Ah, fight scenes. What is supposed to be exciting for the reader can turn out to be a difficult balancing act for the writer. In theory, a fight scene seems incredible, but on paper, it can easily be too short, or too long, or too detailed, or not detailed enough. In essence, most fight scenes today are written poorly, coming off as boring, confusing or not impactful.
Scary? Absolutely, but here’s how to write them with ease!
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Before I continue, this article is part of a series I started on writing a good book. So far, I have addressed the story plot, the protagonist, the antagonist and more! If you want to read my previous articles, you can find them on my website as well as my YouTube channel as a podcast series.
Now, on with the show!
Fight with a Purpose
A fight scene is meant to be an important and powerful part of a story. Two forces clash and the result of that clash should have a real effect on the story. So, there needs to be a purpose behind every confrontation.
For most novels, this is easy. Bad guys fight good guys or vice versa. Their clash is predictable and understandable. However, you need to take your plot into account. Is the clash between your two or more characters necessary to further the plot? Or is it simply a confrontation to make the story more exciting?
Deciding whether it is one or the other will help you better understand what your fight scene needs to include. Without a proper understanding, you can easily break the flow of your story. It’s often easy to spot this as the fight scene feels too short or too long.
It’s easy to make the correction and continue the story.
However, a fight scene without purpose is unnecessary. No matter how exciting the fight scene, if the conclusion is meaningless, the reader will be disappointed. You could create the most exciting fight scene, but if there aren’t any real stakes it will only fall flat.
Now, as a writer, if your instincts tell you to create a fight scene, then do so. However, before you start visualizing the characters and their movements, you need to devise a reason. How can you make the fight scene mean something? How can you make it crucial to the story?
One of the more difficult aspects of writing a fight scene is to maintain pacing. Clashes in pacing are easy to spot and unenjoyable to read. The word ‘sudden’ perfectly describes these clashes and to avoid them, writers will employ a transition.
For example, let’s say two characters get into a fast-paced fight, but then the high energy scene shifts suddenly to one of dense description and/or calm dialogue. The shift is unrealistic and as a result, it’s bothersome to the reader. Of course, this situation can work the other way, shifting from slow-paced narration to fast-paced fighting.
Now, if you can maintain the pacing from fight scene to narration, or vice versa, all is well, but what if you need to shift pacing?
Of course, the question is what is a transition and how do I use it? To put it simply, a transition is a sentence/paragraph which leads the reader from one type of pacing into another. It is this sentence or paragraph that lets the reader pick up on a change.
Allow me to provide a simple example:
Daniel shouldered his bag as he walked inside. He embraced the warmth, the smell. After the day he had, the familiar comforts of home were most welcome.
It was a calm broken by an odd sound which came from the kitchen. Anxiety began to build as he looked through the living room towards the kitchen. With fear in his heart, Daniel walked towards it. Had he not felt the presence in the living room, he would have met an untimely end.
Daniel spun around before his hairs had a chance to stand on end. In a second, he saw a blur of movement and flash of metal, giving him enough reason to move to his left. The assailant was now clear to him, as was their weapon. He didn’t have time to take it in any more details, the next deadly lunge followed soon after the first.
Instead of diving straight into the fight scene, I use a few sentences to lead up to what happens next. The shift from the calm narration to the fight scene now isn’t so sudden. It’s the simplest method to change pacing without it being so harsh. Of course, it’s great if you can maintain your sentence length and structure throughout narration and fight scenes.
Be Real, Be Harsh
A common misconception that beginner writers have when it comes to fight scenes is that everyone is an action hero. Everyone can take a few bullets, a hundred blows and a thousand cuts before they succumb to their mortality.
To write a good fight scene, you need to be real and you need to be harsh.
For example, when a character is punched in the stomach when off guard, they buckle. The pain is bad but not as bad as the feeling of having the wind knocked out of them. The feeling doesn’t return easily, so for a moment, the character has a cramping feeling. Therefore, to retaliate straight away, the character needs to push themself.
That is real detail, harsh detail. The reader might not be familiar with the experience, but they are no doubt familiar with pain and other aspects of such a strike, thus they can empathise. It makes the strike believable and gritty.
By the same token, believable fighting and injury can emphasise strength as well as weakness. Watching superheroes fight is not as impactful as watching real people struggle, suffer and demonstrate their willpower.
Of course, you don’t need to go into such detail with every movement. You can simply talk about the strikes and their reactions, which is enough for the reader. You are maintaining what is important, so your fight improves as a result.
How Long Should a Fight Scene Be?
The length of a fight scene should depend on the strength to continue a fight.
Note the movements, the effort required. The average person will slowly lose their energy, sweat, ache, throw less accurate punches and so on. If it is a gunfight, think of bullets. It is better to emphasise that the characters are risking themselves, they are using up their energy.
Some novice fighters will often be rattled by fights. Adrenaline surges through them, fear grips them. Often, their strikes will be wild and meant to create distance between them and the threat to flee rather than fight.
If you want a more technical number, depending on your writing style, a fight scene should be between one or three pages. That includes dialogue breaks. Lengthy fight scenes are often broken up by lengthy dialogue and attempts to avoid combat, such as hiding or running. However, without these, a fight scene should be limited to three pages at the absolute most, because from then on the fight scene will drag and become less gripping.
Use Visual Aids
The final tip I will leave you with is to make use of visual aids.
We are surrounded by great examples in all forms of media. If you struggle with visualising the fight scene, you will struggle to write it. This is why it is recommended you make use of these visual aids, from other books to movies, to shows, short films and further.
Of course, this is crucial if you are unsure of certain fighting styles. If you want to show the difference between an experienced fighter and an inexperienced fighter, watch or read such a fight scene. Take note of movements, expressions and emotions.
For example, when faced with a lesser opponent, an experienced fighter is cautious but comfortable. However, the lesser opponent will exert themselves, employ wilder movements and rely on their strength or willpower more than anything else.
With that, this piece on writing good fight scenes comes to an end. I do hope you enjoyed this discussion and found this advice helpful.
My first book was an action-adventure, as at the time I found those stories the most interesting. Of course, being young and inexperienced, I wanted to include as many fight scenes as possible. Every chapter had some thrilling action, from chase scenes to gunfights to hand-to-hand combat.
The benefit of writing a story that would interest me was that I was my target market. I could tell when a fight scene was good and when it was rubbish. I hope you have the same benefit!
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!