How to Write a Fight Scene Readers Will Love

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Today's guest post is by Stephanie O’Brien. Stephanie is a lifelong fiction author who loves experimenting with different genres, subverting common clichés and tropes, and picking stories apart to see what makes them work. To see more writing tips, as well as Stephanie’s novels, comics and music videos, visit her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @Stepha_OBrien.

If your story involves one or more fight scenes, you have a great opportunity.

How to Write a Fight Scene Readers Will Love

You can thrill your audience, change the course of the plot, and reveal new depths to your characters . . . or you can bore your viewers to tears, and make them wish that the battle would please just end already.

Writing a great fight scene can be a challenge, because you can’t rely on music, visuals and spectacular explosions the way some movies do. But you can create a battle that not only makes your readers hold their breath, but also impacts their emotions in a way that lingers long after they finish the book.

6 Tips for Writing Better Fight Scenes

I’m going to give you six tips for how to write a fight scene well, so you can keep your audience on the edge of their seats while giving a whole new level of depth to your story and cast.

Tip #1: Use creativity, not just mindless fisticuffs.

Two characters punching each other can be somewhat entertaining, for a few brief moments.

Two characters weaponizing their environment, using their superpowers in unique and clever ways, and coming up with plans to turn their opponent’s power against them can be absolutely fascinating, for far longer than that.

When you’re writing a fight scene, I encourage you to put some thought into the attacks, and—if it fits the characters’ personalities—to have the fighters use the powers and weapons at their disposal in unusual, smart and creative ways, rather than simply hitting or shooting at each other.

And speaking of fitting the characters’ personalities . . .

Tip #2: Show off the combatants’ personalities.

If a character is stern, practical and disciplined, have that show in their fighting style with efficient movements, precise attacks, and “dirty” but pragmatic tricks.

If they’re passionate and fierce, you could have them rush wildly at their opponent, make big and aggressive movements, and try to overwhelm their foe with a frenzied barrage.

Or you could flip that script to show hidden depths in your characters. Maybe Ms. Calm and Practical brings out her wild maniac side in combat, or Mr. Passionate and Fierce suddenly becomes very cold and focused when he gets into a fight.

Using the fight to give your viewers insight into your characters adds an extra layer of detail and interest to the conflict, and it’s a great opportunity to show who your character really is in a high-pressure situation.

It also adds an extra level of realism, and show that you’ve put some thought into how their personality shapes their fighting style.

Tip #3: Use the fight to create character development.

A cocky, competent warrior could discover for the first time that she isn’t the top of the food chain; there’s something more powerful than her out there, and she has to improve herself, ask for help, or accept defeat.

An uncertain wuss could find that he’s stronger than he thought he was, or that his cunning makes up for his lack of courage or brute force.

A person who prides herself on her kindness and gentleness could find a level of darkness and violence in herself that she didn’t know existed, or a person who thought he could kill an opponent easily could realize that it isn’t so simple when he’s required to take a life for the first time.

A fight scene is a high-stakes, high-pressure situation in which delusions and pretenses can be stripped away, and characters can be forced to confront things about themselves that they hadn’t known or wanted to acknowledge.

This can be a catalyst for future character development, and provide your audience with a deeper insight into your characters.

Tip #4: Show what they’re fighting for.

A fight scene by itself can provide a brief thrill, but a fight scene with high emotional stakes makes a far more lasting impact.

Either before or during the battle, or while the losing fighter lies defeated, show the audience what they’re fighting for.

Who or what did they want to protect? What fears, hopes or insecurities drove them into this violent situation?

The more the audience relates to their struggles, and the more attached they are to whatever it is that the character is trying to defend or accomplish, the more emotional impact the fight scene will have.

Tip #5: Call their motives and morals into question.

When the idea of acting on their motives or compromising their morals is only theoretical, the characters can dodge certain questions about themselves.

But when it’s time to actually hurt someone or take a life, it becomes much harder to avoid taking a good, hard look at the cause of their violence.

Is what they’re doing really worth killing someone over?

If they kill their opponent, can they still call themselves a “good guy”?

Or on the flipside, if they let a murderous villain live, are they now partly responsible for all the deaths he’ll cause in the future?

Fight scenes can force your characters, your audience, and you as the storyteller to ask and answer questions that most people never have to think about, which can reveal new layers to the personalities of everyone involved.

Tip #6: Don’t pad the battle.

I believe that any story, or element of a story, should last as long as it needs to and no longer.

