Whether you’re working on a film, a novel, a comic or anything else, you may reach a point where characters will physically clash with each other. A well-written fight scene can become one of the highlights of your entire work. So you need to learn how to write an engaging fight scene.
As you know, a fight scene must contribute to the plot and reveal something about the characters. Also, fights in grounded settings have to remain plausible and you need to do some research beforehand. Okay, we got the basics right. Now let’s dig deeper and see how you can make your fights engaging even though the audience has seen hundreds of fight scenes before across all media.
1. Keep the fight fast-paced and intense
This is what makes fights scary and fascinating. You can lose your life in a moment. If you don’t have nerves of steel and real combat skills, you’ll be overwhelmed before you know it. You don’t have time to think and you must react to random, unpredictable movements.
Believability in fight scenes comes from that sense of life threatening-danger, primal chaos and violent exchanges happening in mere seconds. Keep the prose short, concise and punchy. This is an action scene so focus on verbs instead of adjectives and whatnot. Try to convey that frightening sensation of being one hit away from death.
DO: Keep a tight pace, show the frenzy and danger of being in a fight.
DON’T: Get lost in irrelevant details, or make the fight overstay its welcome.
2. Show emotions and allow characters to be vulnerable
Yes, I love me some fearless badass wiping the floor with goons. But not all characters have to be like this. In fact, keep the one-man army guy a unique case, an anomaly among the cast so that his strength doesn’t lose its impact and remains impressive through the contrast with weaker characters.
Allow said characters to feel threatened. Unless they are veteran warriors, let them fall prey to confusion and panic (then again, even tough guys can have moments of vulnerability). Make your characters hesitate before doing something reckless or let out screams of pain when they get hit. This makes their struggle more believable and relatable. When characters show genuine emotions, it adds to the tension and therefore the involvement of the audience.
DO: Show the emotional intensity in a fight – feelings of shock, pain, fear, determination, fury, etc.
DON’T: Make everyone calm and confident. It takes away the tension of fights.
3. Characters make clever choices
That’s a huge part of the entertainment factor in a fight. A straightforward exchange of blows will quickly get boring. Characters must use brains alongside brawns:
- Using feints and mess with expectations;
- Buy time, wait for the opponent to get tired;
- Take advantage of the environment, set traps and ambushes;
- Use nearby objects.
Remember in Fury Road when Max uses a car door to protect himself AND retaliate? That was a well thought choice. You don’t necessarily need intricate strategies to make a fight engaging, but make sure there are clever choices.
DO: If you’re writing unarmed combat, include well thought choreography. Watch Chinese action movies to get the hang of it. In fights where characters have special abilities, think of roundabout, more strategic ways to inflict damage. A great example of that is Hunter X Hunter.
DON’T: write a generic fight with a couple of try-hard martial art gimmicks – think second rate action flicks.
4. Avoid dumb dialogue, think up each line carefully
God knows how many times we’ve heard those. Awkward one-liners and tasteless humor. A silent fight is will always be more impressive than one with ridiculous, clichéd dialogue. That said, don’t give up on dialogue just to avoid bad lines. Fight scenes are a huge opportunity for character interaction. You need to develop an understanding of what comes off as cringeworthy and what is genuinely awesome. To do that, read/watch everything you can get your hands and research the opinions of audi
DO: keep lines short and sporadic. Characters need to manage their breath.
DON’T: Try too hard to be funny, or interrupt the fight every five seconds to drop taunts that add nothing of value to the scene.
5. Show the consequences of the fight
A wound in the leg makes walking slow and painful. Or a character will have to stay in bed for weeks, meaning he won’t show up in action scenes for a while. Or a husband must hide his bruises from his wife who is clueless about his dangerous misadventures.
Getting injured is troublesome. What happens after a fight must be consistent with what happened during it. I can’t take a story seriously if a guy comes out of a fight all beat up and bloody and the next morning it’s as if nothing happened – unless healing magic is commonplace. In Breaking Bad, DEA agent Hank Shrader is attacked by two armed individuals. He escapes death but must go through a long and painful recovery period. This in turn affects his mood and relationship with his wife.
Incidentally, there i the psychological side of the aftermath, especially for people who are not used to fighting. A rookie soldier has killed an enemy for the first time? Show him sitting in a corner, brooding over it.
DO: Explore the outcome of fights and see if they can enrich a character’s arc.
DON’T: take the easy way out and ignore the logical implications of a near-death situation. It robs fights of their narrative relevance.
How to write an engaging fight scene – Closing thoughts
I love fight scenes not because of the violence but because they test a character’s resourcefulness and determination. Fights are a great vehicle for tension and strong emotions. They’re also a challenge of creativity; how can you impress an audience who has seen countless fight scenes?
Creating fight scenes is a wide topic and I have yet to discuss all there is to say about it. I will address other aspects of writing battles in a future article.
What are your favorite fight scenes? How do you approach writing them?