Writing Fight Scenes (some tips that may or may not be useful)

self defense photo
My nunchucks don’t look quite this cool.

This post was originally written for D. H. Aire’s blog for the 2013 Blogger Book Fair and is slightly expanded here.

Note: The information below is geared toward relatively realistic hand-to-hand fights with real-world physics. Magic changes things! If your characters are wizards or mages or shapeshifters or something, that will obviously affect the fight a great deal.

Fight scenes are one of the areas where even experienced writers can run into difficulty. Although I wouldn’t call myself an expert, I’ve gotten some nice reviews and comments on the fight scenes in my books, particularly The King’s Sword, so I thought I’d list a few of the factors that made the scenes effective.

First, remember that characters are how we, the readers, experience the story. A blow-by-blow account with every physical detail of even a short fight can become excruciatingly boring – as what happens in a second or two could easily take pages to describe. Multiply that to include more than two combatants, and your scene can get bogged down before it gets started.

Imagine the fight in as much detail as you can, but don’t write all the physical details. Instead, give just enough detail for the reader to imagine the fight. I am trained in several martial arts, so some parts of this exercise in imagination were easier for me, but don’t panic if you’re not an expert on fighting. That just means you need to do research. If your character’s fighting style is based on a real combat system, research that system. Watch videos if you can (YouTube is useful for this) and talk to people who are trained in that style. Even if your character’s style is not based on a real-life combat system, talking to trained fighters and doing research can give you some good ideas.

There are some commonalities between almost any martial arts, sword fighting systems, and other personal combat systems (as opposed to tanks and helicopters and all that). The concepts below can give you a useful basis on which to build as you imagine your fictional fight.

  • Protect your vital areas (neck, gut, groin) with less-vital areas (weapons, arms, legs).
  • Don’t get hit; avoid, deflect, or block attacks when possible.
  • Hit the other person; generally try to use something hard (a fist, a foot, a weapon of some sort) against something soft (the opponent’s vital areas). Alternately, use relatively soft points against hard targets (don’t punch someone in the nose; you’re likely to break a bone in your hand unless you’re skilled and lucky. Use the heel of your hand instead. Alternately, have your character unaware of this and injure himself/herself while fighting.)
  • Be aware of physical realities. Smaller fighters may not be as strong but can generate power through better technique. They may be faster, and will be able to fight from a closer distance (barring weapons like bows, etc.) but will be at a disadvantage at the outer extent of the taller opponent’s range.
  • Consider the number of opponents. One on one can be challenging in itself. Two on one is extremely dangerous even for a very skilled fighter. Three or more on one is exponentially worse. The outnumbered fighter should try to fight only one person at once by moving a lot (in which case he/she will get tired very quickly compared to the attackers), ideally remaining on the outside of the group, or by limiting access of the attackers in some other way (by holding a relatively closed position like the end of a hallway or at least getting his/her back to a wall). A longer-range weapon could be useful (if not a gun, at least something like a bo or long staff to prevent being overwhelmed).
  • Consider weapons. Sharp weapons lose effectiveness with distance (get away from a knife or sword, or get VERY close to a longer sword, especially a stabbing weapon like a rapier). If a gun is involved, either get close and try to get control of the weapon (dangerous), or get very far away / behind cover. Unsilenced guns are loud and scary to untrained people (silenced guns are still loud, they’re just not quite as loud as unsilenced guns!). Flailing weapons (including sticks, nunchucks, baseball bats, etc.) lose a lot of effectiveness at very close range and are useless if too far away. But you can get creative with how you use a weapon, especially if your character is skilled. The end of a nunchuck can be jabbed into an opponent at very close range, and the rope or chain connecting the two pieces can be used to grab and break a wrist or disarm an opponent.
    • Fighting styles are somewhat culture specific. If you want to use a specific fighting style in your book, you should probably at least be aware of the history and evolution of that style.
  • Consider the terrain. A fight in an enclosed space is very different than a fight in an open area.
  • Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage. Generally speaking, the ground is a bad place to be when your opponent is on their feet. Yes, there are training systems specifically designed to fight from the ground, but the reason they exist is to overcome this disadvantage. Most real fights are over in a matter of seconds, and even the winner often gets hurt.

All that detail you imagined is great, but it’s for the benefit of you, the author. Most of it will not need to be included in your actual fight scene.

Instead of just conveying the physical details, focus on the emotional impact of the fight on the characters. For the sake of discussion, I’ll assume one of your main characters is actually involved in the fight, rather than just observing. Consider how the character will feel throughout the fight, physically, mentally, and emotionally. He might be wounded or not; he might feel an old injury at an inconvenient moment. He might feel hyper-aware and notice certain details as he watches his opponent, such as the distant sound of cars passing or a scent on the breeze. He might be afraid, angry, jittery, calm, or even exhilarated. He might think of the reasons for the fight, or he might be completely focused on the moment.

Run through the scene as if it is a movie in your head, and write the interesting parts.

How do you know what is interesting? Test your scene by giving it to beta readers. Ask them if they understand what is going on and if they are engaged in the scene.

Are they frightened? Do they feel concern for the character? Better yet, if at all possible, watch their faces when they read it for the first time. Do they look engaged? Do they hold their breath? Do they raise an eyebrow in disbelief or annoyance? Are they confused from too many or two few physical actions or too much or too little internal story?

Refine the scene until it is as clear and sharp as possible, and try it out on a new set of beta readers. Most of all, have fun! Fight scenes should be exciting, both for the reader and for you.