While most of my books usually end up having fight scenes, action-heavy set pieces are often a challenge for me. When reading books with extended fight scenes or battles, sometimes it can be easy for the reader to lose interest and start skimming.
But even if you love reading action scenes, when it comes to actually putting them down on the page for your story, it’s easy to feel intimidated, especially if you yourself have never gotten into a good old-fashioned brawl or swung a broadsword over your head. In this article I will be sharing advice on how to write fight scenes – even if you’re a lover, not a fighter – along with some fight scene writing examples.
Fight Scene Writing
“A Conversation with Fists (or whatever weapon)”Wesley Chu
SFF author Wesley Chu is a former MMA fighter who writes action-heavy books like The Lives of Tao and the upcoming War Arts Saga. He says writing a fight scene is like having a conversation, but with added fists. What is being communicated? What is being revealed? What happens when words fail your characters and only violence will do?
I won’t be the first or last person to point out that writing a fight scene is not that different to a sex scene, which many authors also struggle to write well. If either are gratuitous, they can be a turn off to readers. But if they are well written, they can be immensely satisfying. A good fight scene or a good sex scene reveals something about the characters or moves the plot forward. The main focus should be on that, rather than on what bit goes where.
Re-framing the similarities between sex scenes and fight scenes may help you. You can think about things like attacking versus retreating, or the balance and shift of power. While of course in many of your fight scenes, the parties involved might not want to sleep together, there should be some sort of unresolved tension and the fight scene is the flashpoint that is sparking that into direct conflict. If this has been building up for a while, it will feel just as inevitable as when two characters finally kiss.
Examples Of Fight Scenes – Choose Your Weapon
Obviously, fight scenes can take many forms. I’ll give a few examples and offer suggestions on how to approach fight scenes ranging from using only words to grand, epic battles.
Verbal Sparring: Fighting with Words
This is when the conversation stops just short of using fists, but you can tell they’d probably really like to use them. Jade City by Fonda Lee has lots of excellent verbal sparring. Another good example is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir; the titular Gideon has oodles of attitude and is very talented at irritating other people on a regular basis. Kaz in Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is another character who often uses his words with devastating effects. A mark of a good fight scene with words is the volley back and forth in the dialogue, the increasing emotion, and landing the blow that hits the other person right in the weak spot and hurts as much or more than using a fist. (It’s worth noting that these books have plenty of physical fight scenes as well.) You may see an obvious parallel with flirting, where the volley is designed to get the other person hot and bothered in a different way.
Close And Personal: Hand-To-Hand Combat
With these, you can consider if your characters will be using fists, open hands, wrestling, or throwing the other person up against the wall. It could be martial arts or a messy brawl outside a bar. One of my favourite fight scenes in my book Seven Devils is one my co-writer Elizabeth May took the lead on: Eris, one of the main characters, needs to convince a mercenary to join their extremely dangerous mission. Nyx wants absolutely nothing to do with it. So Eris convinces her in the language they both understand: violence.
Nyx dodged another hit and lunged. She got a good hold on Eris and shoved her against the wall, dragging her up until her feet dangled six inches off the ground.
“Enough games,” Nyx growled. “Yield.”
Eris shook her head. She was breathing hard, but goddamn it, she didn’t even look like she was in pain. Who the seven devils was she?
Eris’s eyes narrowed and she smiled. What—
She threw her head back, then slammed her forehead into Nyx’s nose.
Cartilage cracked and blood wet Nyx’s lips.
After the adrenaline rush of the fight passes, Nyx is calm enough to have a conversation, and Eris is able to use her words to finish convincing the mercenary that the mission is worth taking. But the fight revealed Nyx’s attitude towards violence, duty, and honour, plus had the added benefit of building some intrigue around Eris and why she’s so good at what she does. In many hand-to-hand fights, the characters are close enough to kiss, even if that is nowhere near their goal. There’s a physicality that can work really well for moving the story along and stress-testing your characters. It’s visceral.
Fighting With Weapons
Choosing a specific type of weapon can offer lots of opportunities for fight scenes. In One for All by Lillie Lainoff, which has just been released, there is a fair amount of sword fighting as it’s a YA gender-swapped retelling of The Three Musketeers with a disabled main character:
I lunged. Steel met steel. He barely recovered from his surprise, blocking my sword at the very last second. Returned my attack with a thrust so quick I had to jump out of the way. His blade whizzed across the space where my stomach was less than a second ago.
