A guide to writing fight scenes

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On social media, forums and Reddit of late I’ve seen quite a few people asking about writing fight scenes. So this week, with axes in hand, I thought we’d battle our way through it.


There seems 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 or retreated. 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 fight scene or stop reading altogether.

That’s not to say you should avoid blow by blow. Used well, it reveals a 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. For another good example we return to the father of fantasy, Tolkien. 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

clarity

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

 

Battles by their nature are frantic affairs. Lots going on, many people involved. If it’s not clear what’s going on 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.
  • Tone down the use of metaphors and similes. Use simple language. You can lose the reader with florid language in scenes where lots is going on. The reader just wants to see what happens! Battles are exciting for readers; your job is to make sure that page keeps 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 short 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, the reader will be drawn deeper into it, allowing them to follow what’s going on and experience the unfolding events.

 

 

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 is 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? 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, though it does seem lazy. Show how it feels, rather than just saying it. If you have a sentence with it in, try thinking of different ways to show how your character feels.
  • 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 the 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.

 

Tone

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.

 

Lifelike?

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 leave you with a clip from my favourite battle.


Thanks a million for reading! I hope its shed some light on things. If you found it useful please subscribe! I do a new post every week on the craft of creative writing and the genre of fantasy. Any requests, please get in touch.

12 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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.

      Like

  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!

    Liked by 1 person

  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?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Richie Billing and commented:

    #throwbackthursday

    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.

    Like

  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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