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. But don’t despair. There are a few strategies 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 in writing 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 not a great way to communicate a compelling experience. A lot of poorly written fight scenes read like this:
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 the rest. 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.
The opposite can also be true
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.
Why the passive voice won’t work
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. 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. Make the result clear
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 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 will be, they’re far less likely to be thrilled.
Your fight scene as an action scene
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 are usually 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? And what is the best fight scene you’ve ever read? Let me know in the comments below.
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.
79 thoughts on “7 Ways To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene”
I find that writing from my own experiences help the flow. I got beat up a lot in elementary school. when I write a fight scene, I focus on the emotional aspects ad well. the rushing flow of my blood as rage sweeps through me. the nauseous wave that cramps my stomach as pain ripples from my jaw from rock hard hit. It helps me to place myself in the heroes shoes and try to feel, physically and emotionally, what the hero would.
I’m sorry to hear you had that kind of experience but it’s great that you’ve taken ownership of it and used it positively in your art.
I think you’re completely right about linking the sounds and physical experiences of injury to the emotional experience of it. When you have a personal experience of this kind it can be applied to many different stories; no matter how outlandish the conflict the resulting physical and emotional reactions remain the same.
Yes, less is more, exactly: even in fight scenes.
I especially enjoy your examples, like Palahniuk’s one.
Very interesting article, fight scenes fit with fantasy novels, which are my favourite.
Thanks very much. Fight scenes do seem particularly at home in fantasy novels, often as part of a larger ‘battle’ scene. Battles are incredibly difficult to write, and often done best through smaller fight scenes that represent the battle as a whole.
ha ha that part about cavemen x) i read a start to a book whose cover was very interesting, but it was written in caveman the whole first paragraph and it aggravated me so much that i didn’t give a unicorn about the story, i just closed the book and looked for a new one. Indeed, all of your points are spot-on and very helpful. Thank you, please keep posting =) Best wishes!
Thanks so much for your feedback and kind words. Yes, caveman style gets old very quickly. There’s also the fact that, generally, starting a book with that kind of action tends not to work. People are keen on it because it’s common (and works) in movies and television, but that’s because action is visceral and thrilling to WATCH. When we read action scenes more of our reaction comes from the context – we worry about a character we like getting hurt – than the action itself. Consequently if a book begins with action that might grip us if we cared about the characters, the gap between how we feel and how the author wants us to feel becomes very apparent.
I am writing a screenplay and led beautifully into a fight scene, but I came to a dead end when it came to the writing the scene itself. So, I didn’t write it at all 🙂 Here’s what I ended with:
note: Ben was kicked out of a fictional high school gang called The Boys. Most names are standing names, not finalized.
The Boys arrive at an open field, the gang The Saints are waiting.
Ben, in bandages and on a crutch, limps past The Boys.
The Boys freeze in shock at his arrival.
BEN (to the Saints):
Your two best against me decides the fight.
The Saints don’t make deals with The Boys.
Ben cracks his neck and throws down his crutch.
Good thing I’m not one of them.
Two Saints sprint toward Ben, one two steps ahead of the other.
A single blow.
First one down.
The second tackles Ben with brute force.
They land with an audible thud.
CUT TO BLACK, FADE TO:
Ben wakes up in a hospital bed.
His breath is shallow, his face swollen.
Ben wares more bandages than clothing.
Ben rolls his head and looks at the table next to him.
A note on the table beside him reads:
“You saved our asses. Thanks -The Boys”
Leaving room for the actors and the director to choreograph a fight scene is a great idea when writing a screenplay, and even translates to novels – the reader is a fantastic director, you just need to give them enough information to play out their own idea of how it happened.
A warmth filled johns belly. It trickeled down his leg.
“Have I pissed myself again?”
Johns legs went numb as he sat down in the grass. His sword became heavy so he let it slip his grasp.
“No one can know I’ve pissed myself again.”
A shriek rang down from above.John stared into the cloudless sky. He knew that sound. The cry of an emperial falcon.He had seen many of them during his training at the battle camps. He promised his mom, a lover of winged creatures, he would buy one for her. The bird faded from his vision, but he continued searching for it in the greysky which he could have sworn was blue moments ago.
A faint sound crept up from behind the young boy.
“amazing, I can hear the flaping of your wings great bird.”
A shadow slowly grew in front of john.
A grin surfaced beneath the dried blood on John’s face.
“ve never had a bird fly so close.”
A thumping sound filled johns ears as theshadow began moving. Johns vision began to blur.
“are you flying away great bird? Please take me with you.” Cried the boy as the ground raced towards his face. He felt a strange peace as his vision blackened. John smiled as he envisioned flying away towards his mother’s cottage. Slowly his eyelids lowered and he flew away from the nightmare of war.
