A fight scene is the culmination of good conflict. It starts as a slow simmer with arguments and minor offenses. But always boils over and climaxes in betrayal, first blows and physical conflict.
Problem is, most writers don’t know how to write a good fight to save their life (or their character’s!).
You’ve been building towards this explosive moment since page one. Now it’s time to deliver a bone crunching, knuckle busting fight scene that keeps your readers on the edge of their seats.
In this article I’m going to give you all the tools you need to do just that. So let’s get started!
Why Writing Fight Scenes is So Hard
On the surface, it seems like writing a good fight scene isn’t that difficult. A punch to the gut, a kick to the face, and a couple big explosions is all you need, right? WRONG.
Despite all the intense action scenes we’re typically used to that are fun to watch, they can be an absolute bore to read.
When watching a movie, you just sit back and enjoy the show. Your imagination doesn’t have to do too much work. You just unplug for a bit and enjoy the ride and let the screen do all the heavy lifting for you.
But when reading your imagination has to do all the work. It has to construct your fight scene blow by blow — if you write it that way 😉
Fight Scenes in Fiction vs. Fight Scenes in Real Life
In real life, fights are actually quite short. 30 seconds or less and someone is on the ground and the fight is over. They’re quick and fast paced.
But in literature fight scenes — if written incorrectly — tend to slow the pace. There’s only so many punches and kicks you can read before yawning.
This is the reason many readers simply skip over fight scenes in novel. They think “Yeah, yeah… punch, kick, blah blah blah… let’s get back to the juicy character driven drama I came here for.”
In this article I’m going to show you how to keep the readers hooked for every blow and be begging for more.
Fight Scene Guidelines
There are several guidelines or rules you should keep in mind when writing fight scenes. This will help you craft a good fight scene that keeps your reader engaged for every beat of the battle.
#1) Fight Scenes Should Always Advance the Plot
Just like sex scenes, your characters shouldn’t fight just to fight.
For every fight scene you plan on writing, ask yourself “What purpose does this scene serve?”
Tip: You should be doing this for every scene you write, not just fight scenes!
Does your fight scene act as a crucial plot point? Is it integral to later events in the story?
Or maybe it delays your hero from achieving their goal? Perhaps it reveals something about their character and who they really are?
Here’s how to find out if your fight scene moves the story forward:
Now read the scenes directly before and after. If you can still make sense of what happened, there’s no need for your fight scene.
#2) Less is More When it Comes to Description
In a scene where your characters are beating the snot out of each other, each sentence should feel like a punch to the teeth. Or a kick to the groin. A bullet to the shoulder.
Make the fight scene take as long to read as it would to take place. Less metaphors and similes, more raw action.
You’ll lose the reader with flowery, over-descriptive language. They just want to see what happens.
You want to increase the pace of your fight scene with short, choppy sentences. Only sprinkle in the longer description of the major blows or where needed to provide detail and realism.
Don’t pad the battle with a bunch of extra moves just to be fancy. And don’t drag it out until the audience gets bored.
Ask yourself, “Does this section of the fight truly enhance the quality of the battle scene?” If not, cut it.
If every part of your fight scene doesn’t showcase the character’s personality or abilities, or add tension, or affect the outcome of the fight, it’s just filler that should end up on the cutting room floor.
By removing all the parts of your fight scene that don’t improve it, you’ll make the parts that do shine all the more to your readers.
#3) Fighting is Boring. Story is Everything.
What makes a fight scene interesting isn’t the actual exchange of bullets or blows. It’s the story. The context behind the fight.
Readers don’t care about the fighting. They care about the characters doing the fighting, why they’re doing it.
The fight only matters if it has stakes. Watching two guys beat the crap out of each other isn’t interesting. But knowing what they stand to gain or lose from the fight is.
This is why commentators are so important to the world of professional sports. Often they spend several hours of pre-game air time going over the details of each player, coach, team, etc. to show why this game is so important to them.
Imagine you’re flipping the channels and come across some American football game. Pass, catch, run, kick… all in all not too exciting.
Now imagine that one team has won 15 games in a row. They’re hoping to go undefeated this year with a perfect record. If they do, they’ll make NFL history. Contract bonuses and new brand endorsements will also make their wallets fatter too. Lose, and their chance at the perfect record is gone.
The team they’re facing isn’t quite as good, but the stakes are just as high. They need to win this game or they won’t make it to the playoffs. Not only that, since they haven’t made it to the post-season in several years, there are rumors that they head coach will be fired and the starting quarterback will be traded if they fail to make it this year. It’s all on the line for them.
NOW we’ve got an interesting game. Every action, every play now matters to the audience. There’s way too much at stake not to care.
And that’s how your fight scenes should read too.
Charged with enough context, even an arm wrestling match can be high stakes and super engaging.
In fact, they already made a movie built around that premise:
Lincoln Hawk (Stallone) is a struggling trucker who arm wrestles on the side to make extra cash while trying to rebuild his life. After the death of his wife, he tries to make amends with his son who he left behind 10 years earlier.
Upon their first meeting, his son does not think too highly of him until he enters the World Arm Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas. His hope is to receive the grand prize of $100,000 and an expensive current custom semi-truck and thus start his own trucking company.
Lincoln is down and out and hard on his luck. He needs the money to get back on his feet and provide for his son.
If he loses, he loses more than just the cash and prizes. He loses his dream and the only family he’s got left.
The stakes make the story. And they make the fight too.
Nine Types of Action Scenes
Roughly speaking, there are nine types of actions scenes found in stories. These come from Ian Thomas Healy in his book Action!: Writing Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques.
These will help you to set up your fight scene and provide a greater context behind the fight and why and how it happens.
