Tips For Writing A Memorable Fight Scene

Does your work-in-progress require an action-packed fight scene?

How do you know if your readers can see it and fully understand it? Here’s a checklist for you as you draft that fist-swinging, bottle-breaking, blood, sweat, and tear-soaked scene. 

Do the moves of your characters reflect their personalities?

Your more fearful characters may hit weakly, or your more clever ones pick up tools around them. Or what if they’ve practiced specific dance moves and can use that too fight? Your cheater would fight dirty. Maybe your priest would hesitate to fight at all. Think about your character’s physical habits, strengths, and abilities and then draft their moves specifically to match who they are. In The Princess Bride, all of the characters who fight bring a distinction to the scene. Inigo Montoya is looking for the man who killed his father, Westley has to play the part of the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Count Rogan plays dirty. 

Does your setting add to the fight’s interest?

I’m not really a fight scene type of girl, (I’d way prefer snappy dialogue!) But, I can’t help but be impressed when during one of the Jason Bourne movies, Matt Damon’s character fights well with a rolled up magazine! Brilliant! What items, structures, or elements can be incorporated offensively or defensively? What are the opportunities in it to be killed? Like the falling glass in a window? Off a balcony? Kitchen knives? Etc? I think the best fight scenes get creative with their settings, which keep the readers’ interest!

Does your fight use the right language?

This is the tricky part about writing a fight scene: the sentences. Now you can have all of the best weapons, interesting setting, developed character, and clever banter, but if it’s written poorly, your reader will hate it. The best fight scenes are written in short, crisp sentences. The verbs are active, precise, and free of many adverbs. Fight scenes should be devoid of backstory, deep thinking, long monologues, flashbacks, or poetic description. The tighter the prose, the faster it’s read, the clearer it is in the readers’ minds. Oh, and don’t drag it out for the sake of suspense. Make it just long enough — no longer. This is why fight scenes in movies are so much better than fight scenes in prose. 

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Does your fight scene change your main character?

Your fight scene isn’t just an end, it could also be an opening to emotional growth for your character. Use your fight scene to stretch the strengths and reveal the weaknesses of  your main character. Use the adrenaline of physical demands to enhance who they are, the good and the bad. And then, after it’s all over, show how they respond to the fight to the reader. Are they remorseful? Giddy? Bloodthirsty? Traumatized? Don’t be afraid to write it that way. In The Princess Bride this is demonstrated when Inigo Montoya defeats Count Rogan. He has finally met his life-long quest and now he realizes that he must do something new. 

Does your fight scene mean anything?

If you’ve created a complex, interesting character then fighting a physical battle is so much more than just slapping some guy around. Before you ever draft that action-packed confrontation, think carefully about all of their struggles, motives, and morals. How can the fight scene symbolize the other things that they are fighting for in their life. Could their reactions to an attack reveal their own inner struggles? Can your reader identity with them on an emotional level? 

Does your fight scene follow a simple three-act structure?

In the course of the scene, there is a beginning, middle, and end, right? Your fight scene’s first act could include the initial confrontation of two opponents, a verbal threat, a response proposing negotiations, an advance of one party toward the other, then a defensive move. Now, for “act two”: the fight begins and the opponents take turns being at the advantage, using gradually more impressive and dramatic weapons and tools for offensive and defensive weapons. Then one is caught and seemingly debilitated. But? They get away somehow, and surprise their opponent in an unexpected way, and the loser concedes. Act three? The victor of the fight moves on. The loser is either dead, immobilized, or sulks off to tend to his wounds. This is excellently demonstrated in the fight scene between Inigo Montoya and Westley when they first meet. I recommend watching it several times to look for the plot points of three-act structure.  

A fight scene is the most elemental form of conflict. A well-written one can be mesmerizing and enjoyable! Craft yours carefully and you’ll have your readers cheering and booing in all the right places.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.