Can u tell me what you think this scene is about. I try to evoke the readers emotion without being direct. I’m practicing lol. Want to be a writer, one who makes people cry, cheer, throw my book at the wall in anger and pick it back up again in curiosity.:)
it’s about a boy who dies after fighting in a war?
Would you say these same tips apply for fights that are rather supernatural? Eg. One with a trident vs someone weaponless that doesn’t stay down
In a word, yes. The style of writing is meant to evoke the threat and pace of the situation, so it would be applicable to the kind of fight you describe.
I read it as a death on the battlefield scene, a soldier reflecting on his life before the conflict.
i am looking forward to writing one…https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/36246660-mayday
All my books include at least on fist fight between two people who know little about fighting (or at least one knows little.) One or both characters are afraid of fighting and generally will do just about anything to avoid getting in a fight. You tips are very helpful. I failed at the less is more rule in the beginning, but caught on and I think those scenes are not only strengthened, but easier on the reader. I find spending a bit more on the characters experience with the unexpected adrenaline rush, emotions, fears and anger is better. I actually received some feed back from readers who felt for the characters who were more or less trapped into a fist & wrestling fight. That my characters are mostly not skilled in fighting helped win reader sympathy. I managed to stay out of fights, though as human nature goes, I was very close to not being able to get out of close encounters as a teen and young adult. That experience of fear, trepidation, excitement along with some degree of wanting to hit the other person I wanted to bring out in my characters.
You’re right, those visceral feelings are really compelling and the reader is far more likely to back a character who’s been forced into a fight. I think one of the best ‘trying to avoid a fight’ scenes is Romeo and Juliet, act 1 scene 1. The whole idea of bravado versus the reality of injury is really strong, especially in the hands of directors like Baz Luhrmann. If you haven’t seen the opening scene of Romeo + Juliet (by which I mean the 1996 movie) I’d recommend it as great research.
Well Im writing a mystery novel with a touches of paranormal themes. My books always have an immense focus on fights because of the violent nature of one of my characters. I am having trouble with these because I personally have never been very descriptive in my writing. But this Article really helped me understand more of what to do and how to write them. Thanks
I’m really glad this article has been useful to you. Don’t give up on trying to nail your fight scenes – it’s a genuinely difficult subject to get right.
So i have attempted to use this guide to write my first battle scene i will actually use in a story if its ok i would love abit of feedback.
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Thanks in advance
It’s really gratifying that you’ve got such immediate use out of the article, so thanks for sharing this part of your story! You’ve completely understood what I was writing about, and all the techniques described are used to great effect in your writing.
If I was going to suggest anything it would be more sensory information in the final section – the more you can put the reader in the cramped, deafening midst of battle the better. Also a proofread would be necessary before including this in a larger work, to catch any errant spelling or grammar issues.
If you want feedback on any more of your work, or to talk more about your story, please feel free to contact me via //www.standoutbooks.com/contact/.
Hi, I’m writing a fantasy novel and I’m trying to give my character a specific fighting technique. Basically I’m in love with Japanese style Niten Ichi-Ryu, a style that uses both the katana and the smaller wazitashi and I want my character to use this technique. But since it’s set in a fantasy world that knows nothing about Japan or another other country, how would you incorporate it? Or should I just leave it out altogether? The fighting style that is?
There are a few options for how to handle the fighting style you’ve mentioned. First of all, you could have the character use the style, but not refer to it as Niten Ichi-Ryu – either not naming the style or else inventing an in-world name for it. Second of all, you could simply use the correct name and brazen it out – fantasy worlds are full of terms that can’t realistically, linguistically have developed there (‘katana’ is one of these), and with confidence and skill it’s possible to win the reader over to accepting them. This option would be made easier if the narrator refers to the style by name, but it’s not used in dialogue. Thirdly, you could use the English translation (which I believe is along the lines of ‘the school of the strategy of two heavens as one’), or some variation of it. Finally, you could lose the style altogether, but that would be a shame over what’s a tricky but minor issue.
My advice would be to keep the style and give it an in-world name. This could be a variant of its translated name (‘the school of two heavens’, for example), or a new term that works in your world. The only drawback to the latter option is that those familiar with the style may feel irritated, as if you’re trying to pretend you’ve made it up. This could be solved with a note in the foreword – ‘the style used by _________ and referred to as _________ is Niten Ichi-Ryu’ – or by somehow referencing its actual name – perhaps the person who taught it to the character/the place where they learned it has a name that’s phonetically similar to the style. ‘Nyten’/’Niton’, for example.
I hope that’s useful.
I am in amidst of writing a story, and a lot of fight scenes are potentially involved.
