Blow-By-Blow: Writing Action and Fight Scenes — 5 Tips

Conflict, as we all know, is the lifeblood of a story. And nothing quite epitomizes raw conflict like a thrilling fight scene. If you’re like me, you crave those climactic moments in prose or on the screen, when, the hero and villain finally find themselves facing each other, circling, ready to duke it out and solve this thing, mano a mano.

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Fonda-lee-author-writer Zeroboxer-book-cover

Column by Fonda Lee, author of debut novel ZEROBOXER (April 2015,
Flux/Llewellyn). Her novel is an upper YA science fiction story about a young
man battling to make it to the top in the world of zero-gravity prizefighting
amid brewing interplanetary conflict between Earth and Mars. Lee writes science
fiction and fantasy for teens and adults. A professed action movie aficionado
and combat sports fan, Fonda has been training in martial arts since she was
a teenager and holds black belts in karate and kung fu. You can find Fonda
 on Twitter.

No matter at what point they occur in a story, fight scenes are like blocks of C-4 plastic explosive. They pack a hell of lot of energy. They build and release tension in a powerful burst. Used properly, they rivet attention and propel your story forward. Overused, they are noisy and deadening.

For most writers, fight scenes are one of those areas where the old adage “write what you know” often does not serve well. Most of us hope dearly to avoid the kinds of high-stakes combat situations we put our poor characters through, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to write fight scenes that feel desperately real.

As someone who has written, read, watched, and safely practiced a lot of fighting, here is some advice I’d offer to all writers who want to write fight scenes that pack more punch:

1. Fights Must Serve a Narrative Purpose 

 For a fight to have meaning, it must be essential to your story. Throwing in fights just to keep the reader’s attention and the action quotient high is something that Hollywood is often guilty of, but you don’t want to emulate a forgettable popcorn flick. Ask yourself what the purpose of the fight scene is. Is it to reveal character? To set up a crucial plot point that will have ramifications later? To create motivations for the protagonist or the antagonist? Write the action sequence with a focus on that goal.

If you remove the fight scene, does the storyline completely fall apart? It should. If your story is unaffected by the outcome of the fight, then your fight scene is unnecessary. In other words: the outcome of the fight must have crucial and irreversible consequences.

2. Fights are About Character and Emotion

It is rarely a good idea to start a story with a battle. Without knowing who the combatants are, without understanding what they are fighting for, and why we should care, fights are nothing but noise. Instead, get your reader to invest emotionally in your character, and you’ve laid the foundation for every action scene.

Keep your character’s nature, emotions, and motivations at the forefront of your mind during the scenes of greatest mayhem. For most people, the emotional hurdle required to resort to physical violence is high, so how your character is feeling internally and why they are fighting is more important to the story than the specifics of the fight itself.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty example I made up on the spot to illustrate:

“I’m going to kill you,” Jim snarled. He attacked with a big right overhand punch. David stepped out of range, but before he could bring his hands up to defend, Jim drove his shoulder into David’s chest, slamming him into the wall, where he started landing solid punches into David’s gut.

Serviceable. Bar fight material. Compare to:

How could David have done this to him? Jim’s face burned. An animal snarl clawed its way up his throat. “I’m going to kill you.” He lunged, swinging and missing. He slammed David into the wall. Then he was burying punches, over and over again.

The first version is more technically explicit. But which one feels more immediate? Which feels like it has higher personal stakes?

A straightforward blow-by-blow recounting of a fight is dry. What kind of feeling do you want to evoke in your fight scene? It could be desperation, humiliation, malice, grace, beauty, loyalty, betrayal, and so many other things. Use your skill as a writer to evoke those notes. A fight isn’t just a fight. It says something about the fighters.

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3. Think Camera Tricks 

There’s nothing worse than a boring action scene. In movies, directors use all sorts of camera angles and techniques to create visual engagement, and your writer’s belt holds similar weapons: point of view, distance, and time. Vary your reader’s perceptions.

From whose point of view do you want the reader to view the action? The protagonist is the obvious choice, but sometimes seeing key moments of action from the antagonist’s viewpoint, or the perspective of a secondary character, can be effective opportunities to build those characters and put a different lens in front of the reader.

Consider distance as well. Sometimes you want to be right in the fighter’s head, feeling what she’s feeling, both physically and emotionally. At other times, it can be brutally effective to draw back and take in the violence at a remove, giving it the stark impact of a war photograph.

In situations of extreme stress, time seems to slow down. On the other hand, fights in real life happen blisteringly fast. Use short, choppy words and sentences to speed up action, or slow it down by pausing on details or lengthening prose. Think of the rapid action, intercut with stylistic slow motion exemplified by movies like The Matrix.


