How to Kick Ass with Words

Posted by & filed under Education, English Composition, Sparks, Strategy.

Without a doubt, fight scenes are a necessity of fiction. Even the most celebrated “literary” fiction writers include aggressive confrontations. Authors like Flannery O’Connor and Tobias Wolfe recognized the importance of violence in writing about humanity. It would be a bald-faced lie to claim that in our Friday night entertainment we don’t yearn for it. (And that’s no attack against football.) Consider horror movies and role-playing games, consider action movies and murder mystery shows, consider gladiators and the colosseum.  “Night Bus,” a short story appearing in the fiction issue of Atlantic Monthly, 2006, is so violent I can’t include it in my Creative Writing course for college sophomores. Really. See for yourself here. Yet, when I earned my MFA (one and a half times over, studying at the MFA program at Emerson College, and at the MFA program at the University of Central Florida), I never got any instruction in writing fight scenes. I seek to change that. I seek to posit that fight scenes–that scenes, in general (and a three-act structure)–are a necessary part of artistic fiction.

So here we will focus on writing a good fight scene. It will include an instructional video and interview by an expert martial artist (who is also a novelist) and a strategy that arises out of the Lifelong Kindergarten program and also based on watching my three kids play in the backyard and the kitchen floor. The result is play-based learning, from which we will collaborative create a fight scene, online, in a gamified environment. The take-away is a unique character, giving depth to our fiction. But ultimately this activity functions as a practice/formative assessment rich with opportunity for reciprocity between teacher and student and is bolstered by peer-review and peer-pressure to create; it has the final goal of including a fight scene in our final fiction (or nonfiction) narrative of the semester: summative assessment.

Fight-Scene–Creative Thinking Spiral

Begin by showing students the following video by simply clicking the image or following this link

Fight Scenes Youtube


(Bonus Unschooling parenthetical)

A basic tenet of the educational theory of unschooling (if it can be called an “educational” theory) is that, with institutionalized education, we seek to remove the educational material from the real world; an example of this would be tests of math with no practical application—the closest we get is a word problem. These formats don’t even touch things like budgets, grocery lists, auditing spending in multiple categories. Really, there is no real-world connection. The same is true with writing exercises, and it could be argued that essays play no practical purpose than an arbitrary practice field for writing other things.

So rather than remove writing from the real world, I seek to immerse it in the real world. Also, I seek to draw on tangible and established human behaviors in order to look for intuitive experiences to inform educational processes. The following lesson is thus intuitive, and it’s awesome, because, basically, it’s play-based learning.

Sofie, my nine-year-old little girl, likes to make jewelry out of leaves. My six-year-old made a rolling hospital gurney out of a truck and a cardboard box. My little boy makes toy trucks and balls out of Tupperware dishes on the floor. They take things out of their contexts and repurpose them. They play with weird stuff.

In class, since our overarching goal, or big-picture take-away, is to create characters, we are going to take characteristics of people who are not supposed to be in a story.

Interactive Engagement Strategies:

To come up with inventive characters, we use a creative thinking spiral (coined by Mitchel Resnick, MIT Lifelong Kindergarten):

The spiral functions this way: imagine, create, play, share, reflect, imagine.

Imagine—My online students must go to the grocery store and talk to the people at the counters as you order things. Or go to McDonald’s and go in and get a cheeseburger and talk to the person who rings you up. Go somewhere and talk to someone. For brick-and-mortar classes, students could simply take a walk around the campus and then return after talking to other students they haven’t met before. Then, imagine how they would act in a fight.

Create—Create a character profile that includes what might make these people fight with others—invent characteristics about them that would make them volatile. These can be chemical or circumstantial (which is to say that they can have mental disorders or they can be held-down in their workplace). Next, include how well they would do in a fight and why. Finally, post a picture that represents them (you probably don’t want to actually put their picture, as they will get in a fight in the next few steps).

PlayPadlet is a real-time collaborative “wall” where students can post pictures, links, and text boxes. These can be manipulated in space (to organize a sequence). Click the picture or visit this sample padlet link here:


In class, students can post these real-time by scanning a qr code and using their ubiquitous technology from their seats, watching in awe as their characters appear on the projected screen at the front of the class. They can also do this virtually without ever going into a classroom, which is how we do it in my online creative writing class.

Share— With others. Arrange your characters next to other characters that might have a fight with them. Under each character-set, narrate the fight scene based on the advice given in the video. (This is the practice/formative assessment, where I, as a writing instructor, can examine previously taught dialogue lessons or whether they get the current lesson.)

Reflect— How might this spark an idea for a new scene or story? Can it work into an existing story?

Imagine— This is the part of the sequence that “spirals” into the next assignment (acting as yet another practice/formative assessment that sets a brand-new fight scene in the traditional context of fiction).

InfographicsA final note on modeling.


I find it helpful to refer students to the three-act structure–even for short stories–which is visually narrated in the following infographic contained at this link.

Writing Prompt

(AKA practice/formative assessment arising from “Imagine” section of the spiral):

Create a fight scene with original characters that is realistic to actual fighting and arises out of the character’s internal struggles.

Now, try doing that one without a little practice.

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