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.

Fight Scenes: Missed Opportunities

In most creative endeavors, one of the goals is to do something different than others have, or to show something familiar in a new way. That may mean taking the same starting point and finding a divergent path to the same end, or creating an entirely new path to a different end.

Over time, many writers have certain words, phrases, and even descriptions that start to show up in multiple works or even within the same novel. Fight scenes (and sex scenes) can become routine, predictable, and indistinguishable from others by the same author. This may be the result of laziness or forgetfulness. It may be that these scenes are outside the writer’s comfort zone, and once she has come up with one, it becomes the stock version. Like stock photography, these scenes are bland and don’t pull their weight, feed the writer’s creativity, or satisfy readers.

While this argument for variation and trying new things can be applied to any aspect of writing, I’m going to focus on some opportunities to be new and interesting in fight scenes. Here are some techniques and targets that show up in real world fights, but tend to get overlooked in fiction.

Striking With Elbows and Knees

These are great for close quarters like elevators, cars, offices, bathrooms, trains, walk in freezers, hallways, etc. Don’t limit yourself to using the knee for groin shots and the elbow just for grabs from behind. Coming at a diagonal, a knee can take out an opponent’s knee (see more on knees as a target below) or, aimed higher, give a heck of a charlie horse.

Brought up or down vertically, an elbow can hit the groin, solar plexus, clavicle, and under the chin or nose. Delivered horizontally, the elbow can take out a knee, go for a kidney or rib shot, and strike the temple. Because elbows aren’t as fragile as hands and wrists, you can have an untrained character use these effectively without needing a splint and weeks of physical therapy in the next chapter.

The Claw

Some people put down this sort of attack or defense as ineffective girly fighting. The three problems with this judgment are 1) it’s actually very effective, 2) it’s not limited by sex or gender, and 3) do I really have to explain the fallacy of “fighting like a girl?” I didn’t think so.

Again, this is a great technique for a character who has no training but suddenly finds herself (himself, itself, themself, choose your favorite pronoun) in a brawl. It’s hard to defend against it because you can claw at any exposed skin from any direction, unlike a punch or kick which tend to be pretty linear. It doesn’t require a lot of strength or long nails (finger tips raking the face are quite painful). It also marks up the attacker or opponent, making them easier to identify later on. If your character needs something to focus on, have her channel her inner Bengal tiger, because great big cats totally have this down.

Hair Superiority

Again, once belittled as limited to girl fights, this is an extremely effective tactic that is often overlooked in fiction. Gaining control of your opponent’s hair means you have control of her head which very often results in winning the fight. The end of a braid or pony tail are less effective than a solid hold up near the back of the head.

Box the Ears

Depending on your age, your geographical region, and the sort of family you grew up with, you may not have ever had a grandparent/uncle/parent threaten to box your ears. If that’s the case, this involves cuffing someone upside the head, aiming for the ear. It can be done with the flat of the palm or with a cupped hand. Boxing both ears at the same time often ruptures one or both eardrums. This may or may not hurt, depending on the person and the severity of the damage. This impairs hearing until the eardrum heals and, better yet, can disrupt equilibrium making it hard to walk or even stand. Some people get severe vertigo which can be incapacitating (and gross).

All Your Jewelries Are Belong to Us

Most piercings don’t like to be tugged on, much less yanked. Your character can take control of an adversary through a firm grip on that nose ring.

Anything around the neck is fair game. This includes jewelry, ID badge lanyards, and neckties. Most of these don’t come with emergency quick release or break away clasps. Obviously, some sites prefer clip on ID lanyards for this reason, so keep it true to the setting. This can be used to get someone’s attention, take control of them, or put their life in danger.

While not technically jewelry, I’m putting a reminder about glasses here, too. I know from personal experience that getting smacked in the glasses can really smart. Even a little tap on the frame can concentrate enough force on the nose pads to make the eyes water, which makes it hard to see.


Humans tend to prioritize vision over all other senses, and those of us accustomed to being able to do this are going to be severely hampered anytime it’s impaired. Eyeballs are fragile. Lots of things can sting or irritate the eyes, from innocuous things like sand and lemon juice, to more damaging things like solvents and acid. Pushing lightly on a closed eye can impair vision for a few minutes without causing permanent damage, and a harder push or strike will obviously do more. Light can result in temporary or permanent blindness, depending on the brightness.

Low Targets Rock

Honestly, it’s not that fun to get smacked anywhere from the knee down, and that’s just with someone’s bare foot. Add a shoe, sword, baseball bat, or umbrella, and it gets even more unpleasant.

Many men expect a groin kick, and guard accordingly (and in case it hasn’t occurred to you, it’s no picnic for a lady to take a straight shot to the bits, though we don’t tend to fall over quite so much). Knees, however, are hard to protect. They only like to bend one direction, and are pretty easy to damage even with a low-powered kick from the side.

If you’ve ever played soccer, you likely learned the hard way why shin guards exist. The shin, or tibia, doesn’t have a lovely layer of fat and muscle protecting it, so when you get hit, you enjoy both nerve-ending pain from the skin, and deep throbbing bone pain.

Have you ever had someone stomp on your foot really hard? It isn’t pleasant. If you’re somehow more fortunate than me, perhaps you’ve never dropped something on your feet. Or maybe you’ve had a pot roast fall out of grandma’s overly full freezer onto your foot. Now imagine someone stomping on your foot while wearing high heels, which will focus all the power into a smaller space increasing the damage.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of fight scene diversity, and anyone can better with some practice. I routinely contemplate how I could be attacked in random situations, and what good responses would be. After all, I’m trained to think about this stuff. Even if this isn’t your default, it can be a good exercise both for writing and self defense (which I hope you never need).

You can build up your repertoire of potential fight scenes and character reactions by building your own scenarios. Even if you don’t write them down or consciously save them for later, your brain will be able to tap into what you’ve thought about. Need a starting point? You’re in your car at a stoplight. What would you do if someone opened the passenger door and got in? How would your response differ if the person was a man/woman, armed/unarmed, drunk/sober/delusional? Or maybe you’re opening the door from your kitchen to your attached garage, and you find someone (or something, cause face it, I write speculative fiction) other than your car in there? Would your reaction differ if you’re home alone? Do you live in a town home or suburbia?

When you read a fight scene, even one of your own, ask yourself how you could do it differently. This alone can help you break away from your stock responses.

Combat Stuff Writers Frequently Mess Up

As a karate instructor, novelist, and former journalist, I like to keep my combat damage accurate. I worked with physicians for 19 years, and they were always great about answering questions for the crazy writer. Rather than making up more myths, I’ve checked with people who’ve taken care of patients who are on the receiving end of this kind of stuff, so you don’t have to.

The one arm back choke

Some writers seem to think this is the pinnacle of all attacks, and that there’s no way to get out of it. This is, of course, rubbish. I know several ways to escape this hold, depending on where in the attack I react. The first throw I ever learned was against this attack. If you have a character who has trained in combat, she should have a response for this attack (yes, Babe of Nine, I am scowling at you).

Here’s a video with three defenses.

The next problem with this attack, or hold, as many writers use it, is that most people don’t understand how it actually works. This particular attack has the potential to be fatal, very quickly, and about every other year you’ll hear about a bouncer or police officer accidentally killing someone while restraining them with this hold (which actually makes it a poor choice for a hold). There are two ways this choke works.

  • If the attacker puts her forearm against your windpipe, at the front of your neck, your air supply is cut off. You have about as long as you could hold your breath before you lose consciousness. This varies from person to person, but it’s not unreasonable for someone to go more than a minute without breathing. If the hold isn’t as tight, you can get enough air to stay conscious. Also worth noting, the human body generally needs more oxygen if it’s been active and if it’s pumped up on adrenaline from activity or fear.
  • If the attacker’s forearm and upper arm are against the sides of your neck, squeezing your neck between, with her elbow in front of your windpipe, the pressure is on your carotid arteries. In case anatomy isn’t your forte, this is the oxygen supply to the brain. Fully obstructed, you have ten seconds or less before loss of consciousness. Since this seems too fast, most people think that the person being choked is faking, and they don’t let go. Without oxygen, brain cells start to die off pretty fast.

Here’s a video showing the mechanics of both versions of this choke.

Palm heel/punch to the nose

Who grew up being told this was a potentially lethal attack? Yeah, it’s okay. I did, too. This will not actually shove bone shards into the brain of the person who gets hit. If, your protagonist happens to be a super hero, with super strength, it is theoretically possible to have a some skull shard and brain interaction, but because this is the frontal lobe, there’s pretty good potential for recovery, especially in our modern society. It would count as a traumatic brain injury, so the recovery may or may not mean returning to exactly the same state (personality or functionality) as before.

Throwing random knives

Most knives are weighted appropriately for use in the kitchen and suck for throwing. Grabbing a random knife and throwing it makes a great distraction, but odds are good it will miss the target or hit it with a non-stabby part (the handle, the back or side of the blade). Knives designed for throwing tend to be small and made of solid construction. They look incomplete or highly utilitarian.

Set of three throwing knives.

You can balance a throwing knife on your finger at it’s middle point. Having equal weight at both ends means it will throw evenly. On a side note, there are two dominant philosophies on knife throwing. The one that shows up most often is that you hold the knife from one end to throw it, and it rotates through the air before plunging pointy end in at the target. The other option is to hold the knife from the center and throw it straight, with no rotation, like a very tiny javelin.

Throwing knife balanced on a finger.

Being pinned under an attacker

Like the one arm back choke, many writers think it’s impossible to get out of this position. To be fair, this seems to get taught less, so it’s forgivable if a character who can fight doesn’t have an option for this. That said, most people with training have options for when they don’t know a technique for a specific grab. That’s what loosening moves (punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes, and biting) are great for. A person with no training may still be able to get out of this, but our media frequently pushes the message that it’s impossible, and it can be tough for some people to break that conditioning in a crisis.

Here’s a video showing two forms of this attack and a good counter response.

The bipedal roughly human-sized attacker is too big/heavy to throw

No. Just. No. Well designed throws are actually easier when your opponent is taller and heavier than you. The hardest person to throw is one who is shorter but heavier. I can’t speak for judo throws over the back or shoulder, but for many forms of martial arts, throws involve getting under someone’s center of gravity and tipping them over. This can be done by sweeping someone’s feet out from under them (leg sweeps), getting in close and compromising their stance, or by pulling them off balance (the one arm back choke throw above is an example of this).

Head injuries

Head injuries are so badly handled in fiction. A concussion is what happens when your brain bumps against the inside of the skull hard enough to bruise it. It’s considered traumatic brain injury. The severity of a concussion is based on the symptoms following the injury, not how severe the injury initially seemed. Loss of consciousness isn’t necessary for a concussion, though this is usually associated with more severe damage to the brain, and often more severe symptoms. Post concussion syndrome consists of an enormous list of symptoms. Your exact symptoms may seem random, but are related to the part of your brain that was injured. Post concussion syndrome can last anywhere from a few days, to a few months, to forever, regardless of the initial perceived severity. Some effects of a concussion don’t show up for months or years, and a recent study found that some visual changes (specifically refractive errors) may occur up to two years after a concussion.

My son hit the floor with his head in first grade. He never blacked out. He remembers everything. He ended up with blurred vision for a couple of weeks and seven weeks of post-concussion syndrome that consisted of random and uncontrollable anger outbursts (that scared him), general irritability, fatigue, and headache. It’s possible that the amblyopia he developed a year later is a result of the concussion.

