I love a good fight scene. If I had to choose my favorite element of a story, it would probably be the action sequences –you know, the struggle of good against evil, combat hand-to-hand, with the hero’s life hanging in the balance. So, naturally, I have written my fair share of fight scenes. Notice, I didn’t say my fair share of good fight scenes. Like all writing, there is an art and a skill that comes to crafting exciting, sensible, and coherent action sequences. To that end, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned over the years.
There a few key points I think every fight scene needs to have:
- It needs to be logically consistent.
This means you need to know exactly what your character(s) is(are) doing, where they are doing it, and if it is actually possible for them to be doing these things in this place. Sometimes this might mean acting out the movements for yourself, or looking up real sword fighting videos on YouTube, or even jotting down a play-by-play of your scene just so you can get it right for your narrative.
- You don’t need to share all the little details.
You need to know them, to be sure, but the reader doesn’t. You should know what fist your character is punching with, and whether the villain is jumping to the left or right, but the reader probably doesn’t. Those sorts of details bog the narrative down and take away from the excitement of the moment. “Leapt to the side” is far easier to understand than “Leapt to the left” – and yet, in the end, they convey the same sort of motion.
- Show what the POV character feels.
That might seem odd, focusing on emotion during an action scene, but it really is the truth. What makes a moment exciting is the emotion of it. Even if your character is seasoned in battle or very calm in emotional situations they are still feeling something. Even if your character is pulling off the coolest moves ever, your scene is not taking place in a visual medium: your reader is draw in by what they feel most of all.
Let me see if I can give a good example of these three points, using my own work. These scenes come from the inciting incident, in chapter 5.
Here’s part of a fight scene I wrote in 2013:
“With a shout Cath charged. Kura stepped one foot back and braced herself, blocking the attack. Cath swung his sword around and Kura lunged backwards, steel meeting steel. Kura shoved her weight onto her weapon, throwing Cath’s attack awry, then pulled back for a forward trust. Cath leapt backward, smashing his sword down on Kura’s. Cath raised his weapon but Kura swung hers over his and pushed it to the left. Cath pushed back, his strength greater than Kura’s. She raised her right leg and kicked him in the chest. Cath stumbled backwards and Kura jumped away, her sword quickly returning to guard.
“Had enough?” Cath taunted, an arrogant grin on his face.. Kura said nothing, but her eyes remained locked with his. His grin became a grimace and he lunged with a forward thrust. Kura spun left, smashing his sword down. The tip stuck into the ground, and Cath’s forward momentum drove it in father. Kura swung for his head, but Cath ducked, letting go of his sword. He dove forward, tackling Kura. She fell backwards onto the ground. Cath held her sword arm down, trying to wrench the weapon from her grip. She punched with all her might into his chest, but her fist crumbled on his chain mail. She cried out in pain. Cath grinned, leaping up. He grabbed Kura’s arm and dragged her to her feet. Her sword remained on the ground and out of reach. Cath gripped Kura’s forearm tightly and pulled her close to his face.
“I believe we’ve learned a little lesson here, haven’t we missy?” Cath said with a sneer. Kura said nothing and stared defiantly into this eyes. Suddenly, he cried out in pain. Kura removed her dagger from his gut and shoved him to the ground.”
Overall, the scene is very clear about what each character is doing. There is also some sense of the moment, through the use of strong verbs (such as “smash”) and appeals to the other senses (like “steel meeting steel” for sound). But, as a whole, the scene is tedious to read, and there is no sense whatsoever of what Kura is feeling in the moment.
Here’s the same fight scene, which I’ve reworked more recently:
“With a grunt of frustration, Kura tossed the bow and quiver aside and fell back against the wall, drawing her sword. She was mostly secluded behind the wreckage of the gate, and for just that moment longer the element of surprise was still on her side. One soldier stepped beyond the threshold, and with a shout Kura leapt forward, thrusting her sword below his chest plate before he could even bring his weapon into guard. For a moment her eyes locked with his; they were earnest eyes, innocently questioning why, as she pulled her blade from his gut.
For just that moment Kura was tempted into fearful contemplation, but she caught a glimpse of movement in the corner of her eye and she spun around, blocking the strike of a second soldier. Her element of surprise was wearing thin, and this soldier managed to meet her counter attack, stumbling backwards in the process. They exchanged blows, alternating parries and short, quick strokes, as Kura forced the soldier through the gaping opening in the wall.
The soldier caught his foot on the discarded battering ram and fell back. Kura seized her chance, lunging forward to knock the sword from his hand and thrust her blade at his throat. The soldier rolled to the side, smacking Kura’s sword away with the metal armor plates on his arms, and scrambled to his feet as he snatched up his fallen sword. He lunged forward with a thrust, but Kura leapt to the side, bringing her own blade down through the man’s wrist and severed his hand from his arm. The soldier let out an agonizing cry as his weapon fell to the ground.”
Now, I’m not going to say this second scene is perfect, but I think the two ‘eras’ of my own writing juxtaposed like this illustrate the three points I was talking about. My first scene is arguably more clear and precise, but that doesn’t clarify the moment for the reader, it instead bogs down the moment and makes it a chore to read. The second scene doesn’t have a whole lot of emotion on Kura’s part, but the little nods to her thoughts help make the moment more real and meaningful.
Well, those are some of my thoughts, anyway, on writing fight scenes. I honestly think some of my best fight scenes occur at the end of my book, but I don’t want to share those just yet for fear of ruining the whole thing before it’s even properly beta-read. What books have you read with good fight scenes? Have you written any fight scenes you’re proud of? Feel free to share in the comments below!