Eight Tips For Writing an Epic Fight Scene

Whether you’re writing a sword fight, a bar room brawl, a sniper mission gone wrong, or a duel between magicians, I'm sharing eight actionable tips to guide you in crafting a truly epic fight scene today on the Well-Storied blog!

 
 


Fight scenes are notoriously tricky to write — or at least, most writers find them so. Why?

Because everything within a fight scene is heightened. The stakes are sky high, emotions and adrenaline are raging, and the action plays out in rapid-fire sequences not found anywhere else in literature. Translating all of this onto the page while balancing the pace of the scene and pushing readers’ to the edges of their seats is no easy task.

But here’s the good news: no matter whether you’re writing a sword fight, a bar room brawl, a sniper mission gone wrong, or a duel between magicians, today I have eight actionable tips to guide you in crafting a truly epic fight scene. Shall we dive in?

 

Tip #1: Identify the purpose of your scene. 

There’s no storytelling merit in cheap thrills. Like any scene, a fight scene must serve a purpose within the greater context of your story. It must push the plot forward, deepen the world-building, foreshadow a future event, or further develop your characters. It can not exist solely to shock or entertain.

Tip #2: Lay the foundation for a nuanced fight.

There’s nothing interesting about a fight scene that features a few quick punches or parries before the good guy inevitably wins. Thrilling fights are nuanced and realistic. They take skill and circumstance into account to craft a sequence that makes readers’ hearts pound. To accomplish this, ask:

 

What are my characters’ strengths and weaknesses in a fight? How do these traits play against one another?

Is one character swift while the other has brute strength? Then the former may favor long-range weapons to avoid a hands-on fight they would surely lose.

Is one character a keen but inexperienced fighter while their skilled opponent has a damning tell? The former may note that tell and exploit it to gain the upper hand.

Are my characters in top fighting form? If not, why? How will this affect the fight?

If your character is bleeding from a bullet wound, they’re unlikely to maintain much endurance in a fight. If your character has just witnessed an atrocity, they may find themselves on the defensive, disoriented and sluggish.

Where are my characters fighting? Will their surroundings affect the fight in any way? 

The high ground will always be advantageous in a fight. A jeering crowd can cause major distraction. Rocky terrain can throw the most experienced fighter off his feet, and glaring sunlight or pitch-black darkness can leave them disoriented.

 


Tip #3: Know your weapons. 

You don't need expertise in weaponry or fighting styles to pen an epic fight scene, but you should have a basic understanding of the tools and techniques your characters will use. Do your research. Sprinkling your writing with appropriate terminology (e.g. body punches, parrying, roundhouse kicks) can add additional realism to your fight, though you may want to avoid terms most readers wouldn’t know.

 
Photo by  Ricardo Cruz  on  Unsplash
 

Tip #4: Establish stakes.

If you want readers to have a heart-pounding, visceral reaction to your fight scene, you must establish what your characters stand to lose.

Often, these stakes are physical: injury, death, imprisonment, a failure to protect family or country. But stakes can also be emotional. Your character can lose a piece of their humanity or the trust of a loved one, face a moral dilemma, or suffer intense emotional pain. Establish these stakes immediately.

Tip #5: Be a painter, not a choreographer.

Most fights play out swiftly. To echo that pace on the page, you must resist the urge to relay the fight blow by blow. Instead, paint a picture that allows readers to choreograph the scene for themselves. Believe me, they’ve seen enough fight scenes in film and television to fill in the gaps.

Before drafting, take a moment to define the key beats of your fight. Then use evocative language to bring those beats to life on the page. Begin by considering the tone of your fight. Is your character skillfully cutting their way through the battlefield? Then your evocative language may look something like this:

 

"His sword cut a sly path before him, darting between rib and collarbone and spleen like a silvery trout beneath the surface of the river."

 

Is your character scrambling to survive? Then your evocative language may look like this:

 

"He was a spider, arms and legs darting out, desperately seeking the slick metal of the gun. Finding only cold tile. 