Nine Types of Action Scenes
- Escape — One character is trying to escape from another
- Rescue — One character is trying to rescue another
- Chase — One character is chasing another
- Race — One character is racing another
- Fight — A close combat fight between two or more combatants
- Shootout — A long range fire fight between two or more combatants
- Battle — An epic-scale battle between two warring armies
- Sports — A competitive event between two opposing teams
- Heist — A mix of Escape, Rescue (retrieve), and Chase
Read Ian’s book to get a more in-depth description of each type of scene. But this short list here will help you decide what type of scene you’re trying to write. This will act as the context and setting that your fight scene takes place in.
Five Types of Fight Scenes
Once you’ve used the list above to determine the context in which your fight scene is taking place, it’s time to choose what type of fight scene you’d like to write.
- One vs. One (The Duel)
- One vs. Many (The Gang Up)
- Few vs. Many (The Last Stand)
- Many vs. One (The Monster Attack)
- Many vs. Many (The Big Battle)
One vs. One — The Duel
Man vs. Man, mano a mano. This is the first kind of encounter that comes to mind when we think of a typical fight scene.
This is most often used in the final showdown between the hero and villain near the end of the story. It’s the climax of the conflict that you’ve been carefully constructing since page one.
But sometimes it’s also used when fighting a henchman or mini-boss of the main opponent. It isn’t just some low-level lackey or foot soldier.
The opponent must be skilled enough to present a challenge to your hero in a one-on-one fight.
A great way to think of this type of fight scene is by comparing it to a boxing match:
Two men enter. One man leaves. The duel.
One vs. Many — The Gang Up
The next type of fight scene is where you add a few (or a lot) of combatants to the opposing side.
Usually this is where the opponents are thugs and low level soldiers for the opposing side. Their individual skill isn’t what makes the challenge to fight, it’s their sheer numbers.
Often times the sole fighter is given a weapon, tool or super-power that gives them an unfair advantage against a single fighter, but enables them to take on the group as a whole.
Here’s a clip with a dozen examples:
As you can see, these types of scenes have been around quite a while (Bruce Lee clip), and are often quite the spectacle to watch.
Few vs. Many — The Last Stand
The next type of fight scene is One vs. Many kicked up a couple notches.
Add a few more fighters to the Hero’s side, and a WHOOOLE lot more fighters to the opponent’s side.
These types of fight scenes are typically used in a “last stand” type of scenario like the Alamo. But you’ll also find it used in the “storming the castle” finale of many stories.
The history of the Alamo present the perfect real life example. 200 or so Texans held off nearly 2,000 Mexicans over a 13-day siege.
Another example of this also staged as a last stand was the Battle for Zion from the movie Matrix Revolutions.
You see these types of scenes a lot in the Marvel Superhero movies. It’s usually a small group of powerful heroes vs. overwhelming hordes of not-so-powerful enemies. And that’s what makes the fight “fair”. The heroes have the power, the enemy has the numbers. But it could also be reversed…
Many vs. One — The Monster Attack
The next type of fight scene is used when one opponent is so overwhelmingly strong that it takes multiple fighters to take him down.
The perfect example of this, obviously, is Godzilla.
Whether it’s Godzilla, King Kong, or the Kaiju from the Pacific Rim franchise, audiences can’t get enough of this type of fight scene.
But it can also be used for smaller sized “monsters” too. And it doesn’t have to be a monster-sized force fighting them either.
In this scene from the Avengers, it takes all of their powers joined together to even come close to taking down the mad titan.
Many vs. Many — The Big Battle
This is by far the most challenging type of fight scene to write. Especially for novelists.
The reason big battle scenes between large forces are so hard to write is because it’s easy for the reader to get lost in all the action.
If you’re going to write a big battle scene, map it out first. Determine the physical geography first, then you can plan out of the different stages of the battle and where each of them takes place.
When writing a big battle scene, you’ll want to show the perspective of several characters to truly experience the battle as a whole.
The experience of the soldier on the field, the general watching over it, and the civilians trying to make it out alive are all different. So show them.
Watch this scene from the battle in Troy and count how many different character’s perspectives we get on the battle:
In just the first 30 seconds we get five different character’s perspectives.
- The Greek King Agamemnon making the battle cry
- The King of Troy Priam and Helen of Troy fearing what’s to come
- Achilles and his soldiers watching the battle from the sidelines
- The no-name soldiers in the thick of battle on the field
- The Troy princes Hector and Paris trying to get ready for battle
The Lord of the Ring Franchise does the well with their individual heroes. And they absolutely nailed it in Battle of the Five Armies:
Thorin, his Dwarves, Bilbo, Gandalf, Bard, Thranduil, Azog and the list goes on and on. They all have different action scenes and roles in the battle and each has a different perspective.
The reason different perspectives in a big battle scene is important is because it provides the context and stakes of the story.
Each character has their own goal and stakes in the battle. When you combine them all together you get a very complex and rewarding battle scene for your reader to enjoy.
How to Structure a Fight Scene
Now that you understand the different types of fight scenes and the contexts they can occur in, it’s time to learn how to structure a fight scene.
Four Main Phases of a Fight Scene
Most fight scenes happen in four different phases:
Here are the descriptions of each phase in more detail:
Phase #1: Setup
This is a combination of all the events leading up to the fight, and the “pre-game” of the fighting match itself.
Think of what you see the players do before a sporting event:
- Arriving at the stadium
- Putting on their uniforms and gear
- Interviews with sportscasters
- Stretching and warming up
- Getting in “the zone”
- Pre-game speech by the coach
- Team-specific tradition
- Prayer, both team and individual
- Taking the field, entrance into stadium
- National Anthem
- Lining up for the first play
The same kind of things happen for your fight scene. For a boxing match, you’d see the boxer getting his fists wrapped, putting his gloves on, shadow boxing in the locker room, and so on.
Phase #2: Complication
As the first quarter of the fight plays out, the fight should become more complicated for each fighter.
In essence, this means it should become apparent that neither fighter is going to have an easy fight. They’re going to have to put their mettle to the test and pull out all the stops if they want to win.
A good way to do this is to alternate who has the upper hand in the battle. This will make for a dynamic, unpredictable fight and show that neither fighter is going to have an easy match.
