Fight scenes are the bane of my existence. They are one of the things in writing that I feel insecure about. That being said, this is fantasy and sometimes the plot demands a fight or a battle.
Violence is ingrained into our brains at a very primal level. Whether it’s a bar brawl or something more traumatic, violence is something that people react really strongly to. It’s very instinctual. Hence why combat/fight scenes are really compelling in prose, stage, and film.
So let’s fight.
Writing fights is not cinematic fighting.
Unless you’re writing a play/TV show/movie screenplay, you can’t use the rules that cinematic fighting uses.
What I mean by this is that when we’re watching film or plays we can see what’s happening without having it being previously established as much. We can see the path that Aragorn takes in Lord of the Rings, we see the action in a different way than we do in prose.
So do not give the reader a blow-by-blow breakdown of the action in the scene. This is boring, it can be confusing for the reader, and it’s not your strongest route in general.
So not: “Protagonist McGee swung her sword at the soldier and stabbed him through the heart. Then she swung at another enemy and took his arm off. Then she did blah blah blah.”
Maybe that is exactly what’s happening, but it’s not as helpful in prose. Fights in prose are much more versatile than that and need a different kind of care and attention. They do this in movies because there’s choreography and visual fights (as that) are like a dance. A list of the character’s action in the scene doesn’t help because it doesn’t do anything to further what’s happening on the larger arc and scale.
Your characters are your greatest asset. Don’t ignore that.
I’ve read so many fight scenes where great characters and development suddenly disappear and the action turns into a blow-by-blow. The character’s journey, goals, thoughts, etc. go out the window and they just turn into “Sword Swinging Character X”.
Now, in a high stress situation, your character isn’t going to be thinking about their favorite food or how lovely their love interest is, of course, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have thoughts and feelings.
Like I said fighting and violence is very primal. Our feelings are reflected in how and why we’re engaging in physical violence. A person just trying to survive the fight is going to act/think a certain way. A character who is a professional assassin is going to fight differently. A character who is fighting because they are angry is going to fight differently.
Let the fight reflect why the characters are engaging in violence. There’s so much you can use here so don’t ignore it! Tap into the emotion, tap into that primal, visceral stuff I was talking about earlier. Harness it and use it. Physical things apply here as well: heartbeat, instinctual reactions, “seeing red”, adrenaline, breath, heat, pain, etc.
If your character is terrified of violence and really apprehensive, they’re going to go into the fight differently than someone who is the type of person to get all worked up and charge into the fight without a second thought.
Experience, size, and skill also come into play here. An experienced, professional assassin character is going to fight differently than someone just trying to get away and survive. A person who never swung a sword is going to feel different fears, have different physical reactions. A person who is significantly smaller than a very imposing opponent is going to approach the fight differently.
Who are your characters? Why are they there? Why are they engaging in violence? What do they feel physically and emotionally?
This is where prose has an advantage over film in regards to fights. We are inside the character’s head in the fight in prose. In film, we just see the fight and while the actor may be doing an amazing job, we still don’t know what exactly is going on in the character’s head.
The goal of the fight.
This also gets thrown out the window a lot in prose, but it’s the number one thing that should be focused on. Your characters are there fighting for a reason and they continue fighting to achieve that goal.
It can be as simple as “Oh, shit I need to survive this fight.” Play that up. If it’s to rescue a friend or loved one, play that up. If it’s vengeance, play that up.
Keep the fight goal focused. Your character has a goal and the opponent(s) are obstacles. Think out how they get over those obstacles in order to get to the goal.
Set the stage.
This is where details in description come in really handy. If you don’t describe the area the fight happens, the reader is going to get lost.
If the fight takes place in a room with only one opponent you need to tell the reader what weapons each person has. What furniture and objects are in the room? (candle sticks, chairs, beds, dresses, breakable things like glass, and so on.)
A fight on a field is going to be different. What terrain is there? Are there rocks, cliffs, water, hills? It can be anything, but the reader needs to know what advantages and disadvantages each opponent has in the fight that are environmental. This counts whether the fight takes place in a small room or on an open field. Even things like describing the weather and ground go here. A hot desert sand fight is going to be different than on hard, icy ground during a snowstorm.
