Writing a good fight scene is one of the hardest things an author can do.
You’ve got so much to keep track of, especially if it’s a fight between multiple, or even hundreds of, characters.
And you’ve got to keep your eye on everything from how your characters react throughout to the rhythm and pacing of the scene.
But getting it right is highly satisfying for you as a writer and your readers.
Read on to find out what to do when writing fight scenes, including what makes a good fight scene and how long a fight scene should be.
- What Makes a Good Fight Scene?
- How to Write a Fight Scene: 6 Must-Know Steps
- Writing a Fight Scene Examples
- How Long Should a Written Fight Scene Be?
- How Do You Write a Violent Scene?
What Makes a Good Fight Scene?
What makes for a good fight scene is what makes for a good book, in general. You need to know your characters inside and out and understand how they’re going to react in each fight scene and why.
A good fight scene isn’t something separate from your book. It grows naturally because of who the characters are and what the events are in your story.
Just as a first kiss is inevitable in a romance novel, your fight scenes should feel like an inevitable part of your story.
They shouldn’t feel shoehorned in or like a last-minute afterthought. They should be very much part of the natural story and be present to move the plot along rather than because you think you should have a fight scene.
Points to think about when writing action scenes:
- Who is involved?
- What is their level of fighting experience?
- What are the stakes for losing this fight?
- Why does this fight scene need to be in your story? How does it enhance the story and move your plot along?
- Does your story work even if you take your fight scenes out? If so, you may not need them.
You need to make your readers care about these people, just as you need to throughout the story. Your readers should be turning the pages as fast as they can because they’re rooting for your characters and need to see the outcome of the fight.
For that, you need great characters that leap off the page and some high stakes for them if they don’t win.
After that, it’s about balancing description, dialogue, action, and pacing to build a fight scene that feels real and natural for the people involved and your world.
How to Write a Fight Scene: 6 Must-Know Steps
Work through the six steps below to build a fight scene you can be proud of:
1. Make a plan.
Sorry, pantsers, but it’s really hard work to pants a fight scene. There are too many moving parts and people and things to keep track of. That doesn’t mean you have to go into huge detail, though, unless you want to.
But at least make an outline of how the fight goes, who does what, and how it ends. Once you have that, you can certainly pants your first draft just to get it down on the page.
But having at least an outline helps you keep the right pacing and ensure you haven’t missed anything or added in anything you don’t need.
Here are some of the questions you’re going to want answers to at this stage:
- Who is fighting?
- Why are they fighting?
- What led up to the fight and what tipped the action over into a fight?
- Why do you need this scene? What does it do for your story and your plot?
- What are the stakes for each character and the good guys as a whole if they lose?
- Where does this scene come in your story and is it different enough from other fight scenes if you have more than one?
- Where are they fighting?
This last question can add so much to your fight scene. While your characters could be fighting in an indoor children’s play area with lots of comfortable cushions and safety flooring, you’re immediately lowering the consequences of the fight in that location.
If, however, you put your fight in a kitchen or garage with lots of dangerous items and potential weapons, it’s a lot more interesting and tense straightaway.
Balance your fighters on top of a moving train, have them fight on the edge of a cliff, have them battling on a beach with rapidly approaching volcanic lava, and you’ve got something completely different with added tension just from the location.
Who wins in the end? How do they do it? What happens at the end of the fight and immediately after it?
2. Understand your characters.
To work out how your characters will react in a fight scene, you really do need to know them very well. You also need to understand the level of experience they have in fighting.
- Have they ever fought before?
- What was the outcome?
- Are they professionally trained in a martial art or with a particular weapon? What skill level are they at?
- How do they feel about the fight before it starts?
- How do they react when it starts?
- How do they feel during it? Are they scared or calm?
- Do they think they can win?
- What’s pushing them forward and keeping them going?
- Will they react out of character during the fight? If so, why?
For example, will a meek and mild character get that red mist in front of their eyes and go full out at the opposition, even if you wouldn’t ever have thought they would?
What could make them do that? Perhaps they’ve just seen a loved one injured or killed?