Our blades met again and again.
My opponent slashed at my uncovered arm. A rent in the fabric. The sting of blood rushing against skin. I didn’t look at the wound; my concentration had already cost me once. Instead I took a difficult parry, channeling all my strength into the action.
He tried to recover, but it was too late. It was just like what Papa told me. Yes, I was dizzy; yes, his body swayed before me like the rocking of a ship; yes, my legs felt as if they’d collapse at any moment. But I knew the rhythm of this bout. It was in my bones, in the throb of my wounded arm, in the beat of my heart.
The rhythm in this scene excerpt works particularly well. It’s telling us what’s happening in the fight, but also how the main character Tania interprets this and how she is feeling. There is a mixture of short and longer sentences to punctuate the scene.
Another fantasy book with fight scenes I enjoyed was The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. Another approach can be found in the fight scenes of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. These fights are usually short and brutal, and almost clinical as Reacher is focused more on taking out the opponent than his feelings around it. This is in line with who he is as a character.
Balancing Larger Casts: The Big Battles
A big battle scene is another challenge. A well-known example is, of course, Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings. Often, the way to approach these scenes is to have a glimpse of that big epic scope but then zoom in on smaller fights and moments to bring in that personal character element and create an awareness of what’s at stake. This was the approach we took at the end of Seven Mercies, the sequel to Seven Devils, which follows seven points of view at different stages of a big battle against the Tholosian empire. One character was fighting the battle up in the sky, to show the large number of ships, but the others were down on the surface fighting antagonists that challenged and confronted their individual arcs.
Tips For Writing Fight Scenes
Rhythm And Pacing
I touched on rhythm in an example above, but quite often, you’ll most likely want short, sharp sentences in high action scenes. In certain instances, though, a longer, almost breathless sentence might also work well. Think about what best fits how your character would describe or notice this fight. Short sentences will often keep the pacing moving at a steady clip. Too much interiority in terms of the character’s thoughts and emotions will also slow down the pacing, so sprinkling them throughout will help balance both action and the internal reaction. A very effective fight scene might only be one or two pages, maybe even a few paragraphs, but will give your narrative propulsion to the next part of your plot.
Sharing The Right Details
This follows right on from pacing. Even if it’s non-stop frenetic action, if you are overwhelming the reader with too many set directions and going into too much granular detail about the fight, they won’t know what is important enough to take in. The result is that, often, they tune out and start skimming.
The way to fix this is to filter those five sensory details through that particular character. What would they notice about this fight, and why? What about their background or worldview will feed into this scene? Are they a professional fighter, or is this their first confrontation with violence? What flashes of imagery will really stick in the reader’s mind? Let us feel their muscles shaking, their lungs burning, the sweat running down their temples.
I often research tips and tricks for fighting with the specific weapon I’ve chosen. For example, in my latest work in progress, I currently have a fight between someone using a trident and a glaive. It was easy to go on Youtube and see people sparring with these weapons. I took some notes on how their bodies moved, when they seemed to struggle, the sounds they made and expressions on their faces, and thought about how that would translate to my characters.
I also do a very loose choreograph of the fight scene, even if I know I will not necessarily give the reader a detailed blow by blow, it’s helpful for me to know how big of a space I need, how long the fight might be, and crucially, where the exchanges of power are going to happen. When will it seem like one person is going to win, and when will it switch? What sort of injuries will result? I have been known to act it out in my living room a few times, too. This stops there from accidentally being two left hands or an extra arm cropping up in the scene.
Still Stuck? Try Mixing Things Up
If a fight scene really isn’t clicking, try changing the setting or location. Change the weapon. Change the time of day or the weather. Change the point of view. Make the person who wins lose instead, or vice versa. Make the person worse at fighting, or change it so that they’ve been injured and thus can’t use one of their hands.
Don’t Forget: Fighting As Flirting
Lastly, there’s always the option to combine a fight scene and a sex scene if it fits your story. Who doesn’t love that moment when one character has the point of a knife against the throat of the enemy you’re pretty sure is going to become a lover? Or teaching someone to fight as an excuse to fluster them?
I hope these examples and tips have given you the confidence to tackle your fight scenes in your fiction, whether you’re a lover, a fighter, or both.
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