September 2022: Writing the Fighting

Not every story needs fight scenes, but a lot of them do, and for good reason. After all, a fight is one of the most direct and efficient expressions of external conflict which any narrative medium allows. It is an almost pure expression of a conflict between one character, faction, or concept against another, whether they be equipped with swords, guns, giant robots, armies, fleets, magic – or nothing more than words, will, and their bare hands. Every writer should at least know the basics of doing a decent fight scene, because eventually, chances are that every writer will eventually have to write one.

And there is a difference between a good fight scene and a bad one, especially when it comes to writing. While a visual medium like film or most video games might be able to get away with spectacle alone for at least a little while, a writer working in a textual medium still only has words to work with – the same tools they would have to depict a footrace or a monologue, or the sight of paint drying. If you are working through text alone, then there is nothing inherently exciting or engaging about a fight scene, because ultimately, a fight is still squiggly marks on a white background. What makes a written fight scene engrossing is how those squiggly marks are arranged – and the way the stakes are set.

What that ultimately means is determining who is fighting, and for what reason: the best way to get readers engaged with your fight scene is to make them care about its progress, and that ultimately means making them care about its outcome. This means that a fight scene is (I’m sorry, I’m going back to this again) about suspense – about posing a question the reader wants answered, and then making that answer the result of the back and forth of the fight itself. The trick here is to make that question one the reader wants answered, and that means making the potential outcome involve something which the reader is already emotionally invested in.

The easiest way of doing this, of course, is to make the protagonist one of, or part of one of the involved parties. Assuming that you’ve already successfully made your readers invested in the well-being or development of your protagonist (if you haven’t, then you probably have bigger problems), then half your work is already done for you – but only half. After all, the reason why conflicts are engaging is because they are fundamentally an emotional gamble. If the protagonist doesn’t achieve anything if they win, or if they don’t suffer if they lose, then there’s nothing at stake. Likewise, if their success or failure seems all-but guaranteed, then there’s no tension. In either case, the suspense which a conflict would otherwise generate would be missing.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean that the suspense in a fight scene has to come from the question of victory or defeat. There are other “questions” which a skilled writer can pose to build the necessary tension. Maybe it’s not about whether the protagonist wins or loses, but whether they win without being weakened for the next fight. Maybe the question is whether they show mercy to an opponent, or kill them outright. Maybe the question is the effectiveness of a new weapon, or a risky tactic, or the action of an opponent when faced with defeat or victory. In some cases, a writer can even make an external conflict (a fight) reflect an internal conflict by making the fight itself an incident to force the protagonist to confront an emotional adversary – fear of death, bloodlust, ideological conviction, and so on – in a way which makes them develop as a character, regardless of the outcome of the external conflict.

All this being said, it should be noted that it’s best to set these stakes as far ahead of time as the story allows. By the time the actual fight starts, you want the reader to understand the stakes as clearly as possible. Not only does this mean that they’ll be more likely to be invested from the very beginning, but also that you have less to explain during the fight itself – and the less exposition you’re required to give in the middle of a fight scene, the better.

More on that in a minute.

There’s also something else to consider when setting up a fight scene, after the stakes have been set: namely, what kind of fight it’s going to be. Ultimately, some kind of fights serve some kinds of stakes and conflicts better than others. Though there’s no hard and fast rule over what kind of fight serves what kind of narrative conflict, certain types of fight scenes do tend to make certain first impressions: a one-on-one duel with swords or a close-up fist fight sets a different kind of tone than a massive, impersonal battle where the protagonist is one small part of a vast army, facing another force of complete strangers over a battlefield, or even over so great a distance that the “other side” can barely be seen at all. Different kinds of fights lend themselves to easily supporting different themes, although that doesn’t mean a certain type of conflict between certain types of adversaries needs to be done in a certain way. It is however, something to keep in mind.

So, let’s say all the groundwork is set up. The participants have been chosen, their weapons have been picked, the stakes have been set. Now at last do we finally come to the process of actually writing the fight scene. While I’m sure different writers will have different processes and different advice on how to follow those processes, I tend to write my fight scenes with a single guiding principle: that a fight scene should be written like the thoughts of its participants.

What does this mean? In the simplest terms, it means that the text should be narrowly focused on the perspective of the protagonist (assuming it’s a protagonist) doing the fighting. It should show the reader what the protagonist sees, what they are thinking in the moment, and what they are feeling as the fight goes on. The text should show the readers the same attacks and parries the protagonist sees, the same pain or excitement the protagonist feels. If they are are blind-sided by a feint or an ambush, the text should surprise the reader too. If something else is happening which the your protagonist isn’t focusing on, then don’t describe it. If they’re part of some greater battle, but they’re focused on the immediate fight in front of them, don’t clue the reader in on how the rest of the clash is going until your protagonist has the chance to catch their breath and look around for themselves.

The intended result is to make the reader feel like they’re the one doing the fighting, to assault them with a rapid sequence of textual blows in a narrative melee, to keep them on their toes by making them worry about the next incoming attack, or the next opening by which they – and your protagonist – can deliver their own. Just as the stakes of the fight scene hooks their interest, this sort of style of writing should keep them engaged moment to moment, sentence to sentence.

And as for those sentences, they should be shaped to match: short, sharp, almost violent. Use strong verbs and blunt language in brief phrases. As those of you who’ve read my writing probably know, I love run-on sentences – no doubt much to the frustration of my editors. However, for fight scenes, I try to make an exception. The reader should be left feeling on the back foot, scrambling to respond to a rapid stream of new information directly at them – which is to say, they should feel like they’re in a fight.

Of course, I’m not saying that every fight should read the same. When writing your fight scene, you should always take into account both the broad and the immediate setting: the weapons being used, the size of the fight as a whole, the lighting, condition of the ground, the temperature, environmental hazards, and anything else which a participant in a fight would have to consider while in the middle of it. As a result, a gigantic fleet battle between two armadas of sailing ships should feel very different from a pub brawl, or an artillery duel between two crews many kilometres away from each other. An artist’s job, ultimately, is to convey a certain type of feeling to an audience, and what kind of feeling you want to convey should shape the kind of fight scene you want in your story.

There’s also one other factor to consider as well: the mentality and the character of the person you want the reader to experience this fight through. Not every person is going to approach a fight the same way, and that should definitely come through in how that fight is shown to the reader, filtered through that character’s experience. If the perspective character is a veteran of such fights, then the writing through their eyes should reflect that: perhaps they expect an enemy’s feint or trick. Maybe they are able to plan a move or two in advance inside their heads. Maybe they can read their opponent more easily, or are more focused on the technical aspects of the fight. A fight through a less experienced participant might be laden with a sense of panic, of someone in over their head frantically trying to keep up. A character ruled by their feelings might be more fixated on their emotional reactions to the way the fight is going. Someone who is numb to pain or determined to ignore it will not react to being hit the same way someone who is really sensitive to discomfort might be. This serves not only to differentiate one fight scene – and one fighter from another, but it also serves to build that character by showing how they think, how they act, and how they react in a particular situation.

As usual, these are more general guidelines than a comprehensive process. While I’ve tried to cover some of what I consider to be best practises which should apply to the vast majority of fight scenes, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be scenes that you might want to write which will rest outside of what I’ve covered: stuff like fight scenes where the point-of-view character isn’t a participant, or where the perspective isn’t limited to a character at all, for example. There’s also a whole lot to be said about weapons, tactics, and all manner of other externalities which would obviously take much longer to talk about.

However, I hope this will serve as a good starting point at the very least.

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