In the world of fiction, characters are constantly getting into fights. Good drama, after all, stems from characters in conflict with each other. Sometimes those conflicts get physical and writers find themselves describing fight scenes. Combat.
A book may be going along really well, but an awkward fight sequence can accidentally derail the whole story. These are among the most difficult scenes to pull off. Instead of increasing the tension, a badly written fight scene can end up being… well, boring. Or confusing.
So how can you make sure your fight scenes are riveting? Here are seven easy tips to get you thinking along the right lines.
1. Consider whose point of view you’re telling the fight from. For example, if a fight scene is told from the perspective of a random person on the sidelines, the reader isn’t going to care that much about the action. Always narrate a fight scene from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose. This is a great way to maximize tension. (Note: bear in mind that the character who has the most to lose may not be a participant in the fight; perhaps it’s a spectator whose life depends on the outcome.)
2. Despite popular advice, it’s not always a good idea to start your book with a complicated action scene—especially a fight. If the reader hasn’t had enough time to get to know the characters and become invested in them, they’re not going to care about an action scene involving those characters. Once the readers get to like the characters and empathize with them, that’s a great opportunity to stage some action and put them in jeopardy.
3. Get inside the character’s headspace instead of losing yourself in the action. A writer may be tempted to focus on the dropkicks and just how hard Johnny’s left hook is, but the reader will be more interested in Johnny’s feelings and emotions. Let your characters be concerned about the consequences of a fight. For example, is Johnny worried about the possibility of hurting (or killing) his opponent? Don’t be afraid to really showcase the characters’ emotional reactions. Do the characters discover new revelations about themselves that they didn’t know before? Food for thought.
4. Don’t be overly specific with details, because it tends to slow down the pace of the scene. You may have done a lot of research into jujitsu, but if so, use that research judiciously; you don’t want to ram your knowledge down the reader’s throat. Also, use a light touch when it comes to physical details of the scene, like the exact placement of every character and piece of furniture and their relation to each other. That level of detail can get exhausting for the reader and slow the scene to a crawl.
5. That said, do use a lot of visceral detail. In other words, employ all five senses to relay your characters’ physical sensations.
6. Bear in mind that most fights in real life are short, lasting two minutes or less—and that’s even true when the fighters have a lot of training. Fights are really exhausting for everyone involved, so don’t be afraid to keep it tight. If you need to extend a fight, find ways to do it reasonably. For example, you can have multiple opponents, ensure that the fighters have an equal level of skill, or add outside distractions.
7. Remember that injuries carry lasting consequences. It’s a cliché in writing to end a scene with a character being knocked unconscious. I’ve edited books where characters get knocked unconscious three or four times without showing any major physical effects beyond a slight headache upon waking. In real life, being knocked unconscious is hugely serious. It’s a big deal, not to be used casually. So when your character gets injured, be sure to depict their recovery, even if it means your character isn’t back to normal for a long time after the fight ends.
Hopefully these tips can get you thinking about some aspects of fights that you hadn’t considered before. A well-executed fight scene can seriously raise the tension and drama of a story, so pay extra close attention to these parts of your book. A little bit of extra attention will go a long way.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.