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5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Fight Scenes

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

Fight scenes are dangerous territory for writers. On the surface, they seem as if they’re guaranteed to keep the reader glued to the action in the same way as they often do at the movies. In reality, though, readers tend to skip over fight scenes – skimming the long, tedious, blow-by-blow descriptions in favour of getting back to the dialogue and character-driven drama that truly engages them in the story.

My novel, Traitor’s Blade, is a swashbuckling fantasy in which fight scenes are a crucial part of the storytelling. This means having to ensure that every piece of action is vital and engaging; it means that every duel must draw the reader in and not let them go until the end. So how do you keep the pacing, flow, and more importantly, the drama moving forward with so many fights?

GIVEAWAY: Sebastien is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in the US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Mutineer won.)

 

Screen shot 2014-07-27 at 11.44.18 PM     Screen shot 2014-07-27 at 11.44.04 PM

Column by Sebastien de Castell, who had just finished a degree in archaeology
when he started work on his first job. Four hours later he realized how much he
hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician,
ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager,
actor, and product strategist. His first novel is TRAITOR’S BLADE (Jo Fletcher
Books, July 2014), which can be found on Amazon or IndieBound. The
swashbuckling fantasy was recently praised by NPR. Connect with the
author on Facebook or Twitter.

1. Make every fight advance the plot

No matter what you might think, violence is actually boring. Watching two hulking brutes bash at each other with clubs isn’t interesting. Only when one of the brutes is smaller, weaker, and trying desperately to stay alive long enough to let his people know that the enemy is coming does the action start to matter to the reader. But don’t just think in terms of climactic battles or killing off enemies. Sometimes the fight provides a crucial piece of information about the antagonist such as a particular type of cut they make that could explain the wounds on a victim the protagonist discovered in the previous chapter. The fight might also wound your protagonist, slowing them down in later scenes and giving you a chance to make their lives harder and therefore increase the suspense.

2. Reveal character through action

The way your protagonist fights – and when they choose to fight or walk away – tells the reader a great deal about them. Your hero might be a skilled but retiscient warrior or they could be an amateur but with a bloodthirsty streak that comes out when confronted with violence. But don’t just stop with your protagonist or their opponents. Think about what the action reveals in those watching the fight. Does the seemingly helpful mentor figure suddenly become enraptured watching the blood flow? Do the innocent bystanders just sit there or do they scramble to help? Fight scenes that reveal character are by far the most compelling ones for readers – they get to investigate your characters by seeing how they deal with violent situations, allowing you to follow that classic dictum of modern writing: show, don’t tell.

(Hear agents get specific and explain what kind of stories they’re looking for.)

3. Your fight scenes must fulfill the promise of your book

Traitor’s Blade is a swashbuckling fantasy so every fight has to give the reader some of that sense of wonder they first encountered watching classic adventures like the old Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks films. But perhaps your genre is gritty historical fiction. If so, the last thing you want to do is break suspension of disbelief. You have to carefully ensure that the weapons and fighting styles are true to your era (note: this doesn’t mean you can’t have a longsword in the 18th Century since they were around for long periods of time after their proper era, but you can’t have King Arthur swinging a rapier around in 6th Century Britain!)

4. Make every fight unique

I read a YA fantasy recently in which almost every fight involved the main character jumping up and spinning in the air to kick opponents in the face (usually two or three.) Regardless of how unrealistic this would be (after all, realism only matters if it’s part of the promise of your book), the fact is you probably couldn’t remember one fight from another. By contrast, think of a movie like The Princess Bride, in which every fight is special – every conflict is resolved using different means, whether trickery or skill or simply iron-willed determination.

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)

5. Let the reader choreograph the action

If you describe every action of the fight, not only will you bore the reader but your pacing and flow will fall apart. So think of your job not so much as having to meticulously choreograph the fight but rather to give the reader enough insight into the action that they can build the scene in their minds. Show them early on in the fight how each weapon moves through space—make that vivid and visceral. Make the reader feel as if they could actually pick up that weapon and defend themselves even just a little bit. Then you’re free to focus on the character’s actions and reactions—making them distinct, personal, and emotionally motivated just as you do with their words. The reader will then be able to fill in the action while you describe what your characters are saying, what they’re thinking, and what’s showing on their faces. In other words, help the reader to choreograph the fight so that you can spend your time on the drama. This also lets you vary the length of your fight scenes, which helps to keep them from becoming predictable. In Traitor’s Blade there are fights which span an entire chapter and others which are told in four lines.

Think of it this way: violence is dialogue. Make your fights into a conversation spoken with actions in which the real conflict is happening in the hearts of the characters and in which the reader themselves are helping to tell the story.

GIVEAWAY: Sebastien is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in the US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Mutineer won.)

 

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13 Responses to 5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Fight Scenes

  1. burrowswrite says:

    Great tips! Thank you for your column.

    • suzyann68@att.net says:

      Sebastien, thank you for sharing your advise to us. One point I really focused in on was to make each fight scene unique, it has to reveal deeper parts of the characters, the cuts they make and the way they fight will help the reader color in the picture. It is important not to copy from a previous scene, readers pick up on it immediately and it shows a lack of effort from the story-teller. What a challenge! I love these bits of insight on writing.

  2. crials says:

    I enjoyed this post. I am writing my first novel with fight scenes and this gives me useful guidance for the next two major fights scenes. Thank you!

  3. IamVandee says:

    I really like this. Sometimes I find it hard to decide whether or not two characters should even fight. I always have a planned out exit strategy in my head, if not. Which sometimes can play out well for the story, or just keeps my up the next night trying to edit it. Thanks for the info!

    Augusta
    (IamVandee)

  4. Debbie says:

    I love the tip on letting the reader choreograph the action. By giving them the characters and setting the scene, they can then develop how the hero or villain fits their overall perception of the entire story. This allows the reader’s heart and mind to be a part in developing the scenes. Love it! Thank you.

  5. Mutineer says:

    1 and 2 remind me of Vonnegut’s advice: “Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.” Number 5 was quite useful, new (to me anyway), and well explained.

  6. TCooley says:

    Well-written fight scenes in novels are probably the scenes I return to most frequently after finishing reading, and I’ve come to notice how the real meat and beauty of the scenes are less in the detailed fighting than they are in the characters’ thoughts. But replicating that balance of action and thought? Always been tricky. The advice to write a fight scene so that it communicates intimate information about a character/ characters to the reader makes how to ‘attack’ these scenes so much clearer. (Yes, awful pun.) So thanks! I’d love to see how this advice pans out in Traitor’s Blade.

  7. lionetravail says:

    Great advice. Thank you for this good stuff to think on.

  8. DAllenMurphy says:

    I agree that any fighting needs to serve a purpose. That can include character development, plot line advancement, development of your world’s cosmology, or ratcheting up the danger/tension of the story. I am working on a three-part YA fantasy adventure and I can tell that your book would be of tremendous help to me, and countless others. Thanks for taking on this project and providing this valuable reference for the rest of us. –DAllenMurphy

  9. After I read your article, I had to wrap my brain around the concept of a fight being dialogue. I love that. I’m in the outlining stage of my next novel and I am going to keep that in mind. Thanks so much for the great advice.

  10. MariecorJason says:

    Always wondered how fight scenes were choreographed for readers — i.e. the dueling in 3 Musketeers, or even martial arts scenes for the book version of a Jackie Chan film. Thanks for the article. Would love the book!

  11. IsaacN says:

    This is good advice; I particularly loved the example of The Princess Bride.

  12. Clae says:

    Very helpful tips. I have a lot of trouble figuring out what to do with fight scenes, thanks for the insight.

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