Write enough to paint a clear picture of the battle, use up your character’s arsenal of cool moves, get to the end of the dialogue you wanted to include, and show the character development you wanted to weave in, then stop.

Don’t pad the battle with a bunch of extra moves, or drag it out until the audience gets bored.

Ask yourself, “Does this section contribute to the quality of the battle? Does it showcase the character’s personality or abilities, add tension, or make the outcome of the fight more believable? Or is it just filler that could be cut?”

By removing the parts of your fight scene that don’t improve it, you make the parts of the battle that deserve to be showcased shine all the more.

It's About More Than Just a Fight

When done well, a fight scene is SO much more than just a battle.

The best fight scenes aren’t just about fists, swords, guns and adrenaline. When used to their maximum potential, battles reveal a side of your characters that nothing else will, force them to dig deeper than they ever did before, and raise the stakes in a way that few other scenarios can.

When you use the tips in this article, not only will you improve your fight scenes and keep your readers more interested, but you’ll also flesh out your characters’ personalities, and add a whole new depth to their motivation and development.

If your current work in progress includes one or more fight scenes, I encourage you to revisit those scenes today, and see how you can make them even better than they already are.

Do you have any tips for how to write a fight scene? Have you noticed any fight scene mistakes that storytellers should avoid? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments!

PRACTICE

Today, I invite you to spend fifteen minutes writing a quick fight scene that includes the following elements:

1. Fighting styles that reflect the fighters’ personalities.

2. Creative uses of common superpowers or everyday items in combat.

3. A moment in which a character realizes something new about themselves because of the fight.

4. A poignant glimpse of what the character is fighting for.

Have fun, and be sure to share your battle scene in the comments and leave feedback for your fellow writers!

This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.

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19 Comments

  1. themagicviolinist

    Great advice! Fight scenes have always been a bit of a challenge for me since I prefer writing dialogue, but I’ll keep these tips in mind. 🙂 Thank yoU!

    Reply
    • Gary G Little

      Dialogue can be used most effectively in a fight. You can battle with words, just look at any debate. A “fight” does not have to consist of blows landed or bullets fired.

      Reply
      • Stephanie O'Brien

        You’re very welcome! Even if you do choose to use physical battles instead of (or in conjunction with) intellectual ones, fight scenes and dialogue can happen at the same time, as long as it’s realistic for your characters to (a) want to talk while they fight, and (b) have enough time and breath to talk amidst all that exertion.

        Reply
  2. Snubby

    Awesome awesome awesome. Will use these for sure

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      Thanks! I’m glad you found them helpful.

      Reply
  3. Gary G Little

    Goldman shuffled through the air-tight door that led to his office, and with a schlump he fell to the floor. Standing over his prone body was Hank, holding a small bat, and wearing a pressure suit well dusted from his stroll through the Lunar Highlands.

    When Goldman came too he found himself bound to his office chair and facing Hank.

    “What the hell,” he growled. “How did you … Where’s my son?”

    “How did I get back? I walked. Where’s your son? Why ain’t I dead? Same answer to those two. Paulie was stupid, just like his mob boss daddy. Know what happens when you fire a pistol in a sealed tractor cab with an oxygen-hydrogen mix? What’s left of him is spread across the Highlands.”

    “You killed my boy!”

    “I told you, Paulie’s own stupidity killed him.” Hank held up a letter sized piece of paper. “Know what this is Saulie?”

    “No one calls me that, you little …” Saul said, his face turning beet red.

    “Now now Saulie, you need to watch that blood pressure.” Hank indicated the paper again, “It’s a warrant, properly signed and sealed by the Proctors. A Golden Rule Warrant. That’s the law up here on the Moon. Based on the Golden Rule, It gives me the power to do to you, what you were going to do to me.”

    “So?” Grumbled the mountain that was Saul Goldman.

    Hank was busy in what looked like a small closet throwing things out into the office. He stepped over to Saul and began to wheel the chair with Saul still tied to it into that closet.

    “I am truly amazed at how you flaunt things up here on Luna, Saul.”

    “I told you not to call me that,” Saul said squirming against the plastic tie wraps binding him to his office chair.

    “You never wear your personal pressure suit.”

    “I don’t runaround in my underwear,” Goldman said.

    “And most important, Saulie; an emergency airlock is not a closet,” Hank finished and gave Goldman’s chair a final push. Standing at the door of the confined space, Hank looked Goldman in the eye and said,”Final point I need to make. This is how we flush a toilet on Luna.”

