Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writing a Fight Scene

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

I don't know why, but WRITING a fight scene seems my specialty. However, as with so much in my life, the knowledge came after the attempt. When I decided to study HOW TO WRITE a fight scene, I came across a number of primary steps for writing a fight scene I wish I'd known beforehand. I'd like to share some of them with you now.

If I could only give you four general tips on writing a fight scene, I'd say, keep the pace forefront in your mind, keep your descriptions limited, have a full understanding of your characters' personalities before you begin writing the fight scene and use the characters' senses.

Now, let's flesh out this scene with a bit more detail, shall we?

The most important aspect to this scene is the characters' emotional reactions to the event. What if this is the first time a woman slaps her husband? How might it affect her, or him and even their relationship? If you bring out the characters' emotional reactions, you'll have a much stronger fight scene.

Another important tool to use when writing a fight scene is to employ your character's senses. Have your hero taste the blood, hear the bullet scream past and smell the sulfur in the air.

You should have the fight scene offer insights into the combatants' personalities. For example, your hero might rise out of his emotional cocoon to protect the girl.

As with all scenes in your novel, a fight scene needs a purpose within the story and must move the story forward. You should also ensure your readers know which characters have something to lose in the scene.

Dialogue is tricky in fight scenes. You may wish to use fewer words and employ more grunts and curses.

Setting should also take a forefront position when writing a fight scene. Is the floor slippery? Does the wall scrape his skin? Is the building on fire?

Pace is another fateful choice for your fight scene. It might be as limited in scope as a woman who slaps a man, or a battle where thousands might gore each other with swords and axes. Regardless the type of scene you envision, the fight moves fast from the perspective of the fighters. It may take a thousand words to write, but to the combatants, it takes mere moments of time. Your goal here is to keep your reader on-edge during the entire scene.

Now for some general tips about writing a fight scene.

Sure, go ahead and act it out in front of a mirror. Choreograph the thing. See what happens when your combatants move in certain ways.

Know your character's perspective is highly focused on the events at hand. They see only their immediate danger and think only of survival. An interesting insight into a combatant's world is that his focus ranges only a few feet in any direction.

The fight scene must fit your characters' personalities. The milquetoast won't rise up to lead the army to victory nor will the troll sit down and cry when someone takes his weapon.

This is a good time to have your hero face his weaknesses.

Balance your violence and gore. The amount of each depends upon your audience, though every audience can appreciate a novel with little to no gore.

Use technical terminology with care. It can confuse your reader or make him slow down to understand what you meant. For example, if your reader does not know the difference between spherical case, shot and canister, just say cannonball.

Imagine the weapons these people will use and experience them for yourself. If they're shooting at each other and you've never been to a range, you're writing may have a hollowness about it.

Introduce the unexpected. The combatants will trip, slip, fall, hurt, bleed and all those other things the fighter never envisioned beforehand.

Fight scenes need to make sense to your reader. A pocketknife probably won't take off the villain's arm.

Make your opponents competent. It's not a fight if a trained soldier takes on a newborn.

Try not to offer too much detail. Allow the reader to visualize as much as you can, so his mind will seek those places most fearful to him.

Remember, for every action, there is a reaction. If he gets punched in the eye, he'll respond in some way.

Spectators are great for telling "what just happened."

One last thought. When the fight is over, show your reader your winner's physical condition. This makes it seem more real to your reader.

Fight scenes can have a powerful and positive effect upon your reader, but not if he doesn't buy it. So, guys, keep it real.

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. Nice post Patrick. However, I disagree when you say, "Use technical terminology carefully." Your example of spherical shot, case shot, or canister being collectively called a cannonball is perhaps too simple. Because canister isn't a cannonball, it's a tin that breaks open upon firing. It wouldn't slow the pace down too much to explain that in a single sentence, would it? It'd be very easy to explain the differences within the story (When the cannon fired, it sprayed forth canister, tins packed with musket balls that burst open with each shot, showering the lines with hot iron). The same could be said of the other two examples. Eh?

  2. C. Patrick SchulzeJune 22, 2010 at 9:03 PM

    Nice to hear from you, Ryan.

    Of course you're correct. In "Born to be Brothers" I used the example of the "large shotgun" to explain canister.

    In the post I simply gave an example I know few could identify for the sake of understanding my point.

    Author's license, perhaps?

    Take care, Ryan.


  3. In a roleplaying game some years ago one player tried to have his character threaten another by kicking open a door and brandishing a desert eagle. It fell flat when the player on the receiving end wondered what a gangster was doing carrying around a large bird.

    One man's technical terminology is another's everyday language. It's good to be careful :-)

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