Fight scenes, both in film and print, are one of the cornerstones of great action. When done well, they pack a major punch and up the ante in any story. When they’re not, readers will be left skimming the page and viewers switching off. It may seem easy enough to do these scenes justice; punching, kicking, gun slinging — we’ve seen it all before. But writing a good fight scene is tricky, especially if your real-world combat or weaponry experience is lacking.
The good news is, even if you’ve never thrown a punch in your life, you can still write powerful and authentic fight scenes. Here are some starting points to think about while crafting your fictional violence.
Remember not to over-describe, especially if you’re not an expert. You can research until your eyes blur and your brain is filled with combat terms, but research isn’t first hand experience. If you’re not ready to start a brawl in a bar or go out hunting creatures of the night, you’re bound to make mistakes. And adding too much detail into your scene descriptions will make these mistakes obvious to your reader.
Secondly, don’t limit your descriptions to your characters’ actions. They have feelings too. Let your reader know what the character is experiencing, their physical sensations and emotional responses. Are they full of adrenaline and ready to take down an army, or are they terrified and looking for a chance to run? Did they roll their ankle, sending pain up their leg every time they move? Has their vision narrowed, leaving only them and their opponent? Have their fingers started to cramp and seize around the hilt of their blade?
But again, be careful not to overdo it. Your character’s physical and emotional state are important, but people in fight mode don’t spend much time ruminating. Keep it short and simple.
Keep track of all your limbs! Nothing will pull the reader out of the story quicker than if your character suddenly sprouts an extra arm to swing their double-handed sword while still holding a shield. Act it out. It’s better to look silly for a moment, rather than have your silliness immortalised on the page.
Remember fighting is hard, and it doesn’t always last long. The body can only take so much.
If your fight scene lasts for an entire chapter, and your character comes out of it feeling no pain, it isn’t going to read as authentic.
Does the weapon suit the story? The genre, world, and time period you’re writing in will have its own set of rules and conventions. You won’t see a pistol in high fantasy, a laser in historical fiction, or a mace in modern crime – unless your intention is to break away from these conventions. If you do, be sure you have a purpose for it and that it’s easily understood by your audience.
Does the weapon suit the character? Are they emotionally equipped to stab someone, or would they prefer something less up close and person? Can they physically handle a sword? And if so, what kind of sword? Maybe your character wants a less common weapon, like a bo staff or spear. Whatever weapon you choose, research is your friend. Find out why your character would use it, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and how it would impact the fight scene you’re writing.
Unless your character has incredible concentration and lung capacity, they won’t be able to hold a conversation during battle. Witty banter is entertaining, but not always feasible, so keep the quips to a minimum during the action. Think about your world building too and the rules that apply to your characters. Remember Buffy the vampire slayer? Audiences happily suspended disbelief about a petite teen girl flipping grown men over her shoulder, or knocking them out with one punch, because they knew she had all the power of the evil undead.
Recently, genre fiction has seen an upswing in ‘strong’ female characters like Buffy. These warrior women are often found sparring, verbally and physically, with opponents twice their size and wielding any number of strange and deadly weapons. But what do you do if your character isn’t mystically endowed with super strength? It’s important to understand the physicality behind the scene to ensure that each movement is achievable for your character.
If you’re looking to add strong female characters to your writing, whether they’re a vampire slayer, a mother of dragons, or something in between, come along to Aiki Flinthart’s Writing Fight Scenes for Women Masterclass on 11th May. This hands-on, physical workshop will teach you tips and tricks to help you master the art of writing female fight scenes in any genre.