It’s Wednesday evening, the 9th day of Blogtober, and we’re going to talk about how to write a fight scene.
I’m going to keep this post short and to the point. I have opinions and a little bit of experience writing fight scenes, but as with all of the other posts this month, I’m not an authority or an expert. These are just the tips and ideas that guide me.
The most important quality you can give your fight scene is clarity. If the reader struggles to imagine what’s going on in the scene, they will be pulled out of the story and a potentially powerful moment is lost.
Some readers skip fight scenes. They are used to being bored by them. Whenever your reader starts to skim, you’ve lost the game. The communication channel is broken. They will not pick up what you’re receiving.
The key to clarity is specificity. Be precise with your language. Include interesting details that help ground the reader in the moment and paint the best picture of what is going on. Sweat dripping into the eyes of the hero, the roughness of the leather hilt against the farmer’s calloused hands… include experiential, specific details that are important to the moment. If you keep it clear, the reader will stick around and see it through.
This goes hand in hand with clarity. If the heroine is left handed, keep the weapon in their left hand unless there is a compelling reason for her to switch. Keep in mind that it puts their shield on the other side, and changes the dynamic of the fight if they’re up against someone that’s right handed.
If someone gets shot in the leg, remember the wound when they turn to flee, or when they try to scale the wall, or when they go to lift their best friend and carry them off the battlefield.
What I’m trying to say is that the details are important. As the fight scene goes on, you will have more and more to keep track of. When you drop a detail or get it wrong, your readers will notice and it will pull them out of the story. Again, the communication channel is broken and you lose the game. They might skim, or they might put the book down. Stay clear and consistent, and your readers will have less reason to give up on your story.
This is related to consistency, but it goes further than that. If you’re writing a story about someone using a gun, do the research to make sure you get the caliber right. If you’re writing about a knight tilting in a joust, do the research to get the details correct.
The accuracy of a fight scene depends on the world building and the research of the writer. If the world draws from our world, more research is required. Even when working on secondary world fantasy, the writer needs to know the rules of the world.
This is not to say that all details going into a fight scene have to be real-world accurate. There is nothing accurate about a lightsaber. A plasma weapon like that would generate so much heat that it would set everyone in the same room on fire as soon as the Jedi flipped it on. We forgive these inaccuracies in the physics, however, because it’s so much cooler and more fun to be able to have a lightsaber in the story than it is to be completely true to real-world physics.
The portrayal of the lightsaber adheres to the accuracy of the world building, which helps us get into it. If a character ever picked up a lightsaber and started shooting it a blaster, we would not find it as cool because it would no longer be an “accurate” portrayal of how that weapon works.
Fight scenes — action scenes in general — are the places in your story where the characters are in danger. These are the scenes where hearts are racing, adrenaline is pumping through people’s veins, and things are moving. Ideally, the reader’s heart should race and their breathing should be impacted when they’re reading these kinds of scenes.
How do you get that kind of reaction out of a reader?
If they’re skimming, they’re bored and not invested. This is the opposite reaction that you want, so start with making sure your language is clear, and the details are consistent and accurate.
After that, consider the structure of your sentences. I am now writing a long, detailed, informational sentence that has a lot of commas and a lot of parts, that’s pulling you across the page in a ponderous way and stressing you out because I’m not giving you much of a chance to breathe and also, you’re having to try and remember SO MUCH since I started the sentence, that you might just give up and start skimming.
Don’t do that.
Include the necessary details and keep your descriptions brief. Consider making your sentences shorter. Frags are okay. People glide through short sentences. Do more with less. Simplify.
Your fight scenes need the visceral details for clarity, but not so many details as to bog down the pacing.
Common writing advice is to avoid adverbs. When you’re writing action scenes, adjectives are not your friend. Adjectives have a tendency to slow the pace of your story. Adjectives are wonderful, and make the details in your prose pop and leap off the page. In a fight scene, adjectives become the course, sticky mud clinging to your hero’s black leather combat boots, sucking them down when they’re trying to trudge to the other side of the battlefield.
Use adjectives. Just make sure to read over your sentences to see how easy they are to read.
It is exceedingly important that your readers are emotionally invested in at least one participant involved in your fight scene. If the reader doesn’t care about the characters, they’re not going to care about the scene, and they will skim or put down the book.
The purpose of a fight scene is to alter the emotional state of your characters. Your hero should be in a different emotional state at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning. Perhaps they see themselves as over-matched at the beginning, scared of their opponent that looks so much bigger and more prepared than they are. On the other side of the fight, they should feel euphoric for vanquishing their foe. Or they should feel sad about the friends they lost along the way. Or they should feel grateful, or shocked, or… they should feel something.
The character needs to feel something so the reader will feel something.
If the fight is trivial to the character, and plays out as trivial, it doesn’t need to be treated like a fight scene. Unless it’s extremely cool, it probably shouldn’t be in the story.
Just remember that “cool” is subjective, and what is cool to the writer may not be that cool to the reader. If you want to improve your chances of keeping the reader engaged, reach them on an emotional level through the emotions of the characters.
Much of what I’ve written about fight scenes apply to the rest of the story, too. Clarity, accuracy, emotion, and consistency will serve your story in nearly every situation.
My stories don’t usually have a lot of fight scenes. There is action, but it’s spread throughout the story, with lots of chapters in the middle to allow the reader (and the characters) chance to breathe. Overusing the fight scene will reduce its efficacy, and runs the danger of making the reader bored.
Remember that if you do it right, you will produce a physical reaction in the reader. You will alter the rate at which their heart is beating, and you will impact their breathing. This can be tiring, and is one of the reasons some readers start skimming when they get to a fight scene.
If you have not written a fight scene before, give it a try. Your prompt tonight is: your hero is trying to get across a bridge, and their adversary doesn’t want to let them across unless they pay a “tax.” The adversary could be a troll, a bandit, or a dirty cop. If your hero doesn’t get across the bridge, someone they love will die. And your hero doesn’t have the means to pay the tax, even if they wanted to.