How to Write Fight Scenes: 10 Tips to Write a Fight Scene that Bangs!
Fight scenes are exciting. They are full of action and pull the readers to the edges of their seats unless, of course, they're not well written.
There are no rules to writing a fight scene, but some commonalities can be found in good fight scenes across different genres and writing styles that can serve as tips for writing a great fight scene for beginning as well as experienced writers. Do you want to learn how to write a fight scene too? Then you're in the right place! Read on to equip yourself with 10 tips to jack your writing game up and start writing fight scenes like a pro.
1. Evoke All 5 Senses
The first rule of a fight scene is that you do not talk about the fight scene. You show it to the reader with your words. Make them see the action sequence with their mind's eye. Push them deep into the pages and make them feel as if they are in your book, standing aside, witnessing the fight scene with all 5 of their senses as it plays out in front of them. Or maybe the reader experiences the fight from inside the mind of the protagonist. In that case, ask yourself what your senses would've registered if you were in that situation. Would you taste the blood in your mouth? Can you smell the dirt in the air? What kind of swashes would you hear from a sword fight? Would you feel the cold of the wet floor when you drop on it face down? Would you feel your heart thumping against your chest?
Don't write large descriptions of why the situation is crucial, and the stakes are high for the protagonist. Show the reader what the stakes are for the main character using their senses and inner dialogue (more on that later). Extend outside the heads of the characters and give each detail in a way that tingles all 5 senses in the mind of the readers. Do not write lengthy descriptions to bring depth to the reader experience unless you're Stephen King. In that case, you do you, sir.
But the general thumb rule is to try to get the hang of the basics before you go out and stretch the boundaries of the writing market.
An important detail to consider when mentioning the sounds in the middle of a fight scene is the use of onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is the literal spelling of a sound, for example, clang, boom, ka-ching, swish, etc. The frequency of such sound words you need to write depends upon your writing style and the category you're writing in. They are essential in comics and screenplay, but for a short story or novel, perhaps, keep the number of sounds on the lower end. The word choice is important in a screenplay and should be utilized accordingly, for example, to demonstrate the intensity of impact, where the blow is landing, the materials that are interacting, etc.
They can be useful in hitting the reader with a sudden impact, but overuse of these words means sacrificing reader engagement.
The pace of the story is the progression in relation to the number of words used. Fight scenes are essentially adrenaline-pumping, fast-paced action. The initial intention of the writer is to induce that adrenaline into the reader as they orchestrate the action. The real dilemma, however, lies between describing the action from all angles while keeping the reader engaged and up to speed with the action.
The basic idea is that the faster the speed of the action taking place, the lesser room the writer has to describe the action scene. There are exceptions to this generalization as there are exceptions to all generalizations. Yes, it is important to show the reader other details, for example, the atmosphere, reactions of the characters, their movements, dialogue between the clashes, etc. But writing descriptions is a double-edged sword. It is a struggle to keep the reader hold the scene in their head. If you get lost in every little detail and drag out boxing matches to a number of pages in which a skirmish can be written, you might capture the scene perfectly, but you lose the reader's engagement.
If you have to include the details to capture the scene and the action that's happening in the middle of the scene, leave a hint in the middle like the sound of the object breaking. Describe how important the lamp was to the protagonist after the fight is over. That way, the reader can connect the dots and fill the gaps. You get to keep the pace of the story up without having to ignore details you would not want the reader to miss out on.
Another good way to keep the readers hooked to the book even when they aren't into fight scenes in a book is to include some dialogue in the scene but keep the sentences short. It's easier to accomplish that when the fight starts after a conversation between the characters. Make them continue the dialogue with each other using short jabs and one-liners as the fight scene plays itself out. Be temporally conscious about fitting dialogue between the action. People don't usually articulate long sentences in between two consecutive punches. However, if your fight scene is a sword fight or a duel between two masters of martial arts, understand their temperaments. They are calm and can easily release great wisdom through dialogue in between the fight. Even then, the action itself should remain short, even if the battle is stretched out a little.
So, try to cover the complete action sequence in as few words as you can. Leave the secondary details for either before the fight or after. Balance the reader's pace with the speed with which the fight is played out.
3. Story Progression
The value of a fight, or better yet, the value of any action scene in a novel, is its impact on the progression of the story. It should not seem forced. A good fight scene fits seamlessly into the story. The first question to ask yourself before initiating a fight scene is whether your book even needs a fight scene or not.