If your character can go from knocked out to perfect fighting form in minutes, you need to have a justification (Buffy had amazing healing powers, Hobbits are resilient to head injuries, etc), so your reader doesn’t think you’re an idiot.

Snapping spines

This would be the rapid head twist that we have all come to understand as breaking someone’s neck. It shows up in movies and TV a lot and tends to be accompanied by a bone crunching sound. This bugs me less than other things on this list, because the end result is pretty much accurately portrayed. It’s just that this doesn’t break someone’s back or neck in the way most people understand it to. This severs the spinal cord at the base of the brain stem, the same mechanism for the fatal single punch incidents that show up in the news. As my doctor friends have explained, you’re dead before you hit the ground, because the body is no longer receiving any communication from the brain. Spinal cord damage lower down the neck or back is survivable because the body still gets the message to breathe and keep the heart beating.

All this said, it’s still okay for a character who should know what she’s doing to mess up on a defense. In life threatening situations, we don’t always make our best choices, and I don’t believe in victim shaming or blaming, even for fictional characters.

However, if your character realistically should know a way out of a situation, but doesn’t use it, you’ll need to address it in some fashion for the character to stay believable. It could be something as simple as she felt off or the adrenaline was too much and she wasn’t thinking clearly. It could be that she was taking the safety of others into consideration. It could be that her opponent knew a counter and was faster at executing it. There are lots of great excuses that allow you to address this without it becoming a major plot coupon. Use one and move on with the story.

The Value of Fight Scenes

Fight scenes can do all the same things for a story that sex scenes do; they are actually far more alike than they are different. Through a fight scene, a writer can develop characters, change character relationships, resolve or introduce conflict, defuse or ratchet up tension, and push plot points all while providing action that alters the story’s pacing.

You can really get to know a character by watching her fight, by seeing what she chooses to do, or not do, in a tense or dangerous situation. The character who elects to fight bare-handed is different from the one who draws a weapon at the first sign of trouble. Does the character delight in the fight or grimly acknowledge it as an ugly necessity? Perhaps the character is a pacifist who refuses to fight. How does she react when she’s outmatched and is it different from her reaction when she’s the superior combatant? Does she kill? Does she show mercy? Seeing the protagonist on the page, and understanding her motivation behind use of trash talk or intimidation lets the reader understand her a lot more in a short time. A fight scene gives you the opportunity to address any of these situations, and dozens of others, in character.

It’s pretty obvious that fight scenes can provide conflict resolution, but they can also be a source for introducing conflict. A bar fight could start our heroine on the path toward the end point of the story (however far away it may be). It could be the event that ignites a quest or mission, or maybe she has to skip town to avoid assault charges. Ta-da, conflict. Fights have almost become a trope ending for a novel or series, with the protagonist facing off with the antagonist for one last showdown. The reason it’s done so often, is that it works well, which is also why we don’t complain about the lack of originality in structure. This technique also works for wrapping up smaller arcs that occur within a more layered plot.

Tension is closely related to conflict, so it’s easy to see how fight scenes can influence this. A fight can be cathartic for the protagonist or the story, letting off some tension before a scene or chapter that won’t function properly with too much impending doom hanging over it. Likewise, strategically placed fight scenes can increase the sense of danger. If the characters are well written, the reader will be invested and concerned on their behalf. This can be a huge bonus in longer works and for writers with weaker plot skills, because character and tension together can greatly improve reader interest while masking less developed plot.

Plot can be pushed forward by a fight scene in much the same way character can be revealed. This can be done in fragments, perhaps with the protagonist gaining insight through banter or bargaining during or after the confrontation. It can also be done in large chunks, with the outcome of the fight directly shoving the protagonist in the right direction.

Any time a scene can do more than one thing for the story, it’s a win for the writer. It allows you to include more layered complexity without going over your word budget or boring your readers. Fight scenes are also a lot of fun to read, which means plotting and writing them can be fun too… if you like that sort of thing.