In regards to leaving much of it to Reader imagination and keeping pace … What if the fight was written like boxing commentary? Think that would work due to short and fast paced that is in real life?
Trying to find that balance between what I would like the reader to see versus what they will conjure up. Got some intricate stuff in mind and I do not want to lose all of it. Thanks for writing this article! It has come in handy. We need more like it.
That sounds like an interesting device – would the narrator be the ‘commentator’, or would one of the actual characters be describing what took place?
It would be the narrator. That way not all the choreography would be lost if done right.
Sounds like a smart device. My only recommendation would be to ensure you lay the groundwork for that device before jumping into it, so it doesn’t feel forced in execution.
I must say, that I find your advice spot on. In my writing I have used all of these techniques – but I wish I had read your advice first – it would have saved me a bloody lot of time. Instead of hammering it out for myself, I could’ve relied on your expertise.
The think there maybe one exception to you words of wisdom: space battles (yes, I know. I am one of those). The quiet majesty of space I believe requires more description rather than less. The vivid scenes of destruction with lasers and missiles and plasma beams play well against the void of space. That being said, I have also finished off ships and their entire crews in a short paragraph.
I am most curious. Although this is a bit outside the parameters of your well-written article, what are your thoughts on fights between vessels, (sailing vessels, modern warships, tanks, starships) both terrestrial and non?
I would like your
Thanks for commenting – I take your point about space battles. Description can lead to detachment in fight scenes, but as you say, sometimes that works well with the sterility and isolation of space. An odd example, perhaps, but the videogame ‘FTL’ is about minutely managed space battles, and the bare-bones story really works with that approach – you’re on the run from a much larger force, adrift in hostile space, so knowing every little thing that can go wrong heightens that narrative tension.
As far as battles between machines of war go, I think the key is to focus on individual experience. You can, of course, write about tank vs. tank and armada vs. armada (you can write about anything, with enough skill and drafting), but it’s usually more effective to communicate that battle via the experiences of a single crew member. A huge indent being punched into a tank’s wall, or someone burning their hand on a gun that’s been rattling off rounds, can convey the experience of this type of fight without getting lost in technical details.
It’s not a perfect example because there are visual aspects to the medium, but Garth Ennis’ ‘War Stories’ comic book series does this really well. For him, it’s all about the individuals, but he also uses their relationship to their vehicles to anthropomorphize tanks and planes. There’s one story where a huge tank takes on a sort of ‘monster’ role in the story, emerging from the undergrowth just when the protagonists think they’re safe. Certainly a good place to start if looking for examples.
Okay, so my story is about superheroes and villains. Also, I don’t really like short fights but I understand I shouldn’t have 5 pages of fighting. How could I make the fight seem longer but use less pages?
Also, grammar question, can the whole fight be in one paragraph or no?
Thanks for your questions. You can make fights feel longer in a variety of ways. One really effective device is to cut away for a while – perhaps to a character witnessing the action from afar, or someone elsewhere. This lets the fight keep going while the reader is ‘away’, allowing you to extend it for however long suits your needs. In a similar vein, showing the consequences of the fight – the collateral damage – can add to the perceived duration, as the reader has to justify how so much damage has been done.
You can also sidetrack the reader with a few details. If your characters topple a building then let them fly away for a moment, but stay with the building, describing how people escape and how it eventually falls down completely. This is a combination of the devices above, and works as a kind of illusion for the reader – if such a passage is presented between when the fight starts and when it ends, the reader will include it in the duration of the fight afterwards, even if it was really more of an aside.
You could also break the fight up over time – having the fight begin, flashing back to its cause, and then rejoining it – again, this stretches out the reader’s perception of how long the fight has been going on.
In terms of directly witnessing the fight, there are fewer options. As tempting as it can be to show the reader a huge, prolonged fight scene, they rarely translate to the less visual medium of writing. Really, the only thing that justifies a huge fight scene is making the reader really, really want to see the outcome – having built up the animosity between the characters, or the desire to see one of them bite the dust. That kind of build-up takes time, so it’s probably only going to be possible to ‘earn’ two such fight scenes in a story.
