Writing Fight Scenes

 

Fore note: This post is coauthored by myself and one of my amazing critique partners, Barik S. Smith, who both writes fantastic fight scenes and teaches mixed martial arts, various artistic martial arts, and weapons classes.

I (Bryn) will tell you a secret: I trained MMA for seven years, and when I write authentic hand to hand fight scenes, they sound dull too.

The problem with fight scenes in books is that trying to describe each punch and kick and movement (especially if it’s the only thing you’re describing) creates a fight that feels like it’s in slow motion.

I write…

“Lowering her center of gravity, she held her right hand tight to her face and threw a jab towards his chin. He shifted his weight, ducking under her punch. His hair brushed against her fist, and he stepped forward, launching a shovel hook into her exposed side.”

But your brain can only read so fast. In real life that series of events would take an instant, but I needed a full eight seconds to read and comprehend it, which gave it an inherent lethargic feel.

So, we have two primary problems:

  1. How do we describe this fight in a way the reader can understand and keep track of?
  2. How do we maintain a fast paced, interesting fight once we’ve broken down the fight far enough for readers to understand it?

(We will get back to these, I promise.) But for now, let’s look at…

Different types of “fight scenes:”

Because “fight scene” is a broad term, it can be helpful to break it down into different types, each having their own strengths and pitfalls. Some are better to use more frequently than others, but each has their own circumstances to shine, and figuring out which one feels most natural for the part you’re writing can be very helpful for gaining direction.

 Type A – Movie Epic

  • Spells out what’s happening in a more step-by-step fashion.
  • Doesn’t progress the plot during the scene (usually).
  • Doesn’t develop the character during the scene (usually).
  • Has well thought-out fighting choreography.
  • Highlights the “awesomeness” of the fight.

Personally, I am not a fan of these in books, and generally find them to be slow and rather boring to read, but since some people do really like them, I won’t tell anyone not to write fight scenes this way.

This is usually the sort of fight scene you write when you just have to write a fight scene, even if you couldn’t integrate character growth or development into it, because the plot simply demands two or more characters duke it out. For instance, you might have written yourself into a corner, and your climax ended up being nothing but a final battle. You can use these to create some really awesome scenes with memorable set pieces, choreography, and powers, but have to be extra engaging, as action like this can never quite come across on paper as well as it can in a movie.

The most important aspects of this type of fight scene are well described settings, understandable individual actions, and a fight with goes from ‘least threatening situation’ to ‘most threatening situation.’

Type B – Dramatic Tension

  • Progresses the plot and/or characters.
  • Has lots of dialogue.
  • Does not have a lot of fighting.
  • Focuses on a few key actions instead.

A well-known example of this “fight scene” is the good old fashion stand-off, where characters are pointing guns at each other’s head while they argue something out.

This is a great type to use to get the tension and threat of a fight scene even if a long, drawn out duel doesn’t make sense for the story at that point. It’s all about the drama of what’s happening here, and nailing the buildup is generally key for these types of scenes to work.

The most important aspect of this sort of “fight scene” is to build the character’s emotions, and/or the information being revealed by the plot so that the characters become more emotional and the reveals more shocking as the scene goesThe suspense should be highest in the moment just before the climactic quick burst of action and/or resolution.

Type C – Parallel Conflict

  • Physical confrontation is mirrored on an emotional level.
  • Usually only spells out a few key fighting moves.
  • Mixes combat with dialogue and/or internal conflict.
  • Focuses on the connection between emotion and action.

This is the most difficult fight scene to get right, but in my experience, it is generally the best combination of action and drama, and should (usually) be used most frequently. Each moment of the fight should be a crucial moment within the scene, because the point of the fight is how it effect the characters – how they interact, react, develop, and adapt. It can be the most rewarding by far once you make it work.

The most important aspect of this type is how the physical conflict parallels the emotional conflict. Characters should have their beliefs or resolves challenged, come to revelations about themselves, or be forced to make hard choices that help define who they are.

In order to accomplish it properly, however, you have to solve the two problems we touched on earlier:

How do we describe this fight in a way the reader can understand and keep track of?

Setting. First off, you want to make sure you’ve described every part important of your setting. You can find out how to do that and why it’s important in this post.

Research. Before you write fight scenes, you should decide what style of fighting you’re trying to mimic (if one or more characters have combat training) and do a bit of research. There are videos of basically every type of fighting style which exists. Trying (easier) moves yourself (slowly and carefully) gives you a new perspective.

Keep in mind: Many martial art styles practiced today are for show, and not much use in combat unless against either someone of the same style or an unskilled opponent. If you’re trying to write a style of martial arts, make sure you know the reason that particular style was developed and what it’s most used for.

