Author’s Roundtable- Writing Fight Scenes

22 Jul

Today’s topic is “Writing Fight Scenes,” and I’ve recruited two excellent authors who bring very different sets of life experiences to this part of their writing. Alan Baxter is the author of Write the Fight Right, an how-to book for writers on how to write fight scenes. Alan is also a Kung Fu instructor with a long background in martial arts, and the author of the urban fantasy novels RealmShift and MageSign, and the sci-fi novella Ghost of the Black. Sean Ellis, author of many action-adventure novels, including Dark Trinity-Ascendant, The Shroud of Heaven and Magic Mirror, brings his military experience to his writing. So, gentlemen, how do you write a good fight scene?

Sean Ellis

There are two ways to write a fight scene. You can treat it as something that stands in the way of advancing your plot, or you can treat it as a way to really get to know your character. You can, if you are so inclined, write an entire fight scene in a single sentence:

Striker’s fists mowed through the ninja ranks, clearing the way to the princess’s prison cel


What a missed opportunity for some real action. Instead of making the character into an invincible powerhouse—a cliché superhero—you can choreograph an intense, blow-by-blow battle that creates some tension and gives insight into what’s going through the character’s head as he (or she) faces what is to him, if not also the reader, an uncertain outcome.

Striker faced the three black-clad assassin warriors. He caught a glimpse of a fourth ninja moving stealthily behind him, and chose that moment to strike first. He feinted forward, then dropped into a crouch and swept one outstretched leg around behind him. His foot caught the fourth attacker’s ankles and yanked his feet from beneath him. The man pitched backward, arms flailing, and smacked his head on the dungeon floor. In the same motion, Striker pounced onto the fallen man, ramming a fist into the ninja’s chin to insure that he was down for good. Striker didn’t dare pause to savor his victory; as soon as his fallen foe’s head rebounded from the stone floor a second time, Striker was moving again, twisting away from the dazed ninja as his three comrades swooped in.

I could go on for a couple pages with this battle, and by the end of it, you would definitely get the sense that our hero has earned his way to the prize. There are also practical reasons for squeezing every last bit of drama from the fight scene. It obviously bulks up your word count, but more importantly, it adds realism. In real life, any one of those ninjas might get a lucky shot in, and that would be it for our hero. By drawing it out—giving the blow by blow—you can create those near misses, and even let the hero take his lumps. When he (or she) finally wins, your readers will have been shown, not told, what a stud/studette he/she is.This will of course challenge you as a writer. You’ve got to come up with a lot of different ways to describe the fights; you can’t just keep using the word “punched” over and over again, but then that’s part of the fun of this profession. Do your research; there are books that will tell you fighting moves and techniques, just like there are books that will tell you everything else you need to create a realistic setting. In the end, the hard work will pay off.If you write your fights like the first example, then you’re going to end up having to create a lot more of them in order to keep the momentum going, and that will start to get tedious to the reader. I remember reading a novel based on the Tomb Raider video games, written by very well recognized pulp author, who had the heroine getting in a different shootout on almost every other page. It got to be ridiculous. Instead of a few really intense battles, we had an endless series of short, nondescript encounters that all started to blur together. No tension, no anticipation. When you make your fight scenes count, there are no throwaway scenes; everything counts.

Alan Baxter
I often get complimented on the fight scenes in my books and stories. I get told they’re well written, which is a very nice thing to hear, but I also get told they’re very realistic, which in some ways is even nicer.We’ve all seen the Hollywood movies where two musclebound heroes wail on each other for ages, one repeatedly cracking the other across the jaw, landing blow after blow, only for that person to stagger back to their feet and return the punishment again and again. At the end of the fight the baddie is finally out for the count and the hero stands there with a drop of blood on his lip and a smile. It’s such a load of bollocks. Too often, fight scenes in books are written like they appear in movies.I have something of an advantage when it comes to writing good fight scenes. I’ve been a martial artist for nearly thirty years and I’ve had a lot of fights. I really know what it’s like to get in a fight. I know how it feels emotionally and physically, both before, during and after. I know damn well that one good, solid shot across the jaw is enough to put most people out cold. I know that a person’s face is like raw steak after a fight, even if they won. I know that most mortal people will probably break, or at least severely hurt, their hand if they land a punch on someone’s bony skull. I also know how damned hard it is to hit someone that doesn’t want to be hit.I take all these things into account when I write a fight scene. The realism of a fight is far more exciting than some comic book representation. The visceral horror of two people beating the crap out of each other, with both people getting hurt, both people feeling scared and desperate, is far more realistic than most fights we see in movies or read about in books.The other fundamental aspect to writing a good fight scene, as far as I’m concerned, is not to tell too much. A fight is a maelstrom of frantic activity. It’s really hard to know exactly what’s going on, particularly for a fighter with no formal fight training. A fight scene reads far better when it’s not described in clinical detail. When you have people fighting that do have a great deal of training, their perception of the fight is almost subconscious. They react without thinking or planning. If you pause to plan a move in a fight, you lose. If you try to stick to a plan in a fight, you lose.I’ll finish with an example. The following is an excerpt from my second novel, MageSign. Two very powerful people cross paths and fight, with both physical and magical weapons. These people are far more than normal mortals, but I still try to avoid that Hollywood cliché fight scene. What do you think? Given the things I’ve mentioned above, do I pull it off with this scene?

