Make Your Fight Scenes 20% Cooler
Have you ever read a fight scene so riveting it stole your breath? One that had your pulse pounding, your eyes tearing through sentences so fast you skipped words, and your hands gripping the book tight enough to make a librarian squeal? And by the time you finally looked up at the clock—it was 2:30am and you were vicariously spent? That’s the kind of fight scene I’m talking about. That’s the kind of fight scene every author wants to write and every reader wants to read.
But fight scenes are deceptive! The feverish, frenzied pace of such scenes make it easy to miss the technical wizardry authors employ to keep their fight scenes fierce. And in the absence of understanding, it’s easy to fall back on blow-by-blow descriptions, backed by the literary equivalent of the shaky cam. But this will only ever approximate the flash and bang of your favorite fight scenes. (And it will make some of us dizzy and nauseated.) Besides, I know you want a fight scene that’s at least 20% cooler.
So! In pursuit of coolness, I’ve identified four things key to my favorite fight scenes. These things, when absent, can turn the most brilliant idea into a slog of a scene. But when present? They can transform a fight scene from meaningless filler into that heart-stopping, epic fight scene we all dream about.
Clarity is so important. Confusing fight scenes achieve the spectacular triple-threat of forcing me out of the immersive experience of the book, not letting me understand what’s going on, and making me it feel like it’s all my fault for not being a smart enough reader. And for that reason, I’d say the number one most important thing in a fight scene isn’t the creative use of props, or freakishly accurate fighting styles, or even a proper breakneck pace: it’s clarity. Take it from me: it doesn’t matter how brilliant your swordplay is—or how accurate the physics of your chartreuse slime ogre—if I can’t tell what’s going on, I am not going to enjoy your fight scene.
So, before you start writing, try to have the fight scene plotted out in your head like a scene in a movie. Or even take that literally, and sketch it out in frames like an animator, or move miniatures around on a battle map like a Roman general, or even grab a good friend and work through the motions with broom handles and nerf guns. (Really, you should try that last one anyway.) Make sure you know what the important beats are and what’s going on emotionally for the characters at each point. This part can also help you see opportunities—and plot holes--you might otherwise miss.
Once you know what’s going on, try to write it out as simply and as plainly as you can—just to make sure it’s all there. Don’t get me wrong: I love poetic language and flashy descriptions. I’ve been known to read some entirely improbable scenes, squeeing all the while. But make sure you don’t pull out the spray paint before you’ve got an outline down! That way, you can make sure you like the shape of it before you spend the time and effort to tart it up.
Use the Environment
Fight scenes rarely happen in a vacuum! And, while I’m not saying you need to bring the barstools and bottles into every confrontation, there’s a definite benefit to thinking of your surroundings when picking a fight. Not only is it a smart move for the characters, making them seem extra clever—it’s also a nice break from sword- and fist-swinging, and can provide some really interesting imagery. In particular, consider things that provide boundaries, things that give a fight levels, and things that provide interesting effects.
Boundaries—like crevasses, cliffs, walls, narrow ledges, low ceilings, giant and ancient fallen statues, a string of isolated steps, pits of lava and/or acid, and walls of flame—create obstacles that heroes and villains can both find to their detriment and tactical advantage. Just ask Darth Vader how much harder a fight near a lava pit can be! Or Yoda in that Brisk commercial—squishing Darth Maul by using the Force to overturn a soda machine rather than fighting him saber to saber.
Levels—like tables, staircases, windows in the tops of doors, fences, balconies, trees , flying carpets, underwater areas, pits, and the tops of just about everything including monsters—take a fight from linear into the dramatic 3d. Basically? Think parkour. It means that suddenly, danger can come from any angle—and you can escape or rush to the attack with a chandelier swing, by skating down a gigantic elephant’s trunk on a shield, or even just by jumping down off a balcony. Levels add game-changing action that can in itself be the star of a fight--or flight--scene.
Effects—like slippery ice or sticky slime, bone-strewn floors, sandstorms, hallucinogens, darkness, and numbness—add realism and excitement to a fight scene. Even using weapons other than swords, like bows with trick arrows, butterfly knives, spiked chains, and brass knuckles, can make things more interesting. Effects are fight-defining visuals, and can turn your catwalk death match or bioluminescent cavern brawl into something both unique and memorable.
Express the Hero’s Motivations
Really? This rule applies to your whole book. But! It bears repeating about fight scenes. Too often, writers get so wrapped up in the mechanics of a fight scene that they forget what it’s really about: why they’re fighting. It sounds so simple, but it’s so often assumed that fantasy heroes fight because they’re heroes… in a fantasy. But your character’s motivation for fighting will define how they fight—and how they feel about it. Your hero needs a strong, evident reason to fight rather than to run away, bargain, or work to subdue their opponent. Even if that reason is, “they just love a good brawl.”
Strong fight scenes center around the hero’s emotions as much as their blades. Is the hero sad and reluctant? Furious and vengeful? Fearful and desperate? Having a bad argument with a friend right before a deadly fight can add an extra layer of stress—and fights reminiscent of tragic past battles can pull on a hero’s last nerve. In a great fight scene, the weapons and actions of your characters help to express what the characters are feeling. A sad character should fight differently than a desperate or reluctant or vengeful one.
Play with Pacing
Of course, writing is not only about what you say—it’s also about how you say it. And how you say it can have a huge impact on how people experience your story. For example, while normally I’d say to avoid passive voice, comma splices, and using the past progressive where simple past will do, they can be perfect tools for emphasizing an addled state of mind. And sentence fragments, while normally a no-no, can be perfect for emphasizing the frenetic pace of fighting—whereas overly long and flowery sentences can seem comically out of place. Think about how you can use structure to emphasize the pace, emotions, and style of each fight scene and character.
And that’s it! My four most solid tips for writing gripping fight scenes. Not too hard, eh? They scarcely scratch the surface of the toys you have to play with in crafting a killer fight scene, but they are an excellent place to start exploring. And with a little experimentation, you’ll be writing electrifying fight scenes in no time.