You’ll need to establish it at some point, so have that place be somewhere previously visited (like Protagonist McGee’s bedroom) or you need to set the stage before the fight takes place. It will change the fight and what happens in it. Things like number of opponents or helpers and so on. This all needs to be established before running headlong into a fight.
I’ve read tons of fight scenes where I skipped to the end of the fight because I got lost as to where the characters are and what they’re doing, so make sure the reader can follow by setting the stage.
Tones and themes.
This will all depend on perspective characters, the goals, and the reason the fighting is happening but stick with your themes and goals, make the tone relevant to what your characters are experiencing.
If you’re saying violence is bad, your character should be legitimately traumatized by what they’re seeing. If they’re fighting to death and have accepted that, show the reader how the character carries on in the face of the horror.
If it’s a fight for your life thing, the tone and pacing should reflect that. It should be fast, nerve wracking, desperate, etc. The character should go to any level to make it out alive.
Establish the tone of the fight and keep the goals in mind, and you’ll have a good sense of where to start and how to finish.
The opponents are not punching bags.
A literal punching bag’s goal is to be there to punch and practice on. It has no goals or purpose other than taking the hits. Even if your character is encountering “Enemy Soldier #3”, Enemy Soldier isn’t just the there for the character to wail on.
The stakes are just as high for the opponent as they are for your character. Depending on the fight, they may be fighting for their life just as much. They also experience pain, fear, anger, bloodlust, rage, and so on. Even if their reasons for being there are different. Even zombies have goals in fights (killing the characters and eating them). That’s a valid goal, but for sentient opponents, remember that the stakes are just as high and there’ll be just as great of consequence (death or horrific injury for a couple) if they fall at the hands of the character.
Some of the best fight scenes I’ve read are the ones where the characters take down an opponent and then connect with them on a human level, whether it be a look in the eyes or the character witnessing/feeling someone lose their life at their hands. Even if we learn nothing about “Enemy Soldier #3”, if they’re sentient, they still had a whole life before entering that fight.
Do we need a whole backstory? No. Absolutely not. But a fight will get a lot more interesting (depending on goals and tone) if you portray a smidgen of humanity for the opponents as well. Either way, keep it in mind as you write it.
Draw on experience.
Violence is primal. It’s deeply rooted in any living beings ultimate goal of survival.
Personally, I don’t remember ever striking another human being and trying to hurt them (other than shoving my cousin when we were like 7 when he got annoying one time, for which I got in trouble). I’ve done archery (at non-living targets only) and I’ve done stage combat in theatre (fake punching, fake chokeholds, fake kicking, and such).
But anything you as a person have experienced that gets at those feelings of survival instinct or fight-or-flight can help you understand what you’re characters are going through.
For example, I was once a passenger in a car accident as a teenager (no one was hurt) and that was my first (and hopefully only) experience of what I felt as “real” fight-or-flight. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. Time literally felt like it slowed down (like in the movies where big action happens in slo-mo) and to this day I remember the events out of order. My blood pressure was double what it is normally and I reacted differently than the other people around me. I was the calmest person in the situation, weirdly. I was incredibly calm, didn’t panic, didn’t cry or anything. It was really confusing and after the adrenaline died down, I was sore for a week and terrified to get behind the wheel of a car again.
That sort of sensation and reaction is what you can draw upon for your high stress fight scene. Even if it’s just the panic of tripping and almost falling, expand on it and hike the stakes up for your characters.
I’m not, what I call, a “method writer” where the writer actually does everything they can within in reason to get into the characters’ heads (using their name as their own in public, thinking like them, reacting like them, and so on). I’m much more “scientific” than that (neither is greater than the other), but you can tap into visceral feelings your characters might feel on a smaller level by employing some “method” stuff.
For example, punch the crap out of your pillow. Don’t actually do anything that would hurt you or another person, but by punching something like a pillow or hitting your mattress with a wiffle bat, you can increase your heart rate and feel that kind of “rush”.
If you understand it and how it works, you can write it better.
It should make sense.
This is lower on the list for a reason, because I think some of the above points are more important. Combat should make sense.
Your wimpy character doesn’t become a badass fighter all of the sudden because it’s convenient and they need to survive the fight. A character with no experience shouldn’t act like they know they’re going to survive the battle (even if the author knows they do), that way the stakes stay high.
