How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting

This week’s video talks about the pitfalls of writing fight scenes in the age of blockbuster movies, as well as some tips for keeping the action tense and engaging.

Video Transcript:

If you’re like me you like nothing better than a good fictional fight scene. Aerial dogfights. Lightsaber duels. Gunfights at high noon. It’s all good. But this type of scene can be surprisingly difficult to write. The first problem, of course, is getting all our facts straight—because the people who are interested in these things are usually fanatical about the details. If you get something wrong, sooner or later you’ll probably hear about it.

But strictly from a craft perspective, your main challenge is going to be keeping it interesting. At first, that may sound a bit counter-intuitive. After all, thanks to the inherent conflict and danger involved in fight scenes, you’d think it would be pretty easy to keep to readers glued to the page. But it’s actually not. The truth is fight scenes, in themselves, really aren’t that interesting. Recounting a physical altercation blow for blow can get boring really fast. The visual age we live in, thanks to movies and TV, has brought a lot of attention to fight scenes. People love the big blockbuster movies that offer more explosions than they do dialogue. Movies can get away with this because their special effects and choreography offer eye candy. Books can’t. This means our fight scenes have to offer something else. It should go without saying that fight scenes are going to need to propel the plot and advance character. But what doesn’t always go without saying is how to mix things up to keep readers interested. Fortunately, the solution is easy-peasy.

All you have to do is add dialogue and a little internal narrative. Very few written action scenes can wow readers the way a movie’s can. But what we can do better than the movies is give readers a glimpse inside the characters. Whenever you can, verbalize the conflict. Let us hear these opponents talking to each other. And, even more important, let us hear the narrator reacting internally to this exciting and dangerous adventure in which he finds himself.

Tell me your opinion: Do you enjoy writing fight scenes?

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Fight scenes is one of the few places where I adhere to the adage: “Less is more.” Not as in “less fight scenes,” though repetition can get boring (how many Giant Crickets have YOU killed in Final Fantasy __?). Rather, don’t make the action too clear to your reader; clear enough to not lose them, but absolutely no more. It moves a lot faster, is much more chaotic/real, and — I think — more interesting. The key is the whole “clear enough to not lose them” part, and that’s where a handful of beta-readers you trust most (not only in being able to tell you the truth, but being a good sample of the average reader) comes in the most handy. A good idea is to offer chocolate along with the scene, just so they don’t groan to see you coming ^_^

  2. I’ve only written a few fight scenes, and neither were terribly complex or long. Because they were at important turning points of the story (in my mind anyway), they were easy to do, but I didn’t drag them out, either. I think the best way to make them work is to be sure you are including at least some of the fleeting emotions and visceral reactions that combatants must feel when fighting. If it’s “to the death” then the emotions and visceral reactions are escalated.

    I’d think the most disappointing fight scene would be the one where the hero finally vanquishes the villain once and for all, but feels no emotion before, during or after the battle.

    I’m also a fan of the freezing the pivotal moment in time, getting into the characters head just before he pulls the trigger or has it pulled on him, then resuming the battle at full speed. I think it heightens the importance of the moment, increases the tension, and adds depth to a fight scene.

  3. @Daniel: Those of us who love fight scenes are often enamored with the mechanics of fighting. The specific moves, etc. But that stuff rarely translates well in great detail. Readers want just enough to give them a sense of realism – not a clinic.

    @ChiTrader: Totally agree. If the character has no emotional investment in the fight, why should the reader?

  4. Great post, Katie, I always try to add a little bit of dry humour to my action scenes 🙂

    For instance, in the excerpt from my Pumpkin Day story I write [I jerk backwards and lose my balance and we both fall in the bathtub. I hurt my left knee aiming at his balls but clearly hitting his belt buckle instead.]

    later on in the fighting scene I have a dialogue bit, but a short one, just a couple of threatening phrases, – a lengthy discussion would be ridiculous and may harm tension.

    Finally, I like introducing the element of surprise like below:

    [My strength is fading fast when I hear another voice. “What’s going on here?”]

    Overall, a fighting scene should be dynamic and not too predictable and you’re right, if it’s too long then it risks to lose tension and even become boring. Many people I know complained to me about the “Inception” film and how its lengthy fighting scenes in the second half were too much to bear.

    I grew up in a small town in Russia during the wild post-communist 90s, so I have seen a lot of fights and I had several of them myself. So I know that preparation and emotional tension can be long, but the actual fight is normally quite short. I could never understand a half an hour long fighting scene in a Hollywood movie, – it’s beyond human ability really 🙂

    P.S. I hope there’s a lot of ass-kicking in Dreamlander 🙂

  5. I love battle humor. Nothing perks up a fight, even a serious one, better than a little funny stuff. And if the hero can crack a joke while getting his nose busted, readers will probably love him all the more.

  6. This is really nice, Please I need help in selling my screenplay. I need an agent or someone who can just buy it. Thanks

  7. I’ve been told I write fight scenes fairly well and I do enjoy them, because it’s very different from straight dialogue or narrative. Thanks for the great advice, as usual.

