Writing realistic fight scenes can feel like being in one. Then again, being in a fight involves reaction, quick thinking, and intuition. A lot of times writing the scene takes the opposite: careful choreography, thinking, and re-thinking–and more.
When I started writing fight scenes, I did it by feel.
I had an advantage: I’m a dancer! I know choreography, movement, contact, lifts, and more.
I had a big disadvantage, too: I’m not a fighter. I spent my time in toe shoes and tap shoes. When I started, I don’t think I’d ever set foot in a dojo, and I’ve never been in a good brawl.
I did have one more advantage though: I love small textured details in books. So I often found myself on my roof—if that’s where my character was. Or taking notes on a long drive, like my character did. So, when it came time to write a fight scene, I did what my character did.
Clearly, there are caveats. Please don’t murder anyone or beat anyone up for the sake of the book, but do stab a watermelon with a big kitchen knife. Hit a punching bag. Break a full beer bottle on a cement step—it’s probably harder than you think. When you hit like that, you get a reverberation up your arm. When you stab the watermelon, there’s a moment when you break through and suddenly you’re slicing with ease. The beer bottle almost explodes in a blast of foam and glass shards. That’s exactly the kind of detail that brings a fight to blazing life.
Enlist an Expert as You Figure Out How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes
Over time, I’ve advanced to getting other people to help me. First it was my husband—then on his way to his MMA Black Belt. “Honey, come strangle me! What if I just drop to my knees? Can I bend your finger? What if I put you in a choke hold?” He was a really good sport, and that stuff was writing gold. Later, I graduated to my kids’/husband’s dojo. I went in and found the upper level Black Belts who were readers and got them to stage fights for me.
They were wonderful. But they kept asking me these pesky questions I hadn’t thought of:
“How tall is your character?”
“Five feet and some change.”
“Is she right or left-handed?”
“Does that matter?”
“She’ll escape toward her dominant hand. A leftie may have an advantage if a fighter expects a right-handed attack.”
*Huh! I did not know that!*
Then they asked these questions:
“How well trained is your fighter? And how well trained is the other fighter? And if trained, in what styles?”
“What era is your fight in? Are they armed?”
“Where are they fighting? Are there objects or weapons nearby at easy reach?”
So many things to think about. Blocking. Who hits first? Who wins and what defines winning?
The Four Most Important Factors in Realistic Fight Scenes
It’s hard to say what’s the most important thing when writing a fight scene. That may be determined by your personal style as a writer. If you describe settings lushly, you probably want to continue doing that. If your style is short and light, your fight should reflect that.
A few things are almost always important when penning a fight:
Readers have to know who is where when. It’s disconcerting as a reader to think, “Wasn’t he facing the other way? How did he get his elbow there?”
This depends on your reader. But unless you have a very specific audience, all trained in the same style, your terminology should be as general as possible. An Axe Kick means different things in different fighting styles, so even something pretty general can get you in trouble.
3. Fighting Style
Just like dialogue should stay true to character, so should the fight. Punch? Kick? Scratch? Stab? Throw a lightning bolt? All are possible in different scenarios, just as each would also be inappropriate for certain characters.
A fight scene is one of those things that grabs a reader and drags them deeper. When anything gets confusing, the story loses them. As a writer, the last thing you want is to leave readers wondering what just happened. Keep in mind, clarity can be different in different situations.
How to Put Your Fight-Scene Research to Work
As a writer, I spend plenty of time on my own. I block out what happens, put Post-It notes all over my wall, and fill in a notebook I keep on each storyline. But I think some of my most valuable time has been spent with fighters helping me mock out my scenes. These days, I have my own crew of Ninjas. I set them a scene and let them go at it. They help with who’s where, how to escape a rough patch, how the bad guy would be able to get up if the good guy did X.
I first started with Ninjas about eight years ago. Since then, I’ve had other writers get jealous of my Ninja crew, and I’ve started sharing them. Also, the Ninja stable has grown to include medieval sword experts, street fighters, and knife throwers in addition to more than ten styles of martial arts.
If you’d like to meet up with the Ninjas and get your own time to walk through your story and get ideas/blocking/help, join us at Authors Combat Academy this spring in Nashville. Download our free Fight Scene Questionnaire to get you started here. You can also join AuthorsCombatAcademy.com on Facebook for free tips, help finding experts of all ilks (not just fighting!), and writing support all year long. It’s free to join.
Write it right!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Will there be a fight scene of some sort in your story? What will you do to make sure you’re writing realistic fight scenes? Tell me in the comments!