How to Write Fight Scenes
A gripping, movie-worthy fight scene is a joy to read but sometimes difficult to write. If you run into trouble when it’s time for your characters to throw down, I have some pointers that may help you get into the proper headspace and articulate what’s going on.
First thing’s first: Location.
Where does the fight take place? Familiarize yourself with the area. Even if you don’t go into painstaking detail in the actual scene, you—the writer—need to know this place inside out, including the area surrounding it.
Get some graph paper and sketch the layout of the location as best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Treat it like you’re trying to describe a rough blueprint of your apartment to someone who’s never been there before. What is this space usually used for? Where is everything? Think about the place from a tactical perspective. Are there any features or objects that someone could take cover behind/under/inside? Is there anything that can be used as an improvised weapon? Are there features that present hazards? (Subway tracks, flights of stairs, a cliff edge…)
Once you’ve got your blueprint, place your characters on it using a star or dot or other symbol. For the purposes of clarity, we’ll use a couple random characters: Alice and Bertrand. Let us say that Alice is hanging out, chillin’ like a villain, in an abandoned factory. Bertrand enters her lair. Since Alice is there first, she controls the space initially. Everything will happen around her. We place her on the blueprint first with a nice dot marked “A”.
Where do we put her? We place the characters on the map at the positions they’re in just before the fight starts. Let’s put Bertrand (“B”) on the blueprint where he is when he first notices Alice’s presence. The stage is now set.
Take stock of what each character is capable of and what manner of weaponry they each have on them. Also take stock of how much combat training each of them has had. This will determine what each of them will try to do when it comes to blows. For example, because Bertrand has ______ years of training in vampire hunting and ninjutsu and blah blah blah, he will have the presence of mind to dodge when struck at rather than freezing and will probably pull a weapon that will be useful in close quarters.
Also take into account their respective combat styles. Is Bertrand a hothead who is likely to charge at Alice, bellowing in manly rage, or would he prefer to slink off, get some cover, and snipe from the shadows?
Let’s say that Bertrand is a competent vampire hunter, has a crossbow as his preferred weapon, has training with close-quarters combat but it isn’t his forte. He usually carries four silver plated daggers strapped to his boots and a couple of ash-wood stakes in a holster on his right thigh. This evening, he’s not carrying his crossbow as he wasn’t expecting a fight. He’s used to working as a team with a couple other hunters but tonight he’s by himself.
Alice is an elder vampire. She was an aristocrat in her lifetime and has no preferred weapons or “style” but her (un)natural strength and speed more than make up for that. She has a penchant for making her victims die slowly for her entertainment. We’re unlikely to see any flying kicks or skilful disarms from her.
Being aware of what knowledge, items, and abilities your characters have at their disposal will go a long way toward informing you of what they’re likely to do. In this case, Bertrand will probably assess the situation, realize he’s probably screwed and attempt to leave quickly and/or call for backup. Alice will be reluctant to let him do so.
After that: Mood and Temperament.
How do these characters usually comport themselves and how are they feeling right now? For example, perhaps Bertrand is usually fairly competent in combat, which will show through in his strategy (at least initially) but he’s just had a nasty breakup and is rather messed up emotionally at the moment. That will cloud his judgement, causing him to make bad decisions he might not otherwise do.
Alice is quite relaxed, knowing that Bertrand is absolutely screwed. She’s a psychopathic and cocky jerk. These two things together will cause her to move more slowly than she otherwise would. Not because she has to but because she can. She can draw this out as looooong as she wants and play with him. As such, the wounds that she inflicts on him during the course of the fight will very probably be as painful as possible, probably crippling (in order to watch him struggle), but initially non-lethal.
Let this knowledge suggest to you what sort of attacks she will do. For example, she may punch him in the kidney, kick out one of his knees, slice into his Achilles Tendon, hit him in the groin, twist his forearm until the radial bones snap, kick or punch him in the ribs to crack or break some of them and make it hurt to breathe, break his nose, put out one of his eyes, stab him in the gut … any of these things are non-fatal or initially non-fatal but very painful. The damage is also cumulative. There’s only so much the body can take before it just won’t respond to the brain’s commands anymore. Adrenaline will only get Bertrand so far. When that starts running out, he’s going to get clumsy and sluggish.
