Fight scenes are one of those things that can crop up in any genre from crime thrillers to high fantasy. Depending on the story, they may even show up in a romance. Knowing how to write a fight scene well can be useful in all kind of tales, so it’s worth learning about, no matter what you write.
I’ve put together a list of tips below, and I should say that some of these come from a panel I attended at Arisia Con 2016 in Boston that featured authors Keith R.A. DeCandido, Genevieve Iseult Eldredge, James MacDonald, and Mark J. Millman who all gave some wonderful advice. If you’re a writer, especially a genre writer, I think Arisia is a fun event and worth checking out.
But anyway, on to the actual writing tips…
Before you get into writing a fight scene, there are some questions you should ask yourself.
First of all, why are you adding a fight scene to the story, and why at this juncture? Every scene in a story needs to advance the plot and develop the story’s characters and themes, and fight scenes are no different. This is especially true in short stories and novels. While film might be able to get away with just throwing in some eye-candy action sequences (though I would argue this is still the hallmark of a bad action movie), readers are not going to be entertained by a block of words that aren’t really telling them anything, so make sure the scene serves a real purpose.
The second question you want to ask is, what level of reality do I want out of my fight scenes? This will depend largely on the tone of your story or the expectations of the genre you are writing in, but it is worth keeping in mind. You don’t want to throw some super realistic and gritty bar fight into a campy action-adventure, and you don’t want to be missing key details when trying to write a very realistic military drama.
This segues into my next point, which is that you will likely need to do some research if you want your fight scene to be realistic. This is especially true if you have any characters who are supposed to be experts in a certain fighting style or in combat in general. There are a lot of people in the world who are experts and will be willing to share their knowledge. You might also be able to sit in on martial arts classes or something like that. There are also probably a lot of books out there you can read on specific subjects. Don’t be afraid to put in the work, especially if it’s important to your story.
Now that that’s out of the way, and you know what sort of fight scene you’re going to write, you’ll need to tackle the mechanics of actually writing the scenes for your story.
The first, and really most important thing, is to keep the majority of your sentences short. Same goes for your paragraphs. You want to give the feeling that the action is flowing, and short sentences work well for this, since they are easy to digest. Short paragraphs are easier to read, since your eye won’t get lost in a jumble of text, and they take up more room on the page, so they give the illusion that more of the story is going by (read: the “page turner” effect).
Physically differentiating your combatants is also a good thing to do. It will help you easily distinguish the characters involved for the reader, so they won’t get confused by who’s doing what in the scene. This also helps with scene flow, since you won’t have to use character names repeatedly, and you can call up easy adjectives based on the physicality of the person.
Every fight scene should have stakes, and certainly whoever the POV character for the scene is should care about whether or not he or she wins the fight. If the fighter isn’t at risk of losing anything, then the drama simply won’t be there. The audience has to be invested in the action, and having stakes for the characters involved is the best way to make that happen.
One way to up the descriptive element of a fight scene is to focus on the pain and fatigue the fighters are suffering rather than the specific moves they are performing. This can increase the drama of what is going on and help ensure that the scene doesn’t just become a litany of blocking descriptions or fighting jargon. It will also bring readers into the scene, since they can experience what the character is experiencing, not just be told what is happening.
If you don’t want to write a fight scene, for whatever reason, but you want it to have happened, one approach might also be to write about the aftermath of a fight rather than the fight itself. This could be used for comedic effect or if the fight is really short and wouldn’t make for a hugely exciting scene. This method might also be worth considering if your story isn’t in an action genre, and the fight is something that has to happen for the story to work but isn’t the sort of thing that appears in the genre often.
And my final tip to writing fight scenes is to actually act out the scenes if you’re really unsure of how they play out. Maybe get some friends together and have them walk through the blocking to see if the moves you’re describing can be done. This certainly isn’t necessary, but it might help. If nothing else, it could be fun.
In infographic summary…
I hope that you found this article helpful. Are there any other tips you use for fight scenes in your own writing that I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments.