Fight scenes can be difficult to write. Some novels I’ve read, had painful fight scenes that I either skipped completely or re-read just to figure out who was doing what. So this tutorial is an amalgamation of my thoughts on the best ways to do it.
Aspects on the Fight
First, let’s break this down into aspects to think about:
Before writing fight scenes think about the characters involved. What are their skills, what are their ideas of fighting? Why are they doing this? Is it a sense of survival? Is it to show honour like a duel? Is it a street attack and they are just reacting?
Example: Does a peaceful man watch his brothers get murdered in a slaughter by the king’s men? Does he, in a rage, grab a fallen sword and defend the last of them? He holds no skill, only the sheer fury at watching his peaceful world be shattered.
Afterwards does he vow revenge and ride for the king’s castle or retreat to the mountains to get over what he did? Or does the fury finally wane and he is then easily cut down to die beside his brothers?
Do not become complacent with your characters to assume that if they are in a fighting situation they will always react the same way. Situations change, people change.
Characters on a journey may be tired and saddle sore. Those who have been fighting for many years, maybe they have grown weary of fights and so have little interest in continuing to succeed.
Example: A strong and skillful warrior may be unraveled if he loses a friend or loved one, his concentration may waver or maybe his rage is his undoing. For some anger can fuel a power, give strength, for others it can cripple, it can make a character lose focus and become blinded.
Don’t forget anger is temporary and when used with exertion it can be drained away leaving a character feeling empty and numb.
Fantasy is a good genre to write because there are not as many rules. You may include weapons from all cultures in the real world (though heavily-technological ones such as guns and bombs are not so well received unless written for the genre. For example, an alchemist messing with powders may come across one that can destroy mountains… this would be a bomb, but a fantasy writer may not call it so).
That being said there are some impressive novelists who have managed to blend fantasy and technology in a way that works seamlessly – my recommendation is the Shadow of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
However, for those who aren’t writing fantasy, you need to remember to stay true to your genre.
If you are writing a period drama in England it might be wise not to include weaponry that is outside of that period or from another culture that has yet to be discovered or brought to the country.
Something that creeps up a lot is martial arts. Whether it is fantasy, preternatural or period drama people do seem to like to throw in martial arts.
Some fighting styles may include movements from martial arts, because certain kicks and defenses can be transposed.
However, a medieval knight will mostly likely not fight with martial art ability nor would the correct terminology be used. (Think about armour, can you see a heavily-armoured knight doing a roundhouse kick? No, but I’ve seen it written.)
I always find it amusing that every vampire movie has the undead with an innate ability for martial arts. Why? These creatures have strength and speed, they would not need to have this ability but it seems to be the thing these days.
(Apparently being dead gives you abilities you never had…except in the case of zombies who appear to lose out on that score)
Just because this has become the norm with vampire movies does not mean it should be included into prose. Do not get swept up with common traits from movies etc. Think carefully about whether it would work or not.
I have said fantasy is good because almost all weapons from many cultures, not to mention ones you create yourself can be included.
However, do your research! Unless you are an expert on swords, crossbows, quarterstaff, slings, sais or any other weapon, you should be prepared to learn about them.
Some weapons need two hands to hold them, some need strength or a good eye / aim. Are your swords double edged? Are your arrow heads barbed for maximum damage? Are your staffs weighted at one end?
It is not just about the weapons and how they are used.
- Does your warriors have whetstones for sharpening their blades?
- Do your archers know how to make their own arrows.
- Do they keep the feathers from birds killed for meat so they can make their own fletching?
- Does the sling carrier test each stone for weight and shape before storing them in a pouch for use?
What about the damage they cause? Arrows are best removed by pushing them all the way through (depending what they had hit) as most heads are do more damage being pulled back.
The fletching would be snapped off and the shaft forced through. A stone if hurled hard enough could break bone, fracture a skull or just render a person unconscious.
If your fighters use swords, what would happen if they were disarmed. Would they find using a club or staff cumbersome?
What about their power arm, if they are right handed and are injured in that arm/hand would they struggle?