For the fight scene to justify its place in the story, it should push the story forward. The novel should be incomplete without it. If you can confidently claim that your fight scene is an essential element of the plot or a subplot, then you are on the right path.
A fight scene can be the ultimate fallout of a conflict between two or more characters. It can very well be used to abruptly change the direction of the plot too. It can also be an effective tool in a short story where the writer does not have the luxury of lengthy prose to resolve a conflict.
When it comes to large-scale action like battle scenes, their impact should be on the same scale. Make sure to capture the shift in power dynamics between factions after the sequence of battle scenes conclude. The conclusion of the battle scene becomes the progression of the story forward to the point of resolution between the factions. Even if the resolution is not the end of it, the action has to stop at some point. That point should be to move the plot forward along the story arc.
Action scenes have a lot in common with romance. It should slip seamlessly into the plot, or it becomes a drag for the reader to get through it. So the flow starts from the background of each character. The characters will have some sort of motivation to make the choice they make. Through those choices, they lead to a conflict that can only be resolved with a good old-fashioned fist-fight like in a crime novel, or a sword fight between two honorable warriors, or maybe in a mystical fantasy world it is a battle scene involving factions, politics, and a ton of action on different levels. Regardless of the setting and scale of the fight, a great fight scene would be where each side has an inviolable reason to fight for their cause.
Whether it's honor, a personal grudge, or for the sake of someone else, fight scenes always have a reason behind them. Characters don't just start throwing punches around for no purpose. No matter how artistically you craft your action scenes with all the different characters playing out their roles in all smoothness, a great fight scene is one where the stakes are high for all participating characters. When the players are motivated, tension is aggravated. That's when you give the reader a taste of the action that they can feel in every bone of their body.
Don't make your fights boring by giving the characters the same old rotten motive authors have been presenting in action writing market for ages. Your protagonist should not be fighting for good because they're the hero of your story. In the same way, your antagonist should not be opposing the altruistic motivations of the hero just because they're evil by their inherent nature. Real-life is rarely as black and white as you see it in a screenplay. You have probably already made a case for your main creatures to either be good or bad, and you will have more chances to do so. Action scenes are packed with a range of emotions. Use the whole palette of moral colors, and explore practical reasons for the characters to fight for their causes.
5. Character Development
Continuing from the previous tip on writing a good fight scene by giving characters depth and substance to their emotions and motivations that lead to the fight scene, let's discuss what gives a great fight scene the value it deserves in the story. Answer: Character development.
What does each character stand to gain after the fight scene? What happens when they win? Is there a reward to justify the fight scene for one character more than it does for the other? What would they lose if they lost the fight? Do they learn a lesson? Do they learn a new martial arts move or a crucial piece of information about the opposing side? Is the character able to foresee the reward they will gain? Does it change them in a fundamental way?
One of the best fight scenes a writer can ever write is where regardless of the result of the fight, each character changes in a way that pushes the story forward. A good fight scene plays an important role in the evolution of each character. Don't let it be a contest between two individuals. Write in a way that it's a battle between two ideologies. The world might decide which ideology loses, but the writers choose what happens after their characters win or lose. Make them stronger, more resilient, smarter, and better in any other way that enables them to make the choices they wouldn't be able to if they hadn't faced that fight scene.
6. Nature of Action
Having a grip on the subject matter opens doors for the writer to explore scenes with more credibility and creativity. It's true for all writing that directly involves information that extends beyond the writer's knowledge. In the case of writing a fight scene, especially if this is the first time you're exploring that kind of setting, knowing the technicalities of the fighting styles, the era, and the setting can all deem useful and add flavor to the book. Learning about the strengths and weaknesses of the fighting styles you are going to employ in the fight scene will broaden your creative insight and open the doors to possibilities you can explore in your fight scene and the succeeding scenes after that.
