After years of writing romance and drama novels, I was pretty confident that a fantasy/action novel would be a piece of cake!
Well, as it turns out, fight scenes are really so easy — to mess up, that is.
So if you also have stumbled upon the same dilemma; where you spend pages building the hype only to hear imaginary cricket sounds at the moment of the showdown, then this guide is for you.
It’s time that you learn how to write a fight scene!
10 Tips on the Perfect Fight Scene
1. Ask Yourself: Is There a Point to This Fight Scene?
An awesome tip to start with when writing a fight scene is to make sure this particular scene adds value to the story and actually moves it forward.
You may not realize this right away, but when violence is uncalled for, it can get pretty boring.
Think of it like this: if you want a scene to really make an impact on the reader, wouldn’t it be better if it wasn’t a recurring event?
If you had your long-standing rivals fight every several pages, would it really stay interesting?
The anticipation and aftermath are quite literally what makes a fight scene epic; you’ve just been wanting it to happen so bad!
So if you were to remove a certain fight scene from your novel and then read the scene before and after, only to find that you can make sense of what happened regardless of the fight, then it’s probably best to keep it that way.
Otherwise, the fight scene does affect the storyline and really causes some sort of transition in the events.
A note that you’d do well to remember is that just because this is a “fight” scene doesn’t mean the only aftermath you can discuss is physical.
Sure, there can be injuries, lost objects, or even prisoners, but sometimes a fight can be much more damaging in the mental department.
We can read and feel an incredible representation of both mental and physical aspects of a fight’s aftermath in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather using only one line: “See how they have massacred my son.”
The emotions conveyed are so strong from the mere result of a confrontation, not even a grand fight scene. As a reader, you don’t just imagine the horrible sight of Michael’s dismantled body, but you also realize how this event changes the mighty Don Vito Corleone as he breaks down seeing his son brutally killed.
You see, a fight scene doesn’t necessarily have to be a climactic battle where the victorious takes it all. Maybe you’re putting it there to give a vital piece of information about your protagonist or antagonist.
For example, the antagonist may use a certain weapon or cause a specific type of cut that explains the wounds on another character.
On the other hand, the protagonist may sustain a trauma that makes him closed off or weaker throughout the next couple of chapters, and you can, of course, blame it on the fight’s aftermath.
2. Try to Reveal More About the Character Through Action
Rather than a blatant description of a character’s skills or traits, you can use fight scenes to reveal more insight about the character and explore its dimensions.
You could have a character who is a master in combat, yet they tend to avoid physical confrontation and bloodshed as much as possible. On the other hand, a character could be a mere amateur yet they have a hunger for violence when presented with conflict.
You should also keep in mind that a really interesting fight scene is one where you go beyond the physical aspect of the characters. Tease your readers with a glimpse of the character’s soul to keep them intrigued.
A fight scene can also be a chance for you to shed light on other characters besides the protagonist and antagonist who are witnessing the action. The way they react can be a way for you to create a more engaging scene.
For example, a blow that hits one of the opponents can provoke a certain reaction from a spectator that hints at a potential alliance, a hidden grudge, or a chance of romantic involvement.
Here are a few questions that can help you get inspired and allow readers to further explore your characters:
- How skilled are your characters when it comes to fighting? What are their physical abilities? How does their mental state affect their actions? (Remember, not every protagonist is invincible, and not every antagonist always has the odds against them. Be flexible and leave some room for realistic expectations.)
- How important is this fight to the characters? What’s at stake for each of the opponents?
- What reasons do the characters have for making their choices? Will these choices affect their goals?
3. Create Motivation for Your Characters to Engage in a Fight
In the previous point, I recommended that you reveal some of the reasons why your characters are even going through with the fight. After all, you can’t just have your characters start to throw punches out of nowhere and expect the reader to buy it.
This is why creating believable motivation is key to a successful and engaging fight scene. What kind of motivation do you ask? Well, here are a couple of ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
A simple yet convincing reason why characters can get confrontational is to protect something they think greatly of or hold close to their hearts.
Your character can fight to defend a person, a principle, or a combination of both like many great fantasy novels, such as the popular series of J.K. Rolling Harry Potter.
Throughout the fights in the 7 books of the franchise, Harry Potter is mainly driven by his desire to protect his friends and loved ones while standing for the ideals of goodness and keeping magic available for everyone.
The antagonist, Lord Voldemort, is also defending the ideal he believes that magic is for purebloods only.