Whether the whole fight is in one paragraph or not depends on your writing style and the way you’ve treated paragraphs elsewhere. That said, it would be unusual to turn such an action-heavy scene into a single block of text. We’ve got an article on paragraphs coming up soon, including when it’s best to break them, so that should answer your question in more detail.
hi my names alexis im wriitng a 30,00 word novel for nation novel writing weak im in 8th grade and this is what i got so far————————. The loudness of the room was getting louder and louder until everyone knew that there was gonna be a big huge staring contest that was going to happen during lunch. But when Michaela arrives with Elizabeth they sit down in the chairs that were blue, clean,shiny,and had a new smell to it but those blue shiny chairs where by the cafeteria table that they were sitting. All the sudden they see that Maddie was already there with her boyfriend and her friends,which they didn’t care. but when Michaela and Elizabeth discovers that Maddie, her boyfriend, and her friends are staring at them, and they immediately get mad at maddie so Michala and Elizabeth start staring at them and maddie saw that they were staring back so maddie gave michaela and elizabeth weird looks. And everyone out of nowhere was just staring at Michaela,Elizabeth,Maddie,her boyfriend,and her friends. But as soon as they left the cafeteria it was really quiet but when everyone left the cafeteria, they said there was staring contest, but no fight.
Thanks very much for sharing your NaNoWriMo writing. I’m afraid it’s had to be cut down, as we can only accomodate so much text in the comments. Beginning writing so young is a sure path to future brilliance, so congratulations on your work and be sure to keep at it.
Hello Mr. Wood
I don’t know if you’ll see this, but I had a question. I’m now writing a fantasy book where the characters can influence gravity around them and practically fly/jump great distances at great speeds. I’m now struggling in a scene where one of the characters is chasing a bad-guy (who also has those powers). How can I write a chase scene that doesn’t actually get boring? Would really help if you’d share some advice on this matter.
Thanks for the great question. I think the key thing to keep in mind is that a chase isn’t inherently interesting. Almost no physical competition is – it’s the potential outcomes that interest the reader, and then the chase (or fight, or race, or argument) becomes interesting for how likely a specific outcome seems at any given moment.
To that end, the key to a great chase scene is how worried the reader is that someone will be caught/will get away. Every stumble or shortcut makes one of those outcomes more likely, and that’s something to keep in mind when writing them. This should guide what you focus on – is someone feeling tired, is there an obstacle coming up, is there a point the character can reach where they’ll be impossible to catch?
All the tips above apply – keep it basic, let the reader choreograph the scene, and keep your focus as the author on potential outcomes. As the reader, all the excitement and intrigue of a chase scene comes from who’s going to win. Strip away incidental dialogue, set-dressing, and anything that isn’t about that. Also, try to vary which outcome seems more likely. If it feels like a character is about to be caught and they escape, or it looks like they’re about to get away and then they stumble, that’s the moment where the reader’s heart really starts beating.
Hope that’s what you were looking for.
Hello Mr. Wood
I need advice how to write an aerial, ground and naval battles. When I’m writing a fight scene it look simple and doesn’t excite the readers. This caused me to lose motivation on writing a decent story if I can’t excite the readers.
I’m currently writing two story. The first one is where a large military base was transport to a messed-up fantasy world where magic exists. They trained the peasants to fight against their tyrannical rulers and the corrupted nobles. The second one is a massive denizens went to the another world but find out that the world is controlled by a corrupted Empires so they decided to start a bloody world revolution.
I have a wild imagination so I want to write a good fight scene.
Thanks for your comments. In terms of writing huge battles, I’d suggest utilizing some of my advice to Edward (above), and also keeping your eyes peeled, as we have an article on writing battle scenes in the pipeline that should provide more comprehensive information.
In your particular case, though, I’d suggest caution. You say that your scenes fail to excite readers, and I wanted to check that this conclusion is a result of consulting with beta readers. The reason I ask is that there’s a definite tendency to overwrite fight and battle scenes for authors, specifically because it’s impossible to get down on paper the complexity and scale that’s in their heads. Feeling that a scene doesn’t live up to the vision can lead authors to scrap something that’s working.
The key is not to try and chase the vision – to write in such a way that the reader is brought in as a partner, filling in details and choreographing their own most exciting scene. I think in most cases I’d argue there’s no way to write an objectively great battle scene (by which I mean a battle scene that, in and of itself, grabs and excites the reader regardless of everything else about it). Instead, it’s about building up the context of the battle beforehand, communicating it as a web of individual experiences, and leaving space for the reader. As with any action scene, it’s also advisable to focus on the potential outcomes. For example:
A scene where 127 men are blown up = boring.
A scene where 127 men are blown up, but where the reader knows that 400 men will be needed to storm a fortress, and there are only 568 left = tense and exciting.
Really, it’s about making the reader do math on the fly. They need to know the ‘win’ and ‘lose’ conditions and then understand every event as a new variable. That way, they’re constantly thinking ‘oh no, now they’re more likely to lose’ or ‘that means they COULD still win’. Once you’ve got that, then it’s time to dress it up a little so the whole process seems a little more natural and less like an equation – battle estimates provided through a commander figure via dialogue rather than narration, taking enough time over a moment that it doesn’t feel perfunctory, that kind of thing.
