Features and Columns · Movies

The Secret to a Great Fight Scene Is Structure

Here’s a video essay on why the best action sequences are structured like stories rather than spectacles.
Donnie Yen Fight Scene
By  · Published on July 28th, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re looking at what Chinese storytelling can teach us about how to structure a fight scene.

Like car chases and makeover montages, fight scenes are one of those things that movies just do better than other mediums. After all, the word “cinema” means “movement” (from the Greek kinēma). And that is, essentially, what a fight scene is: movement. There’s little to no dialogue or location-changes. It’s just people, in motion. Flinging fists.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Throwing punches, grunts, and henchmen at a hero does not necessarily a great fight scene make. And yet, while it’s certainly not a science, like most things, you can always tell when you’ve just seen a brawl that’s a cut above. So what is it, exactly, that makes a fight scene great? 

The video essay below outlines how exceptional fight scenes tend to follow a similar structure. Using Chinese storytelling principles as a guide, the video breaks itself, and the elements of a good fight scene, into four parts: (1) the establishment of the arena, the players, and the stakes; (2) the escalation after the first scene-setting exchange; (3) the “oh yeah” or “oh no” moment where the direction of the fight changes; and (4) finally an end that clarifies and resolves the stakes of the fight. In addition to outlining a reliably engaging shape the video emphasizes an essential truism about great fight scenes, and great stories generally: that if something feels personal to the hero, it will feel personal to the audience too.

Watch “How To Structure a Fight Scene“:

Who made this?

This video was created by Accented Cinema, a Canadian-based YouTube video essay series with a focus on foreign cinema. You can subscribe to Accented on Cinema for bi-weekly uploads here. You can follow them on Twitter here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.