How tall are they? What is their build? Are they big and muscular or small and slight?
How intelligent are they? Can they outthink their opponent? Can they outfight a bigger or more experienced opponent because of a particular skill?
What will make them lose, or what will make them win?
We mentioned stakes in step one, but you need to bear them in mind here too. What have your characters got to lose? What are the consequences for them or for others if they don’t come out ahead?
Brainstorm as much of this as you can and do it for each main character included in the fight.
3. Research your weapons and fighting styles.
You don’t want to write a fight scene and then have emails galore from readers who have experience telling you that it couldn’t have happened like that.
While you can’t turn into a judo expert overnight or become an MMA fighter in time for writing your fight scenes, you can research things properly. In fact, it’s a must.
There are videos on YouTube showing you a variety of martial arts fights and demos. You can see videos showing different weapons being fought with.
Find out how it feels to receive any wounds and injuries that happen during the fight.
- Does it sting a bit, or is it the kind of agony that makes you unable to think or react?
- What effect does each injury have on the body?
- What can an injured fighter no longer do? What impact does that have on the rest of the fight?
You also need to know the differences between your characters regarding skill level with any weapons or fight training and how someone can lose such a fight. What mistakes can they make? How could their opponent trip them up, physically or mentally?
Bear in mind that even the most skilled fighters do make mistakes. Fights aren’t clean and beautifully choreographed. They get messy, and things go wrong. People lose their balance or trip up.
4. Write your first draft.
Now you have all that information and at least a rough outline. Put it to use and write your first draft.
It’s okay to write far too much here and go into great detail just to work through the fight in your head and give you a thorough picture of what happens and when.
You’re not writing this version for your readers. You’re writing it for you so that you can picture it.
Take a look below at our section on “How Long Should a Written Fight Scene Be?” for more on this.
5. Watch your rhythm and pacing.
Now go back through your first draft and look at the rhythm and pacing. You usually need short, punchy sentences in a fight scene, rather than long, drawn-out descriptions, to keep the pace fast to match the action.
Think about the flow of the scene. Fights, as we said, aren’t graceful. They can be stop-and-start rather than continuous as opponents try to get the measure of each other or back off temporarily to catch their breath.
This can be important for your rhythm, too, as you need some quieter, calmer moments among the action. A fight with continuous, non-stop action could get very tedious for the reader and cause them to skim-read.
Look at your dialogue, inner thoughts, and descriptions here too. Most fights don’t include long, flowery speeches. You’re more likely to get grunts and noises of reaction. But fights aren’t usually completely silent, either.
- Are any of your characters likely to taunt their opponents or add witty quips, like James Bond?
- Will a particular character feel the need to correct their opponent’s clumsy handling of a blade?
- What will they say to each other, and when?
But, when adding dialogue or inner thoughts, don’t overdo them and be sure they don’t interfere with the pace of the fight.
Likewise, be sparser with your descriptions, but make what you do include impactful and effective. Think about all five senses and what each character might notice while fighting.
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6. Revise your fight scene.
You’ve now done two drafts of your fight scene, and it’s time to revise it and cut it down to the length it needs to be.
Go through to check for anything that doesn’t need to be there and anything that doesn’t work.
Check for passive voice on this pass. You don’t need that in a fight scene. It should be all active voice to add to the pace.
Run through your scene again, but this time check for details like the correct number of arms and legs. If one fighter has a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other, exactly what is she swinging that mace with, hmm? It happens to the best of us and here’s where you fix it.
Do a final pass to make sure your fight scene flows well, hangs together and does exactly what you want it to. Make sure it has a clean, clear ending, and it’s obvious what has happened to each character at the end.
Then work out what your next scene is, and don’t forget to take into account healing time for injuries and how any injuries will affect the characters going forward.
After that, you should be good to go.
Writing a Fight Scene Examples
Here are two very different but very good examples of a fight scene.
We’ve included a fight scene from Dune which is just between two people, and part of the last big battle from Lord of the Rings, involving two major armies and a cast of thousands.