Or do you have a warrior who trains to use both, maybe even starts with his weaker one to give him/her the upper hand? Do you have fighters who use no weapons, bare fist fighters who have toughened their skin?
Do you have characters who have sharp minds, can see the ability of using every day items to protect or defend. Such as the a servant boy who reaches for a chair to protect himself or the cook who wields a mean cast-iron frying pan. (“Frying pans, who knew right?”)
Early on you need to decide your character(s) level of skill. As in everything, do not dull your characters by having them all great or all bad. Whether you are writing a series or a single story, it is a good idea to allow for growth.
Your characters should evolve their abilities. If you have someone who struggles with the sword, maybe as they make their way through the story they get better, more situations force them to learn and adapt.
Or maybe an old warrior loses his skill, becomes too weak or tired or loses his focus. Your characters don’t just have to get better, they can get worse too.
This gives you “wiggle room” with your characters.
Also remember that it takes stamina and strength to keep fighting, even a hardened warrior would start flagging eventually if the fight carried on beyond his or her limit.
Adrenaline is often flung into writing as some wonder-drug that can make a fighter invincible.
However, adrenaline is a fast-acting chemical that is produced automatically under certain conditions. It is short lived and once gone can leave a person feeling weak and tired.
If your characters are fighting a battle or war (check my article How to write powerful battles and wars) adrenaline will not keep them going. It takes work, practice, building of stamina to keep the body (and mind) going after adrenaline has been and gone.
Many writers have messed this up and so the writing becomes heavy and cumbersome to read. You find this in almost any prose where the writer has a great knowledge of a specific subject so they then bore their readers to death.
Example: Those who are well versed in fencing or martial arts will often litter the entire fight scene with exact terminology and minuscule detail of pose and moves.
For those who do not have the same level of knowledge on these subjects, we will find the whole thing tedious to read. By doing this, you alienate your readers and turn a strong scene into something to be skipped over.
Planning a Fight Scene
The best way to write a fight scene is to decide what is going to happen. Why will the fight start, who wins, who gets injured? Don’t forget that even mock fighting such as training / jousting etc can cause injury and death.
My advice is don’t just rush in and start writing.
☆ Bullet point the main aspects of the fight.
☆ Write these bullet points into a very loose scene. Don’t worry about grammar or description, just get the points down.
☆ You should already have details about your characters, their abilities, their training/skills, their weapons (or lack of) their purpose or reason for fighting.
☆ Then work out your landscape (see section below). Once you have all the information, all the ideas, build the scene up.
☆ Don’t forget some dialogue to break up the fighting prose.
Invincible Characters and perfect ability
As with my other tutorials one issue I have with stories are those that portray the best and most perfect characters. These are dull.
Readers cannot empathise with such characters. (For help with this go to my How to avoid writing a Mary Sue character)
Fighting is hard, even the most skillful warrior will tire and get injured. Fighting it not just brute strength or fancy footwork, it is a combination of strength, skill, movement, concentration, even a wisp of precog when you have to anticipate and react to the next move.
As your character continues to fight, their energy will drain and eventually they may stumble. Maybe they win out of luck rather than skill. Having perfect ability that is unmatched is unlikely. The same with strength and energy that never wanes.
After all, even if you had an incredible warrior who is stronger and faster than everyone, all it takes is for the leader of the other team to realise this and overwhelm him with sheer numbers.
Don’t forget the look – a fight will make a person sweat, maybe they will get scuffed and dirty. Hair will become bedraggled and skin will flush from the exertion.
There will be wounds, torn clothes, bloody noses, lost teeth and maybe even tears.
Now consider the landscape of the fight. Landscape is important.
If you are in a battlefield, the ground between torn up with hundreds of feet and hooves riding around it. Mud makes it harder to walk, to move, it adds weight to clothes. If it rains everyone is drenched because there is no cover.
There are branches and bracken that can trip a person, or snag their clothes. Wet leaves can make you slip but if it rains there is a canopy of leaves to protect you a little.
You are restricted by trees and branches so may not get the same swing of a blade etc but at the same time, neither can your opponent so you can both gain some protection from this.
If you are injured, the wildlife may claim you. Those places to hide and resources for fires and food.
