A Guide To Writing Fight Scenes

I often see people asking questions like ‘how do you write a fight scene?’ ‘How do you write battles?’ ‘How do you write action scenes?’ ‘How do you write fight scenes with more than one character?’, and one more than any other: ‘How do you write battle scenes in fantasy?’

It’ true that the fantasy genre is filled with iconic battles. Stories often build-up to great clashes between the forces at odds in the tale. You needn’t think long for examples: Lord of the Rings, Game of ThronesThe Riftwar Saga, Chronicles of the Raven… fantasy stories generally end with one great, whopping battle.

It’s in writing fight scenes that we can win readers over, or lose them. In this guide, we’ll look at three general rules that can be followed when writing fight scenes. We’ll look at plenty of examples of battle scenes too, as well as a few other key factors to consider to help bring order and clarity to something so inherently chaotic.

How do you write fight scenes?

There seem to be a few general rules of thumb for writing fight scenes. They are:

  • Blow by blow is boring;

  • Clarity is king;

  • Show v tell.

Let’s look at each in detail.


Blow by blow is boring

blow by blow

“He swung left, then right, dodged a lunging blow from behind, rolled to the right, raised his sword to parry another attack.”

A fight scene should not be a stream of blow after blow until everyone’s dead. Rather, it ought to be a portrayal of a character’s physical and mental state as they experience danger. 

In movies seeing every punch and kick, decapitation or shooting is sadistically entertaining. On the page, it’s a different story. It slows down the pace significantly and makes for confusing, hard to follow passages which serve to frustrate the reader and make them skip the scene or stop reading altogether.

That’s not to say you should avoid blow by blow. Used well, it reveals the characters’ skills or flaws. A good balance is to do a little bit of blow by blow, and then a bit of description, or if writing in the first person or third person limited perspectives, some thought or emotional reflection.

An excellent writer of action is James Barclay. His Chronicles of the Raven series is worth checking out. Book two in the trilogy, Noonshade, contains some excellent fight scenes.  In book two of The Lord of the Rings, the battle for Helms Deep takes place. Considering how epic the film version is you’d expect it to be a pretty big chapter. In fact, at twenty pages it’s relatively short (the film added a few extra bits), and deals with a large, complicated battle expertly.


Clarity is king


Kudos to anyone who can work out what the hell is going on here.

Battles by their nature are frantic affairs. Lots going on, many people involved. If it’s not clear what’s happening the reader will throw your book against the wall. The reason? They want to know what happens but the words won’t tell them! There are a few things you can do to achieve clarity:

  • If you’re writing about a large battle, map it out, particularly if there’s structures, cities or towns involved. In mapping, you do not confuse or contradict yourself, and crucially, you do not confuse your reader. You’ll also have a much clearer picture in mind of what’s going on and where, allowing you to write with a stronger, more confident voice, crucial in scenes of such significance. Mapping out battles is something I had to do with my own novel, Pariah’s Lament. I’d created a situation in which I had two armies marching to take the same city, yet one army was further ahead than the other and had an opportunity to capture the city before the other arrived. If they succeeded, they then had to defend the walls they’d just taken against the second army. As you can imagine, it gave me a few headaches, but mapping it out helped organise things and in the end, it came out well. 
  • Tone down the use of metaphors and similes. Use simple language. You can lose the reader with florid language in scenes where lots are going on. The reader just wants to see what happens! Battles are exciting for readers; your job is to make sure those pages keep turning.
  • Avoid the use of the passive voice. If you’re unsure about this, check out my guide on the active and passive voice here.
  • Use short sentences. A short sentence increases the pace, whereas medium and long sentences temper it. It’s hard to get lost in a shorter sentence too, making it nice and easy to follow. If you’d like a good example of short sentences used well, check out Anna Smith Spark’s debut novel The Court of Broken Knives.
  • Be specific. Name locations, individuals, weapons. Not only will this enhance the scene, but the reader will also be drawn deeper into it, allowing them to follow what’s going on and experience the unfolding events.


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Show v tell

It’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about fight scenes rather than actually showing them. As a reader, merely being told what happens is boring. We want to experience it.

One of the things that other forms such as film and TV lack are the ability to show the reader how a character is feeling. Battles and wars are chaotic and brutal and those involved experience horrific things which stick with them forever. Explore such things through the thoughts of your characters. Ask questions: how would you feel as you stood on the walls of a keep as thousands of orcs charge toward you? How would it feel to swing a sword and cut through flesh and bone? Perhaps your character is indifferent to death and fear, even thrives on it.

show v tell

How would it feel to be a rider of Rohan in the moments before charging into the army of Mordor?

There are ways for you to do more showing and less telling:

  • Use the five senses. For more on this, you can check out my blog post here.
  • Make your character connect with things going on around them, such as helping a comrade who’s about to be gutted, or targeting a specific enemy across the battlefield.
  • Make the character use resources around them in interesting ways. Perhaps they use a ballista to disrupt the charge of an onrushing foe. I always think of Legolas and how he used a charging oliphaunt to take out another.
  • If you’re writing a large battle scene in which you wish to cover a lot, you could use numerous perspectives to reveal how things are developing across the battlefield. It gives a variety of emotion and perspective too, enriching the tale. I return again to James Barclay, who’s excellent at using perspective in battle.
  • The prolific author Brandon Sanderson says to avoid using the word ‘felt.’ I don’t see the big problem with it—a lot of good writers use it—though when used too much it comes across as lazy. Show how it feels rather than just saying it.
  • You can use italics for introspective thought. I first came across this in George R.R. Martin’s writing, and a lot of other authors use it too. It’s an excellent way to get closer to a character, and a great way of getting around just telling emotions.


