I can’t say I have ever written a fight scene before and most of the books I read these days don’t have fight scenes in them either. However, I have an idea for a fight scene between my main character and his sidekick for my next novel. All be it a small fight, but you know the old saying, ‘Go big or go home.’ What I know about fight scenes comes from modern superhero and action movies and maybe those from the ’80s and ’90s that featured the likes of people such as Chuck Norris, Steven Segal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Given this, I began to wonder how one goes about writing such scenes. I don’t know how you translate those big scenes into the written word, but I decided to set out and learn how the experts do it.
Below are some articles I found on writing fight scenes and how to set them up, pace them, and finish them off. They lay out some helpful ideas and tips on writing a fight; there is also a short video on fight scenes that helped me understand the process a little better. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
A Fight Scene in 11 steps
One thing is clear– the fight scene is short! That means every sentence must count. Now let’s examine the content of those sentences.
Deconstructing the Action in a Fight Scene
- The villain escalates a tense scene into a physical one.
Often, the villain spends time explaining himself before the fight begins. The hero’s primary goal is not to kill the villain, so he isn’t the one who starts the violence. The villain might also take this opportunity to threaten or taunt the hero’s loved ones.
- After Quirrell explains himself, Harry Potter’s fight begins when Quirrell/Voldemort makes a threat: “Now give me the Stone, unless you want [your mother] to have died in vain.”
- After James explains his intent to film Bella’s death and send it as a message to Edward, he changes from conversational to animal-like. “Then he slumped forward, into a crouch I recognized, and his pleasant smile slowly widened, grew, till it wasn’t a smile at all but a contortion of teeth, exposed and glistening.”
- As Katniss runs to the feast table to get a backpack of medicine for Peeta, Clove goes after her. “I sprint for the table. I can sense the emergence of danger before I see it.”
- The hero runs from the fight.
The villain is trying to stop the hero, but hero is not neccessarily trying to stop the villain. The hero’s goal is to get what he needs and get out of there.
- Harry attempts to run away with the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Harry sprang toward the flame door, but Voldemort screamed ‘SEIZE HIM!’ . . .”
- Despite showing up to the fight on her own accord, Bella attempts to run away from James. “As useless as I knew it would be, as weak as my knees already were, panic took over and I bolted for the emergency door.”
- Katniss does not stop running even though Clove is attacking her. It is more important that she gets Peeta’s medicine than it is for her to kill Clove. “I keep moving, positioning the next arrow automatically, as only someone who has hunted for years can do.”
- The villain attempts to block the hero (with varying success).
Harry Potter and Katniss are able to put up a fight against their villains. Bella just gets beaten up.
- When Quirrell grabs Harry’s wrist to stop him, both Harry and Quirrell feel the pain from contact. “At once, a needle-sharp pain seared across Harry’s scar; . . . he yelled, struggling with all his might, and to his surprise, Quirrell let go of him.”
- James blocks Bella from leaving and hits her hard in the chest. “He was in front of me in a flash. . . . A crushing blow struck my chest . . .”
- Clove throws a knife at Katniss, but Katniss uses her bow to deflect it. “Fortunately, the first knife comes whizzing in on my right side so I can hear it . . .”
- The hero loses track of the villain’s location.
With everything happening so quickly, the hero doesn’t always know exactly where the villain stands.
- Harry doesn’t know where Quirrell is after Harry breaks free from his grasp. “— he looked around wildly to see where Quirrell had gone, and saw him hunched in pain, looking at his fingers . . .”
- James moves so quickly that Bella literally does not know what is hitting her. “I didn’t see if he used his hand or his foot, it was too fast.”
- After Clove hits Katniss in the forehead with a knife, Katniss does not know exactly where Clove is. “I stagger backward but still manage to send my readied arrow in the general direction of my assailant.”
- The villain knocks the hero off his feet.
The villain has the advantage once he gets the hero to the ground. Note that Quirrell and Clove keep their hands free by using their knees to pin the hero to the ground.
- Quirrell tackles Harry to the ground and attempts to choke him. “Quirrell lunged, knocking Harry clean off his feet, landing on top of him, both hands around Harry’s neck . . . . pinning Harry to the ground with his knees.“
- James knocks Bella into the mirrored wall. “A crushing blow struck my chest — I felt myself flying backward, and then heard the crunch as my head bashed into the mirrors.”
- When Katniss is staggering after getting hit with the knife, Clove takes the opportunity to tackle her. “And then Clove slams into me, knocking me flat on my back, pinning my shoulders to the ground with her knees.”
- The hero experiences intense pain.
The villain is inflicting real damage on the hero. Note that Katniss only describes what happens to her, not her actual pain.
