Since I started my online platform, my most frequently asked question or suggestion has been on writing action scenes. It’s taken me this long to actually address this topic because I knew how important it was--I wanted more experience in my own writing before I gave advice on this topic. Also, it’s not one of my natural skills as a writer. I had a lot to learn!
After reading countless articles, books, watching tons of movies (I probably watch too many) and dissecting their action scenes, I have a stronger understanding of what goes into a good fight scene...and what doesn’t.
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Warning: I’m going to use hero/main-character/protagonist interchangeably here, and they’re all referring to the “good” guy. Just so y’all know what I mean. Without further ado, let’s jump in!
1. Get your pacing right.
“He shifted his weight and lifted his leg in a swift movement, his foot swinging through the air in a giant arc. It connected with the man’s side, a gasp escaping as the man was thrown sideways.”
That’s a long explanation and makes it seem like that was a long kick. With some paring down and better descriptors, this sentence is okay if you have some rapid movements before and after. The main problem with that sentence? Don’t spell out every action during the fight scene--let your reader choreograph the fight scene.
Try to mimic the pacing a real fight happens in--some parts are fast, others happen in slooow-moootion. If it takes the reader longer to read the action than for the action to take place - at least how long you imagine it taking place - then your pacing might be too slow. Vary your pacing with quick action scenes, and then slow it down briefly with some inner or actual dialogue, or some exposition.
2. Don’t overdo the number of fight scenes in your novel.
Each fight scene must have an objective, must have stakes, and the outcome must affect your plot. If your protagonist and antagonist just bump into each other on the street and duke it out until one escapes, that’s fine.
Do it twice, that’s not fine.
Even if the stakes are the same, there has to be different circumstances that bring them together. Don’t have a fight scene just to keep the reader interested, write a fight scene when your story needs one.
Ever watched a movie with too many fight scenes? I know you have. It all starts to blend together until you can look away, and come back 5 minutes later without missing anything (John Wick 2 was like this for me, I think I started doing some wedding crafts during one of the long fight sequences).
Don’t make your reader bored with too many fight scenes!
3. Make it believable.
Is your character a skilled fighter? Don’t glaze over the fighting by saying “in a few quick movements, the men were lying on the ground.” Make it clean, maybe a little poetic, and use real fighting terms your character would have learned while training.
Is your MC a fledgling magician? Then don’t tell me they’re about to escape unscathed from a fight with their school bully without a really good explanation (btw this “explanation” is usually done by using the principle of Chekov’s gun, where a skill/weapon is planted earlier in the novel to be used during a fight scenes).
Regardless of skill, your characters should get hurt somehow, and they’ll be tired immediately after a fight. Unless of course they’re the Terminator, and even then he can still sustain electrical damage. Man, those are such good movies
4. Use the setting.
Add something extra to your fight scenes by using a complex fighting “arena,” or setting.
Throw the fight in an active environment, if you can, and make your characters interact with that setting. Have the fighters get creative with using items as weapons (a refrigerator door, a chair, etc), or put the characters on unstable ground (ice breaking apart under their feet, a building ready to collapse).
While you want the focus to be on the fight, add flair to your scene by making use of their surroundings!
5. Raise the stakes, particularly in the final fight scene during the climax.
A ticking-time-bomb is a great way to raise the stakes, giving your hero a deadline to resolve the fight.
If your main character is skilled in combat, he better suffer an injury prior to this fight, or be handicapped in some way. In general, great fight scenes keep the reader on the edge of their seat because the hero is at some kind of disadvantage.
The main character knows the villain is stronger, and the reader has to continue reading to see how the hero wins (or loses) the fight.
6. Dialogue before and after the fight scene.
While there’s not often dialogue during a fight, you should find some kind of dialogue (often lengthy in those TV villain monologues) before and/or after a fight scene.
If there’s two “good guys,” perhaps one is trying to save the other in a gripping “save yourself,” scene.
Why should you be concerned with the dialogue before or after a fight scene? Emotion. Showing your hero has some emotional investment in this fight makes for a more interesting fight. If the hero doesn’t have a reason to care about the fight, then...neither will the reader.
7. How do you write a fight scene?
Just like your novel, start with an outline. Imagine the fight scene before you write it. List what happens in chronological order.
1. Sarah pushes Pam, 2. Pam tries to punch Sarah and misses, 3. Sarah sidesteps Pam and trips her, 4. Robert tries to hold Sarah back and gets an elbow to the face.
Why is this important? It’s easy to overwrite fight scenes in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to see what’s happening. Having a framework to follow reminds you to stay on track, and makes it easier to fill in the gaps between those action items.
8. Don’t use repetitive words/phrase - “then,” “and then,” starting each sentence with “he,” or “she”
It’s easy for the mechanics of writing to get in the way of an action scene.
Vary the pacing of your sentences and vary your sentence structure so two similar sentences aren’t right next to one another. You don’t want your writing to be predictable, because the reader will be thinking about your sentence structure instead of your hero getting punched in the throat.
While editing, make sure each sentence is necessary. If you have too many sentences explaining the character’s inner thoughts to each painful blow, pair them down. Try focusing on only the most painful hits, or break it up with other sensory descriptions - instead of saying the cut on his forehead pulsed with each heartbeat, say he tried to wipe the blood out of his eyes, but couldn’t clear the red from his vision. Use those senses: does your character get blood in their mouth or eat a face-full of dirt? These are often details I add during the editing phase.
Fight scenes are super important to nail. With that pressure, don’t belittle your skills if your fight scene isn’t living up to your hopes and dreams. It’s easy to get stuck in a black and white writing mindset of good writing vs. bad writing. Your writing is constantly in motion, so you shouldn’t let a snapshot of your work get you down.
If it’s bad, you can fix it.
The important thing is to get started so you can finish that novel!
Remember, if you ever have any writing questions or suggestions for new topics, just drop a line down below!