Writing a Fight Scene

Let’s face it. Writing can sometimes be a struggle for us all. But the one thing that is perhaps the most difficult to write are fight scenes. They’re high-stakes, and very intense confrontations between characters, so if done wrong, they will end up reading very, very badly.

When we think of fight scenes, we probably envision them similarly to how they are in movies – fast-paced and engaging moments that leave the audience thinking “wow.” Of course, watching a fight scene in a movie is so much more different to writing one, as a film allows the audience to take on a passive role as everything they need to know is visually being handed to them. As a writer, your job is to help the reader take on an active role in reading, by giving them written cues to help them visualize it in their minds’ eye. Obviously, this is much harder to do than visually feeding it to your audience.

If you’ve been writing a story that includes a fight scene, or scenes, and you’re finding yourself struggling, then here are a couple tips that I’ve discovered about writing fight scenes through trial and error:

Tip #1: The fight scene(s) should always move the story forward

In general, writing any scene should be as a means of moving the story forward. However, this is particularly true for a fight scene. Don’t include a fight scene into your story – even if it’s really well-written – just to put it in there. The easiest way to tell if your story is propelled by your fight scene? Delete the fight. If your story reads fine without the fight and it still makes sense, then your fight scene doesn’t move the story forward and you did well to delete it. Now if the fight was some kind of transition or if the story feels like its missing a key element, then your fight is integral to moving your story forward and you can paste it back in. 

Tip #2: Fights are meant to improve or add to characterization

If fight scenes are only focused on the brute force and physicality of the action, then they can become a bit boring to read. What a fight scene needs to do is also provide a portal through which to explore your characters and gain more insight into them. Some of the things to think about when writing your characters’ fight is:

Why does the character choose to fight?

How does this choice reinforce who they are as a character?

How does this fight affect both their drive towards accomplishing their internal/external goals as a character?

Is this fight getting them closer to accomplishing their task or further away from accomplishing their task?

What are the stakes for the characters who are fighting? In other words, what do they each stand to gain or lose depending on the fight’s outcome?

What kind of a fighter is your character? Not all characters can or will have the highly trained hand-to-hand combat skills of a Navy SEAL in a fight, so what physical or mental abilities do they possess in a fight? What mistakes are they prone to making in a fight? Are they a hot-head or a master strategist? Basically, their fighting skills, or lack there of, can give your reader a glimpse into their characterization. 

Tip #3: Fight scenes shouldn’t be slowing down the overall pacing of your story

In movies and other visual media, fight scenes happen rather quickly. However, in literature, they can drag on – especially if they’re not written well. And that can interrupt the flow of your story.  The reason why fight scenes can often make the flow of your story seem slow and heavy, is because the writer has to write out all the details that the reader needs to be able to visualize the scene in their head. Therefore, you can keep the following in mind in order to create as tight of a fight scene as possible, so as not to bore your readers:

Use shorter sentences since they are easiest to read and help to keep up the speed of your story.

Mix in dialogue with the action. You don’t want to have just a huge block of text detailing out what is happening. By breaking it up with dialogue you not only are cutting down the long descriptions of what is happening, but you’re also adding to the action through verbal exchanges. Don’t underestimate the power of dialogue when building a scene.

Don’t focus too much on introspection. While the inner workings of a character’s mind often helps to flesh out your character within the realm of the story, a fight scene isn’t necessarily the time or place to focus on what they’re thinking. A character’s introspection will happen before the fight and after – not during.

Keep it short. Unless you’re discussing an epic battle of Tolkien proportions, then a fight shouldn’t go on for pages. If it’s a fight between individuals, keep it short.

Tip #4: Don’t forget about the four other senses

When writing a fight scene, don’t just focus on the sight portion of what your character is seeing. One of the best ways to engage your readers while describing a fight scene is to hit them with all the other senses like hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Using all five senses together can really elevate your writing. It’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind for writing in general. While sight might be the easiest and most obvious way of describing things, don’t discount the power of the other senses.

Tip #5: Edit

Perhaps the best fight scene you could have written is the one that was thoroughly edited. Again, another tip for writing in general, but it really does help when it comes to writing a fight scene. You won’t get the fight scene right the first time, so you just need to keep editing it until it gets there. Some things to keep in mind when editing a fight scene are:

Don’t give your reader a blow-by-blow description. Once you have your initial draft, when you’re going through editing be sure you delete all the non-essential details that will only weigh it down.

Forget the flowery language. Keep it short and neat and delete the extra words you don’t need. They will only drag the pacing down.

Consolidation is key. Besides the language, make sure that your characters are consolidated as well. Too many characters in one fight scene can just get confusing for the reader. And confusion leads to frustration which leads to the story being put down. Don’t let that happen to you.

Happy writing everyone!

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