- Harry’s pain is described with intense language: “At once, a needle-sharp pain seared across Harry’s scar; his head felt as though it was about to split in two.”
- Bella screams from her pain: “I heard the sickening snap before I felt it. But then I did feel it, and I couldn’t hold back my scream of agony.”
- Katniss’s injuries are described, and it is up to the reader to imagine the pain. Katniss is too tough to describe it. “It slices above my right eyebrow, opening a gash that sends a gush running down my face, blinding my eye, filling my mouth with the sharp, metallic taste of my own blood.”
- The hero responds to the villain’s trash talk while on the ground.
The villain enrages the hero — so much so that the hero takes some swings at the villain, even if the hero knows it is pointless.
- Voldemort yells for Quirrell to finish Harry off, but Harry keeps his hands on Quirrell. “. . . . Harry, by instinct, reached up and grabbed Quirrell’s face — “AAAARGH!”
- James comments about the dramatic effect of the mirrors breaking while Bella makes another attempt to run away. “I ignored him, scrambling on my hands and knees, crawling toward the other door.”
- Katniss spits in Clove’s face when Clove asks if she wants to blow Peeta a kiss. “I work up a mouthful of blood and saliva and spit it in her face.”
- The villain attempts to hit the hero again.
The villain appears to have the upper hand during the fight.
- After Quirrell tackles Harry and attempts to choke him, Quirrell tries to curse Harry. “Quirrell raised his hand to perform a deadly curse . . . .”
- James breaks Bella’s leg in a second spot and then throws her against the mirrors again. “Over the pain of my leg, I felt the sharp rip across my scalp where the glass cut into it.”
- Clove begins to use her knife to cut Katniss’s mouth. “I brace myself for the agony that’s sure to follow. But as I feel the tip open the first cut at my lip . . .”
- The hero loses all hope.
The hero is in such a bad place that she just hopes her death will be over soon.
- Harry tries to hold on to Quirrell but cannot. “He felt Quirrell’s arm wrenched from his grasp, knew all was lost . . .”
- Katniss doesn’t want Prim to see her tortured. “This is it, I think, and hope for Prim’s sake it will be fast.”
- Bella hopes her death is not drawn out: “Let it be quick now, was all I could hope as the flow of blood from my head sucked my consciousness away with it.”
- The villain shows a point of weakness.
Just as the hero is about to lose, he notices the villain’s “Achilles’ heel.”
- Harry realizes that Quirrell’s skin is getting burnt when he touches Harry. “Quirrell rolled off him, his face blistering, too, and then Harry knew: Quirrell couldn’t touch his bare skin, not without suffering terrible pain.”
- Bella realizes that James cannot continue to torture her because the smell of blood is making him lose control. “The blood — spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor — was driving him mad with thirst. No matter his original intentions, he couldn’t draw this out much longer.”
- Clove announces that she and her allies killed Rue. This ends up being the reason that Thresh kills her (and rescues Katniss). “We’re going to kill you, Just like we did your pathetic little ally . . . what was her name? The one who hopped around in the trees? Rue?”
- The hero makes a last hurrah.
Before he is rescued, the hero makes one last ditch effort to fight.
- Harry attempts to use Quirrell’s weakness against him. “. . . his only chance was to keep hold of Quirrell, keep him in enough pain to stop him from doing a curse.”
- Bella just covers her face with her hand when she sees James coming toward her. “With my last effort, my hand instinctively raised to protect my face.
- Katniss wants to look strong on camera. “As my last act of defiance, I will stare her down as long as I can see, which will probably not be an extended period of time, but I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated.”
Why it Works
Wait, how does the fight end? In Harry Potter and Twilight, it’s a mini cliffhanger and the hero is rescued “off-screen,” after the hero passes out. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is awake for her rescue by Thresh.
This fight scene works for two big reasons: First, the hero remains on moral high ground. Not only did he not instigate the violence in the beginning, he also is not the one to kill the villain in the end.
How to Write a Fight Scene Readers Will Love
by Stephanie O’Brien.
If your story involves one or more fight scenes, you have a great opportunity.
You can thrill your audience, change the course of the plot, and reveal new depths to your characters . . . or you can bore your viewers to tears, and make them wish that the battle would please just end already.
Writing a great fight scene can be a challenge, because you can’t rely on music, visuals and spectacular explosions the way some movies do. But you can create a battle that not only makes your readers hold their breath, but also impacts their emotions in a way that lingers long after they finish the book.
6 Tips for Writing Better Fight Scenes
I’m going to give you six tips for how to write a fight scene well, so you can keep your audience on the edge of their seats while giving a whole new level of depth to your story and cast.
Tip #1: Use creativity, not just mindless fisticuffs.
