Being a Better Writer: A Beginner’s Guide to Fights

Welcome back, everyone, after what I hope for all of you was a nice, relaxing weekend! Hopefully it was enjoyable for all of you as it was for me, or at least productive as far as writing goes. That’s the goal after all, and for some, the weekend is the only chance they get.

Anyway, let’s dive right into today’s topic, since my brain is definitely drawing a blank for welcoming chatter. Today I want to talk about fights. Because this is a popular topic posed by beginning writers just about anywhere. You search the forums of a writing site such as this one? Questions about fights. You go to a creative writing class? Questions about fights. Even a writing convention like LTUE … odds are, if there isn’t a panel about fights—and sometimes even if there is—this is a question that will pop up with regularity.

Because as both readers and writers, we enjoy fights. Fights are fun. They’re exciting! They’re a chance for the protagonist to show off their skills and talents, a chance for the reader to be tugged along by a rapid, dangerous, and exciting narrative. They’re a moment of tension, a moment that can thrill both the author and reader. And writers—even the new ones—understand this. For some of them, this may have been why they wanted to be a writer in the first place. They had some idea, some concept for some really cool scene, and they wanted to let the rest of the world experience it. Then they sit down at a keyboard and discovered that writing is hard.

But, never one to give up, they push forward, and before they realize it, they’re sitting in a forum somewhere, their hand raised in the air, waiting to ask the question “How do I write a fight?”

Well, today, I’m going to do my best to answer that. Today, we’re looking at the act of writing and figuring out fights for beginners. If you’ve never written a fight scene before, or have and have felt/realized that it could be better, or even if you’re just looking for a constant reminder of the basics of what you should know for a fight scene—this is the post for you.

All right, so to start off, before you do anything else—i.e. writing the fight, planning the whole thing out, assigning snappy one-liners, etc—the first thing you should ask yourself is “Do I need a fight scene?”

I know this probably sounds laughably basic, but do it anyway. Sit back and look at the composition of your story, your characters. Do you need a fight scene. What purpose does it serve? Is the narrative theme helped or harmed by including a fight? What about the story itself?

As I said, I know this sounds almost laughably simple, but do it anyway, even later on in your writing career when you’ve got a good handle on things. Because the simple truth of the matter is that sometimes we ourselves, as authors, get caught up in the idea of a scene. We have a cool idea, and we’re going to do it. Then we do, sometimes without thinking about it. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some great ideas, chapters, and even books have come out of that kind of impulsive, idealized determination. But for every idea that’s worked out in such a manner, there are dozens more that only worked after being restructured and refined, and at least that many, if not more, that detracted from things as a whole.

And for a younger author, the odds of the latter happening are a lot higher than for someone who has been at it for a few million words or more. Especially if they’re really sold on selling a fight that may or may not have been the whole reason they wrote the story in the first place.

But you can’t always let that excitement drive everything. Before you write a fight scene, or even after, depending on where you are at the moment, sit back, look at it and ask yourself “Do I need that?”

There’s a multitude of reasons that you would or wouldn’t want a fight scene in your story. So look at your characters. Are they fighting because it’s what they would actually do in this situation? Or are they fighting for arbitrary reasons of “I wanted this to happen?” How does the fight effect the pacing of your story? What about the theme or message, as mentioned above.

Basically, in summary, make sure that you’re not just filling your story with empty fights that don’t serve a purpose. A fight that’s the coolest fight in the world but has absolutely zero applications to the plot is little more than filler. A simple fight that has massive ramifications for the plot is something that will stick in your reader’s mind forever. For a quick case in point, here’s an exercise. Think of the lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. What’s the first thing that you remember about that fight? Odds are, it’s probably not the sweet duel between Vader and Luke. It’s that iconic moment near the end, that quiet, tense moment when Vader, to the shock and horror of everyone in the audience, utters the famous line “I am your father.”

Now that’s a fight with some serious ramifications for the plot!

So, assuming that you do you know that you’ll need fights in your work, now you need to work on something else for your story. You need knowledge.

Has anyone here ever read a book where the author goes into a long-winded explanation about something (like guns, or military strategy) and it becomes instantly clear that the author is just pulling everything about that topic out of their rear? That they have no actual concept or education about the thing they’re writing about at all?

