Writing a fight scene is easy to get wrong. It’s also easy to get right. This blog post is adapted from a classic article I wrote in my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine back in October of 2006. That’s a long time ago, so I thought it was worth updating and posting on my blog.
We’re going to get down into the details in this post. Fight scenes are really easy, if you know the rules. And what are the rules?
Some Fight Scene Rules-of-Thumb
- Show, don’t tell
- Make it happen in real-time
- Enforce causality
- Show sequence, not simultaneity
- Favor completed verbs over continuing-action verbs
- Show the fastest stuff first
- For every action, show a reaction
- Use interior monologue and dialogue to set the pace
These rules of thumb all exist for the same reason. The reason is that your reader wants your fiction to show them a movie in their heads. The rules of thumb force you to do that.
A Wretchedly Bad Fight Scene
I could explain all the rules in boring detail, but that would be Telling you. Right now, I want to Show you. So here’s a wretchedly bad fight scene that violates all the rules. Read it first, mock it all you want, and then let’s analyze it to see why it’s so awful.
After taking six or eight or maybe even ten punches and kicks to all parts of his body — such as the solar plexus and shins and head — Arnie was hurting quite badly, although perhaps not as badly as when Mrs. Weevil gave him a D in spelling in third grade when he KNEW “potato” had no “e” in it.
In any event, Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting that Bruce was an ambidextrous excuse for a moron, just after he saw Bruce throwing another punch at him. But none of this worked, because before he could do any of that, Bruce jumped high in the air and kicked Arnie in the eye, so none of the stuff Arnie tried actually worked because he was lying there on the ground wondering if he was ever going to see Cindy Lou Who again, who had grown up to be quite cute, even if she wasn’t so much back in seventh grade, and also he was screaming in agony.
“Want some more, you little lout?” Bruce said as he kicked Arnie in the kidneys about fifteen times and then grabbed his head and pounded it on the ground. All this time, Arnie was jabbing Bruce in places like the groin and stomach, but it didn’t do any good until the end when Bruce fell over in a faint, just after Arnie cried “Uncle!”
It goes without saying that this is horrible beyond words. But why? What makes it so bad? The short answer is that it violates all the rules of thumb I gave above.
The long answer is going to take a bit of work. Let’s look at each of the rules and see how our horrible fight scene violates each one.
Show, Don’t Tell
Our example scene violates this rule almost continuously. Look at the first sentence:
After taking six or eight or maybe even ten punches and kicks to all parts of his body — such as the solar plexus and shins and head…
The reason this is “telling” is because those punches are all lumped together into one big glop, making it impossible to say with any certainty how many punches there actually were. That’s not showing your reader a movie, it’s just bean-counting.
Nor are we sure exactly which body parts are getting all the punishment, although we get a list of a few parts that might be getting whacked. Or might not — who knows? But your reader can’t visualize a punch to “all parts of the body.”
And furthermore, what’s Arnie doing while he’s taking all those punches? He can’t possibly be patiently accepting them. Does he throw a counterpunch? Beg for mercy? Phone E.T.? We can’t see this scene. We can’t see Arnie. We’re just being told about it.
Don’t show “six or eight punches” to an unspecified part of the body. Show one punch to the gut. And then…
Make it Happen in Real-Time
When a fight happens in real-time, you see one punch and then right away you see the response and then right away you see the next punch. In real-time, when the action is falling fast and furious, you don’t have time for musing like this:
Arnie was hurting quite badly, although perhaps not as badly as when Mrs. Weevil gave him a D in spelling in third grade when he KNEW ‘potato’ had no ‘e’ in it.
Backstory has its place in a novel. But not in a fight scene. A fight scene is now, not back in third grade. You’re trying to show your reader a movie in their head. Any backstory you put into a fight scene stops the movie cold.
When I talk about causality, I mean that a cause should be shown first, and then the effect afterwards. If you show the effect first, and then the cause, it looks absurd. As in this paragraph:
In any event, Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting that Bruce was an ambidextrous excuse for a moron, just after he saw Bruce throwing another punch at him.
So let’s untangle this. What happened first? Arnie saw Bruce throwing another punch at him. But that’s shown last in this sentence. The effect is shown first, and it’s a long sequence of events that I’ve drawn out ludicrously: Arnie ducks his head. Arnie spins to the right. Arnie kicks. Arnie shouts. Only after we see all that do we see the cause for it all.
That’s just dumb. If you’re showing your reader a movie in their head, don’t run the movie backwards.
Show Sequence, not Simultaneity
It rarely makes sense to try to make two different actions simultaneous in a fight scene.
Why? Because a fight scene is chock full of all different sorts of actions, each of which takes a different amount of time. If one action takes a tenth of a second and another takes two seconds, the action will feel distorted if the author asserts that they happen simultaneously.
In our example, we’ve got this gem:
Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting that Bruce was an ambidextrous excuse for a moron.
You can duck and spin to the right pretty quick. You can kick pretty quick. But how long does it take to shout that bit about the ambidextrous excuse for a moron? A lot longer. All this action/dialogue can’t happen simultaneously. So it’s a heinous crime to say that it does.
Even if lots of things are actually happening all at once, your reader can only read about one of them at a time, because the words are written in a linear sequence. So don’t say they’re happening all at once. It’s a direct violation of what the reader is experiencing.