    Goldman’s eye’s went wide as Hank slapped the emergency purge button. The airlock door slammed shut and there was a flushing sound one the other side of that air tight door.

    Saul Goldman, still tied to his very expensive office chair, went bouncing and skipping across the area once called Tranquility Base.

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      You did a great job of showcasing the characters’ personalities in that encounter!

      Reply
  4. Reagan Colbert

    Love this post! I love how you emphasized just how much a fight scene can bring out the characters’ personalities. I’ve written one fight scene in my third novella, “Soul’s Redemption”, and it was actually one of my favorite things to write. As a reader who loves scenes that bring on the adrenaline rush, I spent quite awhile agonizing over it, and wish this post had been there back then!

    The scene itself was a swordfight between the protagonist – a deserter of the Roman Legions – and the antagonist – a centurion. In all it lasted about 1k words, (I like my scenes to be tight and action-packed) and ended in the death of one of them. I also tried to add personality to the scene, by making it in a pitch-dark room, and adding other characters who heard the whole thing. What were they fighting for? Well, Lucas (ant.) wanted nothing except to kill Marcus. And Marcus wanted to live without killing Lucas. It really showed the personalities of both, I think. My readers seemed to like it anyway!

    Thanks for posting this, it’s made me think quite a bit, especially since I’ll be writing more fight scenes in the future! 🙂

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      You’re most welcome. And thank you for your detailed feedback! I’m glad to hear you found my observations helpful, even if they were late – though it sounds like you did just fine without them. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Reed Janicki

    Wonderful ideas on twisting it up a notch and having more than just a fight scene. I never thought of these in terms of character development, just plot points! Great advice!

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      Thank you. 🙂 I didn’t really think of fight scenes in terms of character development either, until I watched “Naruto”. I was really impressed by the way Kishimoto wove not just action, but character exploration, character growth, and even world-building into the battles, while making the combat itself creative and interesting. I haven’t watched the whole series – the abovementioned qualities started to slip during one highly protracted combat arc, which resulted in me losing interest – but I did learn a lot as a writer from the early arcs.

      Reply
  6. TerriblyTerrific

    Thank you for this article. No fight scenes yet..

    Reply
  7. Debra johnson

    This post was right on time, I am writing a fight scene as we speak. I would like to see an example of a written fight scene as I am a visual learner and need to see an example. I will take these suggestions into account and may post my scene here for feedback.

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      I look forward to seeing your fight scene here!

      Reply
  8. Fitch

    For realistic fight scenes, and an understanding of interpersonal violence, “Violence: A Writers Guide,” 2nd Edition, by Rory Miller is very highly recommended. So is the “Writing Violence” series by Marc MacYoung. Most real fights, other than bar room monkey dances, don’t last very long, seldom as long as two minutes, usually only a few seconds. The lead up, and aftermath are most of the story in a real physical encounter.

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      Thanks for the useful resources! I do my best to keep my battles realistic, and to avoid common mistakes like using blunt cranial trauma as a convenient “off” switch with no lasting effects, so those sound like they’d be handy books to have.

      Reply
  9. John T M Herres

    I wrote a post describing my views on writing fight scenes back in 2013. ( http://wp.me/p37ga0-1u ) The way I do it is, as stated there, I envision it as a movie clip, slow it down to where I can describe the action and glaze past any redundant pieces. If he (the protagonist) takes out a bunch of villains in succession, I don’t always write how he does, but sometimes I do.
    In the post, I explain, “The
    way I figured this and the other scenes involving fighting was to see
    it in my mind, much the same as the fighting and action sequences in
    most of the movies I like to watch. Slow it down and, when appropriate,
    give a blow-by-blow accounting of it.” Note, “when appropriate…” This is the important part, I think, is to know when to and when not to hack through all the opponents.

    Reply
    • Stephanie O'Brien

      When deciding whether or not to include an instance of hacking opponents in the narrative, the question I ask myself is, “Does this particular hack add something to the fight scene, whether it’s showcasing the character’s skills and personality, conveying vital information that keeps the readers from asking ‘but what happened to that opponent?’, or simply being too cool to leave out?”

      If the answer to that is “no”, the attack is either left out entirely, or mentioned VERY briefly to avoid loose ends.

      Reply
  10. Toni

    This article is really helpful! I like to think my fight scenes- more specifically the ones in my most recent work- are at least decent. I’ll be sure to use this advice in the future!

    Reply

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