How to Write a Great Fight Scene

Fight scenes are one of the hardest things to write because they have the potential to be boring, unnecessary, and overcomplicated. Many writers find it difficult to write character interaction in hand-to-hand combat. But if done correctly, a fight scene can elevate your character and your story.

A fight scene is a great way to advance the plot, develop characterization, and add tension and conflict in an action-packed way. This article provides tips on how to write a great fight scene.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will look at how to write a great fight scene that is active and physical. However, these suggestions and tips can also be applied if your characters are engaged in a heated argument.

Why Are Fight Scenes Important?

The first thing to consider when writing a fight scene is that it needs to have a purpose. Every scene in the book, including fight scenes, must contribute to the overall narrative and story arc.

A fight scene should:

  • Move the plot forward
  • Develop the character
  • Use active language
  • Use sensory details
  • Enhance tension with the location

A compelling fight scene will address the Five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why.

  • Who is fighting in the scene?
  • What are the characters’ goals in the fight?
  • Where does the fight take place?
  • When does the fight occur in the story arc?
  • Why is the fight taking place?

So how can you write a great fight scene? Read on for tips and suggestions.

Move the Plot Forward

A fight scene needs to drive the plot forward. There has to be a reason why your characters are fighting. They can’t just fight for the sake of it. You’ll have to dive deeper into the Five Ws of why your characters are fighting and what will happen as result.

For the fight scene to be successful and have the greatest impact, you need to explore the emotional and psychological effects of the fight on your character and the storyline.

Let’s look at the following scenario:

John is sixteen years old and is being picked on by Michael, the school bully. They get into a physical altercation in the school cafeteria.

If John (the protagonist) fights Michael (the antagonist) in the school cafeteria, the fight should set into motion a series of events in the aftermath.

  • What event triggered the fight?
    • Did Michael knock John’s lunch tray to the floor?
    • Did John push Michael into a table?
  • What is at stake?
    • What does John gain if he wins the fight?
      • Is he seen as the hero?
    • What does John lose if Michael wins the fight?
      • Is he further ostracized by his classmates?
      • Does he vow to seek revenge against Michael?
  • How does the fight drive the plot forward?
    • What does John learn as a result of the fight?
    • How has John changed after the fight?
    • How does the fight affect John’s emotional state?
    • How does the fight influence John’s goals and motivations?
  • Where is the scene placed in the novel?
    • Does it happen too early or too late?
    • Is it a major plot point (i.e., the inciting incident, the story climax)?
    • Is there enough tension and conflict prior to the fight?
    • Is there a resolution in the aftermath?

Character Development

A great fight scene should be character-driven. When done correctly, a fight scene can help develop a character on a deeper level. Their actions can speak louder than words.

Here are some things to consider when your character is fighting:

  • How does the character fight?
    • Do they rely solely on physical force or are they quick on their feet?
    • Are they more logical in their fighting style, or do they just go for it and hope for a favorable outcome?
  • What choices does the character make while fighting?
    • Do they always throw the first punch?
    • Do they take a more defensive approach?
  • What is the character’s emotional state during and after the fight?
    • Are they angry, upset, crying, or feeling brave?
    • Is their body shaking from adrenaline?
    • After the fight, do they sulk away in shame, or do they taunt their opponent?

A fight scene should add layers to your character in terms of their emotions, thoughts, actions, reactions, goals, and motivations.

Use Active Language

Many writers fall into the trap of overwriting and using too much implied action. Every move the character makes does not have to be written.

If you write a fight scene with long, drawn-out sentences describing the character’s every move, the pacing of the scene will suffer. A fight scene should be action-packed and fast-paced.

It can be difficult to not get caught up in step-by-step action and descriptions, but none of that is necessary in a fight scene. Use active language to depict what is happening in the scene in a clear, concise way that is visual and active.

Let’s look at the following example:

John walked up to Michael. He made his hand into a fist and pulled his arm back. Then he took a step toward Michael and swung his arm. His fist hit Michael in the face, and he stumbled backward. Michael got up and tried to punch John, but John took a step to the right and then to the left, dodging the blow.

There is a lot of implied action in the above example—John does this, John does that. This type of step-by-step explanation is tedious and boring.

We don’t need to see the character make a fist, take a step to the left and to the right, wind up to throw a punch, then deliver the punch. The scene will be more active and engaging if you show rather than tell the readers what is happening. Only write movement that is necessary and the readers can fill in the blanks.

Look at how the above scene changes with some rewrites:

John charged at Michael, slamming his fist into his jaw. Michael stumbled backward and crashed into the wall. Their classmates cheered them on, banging their lunch trays on the table. Pain shot up John’s arm, but he shook it off. His breath came out in shallow bursts. Michael struggled to his feet, anger glaring in his eyes. “Lucky shot!” he shouted as he lunged forward and took a swing at John. In a quick sidestep, John ducked out of the way, dodging the blow.  

The rewrite is more active and descriptive with no unnecessary implied action. Shorter sentences and descriptive words will pack a powerful punch. It will not only heighten the tension and conflict, but it will also reflect the urgency of the scene.

Use Sensory Details

An action scene really comes to life when sensory details are used. All five senses can be used in a fight scene because it’s a visceral experience for the character.

The five senses are:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Smell

Check to see if you’re using sensory details in your fight scene.

  • What does your character see?
  • What sounds can be described?
    • Is there a crack of a bone, a shirt tearing, or the sounds of people egging the fight on?
  • How can you incorporate taste?
    • Is there a metallic taste of blood in the character’s mouth?
    • Do they taste dirt when they are slammed on the ground?
  • How can you describe touch?
    • Is the character being pulled, pushed, yanked, shoved, kicked, punched, thrown, scratched, etc.?
    • What kind of pain does the character feel in their body?
  • What type of smells can you add to the scene?
    • Does your character smell the scent of blood, sweat, and tears?
    • How does the environment smell?

The actions in a fight scene are important, but using sensory details will elevate it to a new level that is visceral and visual.

Location, Location, Location

The location of your fight scene is just as important as the fight itself. The setting can heighten the tension and conflict of an already charged scenario. Provide details about the location. Consider how the objects in the room can be used to enhance the scene.

For example, are the students standing on the cafeteria tables and cheering? Are they banging food trays and making a lot of noise? Are they throwing food? Are John and Michael fighting in an open space, or are there objects (e.g., students, tables) that keep getting in the way?

If the fight takes place outside, what is the environment? Is the weather hot, cold, rainy, or windy? What is the time of day? Is it too dark that the character can’t accurately predict his opponent’s next move? Is the sun beating down, blinding the character’s vision?

No matter where your fight scene takes place, use the setting location and the environment to your advantage.

Pack a Punch

There are many other factors to consider when writing a fight scene, such as what your characters say to each other, the pacing of the scene, and creating a climax to the fight that has a big enough payoff.

Following these tips will help steer you in the right direction and ensure your fight scene packs a punch! And when you’re ready to edit your novel, our editors got your back!

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