

What is the character need/want of the fight’s outcome? Sometimes this isn’t a blip on their radar yet and they might not have even registered that there could be a different outcome. But more likely than not, there is a need or want involved from beginning. If the reader knows what that need or want is, it’s easier for them to emotionally connect themselves to what happens in the fight as well. What could make it interesting is when the outcome is something opposite or contradictory to what character wants/needs.

Was it a spur-of-the moment response to an emotional or physical attack? I find these the most interesting and usually the highest emotional intensity because of the nature of the fight or flight response.  Primitive action. Survival mode. This is where you can push your character to the edge and over.

Coming up next month in Crossing Physical Barriers -- Part Two:

I will be dissecting fight scenes so you can see a few different ways to show the levels of emotional intensity.  I wonder which authors will be under my dramatic microscope... *wicked smile*

Till next month...I'm wishing you a healthy and safe holiday season. Thank you for reading. Toss me a "Hiya" in the comments.

For those of you drooling at the chance to get your name in the hat 2x for participating in the mini-challenge assignment, you will have to wait till January for that opportunity.

December is too busy with holiday, travel, wife-ing, momma-ing, editing, and teaching to dive in to a mini-challenge this week. SORRY!  I will of course be drawing a name from the regular comments below.

Today's comment winner gets...a free slot in one of my upcoming courses!

About Tiffany

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Tiffany Lawson Inman

Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development.

She teaches Action, Choreography, Emotional Impact, Violence, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in 2014.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to WITS to see Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.

You can also find her on Twitter – follow @NakedEditor.

54 comments on “Crossing Physical Barriers in Fiction, Part 1”

  1. This is definitely a keeper! I'll be referring to and using it a lot (after the holidays lol).

  2. Tiffany, this is phenomenal! I've written high-intensity scenes, and even physical altercations, but your breaking it down to steps makes it SO clear, and easy to follow! I can see I'm going to love this series.

    But your using Princess Bride as an example was the icing on the cake - I'm going to rent that again - one of my favorite movies of all time!

  3. Cheeseeey and wry, TPB. Goldman had so much fun writing it. Me too, am going to watch the movie again and if you haven't read the book, owe it to yourself to do so. Sad face. The Texas movie on fight or flight would not load so will have to wait a few days to see what it was about. Love the breakdown of different types of fights. Current WIP has plenty of violence, from verbal, to mental and onto physical. Gonna be a long time till Jan! Thank you, Tiffany!

    1. Morgynstarz - great to hear your WIP has loads of violence. Maybe I'll see you in February class? I desperately wanted use the actual TBB book for the post, but each fight was too long for me to use without infringing on copyright laws :/ LOVE THE BOOK!

      Thanks for stopping by today!

  4. This is a good practice to observe during the next movie you watch - just how did the violence set up. I often start with it spontaneous from the beginning, then build bigger and bigger suspense as the story continues.

    1. Orly - I feel guilty writing these posts sometimes because if a writer is almost finished with their WIP I have then given them one more and then one MORE thing to go back and tweak or rewrite! LOL

      But then again, their work will be all the better for it. RIght?!? 🙂

  5. This is a great post and I look forward to the rest. I love action scenes when fights erupt. I think unconsciously we know the whys and wherefores but we do need take all of it into account--one of the many puzzle pieces in story craft. 🙂

    1. Sharla Rae - indeed! I've read too many BAD FIGHT SCENES, I can't NOT teach this class. To some it comes naturally, not saying they are violent people, just that they can feel and see when the logic and suspense are set up right. For others it takes a bit of work and practice and a good teacher 🙂

      I LOVE all the puzzle pieces of story craft. Such a gratifying creative field we work in, eh?

      Thanks for reading today. Have a happy holiday month and Hope to see you next year!

  6. You've explained this better than I've ever seen. Thanks! And I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've never seen The Princess Bride. That will be rectified while I'm waiting for the next fabulous post in this series. Looking forward to both!

    1. Rebecca, your name doesn't link to a site or blog either. If you would like to be included in the drawing for a free class of mine, It's so much easier when i can contact you if I pull your name out of the hat. Pop back over and link up! Thanks 🙂

      1. Hiya Tiffany!
        I'm still a newbie writer, so I haven't created a website or blog yet. (I'm making that a 2014 resolution.) I'd still love to be considered for a free class though.

