Picture it. Your favorite character slowly circles an enemy, sword drawn. The reader is frozen in anticipation. This is it; the beginning of another epic fight scene that will have them sitting on the edge of their seat, chewing their nails, completely oblivious to reality. There is nothing but the world that lies between the inky lines on the page.
This is my goal, to write engaging and exciting fight scenes. But I have to admit, I am struggling. My forte is in building suspense and mystery, emotions and drama between characters. Fight scenes, however, will play an important role in my book. So in order to learn how to write a good fight scene, I’ve been doing some research and some brainstorming. I’ve reviewed both my favorite and least favorite fight scenes in fiction and have made notes on what I believe either makes or breaks them. Below are 5 points that I believe to be key to constructing a great fight scene. Hopefully it will be a good point of reference in the future to help budding authors, including myself, in creating exciting fight scenes.
1. Is the fight actually important?
Does the fight progress the story-line or result in some kind of character development/understanding? If not, then the scene should be really short, or just not there at all. Long, drawn out fight scenes that have no true purpose can be really tedious and boring to the reader. The best fights are those that progress the story and/or result in character growth, even if the protagonist/antagonist is not directly involved. Does the protagonist witness a fight and do nothing to stop it, only for the guilt to come back and haunt them later? Maybe they learned a valuable lesson or technique after watching a pair of duelists. Is the fight used as an example to show the reader the ferocity behind a certain character? A fight for the sake of a fight is boring and feels like a filler. There needs to be a reason behind it.
2. Short sentences create more drama
This may be more of a personal preference, but I find that fight scenes with short sentences are more engaging and suspenseful. They create a quick pace to match what is happening. Long, drawn out sentences slow down the pace drastically and must be balanced correctly with short sentences. The readers do not need to know about the exact angle of each character’s arm, or every single little movement of every muscle. Save the longer sentences for when something truly dramatic is happening. The sudden change in pace will grip the reader and make it irresistible to look away. I have to admit that this is probably the thing that I have struggled with the most with my writing. As I visualise the scene, I over-think my descriptions. I have the desire for the readers to see exactly what I am seeing. I focus on all of the little insignificant movements that, really, do not add anything to the fight. Instead, I need to focus on the sensory information and leave the nitty-gritty mechanics (except for the main blows causing injury or death) to the reader’s own imagination.
3. Character Thought Processes
I’ve learned that I really hate it when authors do not include what the character is thinking or feeling during a fight. I want to know how they’re feeling mentally, not just physically. Are they afraid or do they feel confident? Maybe this changes as the fight progresses and they begin to understand their opponent. Are they cocky or insecure? Are they enjoying themselves or are they wracked with guilt or fear? What do they think about their opponent? Are they confident that they can crush them, only to be surprised when they find themselves pinned to the floor? Are they surprised by the strength and skill of their enemy, despite their small stature? These are examples of thoughts that a character would be thinking or feeling. It creates drama to the scene.
If the main character is not actually involved in the fight, I would like to know what they, as a spectator, think about it. Who are they hoping will win? Is the fight pointless or of paramount importance? Do they view the combatants as showing bravery or stupidity? Maybe they are terrified as someone they love is engaged in a battle to the death. Or perhaps they are regretful that they are purely a spectator and not the one fighting. There is nothing more boring than a fight scene that simply describes the physical movement of the characters and nothing else.
4. Sensory Information and Blood
This is more of an extension on the previous point. What can the character see, hear, taste and smell? Are they are aware of their surroundings? Does the maddening crowd cheering for them quicken their heart and boost their moral? Perhaps they are blind to everything except for them and their opponent. They could even be so caught up in their blood lust or fear that they are oblivious to everything and everyone, nothing but the blur of chaos is in focus.
I like a bloody and realistic fight scene. Fights usually involve blood, a lot of it. I do not like fight scenes where people apparently get hurt, but there is little mention of injury or pain. It’s just plain unrealistic (children’s books may be an exception to this). As the main character gets pummeled and hit and kicked and hurt, I want to know about it. How does it feel? I want to feel what they feel. As they get slammed to the floor, does our vision become dull? Does our head pound and ache? If our lip gets split I want us to taste the blood. Does a particularly hard blow break our bones? Perhaps it feels like it does. How does that hinder us? Can we make it through the fight even though our sword arm is cut and bloodied and dangling out of its socket, the pain threatening to take over? I want to feel the same pain as the character.
5. The after effect
Ok, this is a really important one. Once the fight is concluded, one way or the other, I want to know how the character feels both physically and mentally. The character may pass out, but I love the scenes where they still have some sensory information beforehand, albeit limited. Does the world spin in circles around them as they fall? Can they hear their companions speaking to them but are unable to understand? Do they fight the crushing darkness of unconsciousness or embrace it? If the character remains conscious, how do they feel? Relieved that they conquered? Miserable that the enemy got away? Or do they feel numb and in shock, emotionally inhibited by grief, fear, or anger?
As a spectator, is the character excited that their favorite hero won the day? Maybe they’re filled with euphoria and joy as their loved one is unharmed. Or perhaps they are consumed by grief and despair as their only hope dies with the clash of steel and spray of blood.
These are some of the things that have really stuck with me when I’ve been reading fight scenes. I think they are important regardless of whether the fight is one-on-one, melee, a battle between hundreds, or a brawl between a small crowd. Whether fighting with guns, swords, lazers, magic, or any other weapons, the most important thing in a good fight scene is the feeling and the mood. Getting inside a character’s head is everything. Helping the readers to understand the atmosphere is drastically more important than understanding every single movement or mechanic. The reader’s imagination is a powerful tool, and is one that should be used.
Armed with these realisations, I hope that my mediocre fight scenes can become a little more bad-ass.