Yeah. It happens. A lot. And yes, part of the talent and skill of an author, particularly one who writes sci-fi or fantasy, is to make such things that we could never experience come to life anyway. But the more you fake things, the more obvious it becomes. Why would you fake something that you could learn about with a little research or even experience with a little hands-on time?

This is why, and I kid you not, at the last LTUE I was at, one author who is well known for his well-written but action heavy books flat out told an audience that ‘If you want to write about guns, go spend time learning about guns and shooting them at a firing range, and if you want to write about fighting, go out and get in a fight. Get punched in the face! Because as someone who has been punched in the face, there’s a lot of authors out there who get it wrong.’

Now, I’m not saying that if you want to write a book about a bar fight you need to go down to the nearest bar and start one, but if you’re going to write about fights, get some experience. Find a nearby martial arts dojo and go sit in on a few sparring matches. Yeah, you’ll probably get the snot kicked out of you, but you’ll learn a few things about what it really feels like to get punched in the face. Or kicked in the side. If you’re going to write about fights, learn what you can about the fighting. You want to write swords and medieval armor? Trust me when I say that if you don’t do your research, you’ll be upsetting a large amount of people who happen to own a lot of short stabby metal things. Now they won’t hunt you down, but they will likely stop reading your book and tell others to stop reading it as well. So get some experience! Go find some reenactors and get your hands a little dirty!

Basically, learn about the things that you’re going to be writing about in your fights. Do your research, and better yet, get some hands-on experience if you can. Your writing will improve almost immeasurably for it.

Now, there’s a second part to this. A very important, vital part. Read.

I’m serious. And I’m not talking manga, graphic novels, or watching anime or movies. If you want to be a good writer, being a good reader is part of that. And if you’re going to write fight scenes, you’d better be reading fight scenes so you can see how others do it. What techniques and styles they employ. How their fights differ from one another. Become well read, learn how different authors write fights, and then apply that knowledge and inspiration to your own writing.

Your goal isn’t to copy them. Your goal is to expose yourself to a wide variety of styles and approaches to writing a fight scene. If you don’t know where to start, ask around. Or just grab a well-sold book that looks like it contains a little action. Odds are it does. Make note of what works for you in a fight scene and what doesn’t. What’s clear and what’s poorly explained, and why that is. Along the way, you’ll expose yourself to pitfalls when you find something that was poorly written, but you’ll also find techniques that you yourself will want to borrow.

So read. Read, read, read.

Character, Flow, and Rhythm
Alright, so … you have knowledge, maybe a little experience, and you know your story is ready for a fight. Now what do you do? You set out to figure out how to express that fight?

This one always seems to trip people up. Most new writers, when they hear this, tend to respond with a question somewhat along the lines of “But don’t I just write it?” And well, yes. You’re going to. But here’s the thing. Remember earlier when I mentioned making sure that your fight fit into the theme and narrative? Well, now, while writing it, you need to make sure that it fits into the character of your story.

So what do I mean by this? Let me give you an example. Have you ever read any Victorian-era literature? If not, there’s a common theme you’ll see running throughout it in that action wasn’t really part of the narrative. The characters were very disinclined to talk about it, detail, or give it much time. In fact, I seem to recall one story I read in which a saber duel between two important characters—one that had been being built towards for some time—was resolved in a single paragraph. They drew swords, stepped towards one another, blades flashed, and a victor was declared. I really just wrote about half or so of what the book actually said about it.

But the thing is, that fight, as disappointed as young me was with it, was entirely within place for both the perspective character of the story and the flow. Because the primary character, the one who was observing the fight? They didn’t know any of the minutia of fencing. They only cared about the social standing of those involved. In fact, if I remember properly they used far more words and pages explaining the social impact and intrigue leading up to the fight and after the fight than the fight itself. To that character, it was all about the standing. The fight itself was a means to an end, a brief determining moment that she knew little about the art of it. And from her character and perspective, that was what mattered. The two men faced one another, drew steel, waved it a little bit, and one of them was the victor.

Right, so that was in character and perspective, which you’ll always have to consider when writing your fights. Someone who has never thrown a punch or fired a gun in their life isn’t going to magically acquire a savant-level of understanding or even recognition of how these events work, especially when the adrenaline is on. Now, might the suddenly see a single, specific moment in crystal clear clarity? Of course. But what determines that? The character.

