Fight Scene Cliches
I finally started developing an eye for action cliches when revisiting the anime TV show Dragon Ball Z. Don't get me wrong, there are some crazy fights in that series, but as I was watching it, I realized there was one fighting/micro-plotting technique that was used against almost every villain by every hero. It was this:
Hero gets super upset
Hero shoots about a million blasts at the villain
The hero is out of breath
The smoke clears
The villain is unharmed
The creators used this sequence over and over again, and it became a cliche in that story, to the point that my brother and I would laugh every time it started—because we knew that when the smoke cleared, the villain would emerge unharmed. Soon we started saying things like, "Come on Vegeta, that fighting method never works!" Because it never did. But the creators kept using it because it had a cool effect, until it was overused.
Here is another cliche: A guy is fighting a really talented character whose identity he doesn’t know. This character bests or nearly bests him. Then, either the mask comes off, he touches the chest, or the character starts talking, and, surprise! He's been fighting a girl! Only it's not a surprise, because we've seen it a million times. We know how it's going to end. Look at the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean or Puss in Boots for an example. If you took the time, I'm sure you could think of 20 others.
And another: A character hanging off a ledge by one or two hands, and another character grabs him just before he falls. Again, there's a reason it's a cliche, because it's tense. But we've seen it before. We know what's going to happen.
Make Your Fight Scene Fresh
Great action scenes give us something we haven't seen before, or a twist of something we're familiar with.
You know that ledge example I just gave? Where one character is hanging, losing his grip, and another grabs him just in time? Lord of the Rings uses it, but the film makers put a fresh twist on it.
Frodo finally makes it to Mount Doom. Gollum attacks him, and the ring falls into the lava, and where's Frodo? Oh, he's holding onto the ledge. But wait, some of his fingers were bitten off. They're bloody, so not only is his hand slippery, but he's missing those digits to hang on with. And to top it off, the expression on his face tells us he's not sure he wants to hold on. He's not sure he wants to be rescued. He wants to die. He wants to let go. "Don't you let go," Sam says. And there is a new kind of intensity, because we know Frodo might let go on his own free will.
See? The film makers took a cliche and made it fresh.
Author David Farland often refers to an example from one of the Die Hard movies when talking about fresh actions scenes. In it, the hero is being held at gun point, with the villain's arms wrapped around him and the gun pointed to the hero's chest. There is no one left who can rescue the hero. It's at the climax of the story. Suddenly, the hero looks down and sees the angle the gun: it's not pointing directly at his heart. So, he shoots himself. The bullet goes through the hero and into the villain. And the hero escapes.
I hadn't seen that action technique used before. It was fresh.
So when plotting out your action scene, twist it and take it further and dig deeper to make it unique.
How do you do that? One way is to look at what the characters and setting bring to scene.