Look at how they are put together and what the differences are to help you write your own fight scenes:
From Dune by Frank Herbert:
And Paul had seen Jamis first mistake: bad footwork so that it took the man a heartbeat longer to recover from his leap, which had been intended to confuse Paul and hide the knife shift.
Except for the low yellow light of the glowglobes and the inky eyes of the staring troop, it was similar to a session on the practice floor. Shields didn’t count where the body’s own movement could be used against it. Paul shifted his own knife in a blurred motion, slipped sideways and thrust upward where Jamis’ chest was descending-then away to watch the man crumble.
Jamis fell like a limp rag, face down, gasped once and turned his face toward Paul, then lay still on the rock floor. His dead eyes stared out like beads of dark glass.”
From Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien:
“Then before the Enemy’s forces could array themselves into their order, Aragorn let loose his cavalry. The ranks upon each hill opened, and forth rode the Riders of Rohan and Knights of Dol Amroth, and at their forefront was the King Elessar. Aragorn no longer, for upon his head sat the Elendilmir glittering in the gloom, and in his hand he held aloft Anduril. Without spoken order the Knights of the Swan formed up behind him into a spear’s head, with their King at the tip.
With a severity that caught the assembling Orcs unawares, like a scythe through dry corn the Knights cut into the loose formation, driving many to the ground with their steel-tipped lances. Then as they wheeled back and around, the Riders of Rohan let loose a volley of javelins and arrows into the exposed ranks, allowing the Knights to make good their retreat. Many darts were sent back in reply and more than a few men were unhorsed, but relatively unscathed the horsemen reformed and charged again.”
How Long Should a Written Fight Scene Be?
Your fight scenes, in short, should be as long as they need to be and no longer, just like your novel. What that means is that, just as with any other writing, you should only put in what needs to be there.
That means no fluff, no filler, and no drawing it out for the sake of it.
What you may find helpful is to plot out the whole thing, including every move and thought from all fighters, so that you know everything that happens and how everyone got to where they are at the end of the fight.
You can then write out a full version of the fight for your own purposes to get it firmly set in your mind.
However, you shouldn’t include all of that detail in your final version. You don’t want your fight scene to sound like, “This happened, then this happened, then this happened,” in excruciating detail. That will get very boring very quickly, and your readers will start skimming, which, of course, isn’t what you want.
Instead, start to trim your full version down, bearing in mind that most real fights are over and done with pretty quickly, and you should reflect that on the page.
Only if you’re writing a series of running battles or the final battle at the end of your story should your fight scene go on for pages.
Otherwise, keep it short and suit the length to the characters and the story, but make it pack a punch (pun intended).
How Do You Write a Violent Scene?
To get a quality violent scene down on paper, you can follow the exact same steps above for writing fight scenes.
The difference here may simply be the degree of violence. What you’ve got to consider, as always, is what is right for your story and for you.
How far should you go with a violent scene? How much violence is too much violence? Only you can answer these questions based on your story and the characters.
Any violent scene must be there for a reason and not seem out of place or there just to be gratuitous.
Here are some other considerations before writing a violent scene:
- What are you comfortable with writing?
- What will your readers be comfortable with reading?
- Do one or more very violent scenes fit your story?
- How does it add to the story and move the plot along?
- Will your book work without that scene? If not, it has to go in.
Another thing to be aware of is that writing something like that can affect you and your psyche. You have to get into that scene and, to an extent, feel what’s happening to these people to make it feel real to your readers.
No doubt you’ve heard the saying, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” And that applies to this kind of scene too.
If you feel the effects of this scene long after you’ve finished writing it, make time for some self-care. Watch a funny movie or read something light to distract you from those feelings.
Do whatever you must to mentally clear your palate and take care of yourself. Those scenes can be hard on a writer. But they are very effective when done well.
Writing a great fight scene isn’t easy, but it is well worth the effort. A great fight scene can be a thunderous and unforgettable climax to your story, the kind of memorable scene that gives your readers a book hangover and has them craving the next one.
Hopefully, our tips on writing action scenes have given you a good place to start, and practicing and reading other authors’ fight scenes will get you the rest of the way.