The need to survive is a powerful motive for characters to get violent, particularly in apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios where protagonists are trying their hardest to get through the day alive. Here, a fight scene would serve to intensify this need, making the reader break a sweat!
Suzanne Collins does a superb job capturing this concept in The Hunger Games where Katniss faces the inevitable decision of killing adolescent competitors if she wants to survive. She doesn’t have a choice, and neither do her opponents.
Just keep in mind that a survival fight scene is most credible when the situation is dire, or in other words, hell is about to break loose.
Honor can also be a good motivation for characters to fight, but it’s a bit trickier to use because it’s not as extreme as survival or protection. However, it can cause tragic consequences, especially when insults are exchanged.
We typically think of honor as a culprit for duels in Shakespearean novels and stories with kingdoms, royalty, and family feuds.
An example that easily comes to mind here is the timeless classic Romeo and Juliet.
The infamous fight scene that involves Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo is a terrific representation of fighting for the honor of a family name, friends, and one’s own self. The scene also ends with such a sharp turn in events as two characters are killed.
4. Don’t Let Fight Scenes Slow the Pace
Have you ever skipped over a fight scene while reading, simply because it was taking too dang long? I’d hate to admit it, but I’m certainly guilty of this, and so are many other people!
But let’s face it, this is the writer’s fault in most cases. Granted, some readers might skip over just about any fight scene no matter how brilliant it is, but for the vast majority, they actually want to enjoy it.
However, readers can only read through so many hits and kicks before dozing off!
You see, the reason for such unfortunate boredom is the trap of “slow pace”. Unlike movies where action-filled scenes happen very quickly, fights in literature can easily slow the pace without you realizing it.
This is because you’re too busy writing all the details and the reader has to work their imagination to mentally reconstruct the scene.
So what do you do? Well, you need to achieve the right balance between intense writing and being concise.
On one hand, striking descriptions really help readers build a solid mental image, but on the other hand, you can easily lose the readers’ interest as you go on and on about punches and injuries.
Here are a few pointers to help you create a fierce fight scene while maintaining your pace:
- Keep ’em short – your sentences should be short and deadly to keep readers on their toes. They should convey the gravity of the situation and how nerve-wracking the actions of the opponents are. You can read a fascinating fight scene in The Princess Bride where William Goldman does it ever so skillfully, almost as if the sentences are sudden moves. Here’s a taste: “The cliffs were very close behind him now. Inigo continued to retreat; the man in black continued advancing. Then Inigo countered with the Thibault. And the man in black blocked it.”
- Throw in some dialogue – mixing verbal exchange between the characters during action moments can help you recover your pace, since you won’t get too invested in writing an extensive description of what’s going on.
- Know the size of the scene – you need to distinguish the difference when writing a fight scene between two characters as opposed to a grand battle between entire armies. The former shouldn’t last for more than a page (maybe two).
- Avoid focusing too much on inner thoughts – while the thoughts going on inside the characters’ minds are important to express, fight scenes aren’t the best time for long introspection paragraphs. Save them for before and after the fight as characters reflect on the upcoming events and aftermath.
Nailing these techniques can take you a bit of practice, but they sure do pay off.
5. Use Fewer Adverbs and More Verbs
We already made it clear how fight scenes demand sentences that are short yet deadly. Such stimulating briefness means you should ditch using adverbs as they add unwanted length to sentences.
Instead, go for strong verbs that’ll make your readers feel the adrenaline pumping through their veins. The effect of a character’s action is best delivered with a verb, not its description.
If you really want to master this aspect of writing, you’ll need to feed your vocabulary by studying different verbs/adverbs combos and their corresponding one-word verbs. You should also explore synonyms to these strong verbs so you don’t get repetitive.
A simple example would be the verb “hit” and its adverb combo “hit hard”. Instead of these two forms, you can use stronger verbs such as “smack”, “strike”, “pound”, or “bash”, depending on the amount of force you’re trying to communicate.
Verbs of movement are also an excellent area where you can achieve high levels of reader engagement by showing rather than telling what’s happening. Some examples include:
- “She outstretched her arms, ready to claw his face off.”
- “I stumbled back, quaking from the hit.”
- “He collapsed to the ground, shaking and sobbing after learning the news.”
Note the absence of adverbs and how verbs, on their own, are doing just fine painting a vivid picture of the scene without dragging the sentence.
