Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’re constantly updating our articles to bring you the best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your book. This article was originally published on January 21st, 2014.
Fight scenes are the single hardest character interaction to write. Many authors who know their craft in every other respect can’t write a fight scene to save their (or their hero’s) life. Happily, there are a few devices you can use to ensure you write the kind of fight scene that grips a reader from start to finish. Let’s take a look at seven of them…
1. Detail is a dirty word
It’s a general rule that you should leave as much to the reader’s imagination as you can, and this is doubly true for action scenes. The choreography of the fight may be exact in your head, but you can’t force readers to see the same thing.
While describing a fight scene is a great way to paint an accurate picture, it’s a poor way to communicate a compelling experience. A lot of poorly written fight scenes read like the following:
I stepped back, balancing my weight on my left foot, and threw my right fist out in a curved punch at his temple. Turning ninety degrees to the side, he brought his right forearm up to counter the blow, formed a fist with his left, and threw it at my outstretched jaw. I was in trouble.
This might be exactly what you imagine happening, but the excessive stage direction stretches the moment out, turning a frenzied series of blows into a dissection of body language and intent. This fight feels slow, and that feeling is paramount – if your reader is instinctively bored by a fight, you can’t convince them it was exciting by describing more of it.
Instead, let them know the outline of the fight and they’ll imagine their own visceral fight scene. Counter as it is to a writer’s instincts, ‘they struggled’ paints a far more vivid picture than describing the exact position of each combatant’s arms.
So, if you’re not describing what your characters are doing, how do you communicate the action?
2. Pace is everything
Intensifying the pace of your writing can communicate the immediacy and suddenness of conflict. Short, simple sentences keep the reader on their toes. Fights happen quickly and your description needs to match that. In The Princess Bride, William Goldman writes a brilliant sword fight, and perhaps the most enjoyable fight scene ever put to paper:
The cliffs were very close behind him now.
Inigo continued to retreat; the man in black continued advancing.
Then Inigo countered with the Thibault.
And the man in black blocked it.
Each sentence is short, the written equivalent of a sudden move. Every time a new person takes an action in this passage, Goldman starts a new line, making the reader encounter each attack as a sudden, vital event.
This ‘new line’ technique is pretty cheesy – it works for Goldman because his story is a deliberate homage to adventure yarns – but short, to-the-point sentences are a must for any fight scene. Clarity is important in many areas of writing, and it’s not something to wish away in a fight, but the energy of a fight scene is more important than its details, and that comes from pace. Of course, pacing works best when it’s combined with perspective.
3. Perspective defines experience
It’s difficult to communicate excitement when you describe something objectively. This is another reason that hovering around the fight describing the actions of both characters limits how gripping the experience can be. The key is to thrust the reader into the thick of the action, and to do that they need to experience the fight through a character.
That’s not to say that you have to suddenly adopt the first person. In Gregory Mcdonald’s Carioca Fletch, the protagonist attempts to get his bearings as he is set upon by unseen assailants. Mcdonald mimics this experience for the reader by having longer passages between the single sentences of violence:
Instead of looking who had pushed him, Fletch tried to save himself from falling. The edge of the parade route’s pavement shot out from under him.
Someone pushed him again.
He fell to the right, into the parade.
A foot came up from the pavement and kicked him in the face.
The writing, and thus the reader’s experience of events, conforms to Fletch’s experience: the attempt to right himself interrupted by sudden acts of violence. You can also write to match the perspective of the attacker: there’s something especially brutal about a villain methodically taking an opponent apart.
Of course, as with all the advice in this article, there are reasons to do the exact opposite. Mimicking perspective leads to a more energetic, visceral experience, which tends to make a fight more compelling, but perhaps you want the opposite. A detached, distanced perspective saps the energy and involvement from a fight, but if you’re trying to horrify the reader rather than energize or entertain, this is a valid technique.
For instance, a ‘cool’ fight would benefit from a close perspective, whereas an upsetting beating would likely benefit from distance. In this way, there are few ‘bad’ writing techniques – just different effects that either work with or against your intent for a scene. Keep in mind that your actual first step to improving your fight scene is understanding how you want your reader to feel about it.
4. Verbs not adverbs (and avoid passive voice)
Energetic fight scenes demand brevity, and adverbs are the opposite of that. Instead of ‘Adam hit him hard in the chest, again and again’ use ‘Adam pounded at his chest’.
The occasional adverb might have its place, but you want the punch of the sentence to come with the character’s action, not lagging after it.
There are a few exceptions. Variations on ‘She hit him. Hard’ have currency because they’re purposefully simplistic. They embrace guttural simplicity to communicate that same quality in the action, but this trick only works once before you start sounding like a caveman.
