The Secret to Good Fight Scenes

Sat Jul 14 2018

Fight scenes are supposed to be exciting, dramatic, danger-filled moments in our stories. Yet all too often these scenes manage to be just the opposite. And usually, the harder an author tries for excitement and danger, the more they fall prey to the key mistake in writing fight scenes: putting in too much.

Too much detail

We've probably all encountered fight scenes where the action is conveyed in this style:

McEvoy swung his clenched left fist around in a wide arc, aiming for his assailant's dirt-smudged temple. At the last second the man rotated his head to the left, causing McEvoy's blow to land slightly low, slamming instead into the man's right trapezius muscle.

I won't subject you to an entire fight scene of that stuff. Your eyes would glaze over. One punch is enough to make the point.

Look at all the way the action is described in minute, highly specific detail. Look at how many direction words are present: left, left, low, right. Notice the use of anatomical words like "temple" and "trapezius muscle".

That's a lot of detail for readers to keep track of. You have to work kind of hard to put all that together into a mental picture of the punch, and even to figure out if all the lefts and rights match up physically the way they should.

Now ask yourself, does any of that detail really matter? Or instead, did you feel that the effort of parsing through all those words to assemble that mental picture was tedious?

I doubt I have to answer those questions for you.

Too much fighting

Yes, you can have too much fighting in a fight scene. Ironic, maybe, but that's the way it is.

The above example was just one punch. Now imagine a fight scene that carries on like that for ten, twenty, or even thirty such exchanges of physical violence. Readers' eyes glaze over as they become bored and skip down to the end to see how it all turned out. And yet, that's what writers often give us.

Why "too much" is too much

Fights written in a "too much" style cause several problems that undermine the excitement, drama, and danger the scene is supposed to convey. Real-life fights are fast, brutal, and deadly. That's why most people aren't keen on getting involved in them. "Too much" writing leads to the opposite of all three of those.

How long did it take you to read the above example well enough to visualize it? All the details packed into it probably slowed you down to one-third, perhaps even one-quarter your usual reading speed. The punch itself, which in real life might take half a second, downshifts into extreme slow-mo just because of how long it takes to read and understand all that junk. So much for the fight feeling fast.

The specificity of how the action is described tends to undo the chaotic wildness of actual fights. Rather than feeling brutal, they end up feeling almost clinical. Like we're reading a critical analysis of a fight scene instead of an actual fight scene.

And when a scene drags on in an endless parade of punches, kicks, and so forth, it stops feeling deadly. I mean, how much danger does any particular punch represent if, after fifteen or twenty of them, both characters are still going at it? Not much.

In the real world, somebody slamming their fist into your neck or kicking you full-force in the ribs matters. That shit hurts. It damages you, and is a big deal. But when characters rain blow after blow on one another, the message is that each individual blow has no consequences. That it doesn't matter.

Fight scenes are not about fighting

The "too much" style fails because it misunderstands what fight scenes are actually about. They're not about punching and kicking. They're about emotions and consequences.

Real fights are terrifying--as well they should be, since the potential consequences are so grave. So, in your fight scenes, focus on your viewpoint character's emotions at least as much as on the physical side of the fight. Readers will be far more engaged in how the hero feels than in which body parts are impacting other ones. When the writing focuses on the minutia of the mechanical action, it leaves no room for emotion.

And real fights have consequences. People get hurt. Maybe somebody dies. Even the winner may walk away with injuries that will matter later in the story. (That part's important because of another storytelling mantra: every victory must come at some cost, and being injured is a pretty heavy cost to pay for whatever advancement the character gets from winning a fight.)

Here's another example, this time focusing on emotion and consequences. Let's suppose that McEvoy is exiting the villain's lair, stolen code key in his pocket, when a henchman foils his sneaky escape by blocking his path to the door. And just to amp things up, let's give McEvoy's opponent a knife.

McEvoy rounded the corner to the door, then stopped short. A pulse of adrenaline hit his veins like a grenade going off in his chest. A short, stocky man blocked the way. The man crouched, ready to spring, a thin blade glinting from his hand.

I should never have taken this job, McEvoy thought, as the guard launched himself forward.

McEvoy lurched to the side, trying to sneak an arm inside the man's knife hand. Heart pounding, the two men collided. McEvoy felt a fiery pain sear across his upper arm and a sharp jolt to his elbow.

Then he was past. He lunged for the door handle, sparing a look over his shoulder. The guard was on his knees, both hands at his windpipe. McEvoy couldn't see the knife.

McEvoy ran, clutching at the injured shoulder above his limp arm. He couldn't tell how deep it was, just that it was deep enough to be a problem. Dammit, dammit, dammit, he thought, his mind racing to figure out where he could get stitched up before delivering the key.

This example signals plenty of emotion: surprise, regret, perhaps a bit of resignation, and some frantic near-panic towards the end. And we get plenty of consequences: McEvoy's arm is out of commission for at least the near-term. We're less clear about what happened to the guard, though it's not hard to infer that McEvoy got him in the throat with his elbow. At best the guy is in some discomfort, at worst he's struggling to breathe through a collapsed windpipe.

That's a fight. Fast, brutal, deadly. Full of emotion and consequence.

Less is more

The secret to writing a good fight scene is to focus on the emotions and consequences that actually matter, and delivering them quickly enough to match the speed of a real fight.

If you feel like your fight scene isn't working, don't fall prey to thinking "maybe if I add just one more punch, that'll fix it." That will only make it worse.

Instead, ask yourself whether you're doing just enough to convey the physicality of the fight while still letting the emotions show through. Ask yourself whether you've shown clear consequences--costs to the characters--of engaging in the fight.

If you've done that, then your scene will deliver the exciting, dramatic danger a fight scene should.