Today I'm talking about one of my writing specialties, as well as one of your most requested topics, and that's how to write fight scenes! This topic is requested by one of my patrons over on Patreon, Elizabeth Duivenvoorde. Like many writers, she was a little intimidated to start writing fight scenes and wanted some tips.
Fight scenes can be the most exciting part of a novel, but they can also be the easiest scenes to screw up. A lot of you guys be ruining your fight scenes, but it's okay! I'm here to show you the way by breaking down my top 10 tips for writing awesome, action-packed fight scenes right now!
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Number 1: Ditch the Technicalities
There is nothing that'll suck the life out of a fight scene quite like clinical jargon. It doesn't matter if readers understand the terminology, it's the fact that these words do not produce emotion. A lot of people know what a roundhouse kick is, but that phrase doesn't evoke as much power as say, a blow to the gut.
If the technical term itself contains visceral language, for example, “body slam,” then it's fine to use. But ultimately, your focus should be on the reader's emotional experience, not the technicalities of the fight. I know you want readers to imagine the fight exactly how you see it, but fights move really quickly, so there's literally no way for you to accomplish this unless you slow things down to a glacial pace. Ditch the jargon and focus instead on the emotional impact of the scene.
Ditch the jargon and focus instead on the emotional impact of the scene.
Number 2: Powerful Verbs
A lot of readers complain about fight scenes because they're often boring to read, and they're boring because the author in question used the dullest verbs possible. You want to convey just how dangerous and painful this fight is, and you do that using powerful verbs. Words like “riposte” and “parry” do not convey these feelings at all! If anything, they sound foofy.
You know what verbs carry power?
“Slam.” “Jab.” “Barrel.” “Lunge.” “Hurdle.” “Race.” “Slice.”
These are the type of verbs you should be using in a fight scene, at least if you want to make it impactful. You want the readers to feel each punch. You want them to be worried for the characters. You want them cringing! Go for powerful verbs rather than explanatory or technical verbs. They're simple, effective, and engaging.
Number 3: Onomatopoeias
You wanna be a what-a? Onomatopoeias are sound words. The word itself is a sound. If you're confused, my high school english teacher used to refer to them as “Batman words,” because back in the day, the Batman TV show would replace fight scenes with pictures of onomatopoeias.
“Bang!” “Pow!” “Whack!” “Boom!”
While you should definitely not make all of your verbs onomatopoeias, they are really helpful to use in action scenes, violent scenes, and of course, fight scenes, because they create a sense of sound. If someone hits a guy with a wooden staff and it makes a whacking sound, just say they whacked the guy with the wooden staff. Let's pretend that didn't sound sexual, and move on. The point is onomatopoeias are an easy way to get other senses involved in a fight scene, so use ‘em.
Number 4: Skip the Play-by-Play
Don't describe every minute detail. Not only is it boring, it's unrealistic. Nine times out of ten, you're writing from a specific character's perspective, and they're fighting. They're not laser focused on every single detail going down at every single second. They're relying on muscle memory or they're freaking out and fighting to stay alive.
Hyper-specific play-by-plays disconnect readers from the character, which is the opposite of what you want. You want them to feel involved in the fight.
“He raised his right arm, blocking the villain's left hand with his right forearm. Then, he thrust his left fist forward, making contact with the villain's left pectoral muscle.”
This is boring as shit. Goddamn. You could have easily said, “He blocked the villain's blow and punched him in the chest.” It's quicker, easier to visualize, and a lot more interesting than that crap.
Number 5: Pick Up the Pace
This is another reason why technical jargon and play-by-plays are the kiss of death in fight scenes. Fights are fast-paced. You don't see snails fighting, and there's a reason for that.
Another way to increase the pace of a fight scene is to use shorter sentences. Short sentences read as fast paced, whereas longer sentences draw out the moment. That doesn't mean your fight scenes should exclusively consist of short, choppy sentences. You want to vary the sentence structure. But your fight scenes should consist of a number of short sentences. This will pick up the pace and create a sense of panic, which is exactly what you want.
Number 6: Variety
Sometimes people will write the best, most visceral fight scenes, and they're still boring. Why? Because every fight scene is exactly the same! Every fight includes the same characters battling the same obstacle with the same weapon. This is not interesting. Readers have read it a million times before, so they can predict exactly what's coming!
Vary your fight scenes by taking into consideration the obstacles or antagonists involved, the strengths and weaknesses of all parties, and of course, the weapons. In The Savior's Champion, Tobias has to fight Kaleo several times. Sometimes it's a fist fight, sometimes it involves daggers, sometimes it's with swords. One time they were fighting underwater.
You can also vary the kills. For example, slitting a throat, stabbing a gut, gunshot wound, arrow, whatever. Keep it different and keep the readers guessing.
Number 7: Consider the Disadvantages
Fight scenes are not exciting if your main character is always dominating. Whenever you start a new fight scene, ask yourself what puts your character at a disadvantage? If they are physically stronger than their opponent, give them an outside influence as a disadvantage.
For example, say their opponent is weaker than them, but they're fighting in the dark. Hard to beat the bad guy when you can't see shit. Maybe the bad guy has a torch and could light your character on fire. Maybe the bad guy is armed but your character is not.
There are plenty of ways to put your character at a disadvantage. This will up the stakes, as well as add variety to your fight scenes, which, as we already covered, is always a good thing.
Number 8: Wounds Matter
Unless your character has some kind of healing power, you really gotta pay attention to wounds. They hurt! In case you weren't aware . . .
Being in pain is going to be an obstacle in a fight because it's harder to concentrate, and certainly harder to move, when you're suffering. If your character has a broken bone, that part of their body should probably be out of commission. If the wound is deep, blood loss is going to be an issue.
And above all else, for God's sake, describe the pain! This is the one part of your fight scene where you can pause to give explicit detail. Pain is scary and concerning and HELLO, painful! You want your readers acutely aware of this because it will make the fight scene that much more captivating.
Number 9: Visualize
A lot of writers struggle to visualize the fight scene they're writing, especially if they're not fighters themselves. But there are tons of ways to correct this issue. Some people meditate, others watch action movies or TV shows. I personally listen to music. I will go through my entire writing playlist until I find a song that I feel matches the tone I want to convey in the fight scene. Then I will sit back–sometimes for hours–and listen to that song over and over again until I can visualize the fight scene move by move.
I do this for literally all my fight scenes. For example, there's a fight scene in The Savior's Sister that I wrote while listening to “Beaten in Lips” by Beartooth. Find whatever it is that unlocks the violent side of your brain, and let it do its thing.
Number 10: Get Inside Your Body
I give this advice all the time, and it is never more relevant than fight scenes. You do not want to simply list the moves made in a fight. You want to describe how the character is feeling. I don't mean happy or sad or scared or angry. I mean literal feelings. Are they gasping for air from running for miles? Is their heart pounding in sheer terror? Are their ribs bruised and aching? Is their fat lip throbbing?
There should be a hefty dollop of these details in your fight scene, because they humanize the character. Feelings are a stark reminder that shit, this character is not invincible. They in danger!
So that's all I've got for you today!
Fight scenes are engaging because readers don't know if the character is going to get injured, or hell, if they're gonna die! Get inside your character's body and it'll provide ample room for upping the stakes.
How do you visualize your fight scenes?
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