Phase #3: Crisis
About 3/4 of the way through the fight it reaches a crisis point. One of the fighters delivers a serious blow and gains the upper hand.
They will fight harder than ever now trying to press their advantage and end the fight. Both characters will take some damage and are starting to tire.
At this point the reader may think they know who is going to win the fight. It seems like it will be the person with the upper hand at this point.
Phase: #4: Resolution
The crisis builds to a point where one fighter is going all out on the offensive and the other is on the ropes barely hanging on.
The fight will be over soon, and you’ll need to decide who is going to win and how they’re going to do that. It’s never too late for a sudden reversal to have the underdog come out on top.
You won’t always write a fight scene that follows these phases, but that’s the general pattern to follow when starting out.
10 Stages of a Fight Scene
The fight scene happens in four main phases, but to break it down even further it generally happens in these ten stages:
- The Challenge — The challenge to fight is made and accepted
- Warm Up — Combatants warm up for the fight and get ready
- First Blow — First real blow or wounding takes place
- Complication — Defeating the enemy becomes more challenging
- Major Blow — Enemy delivers major blow as the better fighter
- Crisis — Enemy presses their advantage, fighting intensifies
- Reversal — Underdog surprisingly gains the upper hand
- On the Ropes — Characters must win before strength expires or they lose
- Resolution — Final blow delivered, winner is declared
- Aftermath — How has this fight affected your characters?
Watch these One vs. One scene below from Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon and see how many of these individual stages you can identify:
Pretty crazy huh? Breaking down a fight scene is much easier when you know the stages involved.
The Challenge is made within the first five seconds as Chuck Norris stands in Bruce’s way. No other signal is needed.
The fighters then proceed to Warm Up by undressing, cracking their knuckles, and shadow boxing.
The First Blow doesn’t happen until around the 2:40 mark when Chuck kicks Bruce in the face with a roundhouse kick.
Chuck starts to gain the upper hand and lands more and more blows. This is the Complication stage. Bruce realizes this going to be no easy fight.
Watch the rest of the fight to see how the other stages play out. It doesn’t follow the pattern exactly, but provides a good example of how to integrate most of the stages into your fight scene.
Three Main Variables of a Fight Scene
The fight scene is made up of three main components or variables that you can change to alter the fight:
- The Fighters
- The Arena
- The Odds
Each one of these components requires their own section to go into full detail. See each of them below.
Fight Scene Characterization — The Fighters
By far, the most important component to your fight scene is the fighters themselves.
The reason the combatants are so important is that story is about character. And the only way to provide story through a fight scene is by characterization of the fighters involved.
In this section will go over how to provide characterization for your fight scene in great detail.
The first and most important thing about your fighters is why they are fighting in the first place.
People need a strong reason to voluntarily risk physical injury or death. They’re not just going to enter a fight for no reason.
By becoming clear about what motivates your fighter to enter combat, you’ll make sure you don’t end up writing a meaningless fight scene just for nothing.
Fighters willingly enter combat for one or more of eight main reasons:
- Economic Gain
Survival is at the low-end, most basic end of the spectrum. Honor is at the high end.
Here are the motivations to fight described in more detail.
Survival — When zombies attack, it’s a fight to survive. Your life is threatened and you must do all you can to not end up dead.
Protection — You may not be in danger, but someone you care about is. Most often it’s loved ones. You’ll need to risk your life to protect them.
Revenge — You have been greatly wronged and insulted. It’s time to get revenge. Blinded by rage, you attack those who harmed you.
Ideology — Religion, Nationalism, Democracy vs. Communism. You’ve got different beliefs, and yours are superior, so they must be destroyed.
Economic Gain — They’ve got resources or territory you want, so take it. Water, food, precious metals… history is full of these kinds of fights.
Dominance — All social groups have a pecking order, and those on top seek to maintain their position. It’s what high school bullies are made of.
Sport — Whether it’s to test your abilities, win fame and prizes, or simply the thrill of battle, so people just like to fight for the sport of it.
Honor — Honor is integrity and the right to respect from your equals. If you get hit, you hit back. Fail to fight and you will be shamed. People rarely fight for honor alone. But it can really show characterization when present.
Beware making your fighter’s motivations to fight simply for the sake of pure evil. You often see this late into the career of horror movie franchises.
The Nightmare on Elm Street Film Franchise is a whopping nine movies long. And while it starts off with Freddy seeking revenge and collecting souls to increase his powers, by Freddy’s Dead he becomes a flat-out boring homicidal maniac killing people for no reason. Yawn.
Goal + Obstacle = Confrontation
The way to think about fight scenes is that your characters have a goal, their opponent stands in the way, and the must confront them to achieve it.
Fighters always have their reason for fighting (see above), but they should have a concrete goal they’re looking to achieve too. This is linked to the overall character goal for the story.
Here are some good goals for your characters in the fight scene:
Win — The fighter wants to win the fight for money or resources
Stop — The fighter wants to stop the opponent from causing more harm
Escape — The fighter wants to escape, and the opponent tries to stop him
Retrieve — They want to retrieve something in the opponent’s possession
By identifying your character’s reasons for fighting and the goal they’re trying to achieve, you’ll have locked down their character motivation.
How to Set the Stakes for Your Fight Scene
To determine the stakes for your fight scene, ask yourself what your hero stands to lose or gain from the fight. Especially what they will lose.
Here are some good stakes to consider for your characters:
- Lives of their loved ones
- Their own Life
- National Safety
- Livelihood or Career
- Access or Inclusion
The more of those things that are at risk, the higher the stakes for your character.
But that doesn’t mean you have to cram them all in there. Even just one of them will suffice.
Once established, be sure to remind the reader from time to time what’s at stake so they don’t forget. This is a story strategy as a whole, but reminders during or near the fight itself are paramount.
The simplest way to do this is to cut away to the stakes. Although it’s a little harder to do in a novel than in film.
For an example, look no further than Silence of the Lambs. The story occasionally switches from Clarice’s search for the kidnapped woman to the kidnapped woman herself.
This constantly reminds the reader and audience what’s at stake. That way when the story switches back to Clarice they’re all the more invested in seeing her achieve her goal.
How to Set the Tone of the Fight Scene
Taking all of the above into consideration, you will create a certain tone for the fight scene. Usually based around a certain motivation and the reason why the characters are fighting or what they’re fighting for.
Is your hero fighting out of desperation, doing anything he can to save his family and his country?
Are they fighting out of anger, seeking revenge on those who wronged them?
Or are they fighting for pride, taking a stand against their oppressors and defending their freedom?
Watch these two scenes from the same film, Braveheart. See if you can notice the different in tone for each scene:
In the first scene, Wallace seeks revenge against the English soldiers that murdered his wife in cold blood. It’s a very serious, somber, rage filled fight scene, and it shows.
In the second scene, Wallace gives a rousing speech prior entering the battle. The speech gives the fight a whole new meaning and feeling. Instead of feeling like the underdogs, his fellow fighters now believe they have a chance. It’s a fight of hope and freedom.
How to Show Character Through Combat
The way your character fights — and whether they choose to fight or walk away — tells the reader a great deal about them.
If you have a character that’s passionate and fierce, they could brazenly attack their opponents in a blind rage. Nothing by haymakers and body slams. They tear up the room as they go wild in battle.
If your character is more calm, cool and collected perhaps they attack with practical precision. They move swiftly and efficient about the room as they land their honed strikes on the opponent.
Or you can do the opposite. Mr. Cool brings out the wild side in combat, and Mr. Fierce becomes cold and calculated when it’s time to brawl.
Characters can also learn something about themselves and the world through combat. The cocky champion can realize they’re no longer atop the food chain. The scrawny underdog may realize he’s stronger than he thought he was.
Using the fight to give your readers insight into your characters is a great opportunity to show who your character really is in a high pressure situation.
10 Questions to Ask About Your Fighters
Here are some questions you should ask about your fighters when designing your fight scene:
1) What kind of skills or training do my fighters have? How do they compare to one another? Are they even or unmatched?
2) What kind of experience do my fighters have in battle? Are they hardened war veterans or rookie foot soldiers seeing battle for the first time?
3) Are there are specific physical traits that affect how my combatants fight? Do they give them an advantage or disadvantage?
4) Do either of my fighters have specific knowledge that gives them advantage? Do they know anything about the territory or battlefield that the opponent doesn’t? Do they already know their opponent’s weakness?
5) Are there any specific pieces of clothing, armor or props that affect the way my character fights? Do they give him an advantage or disadvantage?
6) What weaknesses do my fighters have? How hard are they to find or exploit? How will their opponents attack them?
7) Why does the character make the choices his does in the fight? How do each of those choices reinforce their characterization? How does each choice impact their internal or external goals?
8) What are the stakes for each character? What do they stand to win? What do they stand to lose? How would that loss or gain affect them?
9) What does this fight scene help the reader learn about the character’s strengths and flaws? What does the character learn about their own strengths and flaws?
10) What does this fight scene reveal about the story or what’s to come next? Does is show how strong the villain is? Does it show the hero still needs training if he’s going to win? Will one character seek revenge later for a loss in this fight?
Fight Scene Setting — The Arena
After the fighters themselves, the next most important thing to consider is the arena in which they fight.
The Colosseum, the boxing ring, the cage… these are all special arenas from real life that pit two fighters against one another.
To get a sense of how important the arena is to the fight, watch this short documentary about the history of the Roman Colosseum.
Your arena doesn’t have to be that intricate. It can be something as simple as a back-alley behind a bar. But it goes to show you that the arena can take on a character all of itself.
The Environment is a Weapon
The important thing to realize about the Arena is that it acts as a weapon itself. It is more than just a playing field.
Often you see characters using their environment to battle their foes. Coat hangers and plungers became makeshift weapons in a room. Bottle and bar stools get used as knives and mauls in an Irish Pub. The possibilities are endless.
Here are some things to consider about the arena and how they affect the battle your characters are having.
Eight Questions to Ask Yourself About the Fighting Arena
By answering these questions, you’ll have a well-crafted arena that has high impact on your characters and the fight scene.
1) What are the boundaries, hazards, and barriers to escape? How do they impact your characters in the fight?
2) Are there any exits, trap doors, or short cuts that you characters can use to hide or get an advantage in moving around the arena?
3) Are there any specific places to take cover or hide from your opponent? How will your fighters use these against one another?
4) What items or materials can become makeshift weapons, traps or tools the fighters use? What would commonly be found in this type of setting? How could your fighter use it against their opponent?
5) Are there any certain people, places or things in the environment that must be protected? Such as the crowd, civilians, bystanders or important objects that cannot be destroyed or damaged?
6) What about the environment can be destroyed to either impact the fighters or slightly change the arena? Broken windows, busted-down doors, and hollow walls make for good destroyable objects.
7) Are there any parts of the arena that differ from one another in terrain? Are there pools of water, quicksand, or slippery floors that impact the way a character must move around the arena?
8) Are there any obstacles or hindrances that affect the setting? Things such as weather, traffic, dangers animals, fire pits, lava pools and booby traps?
How to Use the Arena to Make Your Fight Scene Unique
The arena in which your characters fight has the most impact on the uniqueness of your fight scene. Not two arenas are alike.
The arena allows for unique set ups for battle that could only happen in your story. The fighters could be exactly the same, but the type of arena they’re in creates a unique and one-of-a-kind fight scene.
And that’s what you want. Your fight scene should try to be completely unique and original. Write it like it could only happen in your story and nowhere else. That’s what will make it memorable.
Watch these video clips and try to identify all of the variables detailed above and how they make these fight scenes unique to this story.
Some of these are a little over the top, but you’ll get the point.
Each one of those fight scene was totally unique. While they may have been copied in later films and stories, they’ll never fully be duplicated.
And if you want your fight scene to be memorable you must do the same thing too.
Granted, not all fight scenes are going to warrant this kind of spectacle and detail. Some are over in 30 seconds or only last a couple punches.
But when it’s all on the line for your fighters, craft a unique arena that will make the fight special and help it stand out in reader’s minds.
Fight Scene Odds — Favorites vs. Underdogs
The last thing you need to consider after creating your fighters and the arena is the fighter’s odds to win the fight.
Now, you don’t need to crunch the numbers into some algorithm and come up with the same sort of odds Vegas would. You should just take the odds into consideration when designing the fight.
It’s mostly a comparison of the two fighters and how the arena plays to their advantage.
Nine Questions to Ask Yourself About the Fight Scene Odds
1) What is the level of skill and experience each fighter has? Is one fighter significantly more skilled and experienced than the other one?
2) How physically fit are your fighters? Is one at the top of their game and the other still getting back into shape?
3) Does either fighter have an injury, obstacle or handicap that hampers their ability to fight their opponent?
4) How do the fighters stack up size wise? Is one much taller, shorter, thinner, fatter, or muscular than the other one? Is their size extreme enough that it plays a role in the fight?
5) Does one or both of your fighters have any special equipment or weapons that give them a unique advantage over their opponent?
6) Do either of your characters have special knowledge of the terrain or arena that the other does not? How will they use this to their advantage?
7) Do either of your fighters have any allies or sidekicks who will come to their aid or play a special role in influencing the outcome of the fight?
8) Was there any special preparation or training your fighters went through to be better prepared to win this fight?
9) How will luck, surprise and inventiveness in the moment affect the outcome of the fight for either or your characters?
Don’t Make Your Fighters Invincible!
Your fighters shouldn’t be invincible. Even Superman had a weakness to kryptonite. And your characters should have a weakness too. Both the hero and the villain.
Because if they don’t, there’s no stakes. To take the fight to the highest level it must be truly life or death. Without that the fight is just boring.
Ask yourself “What goes wrong for my hero in this battle?” Something always does, and it will help make your fight more entertaining for your readers.
Another good trick is to even make your hero the underdog. Make the villain seemingly much stronger than them. The hero will win through heart, determination and cunning. And that’s what readers love.
Give Your Hero The Moral High Ground
Another thing to keep in mind is which one of your characters has the moral high ground. The one that has it is the one your reader will be rooting for.
Readers like heroes who are perceived underdogs that fight for an honorable cause and put in the hard work to achieve their goals.
But readers also dislike overpowered goons that fight to hurt others and will cheat to get an unfair advantage on their noble opponents.
Mike Tyson was one of the most recognized and favorited boxers of all-time until hit bit his opponent’s ear in the middle of match.
That’s certainly not in the rules!!
This was a fall from glory for Tyson. His career was never the same after this match. He lost the moral high ground that comes with being a fair fighter and the crowd hated him for it.
For an example of this from film, take the movie Gladiator.
Just before the final fight between Commodus and Maximus, the snotty little emperor stabs Maximus in the back. Literally.
If you didn’t hate this guy already, no you REALLY hate him.
Not that you would’ve rooted for him if he had chosen to fight fairly. But cheating and losing any moral high ground he had left ensures you won’t.
At the same time, it also makes Maximus a bit of an underdog, causing the audience to root for him even more.
How to Raise the Tension for Your Fight Scene
Now that you know all the parts to create a fight scene, I’m going to show you how to raise the tension for the event.
The best way to raise tension for your fight scene is the process of escalation.
Escalation is the process in which you increase the intensity or seriousness of something. I’m about to show you how you do it for your fight scene.
Five Ways to Escalate the Tension:
- Increase the opponent’s advantage over the hero
- Increase the number and skill of opponents
- Increase the deadliness of the weapons
- Increase the deadliness of the arena
- Increase what’s at stake for the hero, what they will lose
Increase the Opponent’s Advantage Over the Hero
As you saw above, by making your hero an underdog the reader will root for them to win the fight.
Think of increasing the opponent’s advantage as an overall strategy to raise the tension for the fight scene. Below you’ll find specific ways to do it, but you may think of some on your own.
It’s good to have your hero start as the underdog, increase the opponent’s advantage until the hero is on the brink of destruction, and then have a reversal where the hero suddenly gains the upper hand and is able to defeat the opponent.
Increase the Number of Opponents and Their Skill
As the fight progresses, you can increase either the number of opponents, the skill of the opponents, or both.
A great example of this is the “One vs. Many” scenes detailed above. But you may also have the character encounter mini-bosses before fighting the main opponent.
You see this a lot in the video game industry. Your character fights a bunch of lackeys, and midway through the level they have to fight one single opponent with more skill and power than everyone he’s been fighting up until that point.
They’re not as powerful as the main opponent, but still pose a challenge to the hero.
Increase the Deadliness of the Weapons
Another way to raise the tension is to increase the deadliness of the weapons. This can either happen before the fight begins or at a middle point during the fight.
From pillow fight to boxing gloves to brass knuckles. Increasing the deadliness of the weapons means that each blow will cause far greater injury to the fighters.
Try to be unique and surprise your audience. Don’t just have the characters put down one weapon and pick up another. Here is a great example from the movie Kickboxer of a surprising way to increase the deadliness of the weapons.
This scene also shows how to increase what’s at stake for the hero, as well as make the arena deadlier than previous versions.
Another great example of deadlier weapons is from the movie Star Wars the Phantom Menace:
A double-sided lightsaber?! No way! Fans totally geeked out about this because it was something they had never seen before and was totally unique to the Star Wars Universe.
Increase the Deadliness of the Arena
A great technique for raising the tension is to increasingly make the arena more and more deadly to the fighters. Especially the hero.
One blazingly simple yet effective example of this is a scene from the action movie Die Hard:
Midway through the fight, the opponent realizes that the office building is full of glass and the hero is bare foot.
What better way to stack the odds against him than by shooting out all the glass to make the hero’s ability to travel around the arena much slower and more painful?
Increase What’s at Stake for the Hero
Watch the Kickboxer scene from above, and find as many clips as you can for the entire end fight sequence. That clip is only the beginning.
Before the fight starts, the town mobster Freddy Li pulls the hero aside and tells him that if he wants his brother to live, he has to let the opponent beat him up. They’ve got his brother held hostage and will kill him if he doesn’t comply.
Throughout the fight sequence, the film cuts to a warehouse where the hero’s brother is being held hostage. The film is literally showing you what’s at stake during the fight.
While this a little harder to do with a novel, it’s still possible. Just make sure to integrate the stakes into the scene. Either before, during, afterwards or all three depending on what’s at stake.
How to Describe a Fight Scene
Up till now, this article has covered how to structure a fight scene and all of the parts involved in making it happen.
Now we’re going to cover how to actually describe it. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you describe your fight scenes.
Don’t Choreograph Every Single Move and Attack
When it comes to writing a fight scene, less is more. Leave something to the reader’s imagination.
“They struggled” paints a far more vivid picture than if you were to describe the entire scene in detail. Leave out how their arms are positioned, exactly where they’re grabbing each other, etc.
If you describe every single detail of the fight you’ll bore the heck out of your reader. Not only that, you pacing and tempo will totally fall apart.
Remember what I said earlier. Most fights are over in 30 seconds or less. So if your scene takes five minutes to read you’ll kind of missed the point.
You just want to give the reader enough detail to let them construct the fight scenes in their minds. Instead of choreographing the fight for the reader, let them choreograph the fight themselves.
Think of it this way — violence is dialogue. Fight scenes are like conversations where blows takes place instead of words.
And just like no one wants to see ten pages of dialogue without a break, same thing goes for ten pages of kicks and punches.
So be careful of repetitive description. ““He hit him, and then he did this, and then he did that, and he’s like oh yeah?”, etc.
You’ll need to learn to integrate the characters thoughts and emotions along with the physical description. I’ll show how to do that in just a bit.
Outline the Main Fighting Beats
When writing a fight scene, it’s best to plan it all out first before you begin writing.
Start with the Four Phases and Ten Stages I went over earlier. And then go over each fight scene to plot out all the major beats and moments.
That will help you connect each phase and stage of the fight scene to one another. And ensure you’re leading the conflict to a resolution.
Once you’ve outlined all the main beats, then you can go back and start filling in the details and adding in the description.
Do Research to Ensure Accuracy of Time Period
Few of you will actually fired a gun before, and even fewer of you will have swung a broadsword from the middle ages. That’s why a little research can help with your description.
Luckily there are all sorts of YouTube videos out there today that make this research easier than ever. Never shot a gun before? Here’s an 18 minute video on the basics of handguns for beginners:
Only seen sword fights in the movies and have no idea how to actually swing one? Here’s a 35 minute video on how to fight with a longsword:
And the research doesn’t stop there. Stances, weapons, techniques, blocking, roles within a larger fighting group, etc. The list goes on and on. And the Internet has made it easier than ever.
So there’s no excuses not to be historically accurate with your weapon choices. The rapier wasn’t invented until the 16th or 17th century, so you medieval knights or ancient samurai shouldn’t be wielding one.
Don’t Get Bogged Down in Technical Details
But just because you have access to all the cool weapon and fighting terminology doesn’t mean you should use it.
See how many of these sword fighting words you can correctly define:
Half Iron Gate Guard
The Ninth Parry
I bet you got none. And neither will your readers. Don’t assume they’ll know what each one means. It’s ok to describe the thing itself, but don’t just call it by its name and expect readers to know what it is.
Watch this short clip from the Princess Bride where they poke a little fun at the whole notion of including technical fight terms in the scene.
Bonetti’s Defense? Capo Ferro? What the heck is all that?!
Instead of focusing on the technical terms, focus your description on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel of combat.
That’s what will pull the reader’s imagination into the scene. Not that a Forte is the section of the blade going from mid-sword to the hilt by which parries should be made.
Overwrite Your Fight Scenes Then Edit Down
Much like the rest of the story, it’s easier to overwrite the fight scene and then edit it down.
The main thing you’re going to cut is physical action. That’s where most writers overdo it.
As you write the fight, you’re choreographing it in your mind. So it makes sense to initially list every blow and move to ensure the logical and realistic movement of the fight.
But writing is not the same as reading. So you’ll want to go back and trim the fat. Try to focus on the major blows, not all the rabbit punches in between.
You’ll probably overdo the rest of the description as well. Many writers make the mistake of describing the emotion and thoughts of every single strike. But that too affects the pacing and slows the fight down.
You’ll want to use thoughts and description sparingly, and focus mostly on the action. Get it all out in the first draft, but then go back and edit down.
Use Strong Verbs and Avoid Adverbs
Mark Twain once said “I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me.”
And for good reason. An adverb is a word that supports a verb. And they can be useful at times. However, often they are best replaced with a stronger verb that gets the job done all on its own.
Instead of saying your character yelled “loudly” across the room, say that he “roared” at the top of his lungs.
Instead of saying the glass broke violently when it landed on the floor, say that it burst, shattered, or exploded all over the place.
When it comes to writing fight scenes, verbs are of key importance. After all, this scene is all about the action, so the verbs used to describe it have to be top notch.
Here is a short list of some powerful action verbs to use instead of “he hit him really hard” and other weak descriptions.
List of Strong Verbs to Use:
This list is by no means complete… there must be at least a dozen other strong verbs I haven’t thought of. So feel free to add your own.
Describe the Pain and Physical Effects of Emotion
The next thing to focus on describing is the pain and physical effects of the emotion that result from all those strong verbs.
Actions have consequences, and attacks have wounds. A good way to bring your readers in close to experience the battle is by detailing this.