A final few things

Break moulds

It’s easy to get sucked into the ideas we’re familiar with, such as those we see on the screen or read about in the history books. The great thing about writing and crafting your own tales is unlimited possibilities. You could write about a single battle involving a million people, or the siege of a giant fortress, like in David Gemmell’s Legend. You could even do what this chap did and set sixty thousand medieval warriors onto three hundred Jedi. Think of interesting and different places fights or battles could take place. Let your mind run wild.



Bear in mind the tone you wish to set. Is this fight going to be one of desperation? Anger? Helplessness? This is a very important influence as to how you write the fight, particularly in the emotional reactions of your characters and how it all pans out.



Make a decision as to how lifelike you wish your fighting to be. In medieval times if armed with a sword and shield a soldier held up their shield while swinging wildly over the top or side, all the while bashing forwards to try and push the enemy line back or break it altogether. Gracefulness was cast aside in such bloody warfare. Survival by any means was everything.

Take the time to learn how weapons work. Assume nothing. Visit museums like the Royal Armouries in Leeds, historical sites like castles and keeps, even do a few archery or sword fighting lessons. Quite a few authors do. It’ll give you crucial experience and knowledge, allowing you to write with more depth and conviction.

Battles don’t have to be lifelike, though. It could be like L.O.T.R. where highly competent characters cleave their way through entire armies. Consistency is key.

And since we’re on the topic of L.O.T.R. I thought I’d end this article with my favourite battle scene of all time: the Ride of the Rohirrim. Thank you for reading!

Extra resources

I have a few related articles you may find interesting:

How Do You Plot A Story?

Architectural Suspense

How Do You Create Tension?

A Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Castles and Keeps

A Fantasy Writer’s Guide to Medieval Weapons

If you’d prefer something more visual, then I recommend checking out the BBC TV show ‘Time Commanders’. It uses a game engine to reenact some of the greatest battles in human history. Very binge-worthy television, if you’re into that kind of thing.

You can also play the game they use in Time Commanders to re-live history’s greatest battles. It’s called Total War Medieval II – The Definitive Edition. There’s also good old Age of Empires too.

To help me get in the mood for writing battle scenes, I often stick on some epic tunes. I have a go-to playlist packed with all my favourites. You can check it out for yourself below:


16 thoughts on “A Guide To Writing Fight Scenes

  1. Great suggestions. Thank you for this. I have issues with this during fight scenes, but possibly a little of the opposite as well. I sometimes get tunnel vision. I think about only what the POV character sees and I, as the author, “forget” what’s going on around him. This may not be so bad considering POV, but the fight scenes are a lot more interesting when I zoom out and consider the effects that the battle as a whole can have on my character.

    1. My pleasure! I’m glad you found it useful. They’re one of the most technically tricky things to write, fight scenes. I think your approach is a good one if you’re writing in that perspective. Your POV character wouldn’t know what was going on elsewhere. That’s where different characters with different perspectives come into play.

  2. You have given some really great suggestions here. A problem, one many young and new writers have, is learning the difference between cinematography and writing a story. In modern times we’re inundated by film that can give us play by play, but that isn’t what engages us. I’ve known roleplayers and writers who consistently want tot ry and have these amazingly epic battles, and it is very sad to watch them get frustrated with other people because they just don’t get why 90% of people get invested in battles. The action is heightened by feeling concerned for a cause or a character. The mood connects us to intense feelings of hope or despair. Sometimes a quick stabbing can have far more weight than a battle out of 300. Macbeth doesn’t even show the violence traditionally, but it does show the blood and the writing is evocative of so much feeling through an action described more than shown. It all comes down to…cinematography doesn’t translate to a page. It can’t, but your post definitely highlights approaches to make scenes engaging and powerful. I’ll have to reblog this for my readers!

  3. Reblogged this on Coco by Monthly Press and commented:
    This is a really thought provoking blog on how to approach writing fight scenes. It is very tempting, for young writers and new writers, to make action scenes into anime or the Matrix (OR the Ani-Matrix). Once upon a time I was one of them, but it quickly became apparent that it didn’t work. Fiction text isn’t the same as what appears on the screen. Clarity should top flashiness, mood should always be conveying the tone you intend, and the closer you get to those fighting the more you use the possibilities of fiction to their full capabilities. BUT that’s just my take, what do you all think?

  4. Reblogged this on Richie Billing and commented:


    If you want more of this kind of thing, you can get my creative writing eBook for FREE when you sign up to my mailing list. Over 150 pages of tips, hints and guides on everything from characerisation, plotting and prose, to world-building, dialogue and editing.

  5. It’s funny how you mention films as being clearer on the blow-by-blow details of fights. I find that newer films have begun making fights a lot more chaotic and abstract. Look at the Transformers films. The fights are fast, there are many (big) moving pieces, the camera is moving all over the place–it is very hard to focus on any one strike or element of the fight. Of course, certain cool bits–like a guy dumping his motorcycle as he slide between the legs of a giant robot shooting up at it–are focused on, but the fight on a whole is rather unclear. I think writing fights should be similar, abstract but with a few cool maneuvers given proper detail.

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