A similar technique to avoid is the use of passive voice. This is where the person or object performing an action is absent from the sentence in which it happens, as in ‘he was kicked in the face,’ where the person doing the kicking isn’t mentioned.
This is a technique you’ll see in a lot of news coverage, since it deliberately saps energy from an otherwise startling event (plus, it’s legally much safer not to include the person doing the violence in what could be read as an accusation.) In a story, however, it’s the most roundabout way to communicate an action, and it’s best avoided. Even when the attacker is unseen (and therefore can’t be named), Mcdonald goes for ‘A foot came up from the pavement and kicked him in the face’ as opposed to ‘he was kicked in the face.’
Try to err on the side of ‘person, action, effect,’ since this most closely recreates the experience of watching things in real time. Agency – a person’s ability to effect the world around them – is a huge part of compelling fight scenes, and the passive voice is all about ignoring agency.
5. Sensory information is relatable
Another reason description doesn’t work in fight scenes is that immediate, physical situations aren’t characterized by a heightened degree of analytical thought. In contrast, physical situations do tend to come with a lot of sensory information. The taste of blood, the ringing in their ears, the ache of their injuries. Evan Hunter wrote fantastically brutal fight scenes by stating a simple, physical act and then following it up with evocative sensory information:
He pulled him to his feet, almost tearing the collar… He heard the slight rasp of material ripping.
That description, from his short story collection Barking at Butterflies, adds more physicality to the encounter than any physical description could.
Sensory information is also more relatable to readers. Not everyone has been held up by the collar, but everyone has heard fabric tear and tasted their own blood. You can summon incredibly detailed information through these minor descriptions: the pull needed to tear a collar is something most people can appreciate, so they understand the violence of the grip without ever consciously considering it.
6. Results speak volumes
The opposite of writing a fight scene, but something worth considering in many cases, is to skip the violence entirely. It depends whether you’re trying to provide action or communicate violence, but for the latter this can be incredibly effective.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club isn’t about fight scenes or action, but communicates physical violence fantastically:
I asked Tyler what he wanted me to do.
Tyler said, “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”
At this point a new chapter begins:
Two screens into my demo to Microsoft, I taste blood… My boss doesn’t know the material, but he won’t let me run the demo with a black eye and half my face swollen from the stitches in my cheek.
Here, we don’t get any details of the fight, don’t even have it confirmed that a fight took place, and yet the visceral nature of the missing scene is all the more powerful because of it.
You don’t have to skip the fight completely, but remember that you can create a powerful sense of what’s happening by referencing the results. While the reader can’t call to mind the exact experience of the fight on the page, fear of injury is something everyone understands.
7. Context is key
The written word is capable of many feats other types of media can’t match, but one thing it isn’t is visual. This matters because a lot of writers take their fight-scene cues from visual media, attempting to mimic the visual bombast of movie shootouts or martial arts.
In a movie, it’s easy for a fight to be impressive all on its own. We can see the people taking part, appreciate their emotions, witness their speed and flexibility, even wince at their pain. In books, fights don’t bring so much of their own context, and if a reader doesn’t understand who is fighting, why, and what the consequences are likely to be, they’re far less likely to be thrilled.
It’s useful, in this sense, to understand your fight scene as just one type of action scene, similar to chase scenes, arguments, and even sex scenes. These scenes are interesting because they’re interactions with consequences, and those consequences tend to be what makes the action exciting. If Character A is chasing Character B, the scene is fine enough. If we know the stakes of Character B escaping, the scene is much better. If we care about Character A and Character B, and have a preferred outcome to the chase, now the scene matters.
Without context, the most an action scene can hope to be is titillating, and it’s unlikely to achieve even that. Many first-time authors begin their stories with a fight scene because it’s the most exciting thing they can think of, but without characters or stakes, it’s hard to be excited by this non-visual style of action.
If you want to write a fight scene, make the stakes clear to your reader and make sure they care about at least one person in the fight. Otherwise, you’re just trying to ‘show’ them something they can’t see, which is what drives a lot of authors to fall back on all the harmful techniques we’ve already covered.
Fight for your write
So, those are our seven tips for writing great fight scenes. Choose pace over detail, don’t get bogged down by adverbs and passive voice, draw on sensory details and results as needed, and give the reader the context and perspective they need to get invested. What other tips do you think writers should know when dealing with fight scenes? Let me know in the comments.
If you want to work at a larger scale, check out How To Write An Epic Battle Scene, and I also recommend Everything You Need To Know About Writing Fantasy Weapons and What You Need To Know About Writing Injuries for more insight on this topic.