Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Fight! Fight! Fight!

There's no doubt about it, learning to craft words so that readers are swept up to another world is hard work. Writers must paint captivating scenes, create believable and sympathetic characters and then have them do amazing things to boot. The real kicker is, everything has to be pictured crystal clear in the reader's mind.

One of the trickiest times I've found to pull it all together is when writing fast moving action sequences - especially fight scenes. So, I thought I'd share a few of my own super secret action scene combat techniques that I picked while trying to figure this out for myself.

Study Up

I should probably read up on the theory of writing action sequences, but you know, for some reason, I haven’t yet. What I have done is picked up a lot of action-y books and read the fight scenes very closely (observation is a great education). Here are a few things I've learned:

  • The build up is just as important as the actual action. The time for inner dialogue, explanations and innuendo is before the characters put up their dukes. The anticipation heightens a reader’s response to a fight scene. (Which, btw, is also probably one reason why starting a story with a major fight scene rarely works. We have no background and no investment in the characters, no matter who they are.)
  • Be extremely concise. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Which is actually really hard. Now is not the time to be flowery.
  • Fight sequences are usually brief. Oh, there might be a few of them stacked together to finish the scene, but they can often be broken down into discreet, manageable pieces.
  • Please silence your inner dialogue during the action scenes. Please don’t do any flashbacks in between karate chops. Don’t wonder why the opponent’s eyes are so blue, or how he got that minuscule scar above his left eyebrow. Save it for after your mc’s knocked him out and he/she has time to look.

How to Write Fight Scenes Step By Step

Okay, this is probably extreme, but sometimes I just get so hung up that I can’t move forward even to do a hold-your-nose rough first pass. This is how I’ve worked through it successfully. And yes, I do realize it’s overkill on thinking-things-through, but this is how I function.

Write up a to-do list sequentially of every little, tiny thing that needs to happen in the scene. For instance, if I was writing this passage from A Conspiracy of Kings (I wish I could write like mwt), my list might look something like this:

  •  Get into the room.
  • Find the sword under the couch.
  • Unsheath the sword.
  • Someone’s coming in.
  • Get up, ready to fight.
  • Kill the enemy.

The study had a door and a window. I jumped through the open window because it was faster and fell to the stone floor on my stomach, scrabbling in the dust under the couch until my hand closed on a stiff leather strap. I dragged the sword free of its sheath with difficulty and turned, still on my knees, as a man filled the doorway. Coming from light into the dark, he was looking ahead of him, not down toward me. My lunge, as I came to my feet, took him in the chest as I drove the sword upward with the strength of my legs. Even rusted, the sword slid through him, and I found, for the first time, how easy it is to kill a man. (A Conspiracy of Kings, p. 8 - Megan Whalen Turner)

Below each bullet item, write one to three short sentences that tell exactly what happens. Here’s how a piece could potentially begin as short sentences using a passage from Graceling:

1She jumped and kicked at his chest. 2He crashed to the ground / and she threw herself on top of him, / struck him in the face once, twice, three times, / and kneed him in the side before 3he was able to throw her off. 4She was on him again like a wildcat, but as / she tried to trap his arms 5he flipped her onto her back / and pinned her with the weight of his body. 6She curled her legs up / and heaved him away, and then 7they were on their feet again, / crouching, circling, striking at each other with hands and feet. 8She kicked at his stomach / and barreled into his chest, / and they were on the ground again. (Graceling, p. 78 – Kristin Cashore)

See if that order makes sense. Switch bullet items around until it does.

Flesh out the short sentences. Either combine them, or add a little more detail etc.

Go back and proof it a final time. Is the action clear? Is it in order? Run it past someone and see where they get confused. Proof it again. Voila, the perfect action scene.

Halfway to the trees an awful sound reached his ears – the hoofbeats of a single horse closing in. Daring a glance back, Alek saw a horseman on the other side of the stream, riding hard. His carbine strap was wound around one arm.

He was ready to fire…

Alek turned away and scrambled up the bank. The rye in the fields was chest high, tall enough to hide in. A shot rang out – a geyser of dirt shot up a meter to his right. He dove into the rye, thrashing away from the stream on hands and knees.

The carbine cracked again, and the bullet sliced past Alek’s ear. His instincts screamed to run farther in, but the horseman would see the tall grass moving. Alek froze where he was, panting. (Leviathan, p. 129 – Scott Westerfeld)




  1. Action is tough, no doubt about it. Partly, I think, because it's got its own flow to it which is probably different than the rest of your story.

    *Remove flowery description hat, put on action hat.

    Viola! New author.

    I do tend to start a fight scene then have the character wonder if they left the iron on. Bad me. But the iron is such a tempting piece of vital plot! I mean... Did he or not?

    Good call on Westerfeld. His action/movement is top notch.

  2. This is awesome! I've been wishing someone would write a blog post about this--in fact, I even contemplated doing the research to write my own. This is just what I need to learn how to do. Thanks!

  3. The tips are much appreciated, Susan. I've always felt insecure in writing fight scenes. And this is very timely - I have a story I'm sending out soon that has a fight scene. I'm going to go over it with these tips and see how I can improve it.

  4. Excellent advice, Susan. I've struggled with fight scenes as well. You've really done a great job dissecting those great examples and showing us how they work. I agree that the build up is just as important as the action scene and to cut the flowery language and flashbacks. Those can be serious tension killers. Also listing the actions is a really good starting point that makes a daunting scene to write a lot less daunting.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. The build up is a really good idea though you have to be careful not to raise the stakes too high or the entire thing will be anti-climactic. And yes, fights rarely last long.

    A simple thing to do when writing action scenes is to make your sentences short. In that out-take of A Conspiracy of Kings I see very long sentences and some of them are too elaborate for my taste.

    Don't forget to show physical fatigue of prolonged fighting.

  6. Martin, I think you're right about the short sentences. I was going to write about that, but then did a quick check. Sentence length on both the Conspiracy of Kings and Graceling fragments was over 20 words. Leviathan only 11.

    Maybe, as in the case of Graceling, it's more about fragmenting a sentence to make it read more quickly? What do you think?

  7. Dustin, action sequences are a whole different breed of writing, aren't they? I've read enough stuff of yours though, to know you've got it down (even if you did leave the iron on).

    Melanie and Sabrina and MaryAnn, I hope it's helpful to you.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds it difficult. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  8. Everyone who struggles with fight scenes might find this link useful. Originally this discussion was for writing RPGs but same rules apply.

  9. Holy cow, Martin. That link is a goldmine!

    You should post that over on Hatrack, too.

    Thanks for pointing it out.


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