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4. Don’t Make Me Roll My Eyes  

As an admitted fight scene aficionado, here are some things that make me want to smack the writer in the face with a rubber chicken:

  • The hero who has no training, or merely a crash course from an expert, is suddenly able to fight and defeat far better fighters.
  • The awesome warrior is able to fight many opponents and emerge completely unscathed. In any kind of real fight (that is not an ambush), both people will get hit. One person may be hit a whole lot more, but even in mismatched fights, blows fly and usually both parties take some damage. Don’t even talk about knife fights. If your character is in a knife fight, he or she will get cut.
  • After fighting for an hour, the hero is still fresh and ready to continue the battle. There are two problems with this. One: most fights last mere seconds. They are over before most people can react. Two: fighting is probably one of the most exhausting things you can do. Five minutes is an eternity; look at professional fighters at the end of a round. Unless your characters are, in fact, magical, don’t give them powers that defy explanation.
  • After being grievously injured in battle, a character miraculously recovers in a short amount of time. Again, unless you are writing X-men fanfiction about Wolverine, this doesn’t make any sense.

Don’t do these things, I beg you. Not unless you’re writing fantasy, and even then, there better be a damn good explanation.

5. Don’t cheat. Do your research. 

I mentioned not getting too hung up on blow-by-blow specifics and focusing primarily on evoking emotion and character. But don’t take that to mean you can gloss over the fight itself. I recently read a popular YA fantasy novel in which the protagonist, a seasoned and skilled fighter, goes into a dangerous situation. “Excellent,” I thought, “now I’ll get to see her fight.” Instead, the action went something like this (not a direct quote):

She moved quickly, hitting and kicking, and in a few minutes, all the men were lying on the ground moaning. 

At this point, I felt, dear reader, cheated. If you, as the writer, have set up a character who knows how to fight, and a story that promises action, you darn well better deliver on that promise. To me, this line told me one thing: the writer did not know anything about fighting and needed to get through the scene quickly.

As with anything, if you’re going to write it, research it. If you can, take some martial arts or self defense classes. Go to a firing range and handle a real gun. Watch professional combat sports. Watch action movies. Read novels with excellent action scenes. And find experts you can go to with questions. In your contact list, try to have a hand-to-hand combat person, a gun person, and a doctor or EMT.

Now, get out there you badass writers, and do some damage.

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10 thoughts on “Blow-By-Blow: Writing Action and Fight Scenes — 5 Tips

  1. Elizabeth West

    Yay! My big fight scene passed the test.

    –High stakes
    –Characters you already know
    –Knife; it cuts someone (I kind of want to make it worse, actually)
    –It has terrible ramifications later
    –Protag feels like crap afterward (and is sore, too, even though the other guy gets the worst of it)

    I win! 😀

  2. singsweet

    A great article!
    When dealing with the emotion and motivation of a character in a fight scene, do you make a distinction between male and female fighters? Are there things a man would notice/ do that a woman wouldn’t and vise-a-versa?

  3. Clinton A. Seeber

    Fonda, for all your mouthing off about “how to write a fight scene”, do you have any actual fighting experience? I am willing to bet that you’ve never fought in your life. You need some actual experience to know what you are talking about.

    1. jezebellydancer

      In her third paragraph she says, “… and safely practiced a lot of fighting.”

      You do not need to know how to actually fight to be able to write about it. As Fonda says, you do need to do some research on it. Personally, I have contacts who vet my fights scenes to make sure I don’t do something stupid.

      If we only ever write what we know, our stories would be pretty boring.

    2. Manny239

      Clinton for all of your mouthing off about “betting that Fonda never fought in her life” do you know how to read properly? You need actual reading comprehension to know what you’re talking about. It is clearly stated several times that she has fighting experience including being a black belt in karate and kung fu. You don’t have to have experience in fighting to write it but it’s amusing to see your baseless criticism.

      1. Brian A. Klems

        OK, folks, we’re ending this line of conversation. I agree that the original argument was baseless as you don’t need to be an astronaut to write (successfully) about a main character who is an astronaut, and the same can be said for writing fight scenes. But these comments are heading down a personal path that we don’t accept on our site (I’ve seen this before and it only gets worse from here if it continues). If you are to say “that’s not correct” then you must explain, civilly and specifically, why it doesn’t work. In the future, stick to comments about the content, not the writer.

        Thank you in advance.
        Brian
        Online Editor

  4. RalphWalker

    Great Article! The advice about writing fight seens rings so true. I’ve heard similar comments from writers like Wesley Chu and Jonathan Maberry (both are accomplished fighters as well). I’m really looking forward to reading Zero Boxer!

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