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How to Write a Fight Scene in 11 Steps

14 July 2017

From Better Novel Project:

I recently received this e-mail about fight scenes:

Do you have any advice for creating a fight? I am writing an action/fantasy novel, and I am inexperienced with this particular type of scene. Thank you for any advice you may have! -Sara

. . . .

Deconstructing the Action in a Fight Scene

1. The villain escalates a tense scene into a physical one.

Often, the villain spends time explaining himself before the fight begins. The hero’s primary goal is not to kill the villain, so he isn’t the one who starts the violence. The villain might also take this opportunity to threaten or taunt the hero’s loved ones.

  • After Quirrell explains himself, Harry Potter’s fight begins when Quirrell/Voldemort makes a threat: “Now give me the Stone, unless you want [your mother] to have died in vain.”
  • After James explains his intent to film Bella’s death and send it as a message to Edward, he changes from conversational to animal-like. “Then he slumped forward, into a crouch I recognized, and his pleasant smile slowly widened, grew, till it wasn’t a smile at all but a contortion of teeth, exposed and glistening.”
  • As Katniss runs to the feast table to get a backpack of medicine for Peeta, Clove goes after her. “I sprint for the table. I can sense the emergence of danger before I see it.”

2. The hero runs from the fight.

The villain is trying to stop the hero, but hero is not neccessarily trying to stop the villain.  The hero’s goal is to get what he needs and get out of there.

  • Harry attempts to run away with the Sorcerer’s Stone. “Harry sprang toward the flame door, but Voldemort screamed ‘SEIZE HIM!’ . . .”
  • Despite showing up to the fight on her own accord, Bella attempts to run away from James. “As useless as I knew it would be, as weak as my knees already were, panic took over and I bolted for the emergency door.”
  • Katniss does not stop running even though Clove is attacking her. It is more important that she gets Peeta’s medicine than it is for her to kill Clove. “I keep moving, positioning the next arrow automatically, as only someone who has hunted for years can do.”

3. The villain attempts to block the hero (with varying success).

Harry Potter and Katniss are able to put up a fight against their villains. Bella just gets beaten up.

  • When Quirrell grabs Harry’s wrist to stop him, both Harry and Quirrell feel the pain from contact. “At once, a needle-sharp pain seared across Harry’s scar; . . . he yelled, struggling with all his might, and to his surprise, Quirrell let go of him.”
  • James blocks Bella from leaving and hits her hard in the chest. “He was in front of me in a flash. . . . A crushing blow struck my chest . . .”
  • Clove throws a knife at Katniss, but Katniss uses her bow to deflect it. “Fortunately, the first knife comes whizzing in on my right side so I can hear it . . .”

Link to the rest at Better Novel Project

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18 Comments to “How to Write a Fight Scene in 11 Steps”

  1. For those into sword/sorcery or just sword play, a number of medieval and Renaissance fencing and sword-fighting books are now available online, and in print reproductions (although some of the print volumes are quite expensive if you are just interested in “how not to totally foul up a swordfight”)

    • For shorter than sword, “Hank Reinhardt’s Book of Knives” is a completely awesome resource from a guy who not only really knew his knives, but knew fighting with knives, on the streets. It’s excellent not only from the technical detail but for all the little tactile, scent, aural, and visual details of real knife fights.

      It’s a tid bit dated, in that lockback knives have a much wider availability now, but that’s a trivial detail compared to all the other info.

  2. Is today some sort of violent holiday I don’t know about? So far this morning I’ve gotten three emails recommending books or blogs about writing fight scenes (all different), now this (again different) on TPV.

    • Bastille Day, universally regarded as the start of the French Revolution. En français, la Fête nationale. (I do not admit that I speak French.)

      • That might be.

        But did four people have the same thought and none of them bothered to say what the thought was. Still weird.

        My other thought was maybe there was a major movie release recently with prominent fighting (good or bad) and everyone reacted at roughly the same speed.

  3. I was puzzled at first by the idea that the hero is always running away — what if the hero specifically intends to kill the Evil Bad Guy? Let the EBG be the one to run away, as Count Six Fingers does when Inigo explains that he’s going to kill him. But I gather this advice is for kids’ fiction.

    Basics of a fight scene is that Hero does A, Bad Guy counters, Hero tries B. If it looks like Hero is winning too soon and too easily, then Bad Guy turns out not to be left handed. Or the Bad Guy is winning and it’s the hero who turns out to be ambidextrous.

    • I got hung up at the villain making the first move. After all, isn’t one of the greatest fan rallying cries “Han Solo Shot First!”?

      Clearly, a large majority of the fans have let us know what they like – and it’s proactivity in the hero.

      • Suburbanbanshee

        What is appropriate for a kid like Harry, or for an indecisive girl like Bella, is not appropriate for a strongminded adult hero, particularly one with fighting skills.

        But sheesh, who runs away first? Yes, that is a Good Plan in certain circumstances, but in the described scenes, showing a villain your back is asking to be stabbed in it.

        • Felix J. Torres

          Who runs away first? Well… Carson Napier spent most of time on Venus running away from local Nazis. 🙂

          ERB could get away with anything.
          Even a hero who builds a rocket to go to Mars and forgets about the moon’s gravity and ends up on Venus.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          I had forgotten how terrible and unsatisfying those fight scenes were. On purpose, in Rowling’s case.

  4. This advice seems pretty lame and formulaic. Much more useful to talk to a martial arts expert, if you know one (you may get a free demo and suddenly find yourself on the floor as I did) or watch Youtube videos of MMA.

    I’ve read too many fights clearly written by someone with zero experience of fighting who hasn’t done any research.

  5. I like to act ’em out with my husband. 😉

  6. Don’t know sword fights. For knife fights, Tommy Lee Jones and Steven Seagal in Under Siege did the best. (Look at how they hold their knives.)

    But I know this about fist fights: Most last one punch. From the start to the finish, most fights last about 3 seconds.

  7. Anne Rice’s sister Alice Borchardt (RIP, we lost the wrong sister)wrote some of the most vivid, clear, and exciting battle scenes that I have ever read. I never tried to deconstruct them, but I never skipped them either.

    • trying to understand this Arachne, “we lost the wrong sister”…

      Im puzzled, your meaning is…? I’d like to know.

  8. experiences with fights in reality…

    sudden swings/stabs/shots out of nowhere
    ambushed by being misled to give aid…
    suckerpunching
    starts with a shove
    starts with standing over someone sitting down
    starts with attack/tackle from the back
    starts with simply sighting the person and rage takes over
    starts with mocking/taunts
    starts with pre-planning to do damage
    starts with drunken /drugged blindness
    starts with attempts to disable and moves to death

    what happens next is completely dependent on fate; the stronger more able may or may not prevail. Guns have a way of silencing swords. Many factors including other persons, dogs, sudden weather…. erupt. People die of heart failure, tko’s, head injuries. No trajectory can be set, esp for fights for which there is no formality, e.g. a duel.

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