This is essential to include because you must describe the fight through the perspective of the attacked or the attacker. Don’t just hover above like you’re watching a boxing match. That’s boring and will put your audience to sleep.
The first way to do it is by describing the pain experienced by your characters. This makes the fight seem much more real when you describe it in vivid detail.
Here are some examples:
- Vision blurred after the hammer came crashing down on his helmet
- Stabbing pain in my side as his spear pierced through my armor
- I could feel the warm blood trickle down my face
Describe the action, and then describe the pain that results from that action. This will make your fight scenes come to life and not read like it’s just a bunch of useless hacking and slashing that has no consequences.
Next, take some time go back over what you wrote and add in some details that describe the physical effects of the emotion being experienced.
A fight will definitely get your blood boiling as the adrenaline surges through your veins, so make sure to describe it and it’s effects.
- Fists trembling with rage
- Heart racing with fear
- Brows sweating
- Lungs surging and gasping for air
Illustrate characters’ reactions and emotions with physical demonstrators: pounding hearts, blood rushing in ears, weak legs, hazy vision, and so on. Highlight their fury, their desperation, and their feelings of triumph or defeat.
Notice that these are all highly visual moments. They translate well to both the reader’s mind and the silver screen. When you describe flesh sizzling on a hot stove, it paints a super vivid picture for your reader and pulls them into the scene.
Beyond the five senses (which we’ll get to in a moment) describing the pain, emotions felt, and physical manifestations of them will take your fight scene description on the next level.
Fight Scene Description Using the Five Senses
As with all description, to properly describe a fight scene you need to make use of our five sensory perceptions:
You’ll need to sprinkle these descriptions throughout the scene to properly paint a vivid picture for the reader to engage with and experience.
Let’s go over each of the five senses one by one.
How to Describe What You See in a Fight Scene
Sight is perhaps the most obvious and easy sense to describe in a fight scene. We are a highly visual species and use our eyes to interpret the world around us.
Humans have five senses: the eyes to see, the tongue to taste, the nose to smell, the ears to hear, and the skin to touch. But by far the most important organs of sense are our eyes. We perceive up to 80% of all impressions by means of our sight.
Therefore, as I stated earlier it’s important to focus on highly visual images for describing the fight scene. This is important for both screenplays and novels.
Watch this fight scene below from Pirates of the Caribbean and note which shots or images stand out for painting a vivid imagery for the scene:
Here’s a short list of the things I would use sight to describe:
- The overall scene: the wood, stone, and items in the environment
- The moment when Depp slides his blade up and down Bloom’s as a taunt
- The fancy footwork Depp uses, and the resulting dust and dirt that gets kicked up into the atmosphere of the scene
- Bloom’s sword stuck into the wall next to Depp’s head
- Depp’s physical struggle to remove the sword from the wall
- The fire poker Bloom picks up, and the Donkey hiding from the fight
- The machinery the two fighters battle on
- The wood cart they balance on midway through the fight
- The chain used to stick Depp to the beam, and his trouble removing it
- Bloom being launched into the rafters, cutting the barrels loose that launch Depp up to join him
- The jumping back and forth on the rafters trying to maintain balance
- The dust and ash sprayed into Bloom’s face to distract him
- The banging on the doors of people trying to get in
- The glass breaking over Depp’s head that knocks him out
All these visual moments act as anchor points throughout the fight, and give us moments to describe in detail and avoid repetitive hacking and slashing that would bore readers to death.
Use the sense of sight to help you create the main beats of your fight scene that are most visually stimulating to your reader.
Then use the other senses to fill in the details and fully flesh out the scene to bring readers in and have them experience it as if they were there.
How to Describe What You Hear in a Fight Scene
Hearing is a little more delicate and should be used more sparingly than sight — and so should the other senses.
Fight scenes are great time to introduce onomatopoeia into your narrative. Onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like what it is describing.
And I don’t mean turn your story into a old-school comic book where you use words like KAPOW! and SHAZAAM!!! to describe the action.
Use these subtle yet powerful descriptive words instead:
The swords should clang, the canons should boom, and fires should fizzle out long after the battle is over.
But the sound description doesn’t just have to be a result of the action. It can also describe the environment as this example does below:
“Distantly, I heard the frantic screams of my friends, but these were obscured by the blood pounding in my ears.”
Paints a clear picture doesn’t it? People are dying in the background and screaming from the sheer terror and the pain, and all the excitement has gotten our hero’s heart racing. Will he be next?
Use the sense of hearing to describe not only the action and fighting itself, but also the surrounding environment. Not just what your character hears in the immediate area, but what they hear far off in the distance as well.
How to Describe What You Taste in a Fight Scene
Didn’t think you’d describe taste in a fight scene, did you? Well think again. It’ll be used far less than the other senses, but can make a great impact on the description when used appropriately.
When using taste to describe a fight scene, avoid abstract and fanciful description like “He could taste fear in the air” and other such nonsense. While it sounds fancy, your readers have never “tasted” fear so the description won’t do anything for them.
Instead, stick to description that’s much more concrete and real:
“Her fist slammed into my jaw and I tasted a surge of coppery blood. Sullied blood mixed with strawberry lip gloss was a strange taste indeed.”
That’s something your reader can taste, not the fear in the air. So keep it simple and make it real for the best effect.
How to Describe What You Touch in a Fight Scene
Next to sight, this is the easiest sense to convey when describing a fight scene. After all, fights are a highly physical interaction, and so the feeling of the physicality should be described.
Probably the thing you’ll want to focus most on when describing touch is the feel of the impact. Not only when you character is attacking, but when they are defending too.
“The wind had been knocked clean out of me; as I lay gasping on the floor, it felt like I would never breathe again.”
We can almost feel the thud of the character hitting the floor and the tightness in his chest as he gasps for air. That’s how to describe physical feeling in a fight scene.
Go back to the list of strong verbs to use when describing a fight scene, and imagine how those verbs would feel.