I hope that’s useful, and please let us know what you think of the battle article once it’s up.
Hello and thank you. I’m writing a story that I most say is writing itself. But two of my characters have been snipping at each other for so long and the testosterone has finally hit its boiling point and there is no alternative, they have to duke it out. I have never written a fight scene. Your blog was the first one to catch my eye in google search. Thanks to you I now know how to proceed. I love the idea of putting the five senses in instead of description. Show don’t tell 😉 I’m very excited.
Fantastic, I’m really glad the article was so useful. I’ve also written specifically on sense writing, and have included a link to that article below:
I dread battles… I hate them. For some of my earlier attempts I relied on character emotion but seeing as how I’m writing the last book of my series right now though, I am under alot of pressure to offer a lot of action especially since the whole series is leading up to this final fray. I’ve been building the action/tension through small skirmishes for the last while but I will admit it is wearing me down. My fear now is that my reserves will run dry and spoil what I hope to be an awesome climax. One thing I do find to my benifit is that, over the course of seven books, I was able to introduce a wide variety of characters slow enough for the readers to form a strong relationship with them all. Whenever I do tackle the final battle, having so many characters (I don’t know if it’s a good practice) it allows me to write several mini battles in the war, jumping between the characters I use that as my primary tool to offer more action/longer battles. Keep in mind though, this whole jumping between characters style I subtly introduced in book one and by book two I was using it constantly so my readers are used to that style. I find it helps keep the action up so if a character is doing something boring like learning or traveling etc I usually always have another engaged in more entertaining tasks. Just offering a tool that helps me… I wish I could say the same with battles though. I’m hopeless when it comes to them. 🙁
Thanks very much for your thoughts, and a method that will help other writers with their stories. I’m happy to say we also have some advice specific to battles – I’ve included the link below.
Thanks Rob that made my day, it’s nice to know that I was able to offer something of use thay may help someone. I did check out the resource you offered, it is certainly informative. I find I need reprieves between the action both for my creative juices to recover and rest from the high points but also it is in these breaks that I bring back purpose of these fights, whether it is the character navigating the dungeon, redefining what he was looking for or regrouping after an ambush I need these lulls, they are my pillars of grounding, a chance to remind myself and readers what we’re there for. I’ll offer a quick example specific to my plot. Like with Harry Potter, my main character is the Chosen One destined to fulfill a prophecy. They are right now camping near the dark city assembling siege weapons preparing for the fight. The Bad Guy, so to speak, gets this bright idea that if he is able to kill the Chosen One this battle won’t happen and the lands will remain shadowed so he sends an ambush, waits for the main character to be seperate from the main army gathering wood for instance and then attacks. (High action scene) though the catch is that the ambush is made up of undead to increase the chances of the ambush being successful (it was only called off because the leader of the ambush was human and died properly telling his men to retreat). So now, in a lull the main character realises that there are undead he must face in the battle and is talking with any one he can trying to find a way to defeat them else every good folk will be killed by them. I am sorry it’s a bit long but again the ambush had purpose, it created further conflict forcing the Chosen One to adapt. I see no reason to add action with no purpose. One of my first writing lessons was that character and plot are so intertwined remove one and the other falls apart. For a good story they must alter each other in some way. On the flip side I remember reading this novel (which wasn’t very memorable) and in it there was one quote I recal rather vividly as it offers a perfect example of what not to do;
Character One: “…we are battling, do you love battles?”
Main Character: “Sure I love battles, who are we battling exactly?”
Hope I helped.
Thanks for the great examples. I promise not to reply to everything you post with another article, but you reminded me of something we posted on ‘eulogizing’ characters prior to their deaths (though it works just as well for places or even states of being, like innocence or love). It works exactly as you say – in the lull – and lends the forthcoming battle meaning and poignancy.
Heres one im proud of about a barbarian sort of character winning a duel
The axe came downward and cut through the man’s right shoulder stopping at the first , second , third rib. The man inhales , no air comes back out. The bull puts his foot under the blade and with a single motions pulls it out , dragging a gore of dark flesh and pale organs out with it
Thanks for sharing! There’s definitely some excellent stuff in there – ‘first, second, third rib’ is compelling writing. One thing I would suggest is that ‘came’ isn’t doing enough work for you, at the moment. A more descriptive verb such as ‘sliced’ or even ‘swept’ would tighten this up, and maybe even do enough work to take the place of the whole ‘came downward and cut’.
I’m working on writing with elements that I haven’t read about in a book before, attacks that haven’t existed before (at least in what I’ve been exposed to). Is it harmful to provide a lot of information about the way a person attacks if it is cerebral or indirect. I don’t want my audience to see the play by play, but I want to give them the resources, so when they inhabit the flesh-suit of my characters, they experience combat the way my characters are designed to.
