Fights are boring. Except when they’re not

Last year I noticed that I am by bored by a lot of fight scenes, and their cousins, the chase scene. It started with police procedurals, like Major Crimes. When the cops start chasing a perp, or the perp takes a swing, we pretty much know who will prevail. So, at first, I thought it was just cop show fight scenes that bored me.

But that initial awareness sensitized me and I started to notice boring fight scenes in media other than formulaic weekly television, which, after all, might be excused for being predictable. Watching Star Trek into Darkness,* I was well-engaged until the lengthy fight between Spock and Khan. That scene went on and on, and bored me to fidgets, while also seeming horribly out of character for Spock.

Then I noticed it in books. In fact, in two of the excellent books I read in preparation for Viable Paradise I hit a wall with “action scenes.” In The Price of the Stars it was the last big chase in the book. The chase was well told, fit the plot, and, unlike in TV, the ending was not a foregone conclusion. But I really didn’t care about the mechanics of the chase. I just wanted to know the outcome.

In Jumper, the hero undertakes a series of three increasingly difficult hostage rescues. They are all well told and show his development, both in growing up and in using his teleportation abilities. But by the third one, I didn’t care about the rescue itself, even though it was definitely more complex. I was pretty sure he’d come out alive and unscathed, and I already knew he was both clever and evolving. Now the third rescue did throw me a bone – something the hero did had a graver consequence, so there was some purpose other than “who won, who lost”

I was still trying to figure out what my problem was with fight scenes when I watched the penultimate episode of the television show Burn Notice.

Now, if you don’t know the show, Burn Notice was a show about a defrocked spy and his adventures. He and his ragtag band had various adventures but usually (not always) emerged unscathed. So you would think this show had all the ingredients for fight-scenes-Nadya-finds-boring, right? And maybe in other episodes they did, but not this episode.

In the second-to-last episode of the series, the show’s hero, Michael Weston, and his best friend, Sam Axe, get in a fight. The stakes are high: Michael needs to get away from Sam to do what he think will save his friends’ lives, and Sam needs to stop Michael from doing something he considers suicidal. The stakes are high and these two know each other – they’ve fought side-by-side for years. They know each other’s every move, and you’re not sure if they’re still willing to pull punches or not. I was riveted.

That, mes amis, is a fight I want to watch. One where every move is about the connection between two characters, what they know about each and about what they’re willing to do to each other. I think I actually held my breath at one point, not knowing if someone was going to go too far.

I had the idea for this post in my mind last year, but hadn’t actually written it out for the blog until today. In the meantime, my Viable Paradise classmate Beth Matthews wrote a couple posts on the Paranormal Romantics site about using fight scenes to develop character, and dissects a couple from recent movies to show why they work. These posts are really useful discussions of how to apply this theory I’ve been evolving about fights that aren’t boring.
Dissecting Fight Scenes Part One
Dissecting Fight Scenes Part Two

It reminds me of what Margie Boule taught us about musicals in improv. Each song should move the story and leave it in a different place. A cop chasing a perp down an LA alley doesn’t change the story. Two friends figuring out how far they’ll push to try to save their friend’s life is riveting.

I feel like I’m just starting to peel this back. And I also know that a significant part of this is about what I like, not a general truth. Other people like fight scenes for other reasons – the science, the action, the cool angles. And I will always love some chase scenes for the sheer thrill of them – Bullitt and Ronin come to mind. This post is about what I’m untangling for myself. Feel free to chime in with additions, disagreements, and manifestos in the comments.

* No, I didn’t like the movie, but I didn’t realize that until the next day. That’s another post.

2 thoughts on “Fights are boring. Except when they’re not

  1. I’m often bored by fight scenes. One factor is that it’s very difficult to write them clearly. I recall as a teenager realizing that I actually read Louis L’Amour’s fight scenes (instead of my usual skipping ahead), and that it was because I could tell what was happening.

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