Kick. Punch. Pow! Today, I’m examining what it takes to rise to the challenge to craft a compelling fight scene. Queue the 1980s training montage music.
Before I dive into the list of tips that I’ve gathered I wanted to tie in one overarching caveat that comes into play when considering fight scenes or any action sequence. Medium matters. Video games and movies have little things called special effects that can visually create a compelling fight scene.
In fiction, the author has the brute strength of their words to create an epic gut-wrenching squabble. The best way to go into writing a fight scene is to remember that it is exactly that: a written fight scene. This means that there’s got to be more than a blow by blow summary
1. Know your stuff (but don’t write it all)
Similar to world building, it’s important to know a lot more about a topic than what you intend on including in the scene.
When it comes to fight scenes, topics like fighting styles, martial arts, or weapons might be good places to start researching. While it’s important to have a foundation of knowledge to give the fight scene authenticity, don’t get caught up in jargon. Not all readers will be experts in Kung-Fu or machine guns. Keep things simple, but accurate.
2. Use Sensory Verbs
When I read a compelling fight scene, I can feel like I’m right there in the action. The hero’s victory is my victory, or their defeat is my defeat. By describing a fight sequence with powerful verbs that engage and provide a sensory experience, the reader will be pulled further into the story.
Some of my favorite action verbs for fight scenes are: slashed, jammed, pounded, smashed, crushed, sliced, tumbled… etcetera. Fights are visual experiences. The stronger you can show versus tell in writing, the stronger the impact of the fight.
3. Describe the pain
Some gnarly things can happen in fights. I’m the first person to say I’m pretty scrappy, with a weak stomach, and probably wouldn’t last if it came to a few rounds of fist to cuffs. That being said, I sometimes struggle with this tip.
Dramatic fight scenes are painful and often bloody. Your characters will get injured. A great way to enhance the fight scene is to describe that pain (in detail). As humans we can internalize and sympathize with that pain. If a monster rips out a hero’s clavicle, that is going to HURT (and I am already wincing at the pain).
BONUS: Injuries don’t disappear overnight
Another way to describe the pain is in the aftermath of the fight. Bruises and scrapes can take days or weeks to heal, bones can take months (unless there is special healing magic). In the scenes following the fight, don’t forget to describe how the hero is recovering both physically and mentally.
4. Keep It Tied to Emotions
One benefit of a written fight scene is that we can have a look into the hero’s head during the fight. Instead of boring readers with a play by play of each punch, allow for the reader to feel the emotions of the hero during the ups and downs of the fight.
The action of the fight can match the emotion of the characters. If it’s a playful sparring match between two lovers, I’m expecting there to be some banter and an overall light tone. If it’s a grudge match to the death, I anticipate much different emotions to be at play.
5. Raise the Stakes
Fight scenes are incredible ways to raise the tension in the novel, and oftentimes a fight will occur as a result of continuously building stakes and circumstances. Communicating what is at stake will further allow for the reader to connect to the fight. If the fight is crafted using all the previous tips, knowing what is at stake will just keep the reader turning the page to learn how those stakes pan out.
If a fight is life or death, or the answer to the unsolvable problem, the hero will have that weighing on them when they enter into the fight. It’s also important to keep in mind that fights have beats, and should include rising and falling action.
BONUS: Have a worthy opponent
Ups and downs in a fight come from giving the hero someone good to fight against. Everyone loves to root for the underdog, and there’s a reason why the David and Goliath story has been retold over and over again. Heroes that can’t be beaten are boring. We want to see a villain with strengths that exploit the hero’s weaknesses and provides a fight that is either well matched or leans towards the opponent.
Check out my IG account for a snippet of a fight scene from my current WIP: Kingdom in Shadow. This upcoming novel has tones of sword play and high stakes action!