I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many writers make this mistake. They get to a fight, and then suddenly all aspects of character perspective and personality are gone, and the audience is treated to a sudden shift in the writing style as the fight occurs.

This isn’t just character breaking. It also disrupts the flow and rhythm of the story. Picture seeing a CG-animated move at the theater, something like Big Hero 6 or How to Train Your Dragon. Now imagine if every time there was a fight scene, the film suddenly switched from CG to live action. Black and white live action. With shaky-cam.

It’d be very hard to enjoy that movie. Everything changed. It broke the feel, the sense of immersion. And when you have a fight scene that breaks the flow, the rhythm of the story? That does the same thing. You don’t want the reader to reach the fights of your work and find a huge difference in style and tone. Because when a reader is reading, they get into a groove. There’s a flow to your story, a way scenes are described, characters interact, and things happen. And when you yank them out of that, it’s off-putting. You want to make sure that your fights don’t break this flow that you’ve set up for yourself, because that’s jarring to the reader. You don’t want tone, context, and even style changing out of nowhere. You want those to stay similar. Yes, you can push things slightly when a fight occurs, but the heavier the changes, the more you risk pulling the reader out of the flow … and the higher the chance they’ll put your book down.

So, keep your fights in character, and make sure you’re keeping the flow and rhythm consistent. If you want a character who describes each stylish move of combat like a professional, than write a character who is a stylish professional, not a stay-at-home mom who’s never thrown a punch in her life (unless, of course, over the course of the story she becomes a pro, in which case you’re still keeping consistency).

Now, the final step. Even with all this advice, even if you’re reading through books, devouring different styles, suffering a black eye from a personal experience, and checking that you’re staying in character and keeping the flow of your book consistent, you still might find that you’re writing fight scenes that aren’t very good … or are just plain terrible.

That’s okay. Now you’re on the last step. Practice. No one starts out amazing. Not even those authors who’s first book is a multinational bestseller. Odds are, that book had dozens of revisions, and they’d written for years before that book ever hit print. Even with all of this build-up, you’re still going to need practice. With each story, with each book, you have a chance for things to get a little better. You’ll find the weak points in your scene, the spots where you lose people. Your own read-throughs will show you what you need to work on, what you can improve. And with each successive run, you’ll do better.

Practice makes perfect, and that rule applies to every aspect of writing. If you want to write fights, you’re going to have to write a lot of them.

One last word of advice before we reach the conclusion. A lot of times you’ll hear people debating of the act of writing “blow-by-blow” scenes—e.i. scenes in which the action is literally described action for action. “He threw a punch. She dodged. She lifted the knife … etc, etc. You get the idea. A lot of writers start with blow-by-blow action because it’s the simplest to write, and a natural place to start. Granted, where that goes wrong for most writers is the fact that it breaks the flow and character, which we mentioned above, but there’s one other thing that it can (and usually does) end up doing.

It’s telling. And we don’t want that from our fights. Granted, we don’t want them to be all show either, because then they slow down to a crawl. It’s show versus tell, remember? Not show don’t tell?

But if you find yourself doing blow-by-blow action, there’s two quick things you can do to spice it up. First, get into the showing of the action. It’s not “He threw a punch,” it’s “A sharp pain spiked through his knuckles as his fist clipped the man’s jaw …” or something like that. Second, consider what your character is going to think and observe during the fight. For some, it’ll just be a muddled panic with flashes of clarity here and there. For other’s it’ll be an adrenaline-ride of excitement. Others, cool and calculated. Get into your character’s head.

So, in summation, if you’re looking to write fights, here’s what you need to do. First, make sure that you actually need a fight. Does it serve your story or detract from it? How does it fit the narrative? The characters? Second, have some experience. Make sure you know at least a little bit about what you’re talking about. Get punched in the face, as one author has said. Read lots of books with fights in them to see how different authors handle it. Learn some things. Third, make sure you’re being consistent with your character, your flow, and your rhythm. Don’t write a fight scene that’ll jerk the reader out of your story. Keep it in-line with what you’ve already written. And fourth, practice makes perfect. Seriously. Keep trying, keep writing, keep moving forward. You’ll get better.

Now, old or new, let’s get out there and write.

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: A Beginner’s Guide to Fights

  1. First of all I want to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior
    to writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out.
    I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15
    minutes are wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations
    or tips?


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