Two characters punching each other can be somewhat entertaining, for a few brief moments.
Two characters weaponizing their environment, using their superpowers in unique and clever ways, and coming up with plans to turn their opponent’s power against them can be absolutely fascinating, for far longer than that.
When you’re writing a fight scene, I encourage you to put some thought into the attacks, and—if it fits the characters’ personalities—to have the fighters use the powers and weapons at their disposal in unusual, smart and creative ways, rather than simply hitting or shooting at each other.
And speaking of fitting the characters’ personalities . . .
Tip #2: Show off the combatants’ personalities.
If a character is stern, practical and disciplined, have that show in their fighting style with efficient movements, precise attacks, and “dirty” but pragmatic tricks.
If they’re passionate and fierce, you could have them rush wildly at their opponent, make big and aggressive movements, and try to overwhelm their foe with a frenzied barrage.
Or you could flip that script to show hidden depths in your characters. Maybe Ms. Calm and Practical brings out her wild maniac side in combat, or Mr. Passionate and Fierce suddenly becomes very cold and focused when he gets into a fight.
Using the fight to give your viewers insight into your characters adds an extra layer of detail and interest to the conflict, and it’s a great opportunity to show who your character really is in a high-pressure situation.
It also adds an extra level of realism, and show that you’ve put some thought into how their personality shapes their fighting style.
Tip #3: Use the fight to create character development.
A cocky, competent warrior could discover for the first time that she isn’t the top of the food chain; there’s something more powerful than her out there, and she has to improve herself, ask for help, or accept defeat.
An uncertain wuss could find that he’s stronger than he thought he was, or that his cunning makes up for his lack of courage or brute force.
A person who prides herself on her kindness and gentleness could find a level of darkness and violence in herself that she didn’t know existed, or a person who thought he could kill an opponent easily could realize that it isn’t so simple when he’s required to take a life for the first time.
A fight scene is a high-stakes, high-pressure situation in which delusions and pretenses can be stripped away, and characters can be forced to confront things about themselves that they hadn’t known or wanted to acknowledge.
This can be a catalyst for future character development, and provide your audience with a deeper insight into your characters.
Tip #4: Show what they’re fighting for.
A fight scene by itself can provide a brief thrill, but a fight scene with high emotional stakes makes a far more lasting impact.
Either before or during the battle, or while the losing fighter lies defeated, show the audience what they’re fighting for.
Who or what did they want to protect? What fears, hopes or insecurities drove them into this violent situation?
The more the audience relates to their struggles, and the more attached they are to whatever it is that the character is trying to defend or accomplish, the more emotional impact the fight scene will have.
Tip #5: Call their motives and morals into question.
When the idea of acting on their motives or compromising their morals is only theoretical, the characters can dodge certain questions about themselves.
But when it’s time to actually hurt someone or take a life, it becomes much harder to avoid taking a good, hard look at the cause of their violence.
Is what they’re doing really worth killing someone over?
If they kill their opponent, can they still call themselves a “good guy”?
Or on the flipside, if they let a murderous villain live, are they now partly responsible for all the deaths he’ll cause in the future?
Fight scenes can force your characters, your audience, and you as the storyteller to ask and answer questions that most people never have to think about, which can reveal new layers to the personalities of everyone involved.
Tip #6: Don’t pad the battle.
I believe that any story, or element of a story, should last as long as it needs to and no longer.
Write enough to paint a clear picture of the battle, use up your character’s arsenal of cool moves, get to the end of the dialogue you wanted to include, and show the character development you wanted to weave in, then stop.
Don’t pad the battle with a bunch of extra moves, or drag it out until the audience gets bored.
Ask yourself, “Does this section contribute to the quality of the battle? Does it showcase the character’s personality or abilities, add tension, or make the outcome of the fight more believable? Or is it just filler that could be cut?”
By removing the parts of your fight scene that don’t improve it, you make the parts of the battle that deserve to be showcased shine all the more.“
Any story or element of a story should last as long as it needs to—and no longer.
It’s About More Than Just a Fight
When done well, a fight scene is SO much more than just a battle.
The best fight scenes aren’t just about fists, swords, guns and adrenaline. When used to their maximum potential, battles reveal a side of your characters that nothing else will, force them to dig deeper than they ever did before, and raise the stakes in a way that few other scenarios can.“
Great fight scenes raise the stakes and reveal character in a way few other scenes can.
When you use the tips in this article, not only will you improve your fight scenes and keep your readers more interested, but you’ll also flesh out your characters’ personalities, and add a whole new depth to their motivation and development.
If your current work in progress includes one or more fight scenes, I encourage you to revisit those scenes today, and see how you can make them even better than they already are.