Putting the Fight in Fiction: Writing Realistic Fight Scenes
In any book you will have adversaries. A hero and a villain or a protagonist and an antagonist. Chances are these adversaries are going to have a confrontation. This can differ from genre to genre but for the sake of this workshop let us assume this confrontation will culminate into a fight.
There are a wide variety of action and fight scenes that you will come across as a writer. Some are easy, some are vastly more complex. The purpose of this post is to help you perfect the simpler fight scenes so that once you have, the complex ones become just a little bit easier.
So where do you start?
There are three common types of fight scenes:
One against One
One against Many
Many on Many or Melee (ie a major battle)
STEP 1: LOCATION
Your physical location will have an effect on your fight so before you start writing you need to be sure that you know your way around the location and have thought about any potential obstacles. It’s the same process as setting any type of scene, description of setting…know your background.
If your characters are fighting in any kind of room, there may be furniture that has to be considered.When a long weapon like a sword is being used, the ceiling height comes into play. If it’s a low ceiling, or if there are dangling light fittings, such as chandeliers, then it’s probably not realistic to have two characters swinging over their heads without hitting these obstacles.
Also, something that needs to be considered is what kind of ground the characters are standing on. Sand is far harder to move around on as compared to solid earth; a fixed run is easier to move without slipping on than a polished wood floor would be. Mud will most definitely hamper steps.
STEP 2: WEAPONS
There are two types of fighting, armed and unarmed.
If you’re scene calls for armed combat then weapons choice comes into play. What you choose has to make sense based on your location and based on your characters. Is it realistic to give a small character a big weapon? Does that weapon exists in the time period you’re writing for?
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know your round house kicks from your thrust-parry-ripostes. The chances are your readers don’t know that level of detail either. So you don’t want to get too technical. But every now and then you will get a reader who has studied or researched weaponry themselves. I was guilty of it myself early on in my writing when I put stainless steel in a history novel and was promptly notified by a reader that stainless steel didn’t exist yet. So you’ll want to have at least a basic knowledge of the topic you’re writing about.
Research is a necessary evil and when choosing weapons for your characters to use it is worth doing some just to make sure you’re not making an obvious mistake.
Beyond the obvious such as swords, knives, or even guns there are other types of weapons to look out for. What’s available in your scene? Just because you start off with unarmed combat, there is no reason why it has to finish unarmed. You can include bottles, books, handfuls of dirt, chairs, tables, in fact just about anything that isn’t nailed down can be used as a weapon.
Look around the room. What items (other than the weapons I have up front) could be used in a fight?
So just be aware of the scene you’re setting and the endless possibilities that can arise from within. It paints a more realistic picture. Because in an actual fight you’re going to go after whatever you can get your hands on.
STEP 3: LANGUAGE
Moving onto the description itself, word choice for your fight scene is very important. Fighting and action are a very visual subject matter. They work well on screen and TV, but they can be hard to translate to the written page and sometimes leads to over description.
Which of these two punches takes the longest to actually arrive?
He clenched his fist tightly, drew his arm back, and pushed it forward at a lightning pace, sending it surging towards his enemy’s unsuspecting jaw in a powerful right cross.
He clenched his fist tightly and threw a staggering right hook that connected, snapping his enemy’s head back with the force of the blow.
The answer is the second one. The first one tells you a lot about the punch, but most of that description gets in the way of the actual action, leaving you with the feeling that you’re watching someone move in slow motion. And fight scenes should be something that feel as if they’re happening at speed.
To avoid the slow-mo effect, keep your description simple. Use short words and short sentence structures to give the words more bite. Fragments, particularly one word fragments, can be very effective.
Which has more impact?
He fell, hard, tripping on the uneven ground, leaving him robbed of breath and dazed. He ached so badly that he had no idea how he was going to stand again.
He fell. Hard. Tripped by the uneven ground. He lay dazed and gasping for breath. And he ached! He had to get up. He didn’t know how he’d ever do it again.
Again, it’s the second one. Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that fragments are grammatically incorrect BUT sometimes they do work. Just use them carefully.
Also bear in mind, your word choice should be varied. This is a basic rule of writing. Repetition of the same adjective gets tedious for both reader and writer. But in fight scenes you may find you’re more limited. Have a good thesaurus and dictionary at hand so that if you find yourself constantly using the word “hit” you can vary it with “punch” “slap” “strike” and so on.
MOMENTUM AND MOVES
Fight and action sequences aren’t easy. They do require practice. Sometimes they require you to go the extra mile and try something for yourself. When fight choreographers are setting up scenes for movies they do what is called “blocking” the scene. If you find yourself stuck with how the fight will turn out then walk through the steps.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’ll often act out fight sequences in order to figure out momentum and balance. I will mimic a kick and observe how my weight shifts or what area of my body is exposed.
Again a trained fighter is going to approach a fight differently than someone who is a brawler.
Pay attention to the fight scenes you see in TV and films. You can learn a huge amount about what the human body really can and can’t do. Watch professional wrestling or MMA from time to time. Those are good resources when it comes to seeing how the human body reacts in a fight, it allows you to observe the flow of momentum and get ideas for moves. In MMA they quite literally train themselves to win fights, that’s their job and they learn skills appropriate to that which can be taken out of the cage and onto the street as well. BJJ is actually a skill set first learned for self-defense and made popular through MMA and other tournaments.
A lot of TV and movie action stars are skilled with some type of martial arts, usually its Krav Maga or Filipino Silate because those movements are real world defensive techniques. Take Matt Damon in the Bourne movies for instance. Now that sort of thing looks good on screen because it is fast and it flows but trying to write a scene like that might wind up very overdone. So what you can do is take it step by step.
Martial arts fighting is usually about momentum. The next move flows from where the last one ended. If your hero or heroine swings a roundhouse kick where is her weight when she lands? On which foot? Is she straight up or bent at the waist? In what direction is her body leaning? The next blow she delivers should follow the same line of momentum.
STEP 4: PUTTING PEN TO PAPER
Once you’ve done all your homework and planning you’re ready to start writing your scene.
When you’ve finished your first draft, put it away for a day or so then come back to it and look at it objectively. This way you will be more likely to spot the places that need fine tuning.
Get a second opinion
Write your second draft
Keep it simple
Keep it short. Each move should only take up a sentence
Keep it moving
What is your favorite fictional fight scene?