How would it feel to rip through your enemies with an enchanted sword that cuts like a knife through butter?
Or have your shield crumpled by a war hammer smashing down on you, swung by a man twice your size?
Use the blows and major physical movements as your guide and describe touch and you can’t go wrong.
How to Describe What You Smell in a Fight Scene
Smell is a really good sense to add to a fight scene because while it usually doesn’t play any major role in the outcome of the battle, it does help pull your reader into the atmosphere.
For example, let’s say your fight scene takes place in a back alley behind a local bar. What would your characters smell?
The dumpster overflowing with the weekend’s trash, the stagnant dirty water pooling in the corner that’s starting to fester, the vomit and bile splashed on the wall from the guy who had too much to drink last night, and so on.
If the fight takes place in a garage, there’s probably a lingering scent of motor oil or tire rubber that pervades the room. Describing that can help pull your reader into the scene like they’re actually there.
Just be sure to only describe things that are concrete and can actually be smelled by the reader. You can’t taste fear in the air, and so you shouldn’t be able to smell it either. Stick to what’s real and not imaginary.
Does Thought Description Work in Fight Scenes?
When describing a fight scene, it’s best to take a balanced approach. Describe a little of the blow by blow action, describe the sights, sounds and smells of battle, and a little bit of thought or emotional reflection… if it fits.
But most of the time, it doesn’t. Thought description and emotional reflection mostly doesn’t work in fight scenes because it doesn’t play a big part in the immediate physical reality of the situation.
In other words, you can’t sit there thinking about your feelings when you’re too busy worrying about getting your head chopped off.
There’s plenty of sensory information to describe, which is why it’s often better to focus on the five senses. The taste of blood, the ringing in the ears, the ache of your injuries. Not how you feel about all of it.
If you’re going to show thought, do it sparingly, and only when there is a break in the action. Before the battle and after the fight is over are best, but if you can find a quiet spot in the middle of the scene you can do it there too. Just don’t remain there too long or you’ll lose momentum.
When reflecting, your characters are mostly going to be thinking about three main things:
- What was lost
- What was won
- The deaths of their enemies and allies
Either you win, lose, or break even, but no gain comes without some loss. And while the deaths of your friends will certainly be the most pertinent, even the death of your enemies can bring a horror and sadness all their own. So keep your focus there if you decide to include it in your fight scenes.
How to End a Fight Scene
So, you’ve set up your fight scene, taken your fighters through the different phases and stages of a fight, and described it well. Now what?
Well, this fight has to end somehow. Here are the five ways to do it.
- Run Away
- Knock Out
Now let’s go over each of them one-by-one.
Death — In this ending, one or both of the characters dies. It’s as simple as it sounds, and is how most action stories end. The good guy kills the villain and the fight is over.
Surrender — This is when one character gives up and taps out, surrendering the battle to the other fighter. This is mostly done in exchange for mercy and saving your own life when it’s realized the battle is lost and there’s no use in continuing the fight.
Run Away — Surrender? NEVER! Run away and live to fight another day! Characters will take this action when the odds are too overwhelming, or surrendering will just lead to death anyways. So they disengage and escape to return to fight another time when they have a better chance at winning.
Knock Out — This is when one character deals a blow so damaging that the other fighter is unable to continue the fight. It’s not a permanent status like death, but losing a limb can be just as bad for a fighter. Just ask Jamie Lannister!
Interruption — Sometimes outside forces will interrupt a fight scene and prevent it from reaching its natural conclusion. If two gangs and fighting and the cops show up, it’s time to get out of there before you get arrested! But it doesn’t have to just be the authorities, all kinds of things can stop a fight. So get creative.
The Perfect Fight Scene Example — Fury Road
If there was one fight scene you could learn more than any other one, it’s the fight between Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa in Fury Road.
This is probably the most toned down fight scene of the entire film, yet it has enough other ingredients to make it absolutely thrilling.
At the beginning of this scene, there are four conflicting goals in play:
- Max wants to unchained and escape the scene in Furiosa’s war rig
- Furiosa wants to get rid of Max and Nux and escort the wives to safety
- Nux (unconscious guy) wants to capture the wives for Immortan Joe
- The wives want to escape, but without any unnecessary killing
As if this wasn’t enough, the tension is further raised by the threat of Immortan Joe’s Posse closing in that might just kill them all.
Plus, any character that doesn’t achieve their goal and gets left behind, will likely be killed, tortured, or greatly harmed. So it’s do or die.
The chain binding Max’s head to the unconscious Nux is probably one of the greatest fight scene props of all time. It’s used by every side in unique interesting ways throughout the fight. It makes the scene one of a kind.
The scene also does an amazing job of using the arena as a weapon:
- The threat of a shotgun blast
- Using it as a club when she realizes it’s empty
- The pliers that take its place
- The truck door used as a shield
- The chain used to trip Furiosa, later used as a leash and a choking device
- The hidden pistol on the truck
- And even the water hose! Perfection.
Plus, the fight scene reveals character. Furiosa’s name is well earned, as she’s simply the most bad-ass female fighter I think I’ve ever seen. She’s relentless in attacking Max and trying to take him out.
And when Max is given the opportunity to kill her, he doesn’t… so he’s showing that he’s not some ruthless bad guy like the posse they’re running from.
Your fight scenes should make all efforts to be as close to on par with this fight scene as possible. Not every one of them will be, as this is near-perfect, but it sets a standard you should strive for if you want your fight scenes to stand out from the crowd and be memorable.
Fight Examples from Books & Novels
I’ve given you plenty of examples from movies, but it’s another thing when it actually comes to writing what you see.
So here are some fight scene examples from some great stories that you can use as a guide when writing your own fight scenes.
Fight Scene Example #1
Fight Scene Example #2
Fight Scene Example #3
So there you have it! That’s just about everything I can think of to consider when writing a fight scene!
I hope you learned a thing or two that makes your writing better.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or post in the comments below and I’ll get your question answered!