Fight scenes. Damn, these can be difficult. Too detailed and they’re boring. Not detailed enough and the reader won’t feel grounded. The best advice I can give is to build the scene in layers—start with the skeleton, then add the viscera, then the skin.
On the first pass, just write block action—your skeleton—and really focus on making it logical. If a character has a sword in the first part of a scene, make sure she still has it at the end (unless she’s been disarmed). If your character’s been injured in a previous scene, don’t forget this in your fight scene. And don’t get into too much detail. Think of this step as blocking—don’t put too much pressure on it. Just get the action straight in your head, so you have a framework to build on. A skeleton.
Sarah grabbed the man’s wrist and twisted until he dropped the knife. It clattered to the ground. She rammed her knee into his stomach, kicked the knife away and ran.
See? Simple. This step is really just about you figuring out what’s happening. The next step will be to make it good.
When you get to the second pass, employ your senses. This will be the meat of your scene or, as one of my old lecturers called it, the ‘viscera’. Picture yourself in the character’s place, and go from there. I know this is old advice, but it’s good. Don’t shy away from describing things that might seem trivial—a blister coming up on a palm, sweat trickling into eyes (this really stings, by the way, especially if it’s carrying melted hair product), the hot, metallic smell of sword striking sword, hair falling into eyes. It’s this stuff that makes a scene real and grounded.
Continuing on with our previous example, here’s Sarah’s fight scene with some extra viscera:
Raking the sweat-drenched hair from her eyes, Sarah lunged forward and grabbed the man’s wrist. She gave it a sharp twist, gripping so tight his bones dug into her palm. His fist jerked open and the knife clattered to the ground. Adrenaline lurching through her system, Sarah grabbed the man’s shoulders and rammed her knee into his gut. He doubled over with a groan, clutching his stomach. Breathing hard, her hands shaking, Sarah kicked the knife away. It spun off down the alley, far out of reach. Sarah was gone before it stopped spinning, legs pumping in time with her heart as she bolted for the brightly lit haven of the main street.
You don’t need this level of detail in every sentence, by the way—sometimes, short, sharp and simple is better, especially in action scenes. I’m just taking every action to the extreme to show you what’s possible.
On the third pass, throw in more voice. This will be your scene’s skin, complete with scars and freckles and that weird little mole that keeps catching on your waistband. Is a scrap of thought relevant or appropriate? Can you use an action to illuminate an aspect of your character’s personality? Is the character funny? Fatalistic? Pissed off? Now’s your chance to show it.
Back to Sarah:
Raking the sweat-drenched hair from her eyes, Sarah lunged forward and grabbed the man’s wrist. She gave it a sharp twist, like cracking the top of a bottle of soda, gripping so tight his bones dug into her palm.
His fist jerked open and the knife clattered to the ground. Adrenaline lurching through her system, Sarah grabbed the man’s shoulders and rammed her knee into his gut. It was soft and revoltingly spongy—nothing like the kick pads at the gym. The man doubled over with a groan, clutching his stomach.
Smug satisfaction briefly cut through Sarah’s fear. Serves you right, asshole.
Breathing hard, her hands shaking with adrenaline, Sarah kicked the knife away. It spun off down the alley, far out of the asshole’s reach. She was gone before it stopped spinning, sneaker-clad feet hitting the greasy asphalt in time with her heart as she bolted for the brightly lit haven of the main street.
Our scene now has a skeleton, viscera and skin. I find this model is a great way to think about fight scenes—hopefully you’ll find it useful!
A couple of my favorite fight scenes, and why they work
- Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews: Kate Daniels vs. Hugh d’Ambray.
This is my all-time favorite fight scene, and I analyze it constantly. In it, Kate Daniels (long-running MC of the series) is taunted into a fight against her nemesis, Hugh d’Ambray. Both are skilled sword fighters, with different strengths and weaknesses. There are also elements of hand-to-hand combat. Andrews’ style isn’t flowery—it’s to the point, and this works beautifully in the scene. I think most writers can learn a lot from reading it.
- I also love the fight scenes in Netflix’s Daredevil. I know this isn’t a book, but these fight scenes are so raw and well choreographed—I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so good on screen. Even writers can learn a lot from watching them. If you can’t watch the whole series (which I highly recommend) check out Matt’s hallway fight scene from season one on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B66feInucFY). This is a great example of a fight with multiple opponents and improvised weapons.
- Dialogue isn’t always crucial in action scenes, especially if it’s any of the following:
– “Try me.”
– “It’s only a scratch.”
– “This is for Tom.” *stabs attacker once* “This is for Harry.” *stabs attacker again* “And this? This is for me.” *kills attacker*.
BUT, if dialogue makes the scene pop, is useful for character development, and doesn’t slow the pace, try it out. Your critique partners will let you know if it’s out of place.
- Use dynamic verbs when you can (e.g. ‘lunged’ instead of ‘moved forward’, ‘shoved’ instead of ‘pushed’).
- Getting some experience in whatever martial art your characters use really doesn’t hurt. It gives you familiarity with the terminology, and lets you know what muscles hurt with what movements. What equipment snags on your hair. What move is surprisingly painful. As a former fencer, for example, I’m well placed to write sword fights. I also recently started learning krav maga—you’d better believe some of those moves have already made it into my WIP. A lot of martial art gyms offer free trials—give it a go, and I promise you won’t regret it.
- Speaking of fencing/swordplay: *Clears throat and gets on soapbox*…
1. No stupid flourishes with your character’s sword while they’re in a fight (e.g. spinning sword around hand). Seriously. This is a fantastic way to give your opponent an opening and get yourself stabbed.
2. If you want to get technical about the parts of a sword, do your research—and remember, the parts of a fencing blade can have different names than the parts of a real-life killing sword. So don’t go talking about foibles and fortes and pistol grips when you’re describing broadswords.
3. If your character wears a sword on their back and you want them to be able to draw it (and if you care about being realistic, which isn’t necessarily crucial) make it short. Long swords will be impossible to draw because your character won’t be able to reach high enough to pull them out.
How do you approach fight scenes? Do you have any favorites? I’d love to hear from you!