Keep in mind that you are writing a book. The biggest mistake that writers make is that they try to write an epic battle as portrayed in visual media. Just because you know some Krav Maga techniques doesn't mean that you have to use technical terms to choreograph the whole fight. Your knowledge should enable you to write with credibility to enhance the quality of writing. Don't get carried away in the jargon. Remember that it took you time to research with focus before you could understand the move and its technique. Do not expect the reader to instantly be able to visualize the move when they read "butterfly kick" in the middle of the prose. Keep technical terms of each move your character makes to a minimum if you don't want to lose your audience's attention. Show them what the scene looks like, and also make them hear and feel the fight scene. Rather than explaining what a butterfly kick looks like, show its impact with your words. If the main character has a signature move, however, mention it every time. But don't give the same length of descriptions in all the fights. The first fight is enough to explain what their signature move is about. Use the name of the move the next time in place of descriptions in the latter fights.
Be realistic in your aspirations with the character you want people to admire. Don't write fight scenes like they are professional boxing matches when really they're just bar brawls between two characters who have no prior fighting training. Your average middle school boy is not a fully grown man with strong legs that can break doors. An after-school fight scene does not look like the action scene from a Hollywood movie.
The language used to write a fight scene is divided into two components. The first part is the way the writer structures sentences to write a fight scene, and the second is the language the characters are using while exchanging blows with each other.
Action scenes are, well, full of action and excitement. The best way to kill that excitement is to write long sentences to describe short interactions. We've talked about the pacing of fight scenes, but here, we're focusing more on the individual sentences rather than the big picture composition. Write in short sentences. If you have to write a long sentence, explore ways in which you can divide it into two or more. Long sentences are not exactly a no in fight scenes. There is a place where the writer needs to slow down the pace. Find that breathing room, where your characters are not in a rush either, nor is the reader. Utilize that place to exercise your articulation as much as you want. But as soon as the action starts, start cutting down the lingering tails of sentences with unnecessary details. Mention only and only the crucial information in as few words as you can. Remember, more action but less number of words per sentence is the ideal.
The second tip for writing fight scenes is to ditch passive voice to keep the urgency and adrenaline in the prose alive. Passive voice is considered a sin for writers. There will only be a handful of instances in a whole novel where passive voice is arguably the best way to express something. It only makes for weak prose. And when it comes to writing fight scenes, weak prose is a huge dealbreaker since you're already struggling to keep the words impactful and action-rich. Find out the subject of the sentence and rephrase your passive voice sentences into active voice. Don't know the subject? The blow came out of anywhere? Make the blow your subject and describe its impact.
Another valuable way to enhance the impact of your words and make them count more is to replace adverbs with action verbs. There's a valid reason for it. Adverbs act as additional detail to describe the verb. In fight scenes, you don't have much time to paint the picture for the fight. Every single word counts. Adverbs tail at the end of the sentence. The reader has to reach the end to find out how the action took place, and fight scenes do not allow you that much leverage. The action is fast-paced, so it should hit the reader's mind abruptly. If you don't know a word to replace your verb-adverb combination with, just Google it. It will also improve your vocabulary and equip you with richer words to use in your books.
Now let's talk about the language the characters are using to shoot slurs at each other. In real life, people don't always keep their calm. At which point they lose it is an important detail about the character's values. Make it reflect in their language. The dialogues they exchange in fight scenes should not sound like an average living room conversation. The heat is real. The characters are angry. Therein lies some drama. It should reflect in the characters' speech.
8. Internal Thoughts
Have you ever been in a real fight? Can you rationally think in the middle of it? Probably not. There are certain moments that seem like an eternity. Then there are other moments that just go by in a flash and you have no clue what happened. One moment you're standing up straight looking around the room and everything seems normal, and the other, you're down on the floor. You can't hear a single sound in the environment even though the people around you are talking. And then it hits you suddenly and you come back to your senses.
Perspective defines the experience. The thoughts of your main character will reflect their experience. Is it the first time they're facing an opponent? They should be scared. Are they confident and ready to lead the fight instead? Or do they just appear confident, but in reality worried about something else? The inner thoughts are the gateway for the reader to find out about their intentions, motivations, and emotions. There is a certain intimacy in the first-person perspective. When the irrational thoughts of the protagonist are witnessed first-hand by the reader, they admire them. The character becomes vulnerable and human, as opposed to an idol who is hard to empathize with.
Be mindful about the length of the character's train of thoughts, however. Experienced authors don't explore deep internal monologues when they want to write exciting, fast-paced action scenes. But on the other hand, some action scenes are observed from a distance. In that case, internal thoughts portraying the character's emotions become foreground. Both those ways are acceptable, but they have different impacts from each other. Whether you choose to trail the thoughts of a character in the middle of an action scene, or you drop hints about their internal thoughts for character development, it all depends upon what you plan to accomplish with the fight scene in the context of your plot.
