I am often asked for my best tip on writing authentic fight scenes and here it is: Don’t.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, an authentic fight scene is not likely what your story needs or your readers want. Yes, as writers, it is our job to, as Hemingway said, “write the truth.” But I think he meant truth of the human condition, not truth as in authentic to reality. If he did mean the latter, The Old Man and the Sea would be an altogether different tale. Santiago, the old man, wouldn’t wrangle in a massive marlin by hand with only fishing line. He also wouldn’t have the vigor to hold on to the line and bear the weight of the skiff being dragged for three days never mind all the fetes that come after.
Truth, in writing, doesn’t require complete authenticity. Have you seen even one medical drama where the sternum of a patient cracks under the pressure of CPR chest compressions? If the person is revived, do you see them vomit from the gas trapped in their stomach? If they die, do you see them soil themselves?
No, you do not. Why do screenwriters exclude these details? Because, even though all of those are authentic to life, ask any medical professional, including them would distract us. Instead of paying attention to what is coming next, we’d be trying to unsee the scene we just saw!
Authenticities do not always serve the story. In other words, they don’t make it better, they don’t keep its momentum and they don’t keep our reader on course. Serving the story is like following a navigation app. If the app included every single detail of everything you passed, it would take your focus off the details that actually get you to your destination. Only include in your story what will pull your reader to the next page because regardless of what anyone else says, there is only one rule of writing. One rule to rule them all! Keep your reader.
Fight scenes, just like any scene, must serve the story. And, more often than not, that requires a nod to believability rather than reality. Fights on the street are generally over in under 30 seconds, and that’s a generous estimate. There is seldom much conversation between combatants. And those involved, more often than not, have no training. If that authenticity serves your story, furthers the scene, brings your reader ringside to the fight, and entangles them in the plot, by all means, use those true-to-life details. But if those authentic details derail your work, then you’ve traded form for function and given the spirit of the work a backseat to what most people are trying to escape by reading it: reality.
Stop worrying if your fight scene is dead on accurate to life. It doesn’t have to be real. It just has to be realistic. That said, writers, keep it realistic. In the medical dramas, we still see the CPR chest compressions, we still see the flat line and hear the monotone key of death hold its relentless tone. We are brought into the moment. We just don’t have the moment thrown all over us.
Follow natural laws in your fight scenes. Make the punches hurt and the people bleed. Have bodies hit the hard floor with a dead thud. If the physical laws of your work are supernatural, fine. Create that reality for your reader and follow those supernatural laws to a T. Then serve the story.
Include sensory details to put the reader at the scene of the fight. Fling a little sweat on them. Let them hear swords pierce chainmail, smell gun powder and watch bright red blood congeal into crimson tar because that is what they will remember. Trust me on this. Long after the details of the fight have faded behind the storyline, the sensory experience will stay with them. Maya Angelou said it best: People might forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
So, good reader, struggling to write that statistically legit and authentic fight scene even if it kills the story, I release you. Aim for believability. Go for realistic rather than reality. Your story will thank you for it. And, if you need any help, check out my WD book, Fight Write: How to Write BELIEVABLE Fight Scenes.