Weapons also need to make sense. I’m a short and scrawny person who probably wouldn’t be able to swing a warhammer to save my life. The weapons used should be diverse, take advantage of the characters’ skills, and be feasible in battle. Even if that weapon is magic, your characters should know what they’re doing with it and how to fight with/against it.
If they don’t have experience, than why are they fighting in the first place? If they do have to fight with no experience (this can work) than that should be reflected in the prose.
Do some Googling as far as weapons and combat goes. There’s a lot of great YouTube videos and articles from people who know what they’re talking about. Do your research so that the fight makes sense. It may be more work, but your fight will be better.
How frequent are these fights?
If your character is an assassin or they fight as part of their normal life/job, they’re going to be fighting more than a character who is on the run just trying to escape.
Fights are great tools, they’re powerful, they’re awesome, but because they are so powerful they need to be handled carefully and fit in with the story.
Remember this isn’t a video game where there’s 5 fights in every quest.
If you’re writing action, constant fight scenes are more excusable. If this is more politically driven with scheming and backstabbing, having constant fight scenes is going to get tired. Every fight no matter how many of them are in your work should be unique and different. Don’t just make a fight and put it on repeat, there’s no point.
If the climax is a battle or a fight, then build up to that. Don’t let the first fight in the story be huge and big. Use fights sparingly (unless you can’t). Think of pacing, and don’t just throw one in because “this needs more action”. Fights need to have a reason to be there, a really good one.
Character development through action.
Characters develop in the choices they make. We see who they are through how they handle things. Why does your character keep fighting? When do they stop and walk away?
Think of how your characters approach and handle the fight. Show the reader things about them by how they act and react to it. Show the aftermath whether they have a rush or are traumatized.
Fights should be essential.
Like I said, they’re powerful tools so use them wisely. Every fight should tell the reader something about the character, plot, or world (usually, in that order).
A fight should move the story forward, not just be there to give the characters something to do. It should be a step (or the final step) in achieving a goal or heading towards the end of the story.
Guess what, this is a situation where all that pretty prose you’ve been dying to use, metaphors, poetic descriptors, and so on can be really helpful.
Because fights are so emotional and visceral, you can abstract them as much as what works and all those pretty words that didn’t have a place before have a place here.
Just don’t make it too abrupt. Put it in the heart of the action. Keep it neat and concise. Don’t do it for 5 pages. Depending on how long the fight is and how emotional it is for the characters, you can use just a couple paragraphs and have something really sublime.
Don’t go overboard but if it fits, use it.
Choreograph the fight.
I don’t mean blow-by-blow, I mean the writer needs to know where the fight is going and have a clear picture of where the people are, how they’re moving, and what they’re doing in the fight.
Draw a picture, is advice I’ve heard. Doesn’t have to be pretty, but you should block out the fight in this way. Draw squares and circles, arrows, sort of like how they do in sports or in theatre.
The reason is that even if the reader doesn’t know that information in that way, knowing it yourself will help you write it better.
This should be plot and character driven. Depending on the tone of the fight, this could be a life or death situation. Maybe there’s a limited amount of time to achieve the goal, maybe they’re against a really formidable enemy, maybe this is a last stand.
Either way, depending on where in the story the fight takes place and who is fighting, the stakes should be appropriately high.
This goes into tone and goals. The fight should be balanced out with a more sober aftermath. It can be anything: a happy victory, a sad defeat, a somber mixture of emotions. Just remember that it probably isn’t going to be completely pretty and clean from your characters’ standpoints. Think about how hard the fight was, the exhaustion, the horror, the loss of life, and so on.
READ READ READ
This is advice I repeat over and over. Read. Read books (in your genre or not) with fight scenes, big battles, and what have you. Analyze them. When were you enthralled? When did you get bored? Mark those points and figure out WHY it was that you felt how you did. It will help you write better fight scenes.
Also, trust your readers. If someone gives you a critique on a fight scene ask them specifically “At what point did you get bored and skip to the end of the scene? What moved you?” and so on.
Fight scenes are hard, but they’re really powerful and great tools. They need to contribute something, either by moving the plot forward or giving the reader information about the characters. Keep the stakes high, plan it out, figure out why and what is happening. Don’t use film’s rules and keep it character or plot driven.
Here are some links on fight scenes: