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  • Writer's pictureGrace A. Johnson

3 tricks to writing vivid fight scenes


Admit it, fight scenes are difficult. Even the veteran writers who have watched their favorite movie fight scenes hundreds of times, scribbled notebooks full of details, and choreographed fights with their brothers have a hard time putting the action on paper. You can have a vivid picture of the fight in your head, but no matter how hard or often you try, you can’t seem to write it out.

You’ve done everything you know to, like picking an epic location, ensuring everything is technically accurate, and beating up your younger brother for good measure (not recommended).

But what’s the use when the words won’t flow or make sense?

Trust me, I’ve been there. From sword fights to fisticuffs, I’ve wracked my brain a million times over to figure out the best way to describe my fight scenes. You need to do some things differently in your fight scene—and here’s how you can!


spare the details


This is likely the only time you’ll ever hear it from me, but when it comes to writing fight scenes, the last thing you want to do is bog readers down in play-by-play descriptions. Whether it’s a play/practice fight, barroom brawl, fight from another character’s perspective, or even an all-out war, fight scenes are always exhilarating and full of action—which is all too easy to capture on-screen. Without the assistance of cameras, we writers have to carefully select our words, structure our sentences, and shorten our paragraphs to bring the action to life.

A great example of a poorly executed fight scene would be this one, an excerpt from one of my own works:


Cheers rang out from the crowd surrounding us, names called in encouragement, urging us on. But they were all drowned out by the clanging of steel against steel, of the violent pounding of my heart.

Roger was good. I’d seen his skill with the blade many times, hard work and much training evident in his fighting. But actually battling him, for my life and my ship, put to use an entirely different perspective. No longer were his abilities merely good, just enough to pass, to fight like a proper pirate. Now they were superb. Frightening, almost. Now I saw the level of technique in the way he held his cutlass, the concentration in the furrows of his brow, the strength in the muscles pulling taut in his shoulders and arms.

He had not simply picked up a sword one day and played around with it until he’d become good enough to kill someone. Nay. He had been trained by a master. And from a young age, it seemed, for he was comfortable in his position, easy with each thrust and parry, each blow and grind.

But I was better. Much, much better, and I wasn’t even using my full strength.

Yet.

I blocked a blow to my shoulder, stepping back and to the right, avoided the sharp tip that grazed my forehead, striking the underside of my opponent’s knee. My cutlass carefully slit the blood vein there, the one that I’d found never failed to send ripples of pain shooting up one’s leg and droplets of blood coursing down the skin.

Here’s what I did wrong:

  • I spent too much time in my character’s mind, describing things that didn’t matter.

  • I used vague and cliched terms like the “clanging of steel against steel” and “thrust and parry.”

  • I used long sentences to elaborate on a quick, simple move.

I’ve since learned the error of my ways, I assure you, so here’s what this scene would look like if I spared the details and focused on what mattered.


The cheers around us were drowned out by the rush of blood in my ears and the unsteady thud of my heart. Steeling myself, I drew my cutlass and poised it to block Roger’s first blow.

He stumbled back when I thrust his blade away, but he quickly recovered, surging forward to meet my cutlass again.

He was good. I nearly growled, knocked off balance by his sudden swipe at my head. Very good.

But I was better.

Blocking a blow to my shoulder, I shifted away. Struck the underside of his knee. Blood spurted from the vein I’d slit, causing the same pain I had once felt. Roger groaned as he staggered back, body crumpling and face tightening.


Can you see the difference? In less than half the amount of words, I was able to describe the same fight without any useless or boring details. This way, the pace of my writing has the same rhythm as the fight would if you watched it on TV. I may not make my word count for the day, but you can not only see the action, you can also feel the character’s struggle both inside and out.

This is both the writer’s great advantage and disadvantage: we can convey two different things at once—action and emotion, the physical and the mental—which a camera cannot. However, it takes a lot of time and effort to accurately portray both.

Ask yourself these questions when reviewing your scene:

  • Are the characters’ movements clear?

  • Is my writing focused on the action?

  • Does the pace of my writing align with the pace of the action?

show the inner struggle


Oftentimes we get so swept up in the battle, in the punches or parries or cannon blasts, that we forget to include the character’s internal struggle as well. Especially in fight scenes between mortal enemies, old friends, or to the death, emotion plays a powerful force in the fight.

