After recently participating in a thread on a book discussion group regarding great literary action scenes, it got me to thinking of what are the best written fight scenes in literature and just what it is that makes a great fight scene on the written page.
The latter questions is, perhaps, the more difficult one to answer. A sense of knowledgeability on the part of the author leading to some realism in the scene is obviously helpful. A great example of a writer who has “walked the walk” is Thom Jones. A former U.S. Marine and amateur boxer, Jones has written some brilliant short fiction, a few revolving around the dark places of human experience that combat can lead to. His story, The Pugilist at Rest, contains a short but memorable description of what it’s like to engage in a boxing match you’re not quite prepared for:
“He put me down almost immediately, and when I got up I was terribly afraid. I was tight and I could not breath. It felt like he was hitting me in the face with a ball-peen hammer. It felt like he was busting light bulbs in my face.”
Unfortunately, most authors are not known for their pugilistic skills. As a group, they often tend to be observers and thinkers, rather than doers and brawlers (Besides Jones, there are a few other odd exceptions to this rule. Hemingway was known to step into the ring on occasion but, sadly, “Papa” did not depict that many fight scenes in his work). Consequently, most written fight scenes, at least to the expert observer, lack a sense of veritas. However, there are exceptions to the rule in which even unrealistic fight scenes have been portrayed in gripping passages.
An example of this comes from William Goldman. Better known to many as the man who penned the hit movie, The Princess Bride, years earlier Goldman wrote the outstanding suspense-thriller novel, Marathon Man, which also became a successful film. Here, Goldman gives us a memorable match up of master assassins Scylla and Chen. Though he doesn’t seem to know very much about real close quarter combat, Goldman makes the scene exciting and accessible to the reader by relating it to another physical activity: basketball. When Chen has Scylla in trouble, strangling him from behind with a wire, Goldman draws an analogy to an epic match-up on the basketball court between Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, the NBA’s two premiere guards of the early 1970s:
“He had seen it done. Once. On a basketball court. The nonpareil Monroe matched against the genius Frazier. The ultimate in offense against the greatest defender… He faked right and went right, around Frazier, who could only stand there, watching the score. Scylla faked right and went right…”
Detail, even if it’s not of the most expert variety, is also something that can make a fight scene a thrilling part of a story. Making the action graphically come alive so the reader can visualize it, as if he is watching it happen, is always a plus. For this, you often can’t beat a journalistic take on fighting. Sports writers, at least good ones, are used to observing real fights and describing them for an audience in detailed terms. Few have ever done it with more literary flare than A.J. Liebling in his classic series of essays on boxing, The Sweet Science. In discussing Ezzard Charles’ efforts in his losing battle against heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, Liebling wrote:
“His face – rather narrow, with a high, curved nose – changed in shape to a squatty rectangle as we watched; it was as though he had run into a nest of wild bees or fallen victim to instantaneous mumps. He moved, hung on, twisted his body, rolled his head on his columnar neck, which was now a cable between aching body and addling brain. He broke to his right, away from Marciano’s swinging rights, but he didn’t run. He even punched – straight but without power…”
Good examples of detail and graphic observation, in fictional settings, are frequently seen in the detective novels of the late author, Robert Parker. Parker’s fictional hero, Spenser, is a former pro boxer who typically gets his fists dirty at some point in the course of each story. Probably the best fight scene in the more than thirty novels Spenser appears in – and, for my money, the best literary fight scene you will ever read – takes place in Parker’s first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript. In its climactic scene, an injured Spenser has to take on a towering, gun-wielding hitman. Parker gives a perfect description of a rear naked choke as Spenser strangles his opponent to death (keep in mind, this was 30 years before anyone had first heard of the UFC or Brazilian jiu-jitsu):
“The blood pounded in my ears from the effort and I couldn’t see anything but a dance of dust motes where my face stayed pressed against his shoulder. Phil made a noise like a crow cawing, turned very slowly in a complete turn, and fell over backward on top of me… I kept squeezing , unable to see with his back pressed against my face, unable to feel anything but the strain of my arm against his neck. I squeezed. I don’t know how long I squeezed, but it was surely for a long time after it made any difference.”
Of course, even detail is no assurance of writing a classic fight scene. Conversely, a lack of detail is not even always a hindrance to penning a great fight scene. Author Eric Van Lustbader has written a number of martial arts themed action novels, the most famous of which is The Ninja. Though Van Lustbader’s knowledge of legitimate Japanese martial arts seems marginal, he does strategically make use of martial arts with some cryptic references that have you thinking of esoteric Asian fighting techniques, even if you’re not quite sure what those techniques involve:
“Nicholas was in the classic first position of yoroi kumiuchi, originally grappling in armor but today used quite effectively when one was dressed in encumbering western street clothes… At the point of Frank’s attack, Nicholas moved almost languidly, separating the deadly hands. To Tompkins, watching interestedly from the sidelines, it appeared as if he had not moved at all, merely pushed his elbows into Frank’s ribcage almost gently. Frank collapsed onto the concrete floor…”
Now I’ve been doing martial arts most of my life and I still have no idea what’s going on in most of Van Lustbader’s fight scenes. But nonetheless, I enjoy them. Which is really the key to writing a great literary fight scene. It can be detailed or mysterious, quick and neat or long and brutal. But it has to be something the reader enjoys reading, something that gives him a bit of a visceral thrill. That is what makes a great literary fight scene.
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Mark Jacobs is a freelance writer, martial arts instructor and semi-professional poker player who regularly plays for more money than he can afford to lose. His written work has appeared in publications such as Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health and TimeOut New York. The author of the acclaimed instructional text, The Principles of Unarmed Combat, he currently serves as a monthly columnist for Black Belt Magazine. His novels include the detective novel, Pascal’s Wager, and the upcoming boxing saga, A Bittersweet Science. You can learn more about Mark on his blog, and on his Amazon.com Author’s Page.
This post originally appeared on Mark’s blog on May 3, 2012.