Writing Fight Scenes
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Fight scenes are amongst the hardest types of scenes to write. You have to get across the nature of the actions to your reader, but you need to avoid boring them. At the same time as keeping your detail vague enough to keep pacing up, you need to be including enough detail to express how brutal the fight is and the impact it’s having on your character.
The purpose of this post will be to equip you with points to keep in mind when writing your next fight scene. But first, we’ll be going into what your fight scene should contain in relation to your characters and their skills.
Know your characters
Firstly, you need to establish who will be fighting in your scene, and how skilled they are. An amateur scuffle between a couple of drunkards will look completely different to an acrobat fight between two Krav Maga experts. Consider these scenarios:
Two drunkards getting into a brawl in a bar.
Two kung-fu masters facing off in a dojo.
A secret agent facing off with an enemy henchman.
These are all plausible scenes you may find yourself writing, but, as you can imagine, they would all play out entirely differently—details of which we’ll get into later. And on that note...
Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
This is another aspect of your character that you must keep in mind. Not all characters will react to confrontation in the same way, and the way your scenes pans out can affect things further.
Let’s say your character prefers to flee (flight); if confronted by an aggressor, their first reaction will be to look for an escape. If they can run, great! But what if they can’t? If they’re stuck, they’ll more than likely dodge their assailant’s attacks whenever they come, throw things to keep them away, or try to push them over, all the while keeping an eye out for an escape.
How about if your character freezes? This type of person may curl into a ball when confronted, perhaps surrendering immediately and begging for their life. This character will lose the fight pretty quickly and will probably need to be saved by another.
And if your character is a fighter? They’ll not hesitate to get stuck into the scrimmage.
So what does the fighting look like?
For a WIP of mine, I specifically mention that my character is being trained in Krav Maga—this is due to her trainer being ex-CIA (Krav Maga is the chosen combat style of government agencies). As an author, I didn’t know the slightest about Krav Maga, so what did I do? I looked up beginner tutorials on YouTube. I learned how experts stand, their fighting philosophy, how they move, and the terminology of certain moves.
While you don’t need to be extraordinarily detailed when it comes to writing your scenes, doing some research will help you keep things authentic. Here are some basics for you to keep in mind when it comes to certain fighting styles...
Amateur (no training)
Fighters will fight based on emotion—usually anger—and they will attack without thought or precision. They will more than likely punch with a closed fist (which can make you more easily miss and can hurt your hand) and might stumble over their own feet. They’ll be basing their technique on pure force and intent to injure.
General security personnel (bouncers, bodyguards, etc.)
Night-club bouncers, for example, are usually calm people. They are difficult to anger and won’t touch a person until they are attacked—and even then, they only act in self-defence. Their training is based on deescalation (Verbal Judo) and removal first, followed by restraint or arrest if the aggressor doesn’t comply. They will do their best not to injure the aggressor.
Security personnel might use pressure points, pain compliance holds, joint-manipulation, chokeholds, and wrist locks to force someone to comply if need be.
This technique is obviously based on keeping yourself safe, but the exact style can vary widely. The overall aim is to incapacitate the aggressor for long enough so that the victim can escape.
Those proficient in self-defence will be able to disarm an aggressor of their weapon (be it a gun or a knife), ground them for a limited time, or disorientate them. If they’re prepared, they may also be carrying a self-defence weapon of their own, such as pepper spray, a taser, or a penknife.
However, it is important to remember that in dire situations, a person who has self-defence training might freeze up and forget everything they learned if they haven’t been mentally prepared.
Krav Maga is a military self-defence and fighting system. If your fighting character works with a government agency or the military, they’ll likely know this.
For the most part, Krav Maga teaches to avoid physical confrontation; experts will only attack as a last resort. It is an incredibly quick technique and relies on moves that both act offensively and defensively at the same time, striking sensitive points of the aggressor (eyes, throat, face, groin, ribs, knees, etc.).
Experts are often thinking a move ahead of their opponent at all times. Fighters using this technique will continue to strike at their opponent until they are fully incapacitated. While fighting, they will also be aware of their surroundings, searching for others aggressors and potential escape routes.
There are many forms of Karate, but for the most part it is similar to Krav Maga in use; a karateka will only attack if the aggressor gives them no choice. It is either down them or be downed. A single blow from a true expert could mean death.
Karate is also a very quick technique, but at the same time is streamlined and graceful. You won’t find karate experts grappling with their opponent on the ground. Some may use weapons, but karate mostly focuses on hand-to-hand combat. As karate can be so deadly and as a matter of its peaceful philosophy, karatekas will aim only to keep the aggressor down long enough for them to escape.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art and is characterised by various styles of fast and impressive kicks. Any strikes will always be above waist height. Stances are generally taller and narrower than those of karate to facilitate the fast turning kicks.
A taekwondo expert will attempt to conserve their energy between strikes, meaning they will strike with intention and precision and as few times as possible. Between strikes, while the opponent is recovering, they will keep their distance, circle and remain aware.
A novice in taekwondo will probably focus on lower kicks to the mid-riff and might find their stability is somewhat wobbly. Therefore, they are at a heightened risk of falling over when carrying out an attack. However, taekwondo practitioners are also proficient in falling, landing, and correcting themselves. If tripped, you can expect them to regain their composure quickly.
And now onto the writing part!
