Good stories all have one thing in common, conflict. You can’t create a memorable and exciting story if everyone is just shaking hands and complimenting each other. You need to have opposing views, controversy and drama!
The culmination of this conflict is often violence, in both stories and real life. It is humanity stripped away to its barest bones. A well written fight scene can be the peak of your crescendo, it can enlighten or confirm your character’s traits, it can be tragic or heroic and it should certainly be exciting.
But writing a fight scene is not as easy as your hero flourishing their sword or your villain sweeping his enemies aside. So I’ve put together my favourite tips to help you get started. This is very much an overview of writing fight scenes and I try not to go into too much detail for that very reason. A duel with swords should feel completely different to a modern shoot-out in a war torn desert. Do your research, apply these tips and you’ll create a fight-scene your readers can feel as well as read.
Add feeling to your fight scenes. Bryn Donovan says “you want to get the excitement across and convey how it feels for your main character.” A fight scene without description is impossible to picture, but a fight scene without commentary falls just as flat. Is your character scared? Excited? Angry? Does the violence sicken them? Or empower them?
A fight scene is an opportunity to add to the depth of your characterization. A person in a fight is reduced to their basest instincts. How does your character react? Are they a hero? A coward? Are they trying to kill someone, or protect someone? The more your reader knows about your character’s motivations, the more they’ll believe their actions. Think about the imagery of how your character fights and what they fight with. A character you’ve been building up to your readers as sly, conniving and sneaky probably wouldn’t use a battle axe in a fight. Our goal as writers is to suspend the reader’s disbelief as long as possible.
Share all of your character’s senses with your reader. I said earlier that a fight scene without commentary falls flat, so to does one without utilizing the senses, I mean we have 5 of them, so use them! A lot of writers get caught up in the idea of pain, and they over use it thinking it’s adding to the shock-factor of their scene, when really it’s just boring.
What does your character taste? Blood? Maybe they can still feel the liquor on their breath as they were trying to find some hidden courage in a bottle.
What is your character hearing? The clash of metal? The sound of gunfire? The screams of the wounded or those caught in the cross-fire? Maybe a bird overhead calls out waiting for the feast it gets once the fighting stops.
What is your character seeing? Can they see the whole fight? Or are they stuck in their own bloody conflict? Maybe the eyes of the man in front of him, the chips in his sword or the dents in his shield.
What does your character smell? The sulfur smell of cannons? The scent of those whose bowels have been emptied? Or maybe they can smell the oil they used to coat their leather amour.
A fight scene should move your story forward. Every single word in your book should contribute to the story. You shouldn’t have a single piece of useless dialogue or description and fight scenes are no different. Don’t just add a fight scene because you wanted to. Think hard about what it’s adding to your story. Is the scene revealing a new enemy? Or perhaps a characters secret affinity for combat. Or the opposite, perhaps a character who has been talking big up until the fight is revealed to be a coward. If you’re hoping for a more dramatic addition to the story, you can use a fight scene as an opportunity to kill off a character. Their death could change the direction of the whole story, changing your main character’s desires, motivations and personality in one swoop.
A good exercise is to delete the fight scenes and read the scene before and after, if they still make sense without the fight then scrap it.
Think about what has motivated this fight. As written on Reedsy, “people need believable motivation to start a fight in both real life and in fiction.” Is your character trying to inflict harm on someone as revenge? Or are they protecting someone? Or are they acting out of an effort to simply survive? If your fight scene feels random then it won’t add any excitement for the reader, it will feel amateurish and pointless. But if there is some higher motivation, and as a result of that, a greater consequence, then your reader will be sucked in and you’ll have them in the palm of your hand.
As NY Book Editors put it:
“Writing a realistic fight scene for your novel is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. No one ever writes a perfect fight scene on their first go, the key to a well written fight scene is to EDIT, EDIT THEN EDIT AGAIN.