Fights, like sex, can be some of the hardest scenes to write. They’re always in danger of getting bog down in detail, or they’re the subject of comically obtuse metaphors, or are just plain confusing and the reader has no idea what’s happening. I’m still trying to master fight scenes myself, but here are some techniques I used to make them fast pace and exciting.
The Blow by Blow
This is the most common type of fight scene. It’s best used for duels or fights that take a while and don’t require too many participants. In the ‘Blow by Blow’ the writer is acting like the announcer of a boxing match, giving an account of every swing and block.
Blow by Blow scenes are the easiest scenes to do, but they can very quickly devolve into tedium. Visual media has print beat when it comes to these types of fights. What’s more exciting: watching the final battle in a Marvel movie or hearing your friend describe it? Writing can be very immersive and give us things we can’t experience in film. The taste of sweat, the thoughts of the duelist, the feeling in their shoulders.
Also try not to linger when doing a blow by blow scene. If a character does something fast like a jab, don’t drag out the description. If something happens quickly keep the description quick. Remember that you are dealing with more than just the five senses, you have movement too, you want your writing to convey the speed, and flexibility of the action.
Writing isn’t a visual media so every fight scene, even the most technical blow by blow, is an abstraction. But what I mean by abstraction is focusing less on creating a fight scene at all, but rather focusing on the feeling, the motion, the way someone fights. Abstractions are best used for big battles, were everything is confusing, and you can use little details to build a sense of dread, or when a hero is fighting a bunch of henchman and dispatching them quickly or even if you want to introduce a threat.
Abstraction can be hard to describe so here’s an example of what I’m talking about from my novel Ghets:
Reez was like a wildfire, cutting and burning and consuming, with each swing she grew hotter, with each cut she grew madder. She blazed through her enemies, on them quicker than they could react, could think, she was an explosion in the middle of their ranks.
The whole thing is more a metaphor than fight. I don’t tell how Reez was defeating anyone, just trying to convey a beserker like style. I tend to prefer writing abstractions for my fight scenes. The feeling of what’s going on is more important than the than physical moves of the actors involved. But abstractions do have their short comings. They’re always in danger of becoming too abstract, the metaphor running away from any sense what’s actually happening. They’re also not great at conflict.
When I say conflict, I mean the push and pull of the fight. In the scene above I focused on Reez, the people she was fighting weren’t important. But most fight scenes, be they duels or battles, are a contest between two parties. What makes them interesting and dynamic are the ways that those parties try get ahead or around their opponent. Present a problem for each fighter to overcome or try to out think.
Don’t show the fight
There’s one final strategy for fight scenes and that’s not to even bother with them. In the greatest action movie of all time, Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max runs off to take out the ‘Bullet Farmer’. We don’t know what he does to defeat the Bullet Farmer. We just see him run off, and then come back after an explosion. He’s covered in blood and carrying a bunch of stolen weapons.
The scene is wonderfully bad ass, but we never see what Max actually did. Instead we only have the aftermath and the other characters’ reactions to Max. This makes Max seem tough. He did something so cool we can’t even imagine it. It’s the same principle as the old horror movie conceit that the monster is scarier when you don’t see it. Describing the devastation or aftermath of a fight can make your character seem more competent or powerful than going in detail on the fight itself. It’s also easier for the reader to follow.
On a similar note, try treating some of your fight scenes like comics. Rather than doing a true blow by blow think of the best parts, the most thrilling. Only describe those, like the panels of a comic book. Don’t worry about the connective tissue linking the panels too much, just describe the scene like it’s all in slow motion. One or two cool moments is all anyone remembers about a good fight anyway.
Now that you’ve got some techniques, give them a shot, experiment! Let me know what works for you! Go fight!