What do both of these characters want from this interaction? Alice wants to toy with and kill Bertrand. Bertrand wants to run the hell away. This will very much dictate what kind of actions they will both be doing. Alice is not going to be doing any kind of defence except if Bertrand gets lucky with one of his knives or stakes. It won’t take long for Bertrand to realize he’s outmatched and will very probably start backing up toward the exit.
What will Alice do? Well she wants to play with him so she will immediately take action to stop him from leaving. How? Very probably, she will get behind him to bar his exit or she will physically grab him and stop him from moving in that direction. Bertrand really, REALLY wants to leave so he will probably try for the exit more than once. Being denied that option, he will probably try for the next best thing which would be to call for help. He needs to get distance from her to do that.
Take stock of the room/area. What is the closest Bertrand-sized-or-larger cover that he could get in or behind? He will probably make for that as fast as he can. If she’s attacking him at the moment, and if he has the proper martial training, he will probably roll to get distance from her quickly while protecting himself as best he can. If she has hold of him, he may have to strike at her to get her to let go. That can be accomplished by either directly attacking the articulations of her joints that are holding him (the fingers/thumb, her wrists, her elbows) or by causing enough pain somewhere else to distract her from her intent (hitting her in the face/nose/eye/throat/groin – yes that works on girls too – knee/instep of the foot/ear/temple).
As the characters move from place to place in the scene, move their little “A” and “B” dots around to keep track of where they are and what position they’re in (Ie: Standing, kneeling, prone, etc).
It should also be considered that because of his intent to get the hell away from Alice, a lot of Bertrand’s wounds are going to be defensive. His hands, wrists, arms, etc will have bruises/gouges/lacerations/breakage/sprains because of trying to protect his face, neck, head, and torso from harm. Since he has training, when forced into close quarters with Alice, Bertrand will very likely attempt to face her, present as small a profile as possible (smaller target, harder to hit), and put his non-dominant shoulder and arm forward. He will also tuck his elbows close to his body to protect his ribs. His wrists and forearms may very well be the first injuries he sustains due to trying to protect himself. If Alice wants access to any of the areas he’s trying to protect, she may hit him somewhere else in order to get him to move his arms away. For example, if she wants to hit him in the ribs, she might clout him in the ear, forcing him to lift his hand to protect his head, and proceed to drill him in the side with her fist for a nice satisfying snap of bone.
If you want inspiration for defensive wounds, try checking out a few episodes of CSI. That should give a good picture of what you’re looking for.
Since Alice is enjoying the hunt, driving him from cover to cover, she will likely force him out of hiding repeatedly and strike him while his back is turned (ie: when he’s running for the next bit of cover). Like a cat, she will wait a certain period of time before her patience runs out and then proceed to flush him from cover by either doing something to hurt him, or doing something to scare him. She can also try to provoke him to anger by taunting him.
Throughout the scene, Bertrand should be making short-term plans for what to do next. He will be looking for better cover (or at least other cover) nearby. He will be looking for anything he can use as a weapon. If there’s more than one exit, he will be trying to get near it. Whatever exits there are, Alice will be putting herself in between Bertrand and the door unless she wants him to make a run for it and pounce on him when he does.
Since Bertrand is having a really crappy day because of his breakup, he’s not 100% focused on the fight Any screwups he makes in judgement should happen shortly after you mention the memories and feelings as they will certainly be distracting him. For example, Bertrand remembers Sally’s last words to him, experiences a spike of anguish, and Alice proceeds to punch him in the side of the head immediately afterward which he totally misses putting up his hand to defend against.
Pain is also very distracting. The more he’s hurting, the crappier his decision making process will be and the cloudier his thoughts will be. Pain can also cause one to hyperfocus on things which narrows their perception. It becomes hard to think about anything else, like … staying alive. His attempts at defending and fleeing will become less and less creative the more beaten down he is. His motions and strategies may even get repetitive as he nears complete exhaustion.