Footsteps sounded behind him. Terror gathered thick in his throat.

You’re no spider, you fool. You're the godforsaken fly in the web."

 

Note that both of these examples make use of metaphor. You don't have to include metaphors in your own fight scenes, but know that they create powerful imagery in readers’ minds.

Tip #6: Note important sensory information.

Speaking of evocative language, let's talk about the five senses. Because fight scenes need tight pacing, there's little room for description beyond what your point-of-view character is experiencing. Make use of these experiences to draw readers deep into the scene:

Sight: the glint of sunlight on a dagger
Taste: the sour taste of fear on their tongue
Scent: the bright, coppery scent of fresh blood
Sound: the pat-pat of a semi-automatic rifle
Touch: the crunch of knuckle against bone

When writing sensory information, don’t relay what an onlooker would see. Get inside your point-of-view character’s head, and use Deep POV techniques to help readers visualize the scene from their perspective.

 
Photo by  William Isted  on  Unsplash
 

Tip #7: Mind your writing style. 

The success of your evocative language also depends on the nitty-gritty of your writing style, beginning with word choice. A fight scene isn't the time to pull your stylistic punches. Ditch flimsy verbs and adverbs and instead choose language that carries ruthless weight.

Weak Word Choice

I used my sword to deflect his.

Frantically, she tried to move out his reach.

He shot at the line of soldiers desperately.

She slapped me across the face.

Strong Word Choice

I parried his blow.

She scrambled back.

Heart pounding, he loosed a wild spray of bullets.

Her open palm flashed out, and pain blazed across my cheekbone.

Note how several of these examples make use of “Show, Don’t Tell” principles.

When considering your writing style, give thought to your sentence structure as well. Common fight scene advice says to use short sentences and fragments to relay the rapid-fire pacing of a fight. This advice can prove effective in some fight scenes, but it won’t work as well in others.

Instead, consider the tone of your scene. If your experienced swordsman is cutting his way through the battlefield, longer, lyrical sentences can relay his flow and ease. Remember the example shared above:

 

"His sword cut a sly path before him, darting between rib and collarbone and spleen like a silvery trout beneath the surface of the river."

 

If your fight is more frantic, short sentences and fragments have their place. But short clauses linked within longer sentences can also indicate quick pacing. For example:

 

"He landed a fist to my gut, then another, and another. I gasped, heaving. And then the bastard’s lips curled into a wicked smile, and I began to pray."

 

Tip #8: Don’t gloss over consequences.

Your fight scene doesn't end with the last punch. Every act of violence has consequences, and glossing over these consequences will only spoil the realism you’ve built into your scene.

Consider the physical and emotional wounds your characters suffered during the fight. What are the immediate results of these wounds? Are they in shock? Do they need to see a doctor? Will they weep, or heave, or offer prayers of gratitude to their god? Ask forgiveness or try to stanch the bleeding?

Many acts of violence also have long-term consequences. Is your character now a wanted man? Have they ruined their relationship with a friend? Will they get expelled from school or fired from their job?

Whatever the case, don’t neglect consequences for the sake of an expedient plot — or stakes, for that matter. If you fail to address the stakes you introduced during the fight, readers will see those stakes as contrived for the sake of cheap conflict, and you’ll undermine the power and purpose of your scene.

 


Fight scenes are by no means easy to write, but that doesn’t mean you can’t craft an epic action sequence with a little patience and persistence. As you put these eight tips into practice, remember to pace yourself. The magic of writing often happens in editing, and fight scenes are no exception. 

Lay a strong foundation for your fight scene by identifying its purpose, nuance, stakes, and action beats, then draft away. Don’t worry about how the scene reads. Just get it on the page. You can tailor the style and pacing of your scene later during edits. Put in your best work at each stage in the process, and you'll pen one epic fight scene readers won’t soon forget.


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