The rule of thumb is that the form of action writing should match its content – if the fighting is meant to be fast-paced and violent, the writing should be staccato. It’s therefore fine to write detailed, cerebral action, but that’s likely to then be the way the reader experiences it. This can work for balletic, graceful action, but it means the reader is unlikely to worry about the character in the same way that brisk writing encourages.
One technique that might work is to write some early, cerebral stuff, to cover the key ideas for the reader, and then move towards more intense fight scenes later.
I’m revising my chapters, I write in deep pov, (or at least I try hard too,!) so yes “the man” is actually needed as she doesn’t know who he is. xD anyway, this has some action to it.
How is this?
The man walked down the darkened hallway, the candles on the wall reflected off of the blade of a thin long handled battle axe that he welded in hand like one would a wand. Maybe Olnenus would grant some luck for a change and he’d miss… that thing surely was flimsy. His features were hidden in the deep hood as he came up to the cell door. She quivered with the pressure struggling to keep from lunging, sweat wet her palms. This had to be a joke right? He’s so tall and skinny, honestly, Kar should’ve sent down someone with more oomph! Still all the better to get out fast. Thank you, Olnenus!
He unlocked the cell door it creaked as he pushed it open, a shining stand of curly red hair fell out from the hood, a hawk like nose jutted out before those hateful green eyes.
The pot clattered as it dropped, she backed away everything was sour again, must have displeased Olenus again. “Damn you Kar.”
He grinned, rolling the axe in his hand, it shrunk and thinned back into a wand. “Good morning pet, not amused hum?” He giggled that freaky giggle again.
A cold streak ran up her neck, she suppressed a shiver. “I won’t be mocked!” She lunged at him, her arm pulled back into a sweaty fist, aiming for his adam’s apple. That’ll shut him up.
Hum.. dialogue still needs work, well, never mind I think the action stuff is better so thanks. ^-^
One more time..
He grinned, rolling the axe in his hand, it shrunk and thinned back into a wand. “Good morning pet, want some kibble?” He giggled that freaky giggle again.
(To lame? or funny? I think it’s hella funny, though my humor is a little odd and might not work for others. Sigh.)
Thanks for sharing – there’s some great, engaging narration in there. If you’d like detailed feedback on a project, you can click the blue button in the top right of the page to contact us directly.
Thank you, you’re kind to say that! I’ll check it out. 🙂 Though, it’s probably too early to have it evaluated yet.
Hello, Mr. Wood?
I am a 14 year old aspiring author. So far, my only means of writing my stories is by school-provided computers and/or smart device.
Anyways, I am currently writing a story about a group of aliens that crash-land on Earth. These aliens have supernatural abilities, such as cryomamcy and reality warping.
There is about to be a fight scene between two aliens. (It should be noted that these aliens have horns that are extremely sensitive to any contact.) One of these aliens has the ability of electrokinesis, while the other has the ability to possess others. Also, their height is very uneven, one being 5’10, the other being 5’2.
What do you suggest for this type of scene? I apologize if there was too much to read! I can get a bit wordy at times.
Thanks for commenting. It really depends how you want the scene to play out – for example, is either of these characters the protagonist, or are nearby civilians how the reader sees things unfold?
The articles below should be useful; the first is about writing battles, which might be useful when one character can be multiple people, and the second is about the characteristics that readers expect from certain fictional weapons, including types of magic and supernatural powers.
Sir, I want a little bit help in writing a fight scene between my characters who have powers in fire and water.
I think the article below should be useful in thinking of ways to characterize and write supernatural powers:
I’ve looked everywhere for an example of a good old fashioned bar/pub shootout. I’m writing a screenplay and originally I planned on just showing the aftermath of said shootout, but I thought why not show it? However, I’ve never written one. You wouldn’t write it like a fist fight or a cage match… so, what’s out there that would be a good model? My mind is blank!
Great question – thanks for commenting. I think a lot of the bare bones logic of a fight scene remains – there are still ‘moves’, ‘reactions’, and a need to contextualize consequence – but shootouts are often more about tension than one constant ‘fight’. The articles below should help with that, and for inspiration, I’d suggest most anything Tarantino.
I do not completely agree. Sometimes the use of detail is helpful because you want to lengthen a particular part of a scene rather than shorten it. You want your readers to get stuck on a certain, and realize how important it is. Rather than have it pass quickly with not as much thought. Right?
Obviously, with art, there are barely any absolute rules. Most advice is more along the lines of what is likely to create a certain effect than what absolutely has to/can’t be in a certain scene. So, yes, there are lots of occasions where you’d want to use detail to lengthen a moment, but that technique is still likely to sap momentum, and therefore to make the fight less visceral and compelling.