6. Include Sensory Aspects
One of the most effective ways to make sure your readers are completely immersed in the scene is to add sensory details to your writing. Hitting the reader with all the senses can be quite powerful, as it lets them have the full impact of the confrontation taking place.
When I say all the senses, I mean all of the five senses. You can describe what the characters are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and even tasting. Let’s break it down:
- Sight – this one is probably the most straightforward out of the bunch. You should describe the haunting and important details of what the character is seeing. Your goal is to get the reader to pay attention to certain details that are crucial to the scene. For example; “I trailed my eyes along the bloody gash on his side, when I caught a glimpse of something shiny.” The reader isn’t only aware of the opponent’s injury, but also intrigued to find out what the shiny item is. Is it a gun? A valuable artifact? They’ll just have to continue reading to find out!
- Hearing – a bit more on the complicated side, hearing can be an awesome addition to your fight scene as it adds an extra element of distress to the mix. The character doesn’t only see, but it also hears the danger. Something like “My screams were muffled by the sound of my heart pounding in my ears” is a good example of using hearing to emphasize the suffering and fear of the character. A few words to help you get started include: click, creak, groan, grunt, howl, hiss, roar, rustle, squeal, sizzle, tap, thud, whine, and whimper.
- Taste – another sense you can introduce to your fight scene, and one of my favorites, is taste. Consider something with a real ring to it like, “I tasted the familiar metallic of blood.”
- Smell – you don’t often see the smell sense being used in fight scenes. This kind of makes sense because, well, what can you really smell in a fight besides sweat? To this, I say you should think about other scents that could be lingering in the scene location. For example, if it’s a forest, then you can use scents of tree leaves, flowers, and wood. If it’s an abandoned warehouse, maybe there’s a lingering scent of mold.
- Touch – simply describe how the characters interact with each other and their surroundings. Words like rough, silky, prickly, and fuzzy come into mind when introducing this sense.
7. Make Sure the Style Suits Your Novel
Your novel has a special tone and style that needs to extend throughout every scene, including fight scenes. This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be flexible, but this flexibility should complement the overall style of the rest of your work.
For example, if you tend to use descriptions through your novel, then don’t stop it when you’re writing a fight scene. Carry on with the general style.
8. Resolve the Conflict (Even if it’s Temporary)
Once you reach the end of your fight scene, don’t leave it unresolved. Yes, this particular fight may not be the end of your story, but you should have it resolved, at least for the time being, so you can move on with the plot.
This means cooling down the heat of the action and constructing a logical transition to the following events. Show the effect of the aftermath as well the impact of injury, loss, or gain on the characters, be it physical or emotional.
9. Edit Makes Perfect
Now that you have your fight scene all wrapped up, go back and reread it. Chances are you’ll need to do some tweaking to make the scene flawless. This is called editing, which is the difference between a good story and a sloppy one.
Such improvements include:
- Deleting unnecessary fluff language.
- Making the actions flow by removing extra details that can cause reading lag.
10. Study the Works of Great Authors
Studying how great authors do it can help you get inspired into writing a scene just as great, or perhaps even better! But not just that, you may also find yourself leaning toward a certain style of portraying fights.
Works of amazing authors such as Robert B. Parker, John Connolly, Patricia Cornwell, Elmore Leonard, and many others can provide you with the insights you need to shape up your own writing.
How Long Should Fight Scenes Be?
Writing a fight scene between two characters as opposed to a grand battle between entire armies are two very different things. While the latter can be stretched over an entire chapter, the former shouldn’t last for more than a page (maybe two).
Remember, fight scenes are best written with short yet powerful sentences.
How do you Write a Good War Scene?
Writing a good war scene is all about building the hype and riling up your readers while throwing in intriguing details here and there.
You’ll need to first choose the point of view of the narrator and try to make that the situation doesn’t look too good for your heroes.
Then, you want to think like a general and plan your war accordingly. Here, it’d be helpful to read some military memories and fiction.
Add elements of surprise to keep your readers interested in the story, and paint a picture of the war as vivid as possible. Use all the sensory details you can, from seeing and hearing, to smelling and tasting. This way you can really get the readers engaged.
There you have it, 10 tips to help you construct a good and convincing fight scene. Did you enjoy the list? Try to apply what you learned, and remember that practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to try as many times as you need!
Musings and updates from the content management team at Clippings.me.
Bethany McKay is a multiplatform writer, editor, and social media manager. She has more than a decade of newspaper experience and subsequent work in publishing, editing and organizing a variety of publications, such as reports, college textbooks, and science, law, and business books.