Don’t use too many technical terms. Now that you’ve done all that research, don’t actually write about it. The point of researching fighting isn’t to wow your reader with how many little facts you know, but to create a cohesive, broader picture. Words like attack, block, swing, kick, stance, stab, punch, etc, are all solid words which every reader will understand no matter their own personal experience.

Keep POV. If you’re writing is first person or limited third person, then your pov character won’t always know everything that’s going on. Maybe they’re reading their opponent well, and can block everything that’s being thrown, or maybe their focus is split or they aren’t skill enough to do that, and they don’t see a kick coming or a knife drawn until it’s sinking into their stomach.

Keep character. Everyone fights a bit differently. What tweaks does your character make to their fighting style in order to adapt it to fit them? Are they quick and mobile? Do they hunker down and take the hits? Do they like unusual combos? Feigns? Do they have honor or do they cheat? Have they brought in skills from another style of fighting or physical activity? Do they laugh and smile while fighting or are they stoic? Which hand do they use? This is especially important if you’re writing a Type C fight scene, because you can really characterize the turmoil with how your combatants fight. For example, a character who is enraged or desperate might attack viciously with no heed for their own safety, whereas a character who is timid or calm might fight in a much more cautious, reserved fashion. This kind of subtle characterization goes a long way to sell the emotions.

Feel the burn. Fighting hurts. It hurts as your muscles tire, it hurts when you get hit, it hurts when you block (especially in certain fighting styles of hand to hand combat). You sweat, you stink, you injure yourself when you get sloppy, and, depending on what you’re doing, you get blisters and burns and bruises. Don’t forget to let your characters feel these things too!

Realism is best. Know what unrealistic tropes are popular in fight scenes and learn how to avoid them. Some random things to keep in mind:

  • Most weapons are made to fight against themselves.
  • The ways you utilize your stance and environment, as well as how you “outplay” or counter your opponent, are more important than how large or strong you are and how many attacks you know.
  • The large majority of close combat fighting styles require just as much defensive training as offensive. (Let your character block attacks! No real human can take solid blows all day long.)
  • The basics are the most important part of fighting. When two highly skilled combatants battle, the winner is often decided by who has the best mastery over their fundamental skills. No matter how long they’ve trained, they can always improve on these fundamentals.
  • Hitting people with your bare fists hurts, especially if you hit other bones/hard surfaces.
  • Adrenaline only helps you if you finish the fight in the first 20 seconds. After 20 seconds, it actually exhausts you.

How do we maintain a fast paced, interesting fight?

In most cases, a fight scene filled with interesting moves and well described action is still just a dull series of actions played out in slow motion. You can combat the slow-motion feel by alternating between action-by-action and conceptual sections.

Action-by-action, in which you see each move as it’s thrown:
(This was used already in the introduction section.)

“Lowering her center of gravity, she held her right hand tight to her face and threw a jab towards his chin. He shifted his weight, ducking under her punch. His hair brushed against her fist, and he stepped forward, launching a shovel hook into her exposed side.”

Conceptual, in which the basic idea is more important than any individual move:

“For every block he threw, she attacked all the more viciously. Moving like a serpent, she sprung from the directions he least expected. His arms ached and he stumbled as he took step after step backwards. He would not win this. That truth weighed him to the ground like lead.”

But fight scenes should be more than simply the fighting. Every scene, paragraph, and sentence in your book should have a purpose for being there. If you can skip through most of the fight scene without consequence, the fight scene is nothing but a fancy bit of useless words.

A good fight scene should include (as many of) these core concepts (as possible):

  • Character emotion: The feelings and thoughts your characters have throughout the fight.
  • Character development: The character’s actions, conclusions, and choices, especially as they relate to and differ from those the characters previously believed or acted upon.
  • Plot growth: The information revealed, actions made towards directly achieving the character’s primary goals, and changes in those goals.  Most importantly, all components of the fight scene should (like in every part of a story) build on each other.

Action creates emotion,
which creates character development,
which creates more action,
which changes the plot,
which creates action,
which creates more emotion… 
And the whole cycle runs again.*

This cycle of growth should help you choose which actions to cover action-by-action because they will be the ones which either result in a non-action development, or which came as the result of a non-action development. They are the snapshots throughout the fight scene that have to be specifically shared with the reader. If you don’t have to share it for the reader to get context or understand the character, it’s generally best left summarized.

* The cycle of growth can run in any combination so long as one aspect is building off a different aspect, and none are left out for any huge length of time.

TL;DR –

For the best results when writing fight scenes, alternate between specific, necessary action-by-action portions and summarized portions, and revolve the entire fight scene around key points of emotion, character development, and plot growth in a way which forces that each aspect of the scene to be dependent on every other aspect.

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