However, using an overabundance of adverbs or, like I mentioned above, taking up whole paragraphs for internal monologue, isn’t going to help. It’s all about balance. All of the elements—action, dialogue, monologue, etc.—should weave in and out of each other in perfect synchronization.

Here’s an example of a fight scene without any emotion:


Rina pushed Billy back against the forecastle railing, every blow she made parried as she advanced forward. She stood with one foot forward in preparation to dart towards her young second mate and the other behind her, bracing herself in case of a sudden fall.

He shoved Rina back with his blade, and Rina ducked, avoiding the sharp point of his cutlass and darting around to Billy’s side in a quick flash, her own cutlass slicing through the edge of his white shirt.


Here’s what I did wrong this time:

  • I didn’t make it clear whose POV this fight is in.

  • I left out any internal monologue or emotion.

  • I didn’t give you any context for why they are fighting.

The good part about this short excerpt is that you can tell exactly what’s going on and see the action clearly—just like you’re supposed to. The bad part is that there is no emotion whatsoever. Why are they fighting? Are they angry with each other? Is there disappointment or animosity at play? What are the opponents thinking? Whose perspective is this in?

I actually wrote this scene from a third-party’s perspective—a character who wasn’t in the fight—and Rina and Billy are actually just practicing. In a case like that, a lack of emotion would be understandable—but what if Rina and Billy were at odds? Could you imagine the two as enemies in the above excerpt?

Let’s try this again, but this time we’ll put the fight in Billy’s perspective and imagine the two are enemies:


Rina shoved me until my back hit the railing, and I struggled to thwart every hasty blow toward my neck and chest. Unlike the first time we had fought, I was prepared to best her. Unlike the first time, I needed to best her.

I thrust my cutlass and my body weight toward her, growling as I swiped at her head. She ducked. Darn you, woman. She darted around me, slicing through my shirt, and it took all my self-control to refrain from throwing myself at her and beating her down.


Now what do you read? From the first-person perspective of Billy, you can experience the fight and taste his need for dominance. His thought “darn you, woman” makes his anger toward her perfectly clear, and when he talks about beating her down, we can see his inner struggle to defeat her.

Like I said above, I kept the narrative’s focus on the action and Billy’s focus on the here-and-now. Had I gone on and on about something that didn’t matter, his feelings and thoughts wouldn’t have been so clear, would they?

When you go to write your scene, make sure you portray both the mental and the physical aspects of the fight and keep your focus solely on them. I mean, if Billy were off in la-la-land, Rina would’ve cut him down in a minute, trust me.

Ask yourself these questions, then translate the answers into your fight:

  • Can the reader tell who is narrating the scene?

  • What are the fighters thinking and feeling?

  • Why are they fighting?

say something


Dialogue is actually one of the most important aspects of fight scenes. Think back to some of the most iconic fights in film—or my personal favorites: Anakin and Obi-Wan’s duel on Mustafar, Luke vs Vader, Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. They all include some witty or emotional dialogue.

Try to imagine Anakin and Obi-Wan’s iconic Mustafar fight without their heartrending exchange. The viewers wouldn’t have felt the same connection to the characters and the scene without knowing just how they felt—angry, betrayed, lost, alone, hopeless.

Emotions like these can be translated into narrative or monologue—or, better yet, dialogue. With dialogue, the fight can have more than just a physical impact; it can leave an emotional mark on the characters for the rest of the book, depending on what was said.

One of my recent fight scenes has very little dialogue, so when I take it out of context, the reader has no idea why Keaton and Quinn are fighting—and, come to think of it, I don’t suppose Quinn really knows why he’s being beat up either.


I tore Quinn away and then the world blurred.

I threw the first punch. He staggered back, dazed for a moment that allowed me access to his undefended body.

I charged, ramming him into the bulkhead. Something cracked and Quinn went limp. Punch after punch landed in his abdomen, a guttural moan the only sound heard against the deafening blows. Blood squirted in my eyes when I popped the man in the jaw, his head slinging backward again.

I raised one hand to swipe the blood away, the other pressing against Quinn’s shoulder. That single second was enough for him to regain his bearings.

My forehead hit the bulwark, skin breaking at the first strike. Quinn’s arm around my neck pushed me back again, but I blinked the pain and blood away, catching myself with my hands on the wall. I left Quinn with no room to move, crushing his head to the wall with my chest and jamming my knee in his groin.

