You know what’s dangerous? Writing a fight scene. In theory, it sounds so right. What can go wrong when writing a high-stakes, intense confrontation between two or more characters?
It turns out that everything can go wrong.
In practice, writing a realistic fight scene for your novel is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. That’s because fight scenes can be boring to read. A movie allows the audience to take a passive stance and have the action wash over them. In contrast, reading a fight scene requires the audience to activate their imagination. The audience must participate in constructing the fight scene from your clues and seeing it play out in their mind’s eye. That’s a lot more difficult than getting it fed to you visually.
But never fear—if you’re aiming to write a fight scene that’s capable of captivating your reader’s attention, this guide will help. Below, we’ll discuss the best strategies for creating fight scenes with bite. Let’s get ready to rumble.
Rule #1: Fight Scenes Should Move the Story Forward
The very first rule for fight writing (and writing any scene in general) is to ensure that it moves the story forward. Say “no” to gratuitous fight scenes that only show off fancy moves or writing skills.
Here’s the easiest way to find out if your fight scene moves the story: Delete it. Now, read the scene before and the scene after. Can you still make sense of what happened?
If the fight caused some type of transition in your story, keep it in.
And remember: Not all transitions are physical. Some are mental. You don’t always have to discuss the physical aftermath. You can also explore the mental fallout after a fight. This can be how the fight moves the story forward.
Rule #2: Fight Scenes Should Improve Characterization
Because reading a fight scene can get boring quickly, it’s important that you focus on more than the bare-knuckle action. Use fights as a way to explore your character(s) and provide more insight on the following:
- Why does the character make the choices that they make in the fight?
- How does each choice reinforce their characterization?
- How does each choice impact their internal and/ or external goals?
- Is this conflict getting the character closer or further away from their goals? How?
- What are the stakes for each character? What do they stand to win? What will they lose?
- What type of fighter is the character? What are their physical or mental abilities? (Remember that not every protagonist will be a trained assassin, so they’re prone to make sloppy mistakes during a fight.)
Use the fight scene to reveal necessary information about the characters. Be sure to give the reader a glimpse into the character’s soul and not just into their fighting skills.
Rule #3: Fight Scenes Shouldn’t Slow the Pace
In movies and especially in real life, fights go by quickly. But in literature, fight scenes can slow the pace. That’s because you have to write all of the details and the reader has to reconstruct the scene in their minds.
This is the reason why many people simply skip over fight scenes in novels. I’m guilty of it. How about you? There are only so many kicks and punches you can read before yawning.
However, if you employ certain literary devices into your narrative, you can actually create a taut fight scene. Here are some tips:
- Write in shorter sentences. Shorter sentences are easier to digest. It also speeds up the pace of a story.
- Mix action with dialogue. Don’t just write long descriptions of what’s happening. Also, share the verbal exchange between your characters.
- Don’t focus too much on what’s going on inside the character’s mind. Introspection happens before and after a fight, not during.
- Keep the fight short. Fights should never go on for pages (unless you’re discussing an epic battle between armies, and not individuals).
Rule #4: Hit ’Em With All the Senses
One of the best ways to get visceral when describing a fight is to activate every sense possible. This includes sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Think of how you can use these five descriptors in your writing to immediately transport the reader to the scene.
Sight is perhaps the most obvious. You’ll describe exactly what the characters are seeing and what the reader should pay attention to in the scene.
Hearing is a little more delicate. I think a fight scene is a perfect time to introduce onomatopoeia into your narrative. Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it is describing. By onomatopoeia, I don’t mean turning your writing into a comic book style, with words like kapow or bang! Instead, I suggest using more subtle examples, such as:
Taste is another sense to introduce into your fight scenes. But be careful with going abstract here. Instead of using phrases like, “he could taste fear in the air,” go for something more concrete like, “blood mixed with strawberry lip gloss was a strange taste indeed.” I hope you come up with something better than that, but you get the point.
Touch is perhaps one of the easiest senses to convey. Describe how the characters feel and interact with each other physically.
Smell is one of my favorite senses to add to a fight scene because it’s rarely called upon. You often see or hear a fight, but can you smell it? In person, what would the fight smell like? Probably sweat. Consider other scents, such as the ambient aroma in the scene. For example, if the fight takes place in a car garage, there may be the lingering scent of motor oil and tire rubber. Don’t be afraid to add that into the scene to introduce a different dimension.
Rule #5: When Writing a Fight Scene, Edit, Edit, Edit
A good story is an edited one. The same rule applies to fight scenes. A sloppy fight scene can slow the pace of your story and/or confuse the reader.
When editing your fight scene, keep the following in mind:
- Don’t include a blow by blow of what happens in the fight. After your initial draft, remove non-essential details that can slow down reading.
- Delete flowery language. Extra words drag the pace. Remove every single word that you can.
- Consolidate characters to reduce reader confusion and frustration.
Check Out These Related Posts
Here are additional posts to help you create a killer fight scene:
- Tips for Balancing Characterization With Plot
- Tension! What is it and How to Develop it in Your Novel
- The Importance of Subplots
We Want to Hear From You
What’s the best fight scene you’ve ever read? Let us know in the comments below.