Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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. But, before we get to those, there’s the cardinal rule of fight scenes.
1. Don’t overwrite
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.Let the reader choreograph your fight scene. This is their time to shine.Click To Tweet
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.
But if you’re not describing what your characters are doing then how do you communicate the action?
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 on 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.
Short, to-the-point sentences are a must for any fight scene, but pacing works best when it’s combined with perspective.
It’s difficult to communicate excitement when you describe something objectively. Hovering around the fight describing the actions of both characters sets a limitation on 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.
4. Verbs not adverbs
Fight scenes demand brevity and adverbs are the opposite. Instead of ‘Adam hit him hard in the chest, again and again’ use ‘Adam pounded at his chest’.There are too many adverbs in your fight scene. Seriously, go check. Click To Tweet
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.
5. Sensory information
Description doesn’t work in fight scenes because thought doesn’t play a big part in immediate, physical situations. What there is plenty of is 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.Use sensory information to make a fight scene relatable.Click To Tweet
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 after an accident. 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.
Not everyone has bled copiously (hopefully most haven’t) but describing a character’s clothing as ‘wet with blood’ matches the unfamiliar experience to a physical sensation the reader can recall.
6. Just the results
The opposite of writing a fight scene, but worth the occasional consideration, 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. Detail is a dirty word
The key to getting a fight scene right is learning that detail is a dirty word. Television and movies have taught us that the choreography of a fight is the important thing, but different mediums call for different tricks.
The Princess Bride sword fight is riddled with fictional fencing maneuvers and yet reading the scene that doesn’t matter. The pace is so non-stop, the skill and commitment of both characters so well-written, that the reader imagines every thrust and parry and accepts them as expert.
Write around the physical actions, set the mood and write the sounds, smells, tastes and feel of combat, and your reader will tap into the visual heritage that was formerly working against you to picture their own kick-ass fight scenes.
Check out Are Your Characters Talking At Cross-Purposes? Why Not? for ways to get your characters to the fight scene, and if you’re considering ending with a battle, try Scared Of The Anticlimactic Ending? Here’s How To Kick It To The Curb for useful advice. Are you working on a fight scene now, or have you just finished writing a fight scene? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences in the comments box below.