Favor Completed Verbs over Continuing-Action Verbs
Use simple past tense verbs such as “kicked” or “punched” or “shouted” rather than those pesky participles such as “kicking” or “punching” or “shouting”.
The reason for this is simple. When you say “Arnie jabbed Bruce,” you imply that it happened quickly and it’s now over. Which is what the camera would show. When you say “Arnie was jabbing Bruce,” you imply that it’s going on and on and on. But a jab happens in a few tenths of a second, so your mind has no option except to see the jab happening over and over and over again. Or happening in super Slo-Mo. Either way, it’s not much like a fight any more.
In the middle paragraph, we’ve got the worst of all possible worlds, because we’re mixing completed verbs with continuing-action verbs:
…Arnie ducked his head and spun to the right, simultaneously kicking out furiously with his foot and shouting…
This kind of writing is enough to make anyone cry.
Show the Fastest Stuff First
When you sequence a group of events that are happening at roughly the same time, show those that happen fastest before you show those that happen slowest. Look at this segment:
…none of the stuff Arnie tried actually worked because he was lying there on the ground wondering if he was ever going to see Cindy Lou Who again, who had grown up to be quite cute, even if she wasn’t so much back in seventh grade, and also he was screaming in agony…
This has numerous problems, but note this: we show Arnie ruminating about Cindy Lou Who (which could take a couple seconds, given what a slow wit Arnie is) and then we see him screaming in agony (which he should be doing pretty fast, with all the kicks he’s getting.) If you’re going to show these, it’s better to show him screaming first and then show him ruminating.
For Every Action, Show a Reaction
If Bruce punches 6 times and Arnie jabs back 6 times, then you need to shuffle these actions together, rather than lumping all the punches together and then all the jabs. Look at the text:
“Want some more, you little lout?” Bruce said as he kicked Arnie in the kidneys about fifteen times and then grabbed his head and pounded it on the ground. All this time, Arnie was jabbing Bruce in places like the groin and stomach…
So Bruce is performing a whole bunch of actions all lumped together, and only then do we see any of the reactions from Arnie, which are also all lumped together. The net effect is to smooth out the fight sequence into a bland oatmeal of muffled actions. You can’t see a scene like this in your head. Oh, sure, you see something. But it’s nothing like what the author intended. It’s a muddle, not a movie.
Use Interior Monologue and Dialogue to Set the Pace
Pace is important in a fight scene. It’s utterly unrealistic to show a nonstop flurry of actions and reactions.
Real fighters will exchange a series of punches or kicks or whatever. Then they’ll back off and look each other over, catching their breath and watching for weaknesses. A real fight has ebbs and flows in the pacing. You show the faster parts of the scene by short sentences that show only the actions and reactions. You show the slower parts of the scene by longer sentences that show actions and reactions interspersed with interior monologue and dialogue.
Your goal in a fight scene is to make it take just about as long to read as it would take to happen in real time. You do that by controlling the pacing.
In the fight scene above, we have blocks of both interior monologue and dialogue tossed in at the very height of the action. Those would work much better during the lulls between the punches, while the fighters have stepped back to catch their breath and plan their next move.
Not Even Wrong
The example I’ve given above does not even deserve an F. It’s too horrible to merit a grade at all. It’s too horrible to rewrite. The most merciful thing we can do is forget it ever happened.
As homework, you might look at a fight scene from your own novel and ask if it follows the eight rules of thumb I listed above. If it doesn’t, can you fix it? Or should you scrap it and start the scene over?
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Robert Elliott says
Thank you for another great blog post.
Would you say the same rules apply for a sex scene?
Randy Ingermanson says
I’d say the same rules apply to any scene of high emotional intensity.
Nicholas Piper says
I’ve written other types of stories such as Fantasy & Sci-Fi, but they are comparatively easier in the sense that I can create something that all the characters can be involved in. I can even weave romance into those stories, but I can’t figure out what to put into the plot of a standard romance story.
Am I the only one who really liked that “bad” scene?! I love it! I get such a strong sense of Arnie’s voice – yes, Arnie is a schoolkid, which I guess wasn’t what you were going for, but I totally want to know how he deals with Bruce the Bully…
I understand that if what you want is Schwarzenegger and Willis having a serious, grown-up fight in an action movie, then this isn’t it, but what it is is excellent in its own way!
Lovely! I’m going to use this to mske my fight scerns even better. Honestly, super long boring fight senes drive me a little koo-koo.
I’m determined to make sure any I write aren’t boring and have a good reason to be there. I thi k the worst thing we can do to our books is to add stuff in it because we think it “should” be there.
A good way to kill a book fast imop.
Have saved this page ❤️ and will come back when it’s time to revise again!
Stella Joseph says
If you’ve stuck in an action scene just because it’s cool or just because you feel you’re supposed to have an action scene about now, it’s probably going to fall flat. Action, no matter what form it takes, must advance the plot and deepen characterization. The interaction between the protagonist and his opponent must go deeper than just exchanged blows. Who are these people, why are they fighting, and what does their fight tell you about them and their relationship?
The first rule of writing a war (or any scene, for that matter) is to make sure the plot continues. Say no to a fight scene that consists solely of interesting manoeuvres or writing abilities.