  8. @Joshua: I don’t really run in screenplay circles, so I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help in finding an appropriate agent. But I wish you the best of luck with it!

    @Melanie: Fight scenes are always one of my favorite things to write. Lots of fun!

  9. I hate reading fight scenes or seeing them in movies. But that’s just because I’m weird. I do like the challenge of writing them…which means I have to read and watch, and pay close attention.

  10. It’s true, not everyone likes fight scenes, for one reason or another. If you’re one of those folks, it’s probably a good idea to analyze why you don’t like them, so you can avoid the pitfalls.

  11. I’m awful at writing fight scenes! Or that’s what I tell myself anyway.

  12. I bet you’re better than you think! Just keep mixing it up, seasoning the action with other storytelling elements, and you’ll have the perfect taste before you know it.

  13. This is a very important topic for me since I do a lot of fight scenes in my novels. You’re right, I worry about the blow-by-blow descriptions particularly. I will have to make sure to get the reactions and dialogue in there to make the scenes better. I have some, but I have a feeling I need more. Thanks for pointing this out and how to fix it!!

  14. In fight scenes, I try to delve into the heads of the combatants (at least the protagonist’s). If the reader knows WHY he makes a certain move in combat, he’s not gonna be so bored by a couple strokes of the sword..
    Or, as generally happens in my case, couple quick shots from a Spencer or a Colt .45 😉

  15. @Traci: In the end, dialogue is usually more fun to write anyway – and this from someone who *loves* writing fight scenes.

    @Gideon: Exactly! You’ve got it covered.

  16. I love writing fight scenes – but probably because I love having some kind of internal conflict going on at the same time. My favourite was when one of my characters was trying to protect a small group of people against a military unit hunting them. Unfortunately one of the group resented the help and almost got himself (and others) killed because he refused to listen.

    But I agree the blow by blow doesn’t work so well unless there is some sort of connection with the character.

  17. The internal conflict is really what it’s all apart. Gotta make ’em suffer! Without that, the external conflict – no matter how exciting or original – has no meaningful context.

  18. I was starting to think my fight scenes were to short but, when I read them out loud with a bit of body mime (usually dodging or a sharp kick to the air) it feels good. Your post helped me not over think it.

    Thank you!

  19. Choreography is a great help in figuring out pacing and length in fight scenes. I do it all the time – with the blinds closed, of course. 😉

  20. S Harrison says

    I’m writing in Nanowrimo this year. When I first planned my novel, there was only one fight scene but now there are about approximately 4 -5. I hope I can do them justice. Your advice really helped me plan them more. Wish me luck.

  21. Good luck! Fight scenes can be a ton of fun to write when done correctly. Just let those punches fly, have fun, and then go back and edit.

  22. I think you need to understand the pacing of the scene, the characters involved and the circumstances as they all mesh to build the atmosphere and the ethos of the fight scene. As a previous commentator stated, the set-up becomes key, the fight itself is not. It is similar to Hitchcock’s definition of suspense – “There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t, that’s suspense.”

    The mechanics and description of the fight can vary widely – from a straight out succinct Raymond Chandleresque “He drew and fired.” to the Tom Clancy expose of the intricacies of a missile targeting system that runs for two paragraphs – it is very dependent on the author.

    I think the balance between action description and emotional circumstances of the characters becomes a real point of clarity for making a scene work, as much as getting the movements and physical attributes correct.

  23. Fight scenes, like all of fiction, are highly individual. What works for one author’s style won’t necessarily work for another. Discovering the emotional and thematic underpinnings of any given fight is always a good place to start in figuring out how much detail you want to share.

  24. I love fight scenes :D. Both reading and writing them. Though I agree with Daniel Dydek above: “Less is more”. Short, few details, and if they have some adequate humor in them (preferably on the edge of sarcasm), it will be perfect.

    I agree that people interested in fight scenes will scrutinize them. That is why less detail will make the fight scene to come out better, even for authors who have real life experience in fighting. Describing an action (any action) in words can be very tricky and prone to mistakes.

    Interesting post 🙂

  25. I have noticed more than one author possessing expertise in weapons and fighting, who would have done well to observe the “less is more” bit. Just because you know how it should be done doesn’t mean the reader needs to hear about every detail.

  26. Nice tips…

  27. I love your videos so much! They’re so fun and informative to watch.

    I have one question: could you structure a fight scene with plot structure, like you would a novel? For example:

    Hook: A man comes across his angry foe.
    Inciting Event: The man gets swung at.
    Key Event / First Plot Point: The man engages in the fight by defending himself.
    First Pinch Point: The man gets dealt a painful injury.
    Midpoint: The man decides to fight back instead of just defending himself.

    … or something like that. Is it preferable to structure a fight scene like you would structure a novel or are fight scenes unstructured?

    Madi

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, definitely. I think if you trust your instincts, your fight scenes will progress much in that manner without your necessarily having to plot it out. But the rise and fall of action works the same in small integers within the story, just as it does in the overall story itself.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.