The ground moves, you lose your footing, the day is hot making you sweat and lose fluid, the night is cold pinching at your joints.
There are spiked plants and dangerous creatures that can sting or bite at you. Lack of resources such as food and water and shelter.
Mountains & cliffs
The landscape is treacherous, a wrong foot and you fall to your death. Sharp edged stones and rocks can cut and graze. Loose rocks can stop a warrior having a steady footing.
Firm footing can change in an instant, cracking of ice, frozen lakes that can weaken and drop your characters beneath the surface. The cold, the thick snow that makes moving, running, etc slow and aching. Risks of hypothermia.
These are just a few thoughts to have regarding the landscape your fight may be in. There are additional points to each of these landscapes and others I have not even listed.
Now give your fight scene something more. I have mentioned it before in other tutorials, senses are an important part of writing. To bring your words, your story to life you must not become lost in writing only the sense of sight.
On a battlefield (in fantasy/medieval times) there is the thunder of hooves, the clash of metal, the smell of horses and sweat, the tang of blood, the shriek of crows as they pick over the dead, the pressing weight of armour, the painful cut of blade on flesh, blinding, burning smoke of cannons etc
All this there was not one mention of sight, these examples are all about the other four senses and yet each one paints a picture in your mind.
So once you have picked your landscape think about what sights, sounds, smells and textures are connected to that.
The whisper of sand grains trickling down the dunes, the smell of rich loam, the cracking of ice on the top of a mountain, twigs snapping underfoot, the earth sinking as you step into mud, cold rain, the taste of blood from a bloodied mouth, the warm wash of urine as a terrified fighter loses control…
Break up the Text
Do not overburden your readers with large chunks of text. Like any story, fighting description should be broken up with dialogue or other description.
Example: 1) In a duel (with swords), maybe when there is a moment of respite between blows one opponent will taunt the other. If the duel is over someone else (for want of a better example, a woman) maybe she is there as witness. Does she beg them to stop? Does she encourage them on?
With this you can break up the fighting and build up on the characters and the reason behind the fight.
2) In a battle there would be captains calling to their soldiers, fallen soldiers being dragged back from the fighting or worse, stepped over. Maybe they grab onto their comrades, begging for aid. There would be wounded in the healers den.
From this you should be able to show the true image of the battle rather than just the fighting.
For other description think about internal monologues, is your fighter thinking back to a time when he/she last fought? Is there a darkening thrill in his/her blood from the fight? Do they have a secret trick up their sleeve or are they fearing for their lives?
What else is going on? Are people stood around watching the duel? Are innocent villagers fleeing from the massacring hordes and getting in the way of the town’s soldiers who are trying to protect them?
Is the group of highly skilled and organised fighters who fight as a group lost to madness when their leader is killed?
Injuries and Scars
Whether it’s a fistfight in a tavern or a full scale battle people will be injured, a broken nose or the lose of a limb. Remember what injuries you inflict.
Learn your anatomy, does a wound cut a nerve or tendon render the limb useless? Does it puncture an organ that can not be healed without immediate aid (or none at all). What are the reactions to certain injuries?
In some instances it is not the injury but things such as infection or shock that can turn a situation fatal.
If you injure a fighter’s arm or shoulder remember this. Do not have them fighting perfectly the next day.
Injuries can take time to heal, scars can become knotted and so the skin around them can lose flexibility. A shoulder injury can affect nerves that mean your character has no real grip in their hand.
Few scars will vanish, especially larger ones so remember them if you need to describe your character. Maybe an old war wound in the leg or hip is affected by cold weather and your character limps in winter.
You can even style your writing to match the fight. A quick fight, with jabs and stabs or fast slashes can be written with short curt sentences. So as the reader reads, the punctuation helps to define the scene.
A long, tiring battle can be enhanced with longer sentences, drawing out the fight to give that feeling to the reader.
These are just some things to think about when planning to write fighting scenes. From this you should be able to develop the scene. Once it is written, read it to yourself out loud. This will allow you to see if it sounds cumbersome.
As with all writing, you improve by posing yourself questions, by laying the scene and knowing your characters.
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