It’s like saying ‘don’t stick your hand in a lion’s mouth’ – it’s USUALLY true, but if you WANTED to get your hand bitten off for some reason, it would no longer apply, even though the actual logic (that it’s an action that will get your hand bitten off) doesn’t change in itself. A more applicable version might be ‘try to use speech identifiers or it will be unclear who is saying what’. Good advice usually, but applied differently if you’re in the rare situation of actually wanting the reader to be confused about who is speaking.
Of course, creating art creates such ‘rare’ situations with surprising frequency. The shorter version: absolutely, there can be a benefit to deliberate use of detail, but that benefit should still be weighed against the drag it imposes on the surrounding action.
I am not very good at writing the actual fight part of it, I use a lot of detail and I have been told I am good at arguments. I am not sure where to go with my battle though. I am at the climax of my story and the antagonist is supposed to die. Both of my characters in the fight have magical powers. The Protagonist can use shadows to give her energy to fight things and can shape the shadows to do certain tasks like lift her up into the air or burn out torches. My antagonist uses light for energy and counters the shadows but I am not sure how to write it.
This is what I have so far:
[Comment shortened by moderator]
From there I am not sure where to go. The father is supposed to die, I am thinking that somehow he needs to be absorbed by the orb of light so that the protagonist’s town doesn’t crumble, but I do not know how to get there does anybody have any suggestions?
I apologize; I’ve had to cut down your comment to keep our comments section manageable. If you’d like detailed feedback from an editor, I recommend our manuscript critique or editorial consultation services.
As for general advice, I’d suggest the article below, which discusses using the assumed ‘character’ of weapons to write them consistently. It’s something easily applied to types of magic.
Hello! This article really helped me with a part of the book I am writing, and just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it! If I could add one thing, it would be (if the fight is written through first person, or an omniscient) Is the characters thoughts, what has helped me a lot is to not just making it a physical battle, but emotional as well, ie, “He is saying something to me, but I cannot hear it over all the angry voices in my own head. Suddenly, I forgot my own pain, and lunged forward. I slammed into him vehemently, he tumbles back and crashes into the wall. I begin pummeling his chest and neck with my fists, screaming and ranting. My hatred for him, and what he did, is powering each blow…” (A recent segment from what I’m writing) I guess this really wouldn’t apply to everyone though, and would really depend on what your writing. Again I really enjoyed reading this, and your article has helped my writing improve so much! Thank you!
Great point – a character’s mental state should definitely be part of a great fight scene. A lot of authors leave emotion at the door when the action starts, but it can prompt a lot of decisions that are otherwise hard to justify (plus, it’s interesting in its own right.)
What a useful resource! I’ll be checking out more articles. 🙂
I was wondering if you have any advice on scene cuts or changes mid fight. I could see how breaking away could add tension, lose it, or just be annoying.
I’m towards the end of a long, involved fight scene in my sci-fi/fantasy novel. Currently, my main character is being hunted by a 60ft long, alien snake, and I kinda love the idea of punctuating the last line by ending the chapter on it. But would that be superfluous if the next chapter dives right back into the action? Any suggestions would be appreciated.
“Wren didn’t see it. He was distracted by the four golden eyes now focused on him. Drawn by his noise and movement, the snake rose like a pillar of shadow and let forth a bassy growl that thrummed through Wren’s bones.
Wren didn’t wait for further commentary. His hand whipped forward. His knife flew like an angry wasp into the face of the lunging snake as he rolled to the side and dashed along the beam. He leapt for a low hanging limb, swinging up into a tree just as the beam behind him was encased in tentacles. He scampered along branches and ducked into cover, chancing a glance downward at Rory and Whispering Cloud as the beast disentangled itself to strike again.
He needed Cloud to get the cable back up to him. Once he had it, Wren could free Rory, trap the snake, and get them all to safety – but he was out of tricks, and he could hear the purr of the snake’s breathing as it searched for him, smell its musk as surely as he knew it could smell the blood soaking the bandage on his hand and dripping down the cuts of his arms.
He hoped Cloud had used his distraction to get the cable into position, but all he’d seen was the monk rifling through his backpack. He hoped Rory was still alive. He hoped Cantis was still waiting for them, even though he doubted they’d make it back. It occurred to him that the tree he was pressed against was immense and was something he had never, and would never see again on White Cloud. All these things played through his mind as he waited, silent and breathless for the “collection of problems” that would be his death.
The snake’s golden eyes came into view, and its face unfurled like a velvet flower. Wren had enough dignity not to scream. “
Sorry. Also wanted to mention, as a side note, that setting always makes a huge impression on me. Not stuffing the scene with details, but making sure your characters aren’t just fighting in a vacuum.
