How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes

How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes

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.

Ninja group Kids

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.

Rent A Ninja 1

A few things are almost always important when penning a fight:

1. Blocking

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?”

2. Terminology

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.

4. Clarity

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.

Julie Schoerke 2

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!

How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes

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About A.J. Scudiere | @ajscudiere

A.J. Scudiere is the author of eight award-winning suspense novels, including The SIN Trilogy and the new NightShade Forensic Files series, both of which have been optioned for television. A.J. will release the second novel in the NightShade Forensic Files in early 2016. As a writer, A.J.’s motto is It could happen. It wouldn’t. But it could.

Comments

  1. Interesting food for thought. What might be my weakness is that in fight scenes I always have the end goal in mind: “What needs to happen to get this fight to the next bullet point?” rather than having a very good idea of what I want to include in the fight. Partially this is because when I think of action scenes in novels, I think the scenes that I tend to skim over or skip because they often get confusing or feel like padding. The questions presented in this article give me a step in the right direction.

    • You bring up a really important point. You don’t want readers skimming anything if you can help it. And a fight scene has the opportunity to be one of the best, most dynamic scenes in the book.
      Crafting that right, getting a good grip on not just the blocking and physicality of the fight, but also the cadence of the sentences and the knock of the wording can really make it pop.
      I often use shorter sentences with more hard consonants for physical moves. And longer more grammatically complex ones for the characters thoughts during the scene. But that’s me. That’s my voice. It’s all something to think about!

      -AJ-

  2. The only fight I have in my novel is when my hero fights off an assailant who is trying to sexually assault his girlfriend. But he spent 6 years in prison mind you, (from 16 yrs to 22 yrs) but he’s not that kind of hard core prison type. My fight played out pretty well, according to the advice given up top in comments and in the article. Great article, thank you AJ! I have a question though, what kind of fighting style would someone who has been in prison use? his basic response is more self defense in my scenario anyway. I’m curious on anyone’s thoughts. Thanks for the awesome post and comments too. Very informative

    • Such a great question!
      I would make that character what I call a ‘found objects fighter.’ No formal training–but someone who’s been in prison has been attacked before, by surprise. He may have learned the value of staring someone down and of being the top dog.
      There’s a huge psychological advantage in the fight to having no fear. Many of us can get there when we are far enough down that we have nothing left to lose, but a guy who had been in prison that long ought to be able to react quickly without those moments of ‘is this really happening?’ that others might have.
      He may also case every place he goes for what weapons he can use. After all my writing, I find my brain wanders that way. I go into my grandmother’s house and think things like “The lamp is hefty. I could yank the cord easily, so no worries there. Also, once I shatter the glass lampshade, that adds to the value of it as a weapon.”
      I don’t tell my grandmother that I think these things about her household objects . . .
      My guess is that anyone who attacks your character is in for a rough surprise!

      I hope that helps! Let me know if you have other questions 🙂

      -AJ-

  3. The Preparing for Rent-A-Ninja document link has been fixed!!
    Also, if you join in, we send out resources periodically and you’ll stay up to date as we add more.

    Thank you for your patience!
    -AJ-

  4. I’m actually a ninja myself…just kidding. I’d like to think of myself as one though. That fight academy sounds pretty neat. I’m still trying to picture you dancing. Lol!

  5. This is such a great idea!!! I watched YouTube video after YouTube video to help visualize some of the fight moves my character was performing, but I never thought about enlisting the help of actual fighters!! I think I’m going to go make some ninja buddies of my own!

  6. Hi all!
    I wanted to write a general reply to Brooke’s comment about finding your own ninjas.

    Probably obviously, if you can find ninjas who fight in the style you need, that’s best. But you–as the writer–can make a good escape move or whatever fit your character/fight/scene.

    In my mind, one of the best things to ask is “Are you a fiction reader?”

    A ninja who is a fiction reader can do more than just give you moves. They can tell you what to avoid. Ask them when they read fight scenes, what do they hate the most? What do they like the most?

    This is not necessarily going to become the be-all, end-all (because you are probably writing for a wider audience than just ninjas) but it will give you very valuable insight.

    Also a reader-ninja will understand that you maybe want a flashier scene or you need a death to go a certain way for the story. They can help with that!

    Also also (on of my personal favorite phrases) a ninja who reads may be very excited to be your ninja in exchange for getting listed as a thank-you in the front of your book!

    Hope this helps.

    Happy writing everyone.
    -AJ-

  7. Hi there,

    Great post on fighting scenes. In the fantasy-novel I’m currently working on they’re an important part. My characters often get into wierd fights with improvised weapons and such. I’m sadly not a martial artist at all. I do have some practice in sword and spear fighting. This really helps me imagine the moves that my characters make.
    The most difficult thing for me is to keep the different personalities of my characters in mind. One girl gets nervous really easily for example, while another girl (the main character) admires her and is willing to jump in at any time for her.
    If you have the time to give me any tips, I would really appriciate it.

  8. AJ, great tips. Heading over to your site now 🙂

  9. Greatest fight scenes behind-the-door do comes from martial fight. between husband and wife as well boyfriend and girlfriend or vis versa. Experience developed after years of trials and drills would transference into story of something real and believable. Whether involve relationship quarrel that bounds to be erupt on the street or actual bawl match with cops to resist arrested, being foolish is not way to go.

    Once upon a time I witnessed drunked man behave like he was walking on tightrope. After that night I wanted to recipate what he did. I really had my chance in the Philippines. With Tanduay Rhum 40% Alcohol 80 proof the force was so great that I was always favorite among my Filipino drinking circle. Lucky enough I have a wife watching over me and stop when men get to far with drinking round.

    Hence, you must be part of the problem before writing out your solution. Tanduay rum taught me what’s like to be beaten, or worse to be defeated. Be insider, not outsider, getting realistic on any form of fighting.

    • In second paragraph “recipate” is suppose to be “replicate.” Couldn’t catch the misspelling that iOS autospell rudely insert, thereby prevent me proper way to correct in mobile environment.

  10. Chandlor Desper says:

    Interesting Topic, makes me think about one of the fight scenes near the end of my first book where the main Protagonist fights a larger and stronger Antagonist with a sword.

    The Protagonist is faster than the Antagonist but the Antagonist is blocking the only way out. When they fight the Protagonist is blown back with every hit sending pins and needles down his arm. Though I’m not sure how a fight like that might actually go.

    My book is a fantasy Novel and the Main antagonist is capable of shrugging off sword strikes.

Trackbacks

  1. […] How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes – it must be the month for conflicts. Post by A J Scudiere at K M  Weiland’s blog with some interesting points that had never occurred to me. […]

  2. […] but when I’m ready to start writing about my six guys, A.J. Scudiere’s tips on “How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes” will definitely come in […]

  3. […] in a fight scene at least every once in a while. For those of us who struggle with that, here is How to Write Realistic Fight Scenes from K.M. Weiland’s […]

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