Hey, you. Yes, you!
Do you have doubts as to whether or not your puny fingers can punch out what happens during a fight?
Most writer-types aren’t the kind who frequent underground fighting rings, so conveying what a fight is like through writing isn’t the easiest thing to do. And I’m not going to recommend that you go out and assault someone to gain experience, because, you know, jail and stuff.
Have no fear, comrade! By the end of this article you’ll have grown a beard worthy of Valhalla, and you’ll be able to write with such brutality and carnage that you’ll make Sylvester Stallone shed a tear. I’ll turn you into a keyboard crusader, yet!
1. Define the Scene’s Purpose
A fight scene needs to serve a purpose in the storyline. Violence just for the sake of violence is the stuff of bad Hollywood movies. Sure, it can be entertaining, but if it doesn’t advance your story, then why take up space with it?
Always keep in mind what the purpose of the scene is in the greater story. Understand what needs to happen, and work towards that. Fight scenes can get out of control, especially with the endless possibilities in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Keep your goals for the scene in the forefront of your mind, and then you won’t end up backspacing an hour’s worth of writing.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
Watch every Jason Statham movie ever made. Study the Jason Statham. Marvel at the Jason Statham. Become the Jason Statham.
No doubt you will want to include some variation of his greatness in your writing, such as the famous Jason Statham throat-punch, or the Jason Statham groin-breaker. However, there are some people who don’t know who he is. They’re usually the ones that try to mess with his family. The poor bastards…
There are many writers that have great interest, knowledge, and skill in various fighting forms such as Taekwondo, Jiu-Jitsu, or Krav Maga. And if you share that interest, you may want to incorporate techniques and moves from a fighting style into your writing, and make your main character the second coming of Bruce Lee.
However, keep in mind that fighters practice and study their art for much of their lives. The average reader isn’t going to know what an anaconda choke, Japanese backpack, or an inner-sweeping hip throw is. So the best policy here is to show, don’t tell. Do your best to describe the move as you would to someone who has no knowledge of advanced fighting techniques.
3. Use Sensory Candy
Fight scenes are the bread and butter of sensory imaging. This is the perfect opportunity to engage each of the reader’s senses, putting the reader smack-dab in the middle of the scene. Depicting the sounds of snapping bone and tearing sinew not only adds a level of sensory imaging, but gives your writing shock-value… or what I like to call “flavor.”
Do you note the taste of blood in your hero’s mouth after a well-placed punch from his foe? Or does your character breathe flame? Perhaps you should note the smell of noxious fumes in his mouth before he bathes some poor man in phoenix-vomit. Mentioning the reeking musk of gunpowder on your battlefield adds a dimension of realism and grit that pulls the reader deeper into the setting.
Mastering the use of vivid descriptors will take your fight scenes to a new level.
4. Focus on Pacing
Fight scenes, however brutal and enthralling, are delicate things. To write them successfully, you must understand the importance of timing and pacing in your writing.
Short sentences, and yes, fragments, are your friends. Fights are fast-paced and flowing. There isn’t much time to throw in details because everything happens so quickly.
Your writing should match the tempo of the fight. Swing for swing. Kick for kick. Longer, more compound sentences slow the rhythm of the scene, and should be saved for lulls in action. During these lulls, you are at liberty to paint the scene, but if there is more fight to be fought, then emphasize the urgency of the situation.
The screams grew closer as Aldross dashed through the street and alley. Ahead of him was a great archway. He was nearing the temple. The echoes of the citizens grew louder and more desperate with each footstep. He reached the entrance, and before he took his first step beyond – Woosh! – he ducked under a blur of iron and rolled.
“Raaaghh!” screamed the fat-bellied barbarian.
Aldross recovered to a kneeling position. He barely had time to size up his foe, who was coming in for another swing of his hefty axe. Aldross raised his shield, and the axe met it with a loud crack. Aldross held firm. The barbarian swung with a vicious roar. The axe plunged into the shield, the blow rocking his entire body. The edge penetrated through, missing his face by mere inches, but was lodged.
Seeing the opportunity, Aldross pushed forward with his full body behind the shield. The barbarian tried to hold his ground, but he struggled to free his axe. Aldross kept pumping his feet. His foe began to lose ground.
Leaning with shield and pauldron, Aldross slammed his foe against the archway. He pressed again, pinning him. Aldross roared and drove his gladius into the barbarian’s diaphragm. His scream was lost in the gargling of his own blood. Aldross forced it deeper. The man’s eyes rolled back. His axe clanged off the ground.
Aldross removed his gladius, releasing a spurt of blood that splashed upon his sabatons. He stepped away as the barbarian’s body slid down to its final resting place. Corpses littered the courtyard, and the blood of friends mixed with that of foes. Aldross tried to recover his breath, but as another scream rang out nearby, it jarred him into motion, and the warrior continued onward into the temple.
Note how the action flows. The shorter sentences build a faster paced, more action packed scene. I used longer, compound sentences to show more than one thing happening at the same time.
5. Keep Dialogue to a Minimum
Fights aren’t the place for monologues or lengthy dialogue. Shouts of intimidation, trash talk, excessive cursing, and brief exchanges between characters are fine. Limit the use of speech tags whenever possible, because they take up space and slow down the pace of the reader.
This is especially true when the speakers aren’t numerous and clearly defined. Reading “he said/blurted/grunted/yelled/growled/mocked” after every little sentence of dialogue is bad enough, let alone in the middle of the fray, where your characters’ lives are on the line. So, shut up and get to the action.
6. Act It Out
Fight scenes have the potential to be defining moments in a story, and this can be overwhelming. One of the best pieces of advice is to physically act out the scene. You might want to refrain from doing this in public.
Put yourself in your character’s shoes. Now imagine yourself in the scene. Immerse yourself in it.
A voice in your head whispers: “Become the Jason Statham.”
Not only does this help you to understand the options that your character is presented with, but it also lets your creativity flow. You may never know where you’ll take the scene until you act it out yourself. This is an extremely effective tool for defeating writer’s block when writing a physical confrontation.
See, that wasn’t too bad, now was it?
Fight scenes can be a little intimidating, but arming yourself with these tips will ensure that your manuscript emerges triumphant. And remember: knowing is half the battle. Thanks Mythic Scribes!
What is your favorite fight scene in film or literature?