The figure took a few steps forward. Something about the way they moved triggered the start of a thought in Isiah’s mind but it was stopped dead as the sudden swell of MageSign rose from them. Isiah threw up a barrier of pure energy as a bolt of power shot from the stranger’s outstretched hands. As Isiah staggered back, surprised by the force of the blow, his attacker broke into a run, bearing down on him like a missile. Another bolt of energy pulsed out from the grey covered hands and Isiah took it again on his shield, ready for the impact this time. The stranger was taking no chances, using enough power to destroy any normal man. They were obviously wary of whatever power they had sensed in Isiah. As the energy of the attack and defence crackled in the cold of the early morning air they were upon him, flying forward with a well executed kick.Isiah clenched both fists and sidestepped, blocking the kick to one side and sweeping his arm around in a looping blow. His assailant was quick, ducking his counter-attack and landing on one leg as the other swept around in a graceful arc. Their shin connected with the back of Isiah’s ankles and swept his legs clean out from underneath him. With a grunt of surprise and annoyance Isiah fell, tucked, rolled. He came up as a grey fist flew towards his chin. Turning his head quickly to one side, the blow shooting past close enough for him to feel the wind of its passing, Isiah grabbed the passing forearm in one meaty hand and powered out his other hand in an open palmed blow. His palm landed with a satisfying thump high on his attacker’s chest, eliciting a rush of exhalation.

Without any time to celebrate his strike, Isiah felt the person’s arm and hand twist against his thumb, the weak point of his grip. Isiah’s grip, however, was anything but weak. Realising they could not break free, the grey clad attacker suddenly leapt up and over Isiah, grabbing hold of his wrist themselves, and landed behind him, pulling his own forearm across his throat. He felt their knee slam into his spine. Again he grunted, this time in surprise and pain. This person was very good and very powerful.

Isiah drew his energy deep into his core and pulsed out a wave of power. His attacker managed to shield themselves mentally just in time at the expense of their hold. Isiah twisted out of the grip, spun around, grabbed under the knee that had been in his back and threw the person up and over. They twisted in the air like a cat and landed on all fours, hands and feet splayed wide and stable. Their position and shape suddenly coalesced the thought that had been tapping at the edges of Isiah’s mind while he fought. A woman!

As the thought occurred to him, the woman leapt forward again. With energy flowing out before her she knocked Isiah back mentally and physically and rained blows across his shoulder and arm as he defended his head. By the gods, she’s strong! Isiah had to end this now. He took a risk and let one blow through. The crack across his jaw sounded like a gunshot and made his vision cross, but it was enough. As the woman moved to take advantage of the blow Isiah anticipated her movement and intercepted. His own blow was solid and crushing, knocking her head to one side with a crack and upsetting her momentum. As she stumbled, Isiah helped her down with a kick to one thigh and a second palm into her chest. She grunted in pain and fell. Isiah dropped with her, all his considerable weight over her, laid one forearm across her throat. He knelt across her hips, sinking his weight to prevent her from bucking him off or kicking up between his legs, and raised his free hand. Blue energy crackled and burned between his fingers like electricity, snaking across his open palm.
Even when two people this powerful fight it’s quick and brutal, they both get hurt, they both have to quickly react and change tack. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to read the book.

5 thoughts on “Author’s Roundtable- Writing Fight Scenes

  1. You're welcome Terry and congratulations on your upcoming release. And let me echo your sentiment: Thanks to David Wood for hosting this discussion and to Alan for sharing.

    I very much agree with Alan about the importance of realism when it comes to taking those hits. As anyone who's ever gotten their bell rung will attest, you can't always just shrug it off. On the other hand, there is an adrenaline factor to consider; sometimes the body doesn't let you slow down to feel the hurt until the danger has passed, and then your really feel it. Action-adventure writers use copious amounts of adrenaline and testosterone but don't always address the “come-down.” One of my favorite scenes from Raider of the Lost Ark is where Indy finally catches his breath and nurses his wounds on the Egyptian freighter–and misses out on a chance for a romantic interlude because he's just that wiped out.

    Of course one must remember the purpose for all of this realism. We add detail in order to encourage the reader to suspend disbelief. There is however a point of diminishing returns and we have to strike a balance between authenticity and entertainment.

    I'd love to hear from any other readers out there about what they like in a fight scene, and what writers they think do it exceptionally well.


  2. Good comment, Sean. I just wanted to echo the appreciation for that scene in Raiders – pure genius. You're right about adrenaline. Another thing to consider is the addiction to adrenaline, which is what gives birth to many action heroes!

  3. This post is very helpful. I think I need to concentrate less on the play by play and more on the characters reactions to the fact that they are in this situation. I just hope I don't, on the same token, bog down the story either. Thanks again.

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