The aftermath is the conclusion of your fight. If you are following all the tips given above to write the fight scenes of your novel, you will always have some leftover details that you would really want to include in the fight scenes but the struggle to keep the action spicy and entertaining keeps you from finding a space for them in the middle of the fight. So where do you incorporate them? After the fight has ended, and when every character has found some resolution, even if it's temporary. When things have calmed down and the character has taken control of their nerves, that's when they notice the difference in the world before and after the fight. Writers use the opportunity to reflect on the impact of their fight scenes, for example, changes in surroundings, the mental impact on a character because of the fight, any wounds they've incurred during the fight, lessons they've learned from the face-off, etc.
Romance shares a lot with fights in this regard. There is a certain clarity after we experience it. That remains true for characters in fiction too. What are their feelings and intentions after the action has settled down? What happens right after the action in a story decides the direction in which the story is going to proceed. While writing the aftermath, use the human psyche to your advantage. Little details like these enhance the reader's experience and enable them to relate with the characters.
An important aspect of the clarity that comes after the action is pain. What happens when you get hit in the leg by a jock swinging a metal bat? You break your bones, that's what. Can you imagine being able to stand up and start walking right after? Perhaps not. No one should be able to. Keep that in mind when writing the fight scenes. Be realistic, unless the person getting hit in the leg with a metal bat is not a normal human. In that case, make sure the audience knows that crucial piece of information too.
Mention the difference the action has caused in the location where the action took place. The debris of broken walls is spread all over the floor? Can't place it in the middle of the fight without sacrificing the pace? Mention it after the action has calmed down. In fact, even after writing the fight scene, if you think you can exclude some other detail from the action too and it fits better in the post-action scene, do it. Editing as you go is normally not recommended for writers, but in this example, editing while writing is justified.
10. Read the Pros
There is no better way to learn how to write fight scenes than to read the experts. You must have a genre or category in which your novel lies, that is, assuming that you're writing a novel. If it's a screenplay you want to write, then pick the most successful titles of your category and read them. If it's a short story, then read other short stories. However, reading the classics can never go wrong, as they will teach you the basics. Then if you read the fights in your own category, you can better compare the contrast between the general guidelines and what's different about those fight scenes. For example, fights in a short story are rich in quality. There is a lot of action happening in very few words and the gist of the scene is more than just the action. In a screenplay, on the other hand, fights are described for their visual appeal too.
The Outsiders is a popular example of well-written fight scenes. Since we're on the topic of discussing an ideal example of a fight scene, the discussion is incomplete without mentioning the one masterpiece of action writing, The Princess Bride by William Goldman. The final confrontation of Inigo Montoya with the person who killed his father is a brilliantly crafted scene. There isn't one point to learn in The Princess Bride. The whole book is full of invaluable tips that we can either gloss over here, or we can recommend that you read how Inigo Montoya avenges his father in a duel between him and the killer of his father.
All writers are voracious readers. As we discuss popular reads of action, you must be able to think of a few fights in your favorite books that deserve a re-read to earn some insight into writing fights like a pro. Study those fight scenes like a keen observer, analyze all the little details, choice of words, the number of words used to describe a scene, etc. You don't have to read the whole plot. Read those parts of the story that can help in your writing.
Writing fight scenes can be a crucial aspect of a book. It has the potential to either make your book very successful or lose the interest of the readers who are already part of the reader base. Fights are heavily infused with action and involve a wide range of physical interactions. Writing those interactions while keeping the pace of the scene is a challenge that should be tackled in every sentence. Moreover, singular words that can lose the audience's attention and excitement should be replaced with confident and impactful language. Even so, the fight scene may become spicy on its own but it serves no purpose unless there is something at stake. Each side of the conflict should be equally invested in the fight to make it compelling. So that when the fight ends, the story progresses forward, and the protagonist learns and grows from that encounter to be able to face their problems, overcome them, and give the audience the reward of satisfaction after a tense climax.
If writing a fight scene that will make your story more exciting is not your cup of tea, we recommend considering hiring a professional ghostwriter to handle the task, rather than ending up with a badly written fight scene that ruins the reader's experience.