Know when to be specific
Your scene shouldn’t end up as a blow-by-blow account of a fight. Where you can, leave precise details up to your reader’s imagination, because they will imagine what they want to see—and they’ll only imagine what they like. Your job is to point them in the right direction.
Blow-by-blow accounts can also come across as repetitive and boring, because there’s only so many ways you can describe actions. And once your reader becomes bored, the scene will begin to drag, no matter how quickly you phrase your action.
Instead of describing every precise kick and punch, you might describe the first couple, then say “They exchanged more blows until Fred’s head smacked the concrete. His teeth cut through his tongue, and he tasted iron.” Instead of describing the precise tangle of limbs as Fred’s assailant joins him on the floor, say “They grappled in the dust.”
Keep in mind your perspective
When writing in third-person omniscient, you have the ability to describe every action that goes on—whether you should has already been answered above. But what about if you’re writing from third-person objective or first person?
Check out this extract from Gregory McDonald’s Carioca Fletch.
Instead of looking who had pushed him, Fletch tried to save himself from falling. The edge of the parade route’s pavement shot out from under him. Someone pushed him again. He fell to the right, into the parade. A foot came up from the pavement and kicked him in the face.
When you are personally involved in a fight, you don’t see every action take place. You might not even see most of them coming! Just as McDonald has done here, convey speed and disorientation in your writing by flitting over some actions and focusing on the reaction of your character.
Here’s another extract from my novel, Seeking Shadows.
Without thinking, I jumped away from one only to bump into the chest of another. His beefy hands wrapped around my forearms, and the first took a swing for my face. I ducked and heard the dull crack of a fist on a nose. The grip around my arms loosened, and I bolted through a gap in the trees.
Here, I’m not focusing on precise details, only what my MC can realistically see or sense. Which brings me to…
Don’t forget sensory information.
Fights aren’t just actions; they are sounds, sensations… even tastes and smells! Where you can afford to, such as in between blows while your character is recovering (or during the fight, if you phrase it right), take into account what your character is feeling.
Can they taste blood? Is their nose bleeding, can they feeling it trickling over their lips, do they have to spit it away? Are their ears ringing from a recent blow, are they feeling dizzy? What parts of their body are aching or areas of their clothes are torn? Give your fight scene more visceral details by giving your reader access to these sensations.
Keep your pacing fast
Fight scenes will innately be fast-paced, which means you can employ a variety of methods to ensure you’re keeping your actions punchy.
Omit unnecessary words, such as suddenly, immediately, or similar. Look into what redundant words might be popping up too, such as very, that, or so. Or spin around, fall down, stand up.
Use verbs that already connote speed—this means avoiding adverbs as far as possible! Again, this sort of falls under omission. Replacing a ‘verb + adverb’ with a stronger verb will mean your sentences read and feel faster. Instead of saying ran quickly, use dashed or shot. Instead of turned quickly, use spun. Instead of grunted loudly, say roared.
Use plosive language. These are words that have a sudden stop and start of air when you speak them. They are explosive sounds that can help to connote explosive movements. For example, shot, bit, cut, prick, trick, pop, bat, gun, kick.
Leave introspection (thought tracking) until the end of the fight. During the scene, the last thing on your character’s mind will be the meaning of life or ‘how they ended up here.’
Interrupt actions with dialogue to stop your reader from zoning out. Continue your plot mid-fight; reveal some important details, anger your character further with some lies spouted by their opponent. Don’t feel like everything has to be said before or after the fight.
What I’m not going to do is tell you to keep your sentences short. While this can give the impression that actions are taking place in quick succession, it can become tiresome quickly. The key isn’t to keep your sentences short, but to describe actions concisely.
Take a look at this example from Lee Child’s Never Go Back.
Reacher half turned and half stepped back, toward his door, a fluid quarter circle, shoulders and all, and like he knew they would, the two guys moved toward him, faster than he was moving, off-script and involuntary, ready to grab him. Reacher kept it going long enough to let their momentum establish, and then he whipped back through the reverse quarter circle toward them, by which time he was moving just as fast as they were, two hundred and fifty pounds about to collide head-on with four hundred, and he kept twisting and threw a long left hook at the left-hand guy.
That entire paragraph is actually only two sentences! But a lot happens in those two sentences; around eight individual actions, in fact. As long as your sentences remain readable, you can make them as long as you need. I often think that run-on sentences with multiple actions read in one breath come across much faster than multiple short sentences.
But this doesn’t just mean the speed of interactions and how you tell them has to be quick; you also need to keep track of how long your scene is going on for.
I’ve read fight scenes that range from a single paragraph of quick actions to several pages of beautifully described prose, and do you know which made the better fight scene? The single paragraph. The fact is, your readers will become just as tired as your characters is if a fight continues for too long without any plot or scene progression.
So how do you lengthen a fight without making it boring?
The key here is to ensure that every new action prompts a new reaction; something different, something you haven’t described before. Fighting rarely consists of just punches and kicks. People fall over, people get pinned down, people grab at fallen objects and use those. They might even take hostages to slow things down or run away at the first opportunity.
What I generally say to my authors is with each new paragraph, ensure there is potential for a resolution, whether that be good or bad for your main character—will they escape or is this their final moment alive? That doesn’t mean you have to resolve the scene there and then, but it will keep your reader on their toes. Point them in a direction, then swipe their feet out from under them (metaphorically or literally!).