Woman with nunchakos.

Write That Fight

Fight scenes are an almost essential element in speculative fiction; some people have a natural ability to incorporate these into their writing, while others do their best to write their way around every punch. If you suck at writing these, should you bother trying to improve? I’m glad you asked. Any time you improve on a weakness, you make yourself a better writer. Plus, fight scenes can add so much to the story.

Fight scenes don’t need to be just filler. I’d argue that they shouldn’t be used this way. Unless you’re writing the fighting version of erotica (all fighting, all the time! fightica? fightfic?), in which case, have at it.

Fights in the real world are usually over very quickly and can crop up at random, since life has no plot. This is less satisfying in fiction, where your scenes and words have to serve the story. In addition to duration, fictional fights tend to be more complex than real fights. Even for highly trained individuals, it can be tough to squelch the fight/flight/freeze reflex enough to use your techniques. The physical impact of a fight tends to get glossed over in literature. Many writers only remember to include the bruises, tight muscles, and post adrenaline crash only when it serves the story. It’s a little annoying, actually.

Combat doesn’t show up in all my stories, and it’s critical to know when to include it. Like any other scene, it needs to feel natural, like it occurred on its own and the author is simply documenting it. If you feel the author pulling the strings, there’s something forced about it, maybe in the setup or the execution. Fights shouldn’t randomly crop up out of nowhere, unless, that’s the way the world works in the story, in which case, you should make sure the reader knows it. These scenes work nicely when you need to build or decrease tension. They can provide an active transition from a lull in the story to the next climactic event.

Description can be problematic for some writers. Too little detail makes the fight muddy and hard to follow, which reduces impact. Too much detail bogs down the pacing of the story, reducing the tension and any sense of urgency. Also, it’s boring. Being trained in a form of fighting can make it really easy to over-describe. If this is your tendency, write the scene, then go back and cut as much of the technical stuff you can, streamline the prose as much as possible, and you’ll probably counteract it. I actually recommend against blocking out your fight move for move with action figures, because this makes the process extra complex and tends to result in an excessive detail dump.

If writing a fight is problematic, remember there are times you can get a pass on describing it with something as simple as, “they fought.” Another option, that works very well for many writers, is to describe something other than fight itself. You could focus on the the character’s emotional responses instead of her movements over the course of the fight. You might describe the character’s physical response to being hit and in danger (pain, out of breath, jittery from adrenaline). Another option is to show the onlookers’ reactions to the fight through cheers, applause, gasps, and distancing.

Inaccuracy makes you look like an idiot. You’ll feel like one, too, if it gets pointed out. It can also result in disinterest by casting suspicion on all your other facts. Reviewers might mock you online. But don’t let that keep you from trying. There are lots of ways to prevent inaccuracies. My favorite combination is a little bit of research plus beta readers. They can help figure out if something’s gone wrong, and often help be identify what I need to do to fix it. Sometimes I will walk through a fight scene with a sparring partner, just to get a feel for the movement and space being used. But to avoid the over-description issue, I never write a fight move for move.

If you’re working to polish your skill at writing fight scenes, try different things and see what works for you. This is art, after all, and there’s more than one right way to do it. If you’re stumped how to move forward, ask yourself why the fight scene is there and what you need it to do. This may help you figure out a basic plan of what needs to happen. If there are any stories that have fight scenes you like, reread them. A lot. We can learn things about our own writing from the examples of others. With practice, most of this becomes intuitive.

Published by

S.N.Arly

Author of adult and young adult speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, dark fiction)

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