A fight being on top of a train, or the deck of a storm tossed pirate ship, or next to the Cliffs of Insanity sure does ratchet up the tension. Even something common place, like a fight next to a swimming pool or in a muddy parking lot can be full of sensory information that add extra grit to the scene.
Thanks for commenting. Your point about setting is a great one – such an easy way to provide oneself with a host of options.
As for ending a chapter mid-action, pretty much anything can be forgiven if it works for the reader. So long as you don’t end up with two noticeably shorter chapters, this is likely to add enough tension to justify any sense that a technical rule has been broken.
Thank you! 🙂
Thank you! 🙂
I found this article so helpful, considering I’m bad at fight scenes. Though, I do ask for more advice. How would you write a scene where one character is far more crazy than the other? The stereotypical insane character infatuated with the other losing, a sadistic villain hellbent on destroying the stubborn hero who won’t give up. Yes, the advice above helps, but do you have any examples of these types of fights? How do you write a fight between characters that are on different sides of the mental stability chain?
Thanks very much for the kind words. There are a lot of ways to approach what you describe, but the one I’d suggest playing with first is contrasting experiences. For instance, if the more stable character is hurt and recoils but the less stable character is injured later in a similar way and it doesn’t even slow them down, the reader can see (even without being told) how differently these two people experience the world. It’s the gulf between their experiences that does the work, here, so you can use one character to make the other look unusual just by comparison, and this can work with pain, fear, reluctance to hurt someone else, etc.
There are more straightforward examples you could check out, but I’d actually suggest trying ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to really dig into this idea. The book is full of people with very different approaches to different types of violence, and those people grow and change (or don’t) as the book progresses. In terms of density, you’ll get to witness a lot of interactions predicated on drastically different attitudes to a bit of the old ultraviolence.
This article was honestly one of the most helpful I’ve come across. I’m writing a novel based around pirates and some supernatural elements, and I’d written so much until it led to a fight scene. Action is a giant obstacle for me because I’m terrible at writing it without feeling like it’s choppy and repetitive. Especially since, when it comes to pirates, it’s a lot at once. You have the ships firing their cannons and causing damage while the actual pirates have guns, swords, and fists. I find it very difficult to start writing a fight, let alone finish one successfully.
My sympathies – big battles can be incredibly hard to write well. I’m glad this article helped, and I’ve suggested a couple below that should also be useful.
What Authors Need To Know About Ships And Spaceships
How To Write An Epic Battle Scene
How about writing space battles that take place around planets? I feel stuck trying to narrate in third-person limited.
I wanted to zoom in and out of the battle to show what the weapons do, but my editor said my story isn’t working in third-person omniscient.
There are a few ways to do this. The easiest is to add some way for the characters to see more of the battle – a camera drone, some kind of remote-viewing power, or just a weapons/tactics expert telling them what’s happening. This way, the reader is still just seeing what your characters are seeing.
That said, the deeper issue is that leaving the characters behind to go exposit on weaponry is unlikely to be compelling. The characters are what the reader cares about, so this type of exploration is best done through their experiences. I’d therefore suggest writing the scene such that we see the weaponry as it affects the characters. A certain weapon is locked onto them, but they’re buffeted to safety as a nearby ship is blown up by another weapon. Dazed, they’re contacted by another ship with an enemy on its tail, but before they can take action, it’s downed by something else, etc. Not only does this let you explore everything going on, but it makes everything relevant, and the weapons are more interesting because the reader encounters them as threats to the thing they care about. Obviously, you can blur the lines a little, and throw in things they see in the distance or are contacted about so it doesn’t feel like they’ve been personally attacked in every possible way. Finally, be sure to remember that books aren’t movies – spectacle isn’t as inherently impressive in this medium.
I hope that’s useful, and I’d also suggest the articles below for more insight:
How To Write An Epic Battle Scene
What Authors Need To Know About Ships And Spaceships
Of all the articles I’ve read about the topic, this is the one that I’ve found the most useful, with very good examples to illustrate very clear and sensible advice. I just wanted to thank you for it.
hello. I am writing a training scene. My protagonist learns how to fight. The problem is that I don’t know how to bite that… help!
Robert can you give me tips on how to write a fight against monsters that can’t talk back.
Do I just do the perspective of the character during the fight scene or should it change to a 3rd point of view in between the fight.
This article has also been very helpful
I find it hard in constructing fight scenes some times. its easy to think about a scenario but to describe it to the readers, I always end up stuck and my last resort is to sleep.
This article has been really helpful ! . Thanks to it, I know I’d improve.