  7. Excellent and easy to follow advice! Definitely will incorporate this into my plot and pacing classes. Can't wait for the next in the series.

    1. Jenn - I clicked on your name and there isn't a link to who you are on the web 🙁 I'd really like to put your name in the hat to win a class, especially since you are currently writing a BIG FIGHT SCENE. Please come back and drop me a link to a website or blog so i can track you down in case you win. Yes? Thank you for reading today! See you next month!

  8. Fabulous post, Tiffany! Printing this post and keeping it in my Craft notebook. Have several fight scenes in my current WIP. Can't wait to go back and look at them and see what I need to change.
    Thank you so much.

  9. Thanks for the post, Tiffany! It immediately caught my eye since my novel involves a protagonist that has been trained to fight and has developed a mental preparedness for, and acceptance of, fighting, but finds herself in a new situation where she has to unlearn/hide these natural tendencies. In writing scenes with violence triggers (situations that would normally elicit a natural fighting response), I think I will have to combine the high emotional intensity of the protagonist with a low physical intensity fight...

  10. Tiffany--Nice post. I added it to my Tiffany binder. I've been reading Lee Child lately and I noticed that he preplans Reacher's fights. Decides who to hit first and how he's going to take care of all the baddies lined up against him. Guess I'll have to study them a bit closer. Interesting topic.


  11. Thanks Tiffany!

    I admit I despise writing fight scenes. I've never been in a physical fight in my life - I always avoided conflicts as much as possible. 🙂 The class sounds fabulous.

    I'm loving the Method to Madness class you're teaching now. Lots of material I've never read elsewhere -- not too mention your edits of our work is so valuable.


    1. Deb, this way you can do as much conflicting as you want and not have any real bruises to show for it. 😉

      Thank you so much for complimenting my Madness acting techniques for writers class - it seemed like such a complete learning package when i went from acting to writing/editing. Just a matter of training your brain to think like an actor/director.

  12. Excellent post, Tiffany! I will soon be staging my very first fight scene. I copied your post and look forward to Part 2.

  13. This is phenomenal info Tiffany. I struggle with writing action, so it was very helpful. Your classes looks very, very intriguing. LOVE the Princess Bride, it's on my all time favorites list. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. Pamela - Yes - intriguing! As Deb said earlier: " I’m loving the Method to Madness class you’re teaching now. Lots of material I’ve never read elsewhere — not too mention your edits of our work is so valuable." So maybe I'll see you in the next one 🙂 Or at least for next months post.

      Happy holidays to you!

  14. This was a fabulous post Tiffany. I really appreciate that you mentioned there should be different levels of fighting or conflict. We would get sensitized to the same intensity of fighting after a while I would imagine. When I read over my MS, I try to look for ways to let my reader catch their breathe before I throw another conflict in their face. I feel like this is some kind of science project. And in a way, I guess it is. I am learning so much from you. I cannot wait until Part two. Meanwhile, back to my current class before you get the whip out! lol. I've got plenty to do. See you there. 🙂

  15. I love The Princess Bride! One of my favorite movies of all time, I replayed the scenes in my head as i read your post. I had never thought of it that way before. I did have to write a sword fighting scene in my current WIP and had to look up some by favorite authors to have a clue about what to do.

  16. Kate - Come on over to my February class. I will make it so all of the information is in one place and with me guiding your "actors" along - there should be the perfect amount of bloodshed, pacing, and footwork!

    Some authors try and fake it, and it shows!!!

  17. Okay after a few days of anticipation I am digging my hand through the hat full of writer names I have pulled one out and the winner is
    Melissa Coyne Abrehamsen!

    You have a pick of three classes: January – Triple Threat Behind Writing a Scene (8 lectures and as always TONS of one-on-one feedback and edits)

    February- Action and Fighting in Fiction: Writing Authentic Choreography With Precision and Bite

    December’s (or will be teaching it again in March) Method to Madness: Using Acting Techniques to Invigorate Your Writing and Make Each Moment Oscar Worthy

    Melissa, I will hunt you down via fb or email to get you some more info.

    As for the rest of you lovely writers, I will be back here next month with more writing-craft-know-how and more opportunities to win these classes. Thank you for reading today, Happy Holidays, and see you next time!

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