He slipped the minute I pulled away, crumpling to the ground in a heap of blood, sweat, and lifeless limbs. Come morning, he’d wish I had killed him.


The emotion and action are both there, but let’s see what it would look like with a few well-placed quotation marks.


“How dare you?”

My voice was a roar even to my ears as I threw the first punch. He staggered back, dazed for a moment that allowed me access to his undefended body.

I charged, ramming him into the bulkhead. Something cracked and Quinn went limp. Punch after punch landed in his abdomen, a guttural moan the only sound heard against the deafening blows. Blood squirted in my eyes when I popped the man in the jaw, his head slinging backward again.

I raised one hand to swipe the blood away, murmuring hoarsely, “You’ll regret ever laying a hand on her, you worthless piece of trash.”

That got his attention.

My forehead hit the bulwark, skin breaking at the first strike. Quinn’s arm around my neck pushed me back again, but I blinked the pain and blood away, catching myself with my hands on the wall. I left Quinn with no room to move, crushing his head to the wall with my chest and jamming my knee in his groin.

He slipped the minute I pulled away, crumpling to the ground in a heap of blood, sweat, and lifeless limbs. “Coming morn, you’re gonna wish I’d killed you.”


See the difference? Now you have an idea of why they’re fighting and Quinn will have a verbal reminder of the consequences for crossing Keaton. Both excerpts are fine, but adding a little bit of dialogue helps their motives and emotion come through much more clearly.

Don’t know when to use dialogue? Here are some things to ask yourself:

  • Are my characters clearheaded? (If so, they’ll probably be up to throwing a few verbal jabs.)

  • Is this a sparring scene? (If so, add a few witty quips or taunts.)

  • Is the motive or emotion clear without any dialogue? (If not, just add a few sentences like I did above!)

time to write!


Yes, fight scenes are tough. Sometimes the words won’t flow. Sometimes the action doesn’t seem clear. Sometimes the motive behind the fight and the opponents’ emotions and thoughts are difficult to see or understand.

But if you can remember to (1) spare the details, (2) show the inner struggle, and (3) say something, you’ll be able to translate clarity, motive, and emotion into your scene without cluttering the narrative with useless descriptions!

What are some of y’all’s favorite fight scenes—from books, TV, or movies? How well did they balance the description, emotion, and action? Which of these elements is the most difficult for you to include? Let me know in the comments!

(Up for more writing tips and tricks? Drop your suggestions and questions HERE!)


yours in spirit and script,

grace


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16 Comments


corrie s.p.
Feb 10, 2023

Ooooo! These are good! I loved seeing your examples. I actually like the first example before you changed it, but I do see the difference.

I like reading the fight scenes in The Ascendance trilogy and in the Warrior Cat books, though the last ones would make no sense to you unless you had an understanding on the characters.

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corrie s.p.
Feb 10, 2023
Replying to

Hehe, yeah.

Yep.

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Lily Keith
Feb 04, 2023

Bookmarking for future reference! Thank you so much for the tips, Grace!

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Grace A. Johnson
Grace A. Johnson
Feb 04, 2023
Replying to

My pleasure! Hope they can help you in the future! :D

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Vanessa Hall
Feb 03, 2023

Fight scenes are so hard .... ugh. They take me ages to edit! Thanks for these tips. :)

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Grace A. Johnson
Grace A. Johnson
Feb 04, 2023
Replying to

I feel ya, girl! You're welcome! I hope they help! :D

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Saraina Whitney
Feb 03, 2023

Ahhhhhhhh thank you SO MUCH for answering my question with this post!!! These are brilliant tips and I'll absolutely be referring to this in the future - actually very soon because I'm at a fight scene in my book right now!! XDD I think I often skimp out on the dialogue, so that's a good thing to keep in mind. (Girllll, that fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan was sooo heartrending! *sobs* You're so right, the dialogue really made that one. And yess, the fight between Inigo and Westley is pure awesomeness lol!)

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Grace A. Johnson
Grace A. Johnson
Feb 04, 2023
Replying to

You are SOO welcome!! Ooh, perfect timing, then! (YES!! Absolutely! XD)

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Kristina Hall
Feb 03, 2023

Great post! Fight scenes are exciting to write!

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Grace A. Johnson
Grace A. Johnson
Feb 04, 2023
Replying to

Thanks! They are!

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