I’ve never thought of myself as particularly good at writing one kind of scene versus another, but one thing I’ve been told consistently by readers and reviewers is that they really enjoy my fight scenes.
So I guess I’m pretty good at writing fight scenes. With that in mind, today I’ll be sharing some advice since I know some writers struggle in this area. Specifically, I’ll be talking about hand-to-hand type fight scenes (combat scenes involving guns or soldiers is something else entirely, maybe for a future blog post)
#1 – Keep the sentences and paragraphs short. This is probably the most important point. It’s a fight. Things are happening quickly, fists are flying, bones are breaking. Shorty, choppy sentences give this impression wonderfully. Long, flowery sentences are nice when there’s not much action happening, but in a fight they slow the pacing. It doesn’t feel like a fight. Watch:
“Bob threw a left hook then a right. Bill stepped back, dodging both. Bob kept coming, still striking and backing Bill into a corner. Sensing victory he unleashed a flurry of punches, but Bill knew what he was doing. He suddenly caught Bob’s arm, stepped into him, and drove his knee into Bob’s groin.”
“Bob threw a fast jab with his left hand, followed by a powerful right hook as he closed the distance with Bill, who kept stepping back in an attempt to dodge the blows. Bob continued moving towards Bill as he threw more jabs, hooks, and even a roundhouse kick, trying to knock Bill’s lights out, and eventually he backed Bill into a corner. This was the moment Bob had been waiting for, the chance to trap Bill and prevent him from escaping….”
You get the idea. Now which of the above paragraphs carries sense of quick action? I couldn’t even finish writing the second paragraph, it was taking so long!
Also, unless the fight is pivotal to the plot, keep it short. A few paragraphs, a page maybe should be the longest a fight scene should last if it’s not vital to the plot, if you even include it at all.
#2 – Remember the environment. Unless you’re writing a Rocky Balboa fanfic, your characters are probably not fighting in a boxing ring. They’re in a bar, on a street corner, a school cafeteria. So use the environment! By this I mean have the characters trip over something, grab a weapon of opportunity, slam their opponent into a mail box or through a window.
It’s very easy to write a fight scene like they’re in an empty, white expanse, but that makes for dull reading. Use the environment. Make the environment effect the fight!
#3 – Get the details just right. And I don’t mean by that to have precise details of every punch. I mean you have to give just enough details to paint a picture while allowing some vagueness to keep the pacing going.
Hearkening back to the first point, it’s a fight. It’s chaotic and messy, so trying to give exacting details over every step and every strike slows the whole thing down. But you can’t just write “they slapped each other silly” either, because then the reader doesn’t have a proper sense of what’s going on.
When I write fight scenes, I do what I call pulsing the details. I’ll start with a good amount of detail about the opening strikes of a fight, then fall down to some generic descriptions like “a flurry of strikes”. Then the pulse of the fight will spike again as I describe the character grabbing a chair and smacking their opponent with it, then fall back to generic descriptions. Another pulse up as I describe how the character fell into the other’s guard and was now trapped in an arm bar.
Note that this is for a longer, plot-pivotal fight. As I said earlier, if it’s not a major fight that helps character development or is the climax of tensions between two main characters, you probably don’t need to worry about pulsing the details because the fight should be short.
#4 – Experience. As with any other part of writing, having experienced something goes a long way in writing about it well. You don’t have to have experienced a fight or combat to write about it, but it helps. And if you haven’t, ask people who have. I’ve helped both friends and total strangers write about military life because they asked.
So how does that tie into a fight scene specifically? If you’ve been in a fight or taking martial arts training you know that you have more body parts than your fists. You can kick, you can strike with your knees and elbows. There are hammerfists and headbutts. There’s grappling on the ground, where there’s guards, half-mounts, and arm bars. Use these! Don’t just have your characters move in a circle throwing an endless series of punches. Get creative!
#5 – Dialogue and emotions. Again, this advice is for longer fights that are important plot points, but dont’ forget about emotions! Your characters will be angry, scared, confident, distracted, etc. Take a moment here and there to reflect that in the fight. Show Bob grin as he lands several strikes in a row. Show Bill’s eyes widen as he realizes he can’t win.
And then there’s dialogue. This depends a lot on each individual fight scene, but don’t forget about it entirely. If the characters know and hate each other, there’ll probably be some trash talking. If it’s a group fight, two friends will probably be shouting warnings to each others.
Don’t abandon dialogue but also keep it clipped. Just like your sentences should be short, so should anything the characters say. I’ve read fight scenes where characters are practically orating a campaign speech and it felt completely wrong. This is another spot where experience helps, a person who’s been in a fight knows there isn’t a whole lot of talking.
So there you have it! What do you think of the advice? Anything you would add or detract? Let me know in the comments!