No matter how silly it may look, when you’re visualizing the strikes and defences, get up out of your chair and pose yourself while envisioning it happening. This will help eliminate a lot of impossibilities and give you a very practical idea as to what they’re both feeling, what they’re likely to do next. For example, if Bertrand is on his back and Alice is standing near his feet and he wants to try and punch her in the gut … well lie down on the ground and try it. Nope. Can’t reach. So he’ll probably kick. Then what? What can he see from there? How will he get up and run for cover? Will he roll to the right? Hang on, no that knee is dislocated. He’ll have to roll to the left. By feigning these injuries and moving through the motions of the fight (please don’t try backflips or anything in your living room LOL, imagination is good enough), you’ll get a good idea as to what his options are and what he’s likely to do.
Keep in mind that because Alice’s intent is to torture Bertrand. Once she’s through with chasing him around, she will do something to render him unable to get away while still able to feel pain. In terms of self-defence, the most helpless position you can be in is on your stomach on the ground, with your hands pinned under you. There’s not a whole lot you can do from there as most of your joints simply don’t bend that way.
Alice desires Bertrand to be helpless. She also, however, probably wants to see his face while he’s screaming in agony so she probably has him on his back and may or may not be sitting on him to pin him down.
During the torture portion of the “fight” (well, it’s all torture, but when she gets right down to “how much can I make you scream before you pass out/die?”) she really wants to hear him yell. Take stock of which parts of the body are most sensitive and would produce the most noise to hurt. She’ll be harming the most non-lethal of those areas first before working her way toward causing more and more damage. She wants it to last, after all. Raking her claws along his inner thighs would produce a lot of noise. So would ripping off an ear. Breaking fingers or ribs one at a time. As she gets more into it, she may stick her hands into the chest cavity to play around. Vivisection (the act of taking skin off) is incredibly painful and takes a lot to kill someone. Perhaps Bertrand tries to clamp his mouth shut so as not to give her the satisfaction of crying out. Maybe she breaks it and nearly rips it off his face, to make sure those pretty screams keep coming out. Does she use any tools, improvised or otherwise to harm him? Knives? Shards of wood? Maybe his own weapons!
Part of torture is humiliation. The sadist wishes her victim to be as vulnerable as possible. She will probably rip clothing articles off of the areas she intends to harm so that he is deprived of even that little bit of dignity and protection. AND, so that she can see the lovely bruising/breakage/slashes she is creating.
Ah, do bear in mind your audience and the probable rating of your piece. It probably goes without saying but if this is a teen novel, don’t go with nudity or ripping body parts off. Parents may get a little upset.
Finally: What’s the Point?
We don’t want violence for violence’s sake (most of the time). There is a point to this scene. We have things to reveal. We have character development to do. And, we have a plot to further. Things like thoughts, emotions, and dialogue (if there is any) need to be threaded in between the actions.
We have an end result that we want. I suggest sketching out a rough paper doll of Bertrand’s body on your graph paper (as well as Alice’s if she sustains any wounds) and detailing where and what his injuries are at the end of the fight. You can, if you wish, work backward from this paper doll and figure out when and how he got these injuries. If you don’t fancy drawing, anatomical diagrams are easy to find online. Keep plotting out on your blueprint where the people in the scene are moving. You can make notes like “Bertrand’s arm broken here” or “bashed into wall here”. This is a helpful way to keep track of who is where and doing what when. (That’s often the toughest bit of fight-scene creation.)
Suppose part of the story is Bertrand’s friends coming to rescue him. We therefore want Bertrand to be dying slowly enough to be saved. Have a look at what injuries could be fatal and limit them to things that won’t cause immediate death. Gut wounds are very good for this. Spinal injuries are very good for this (though since Alice wishes to cause him maximum pain, she might not do that until the very end if at all). Punctured lungs are good for this. Damaging the windpipe sufficiently to cut off most of his air supply is good for this. If you detail blood bubbling out of his mouth and nose when he breathes, possibly even air bubbles in the blood on his chest, we can assume that his lungs have been punctured and that he’s very probably screwed.
There is also an evocation of sympathy going on here. We want both the reader and Bertrand’s friends to feel sorry for him, to feel empathy. We want Sally, his ex-girlfriend, to be disturbed by this. What kinds of injuries would jerk at the heartstrings of Betrand’s friends? Perhaps Sally thinks that Bertrand has pretty eyes. Maybe Alice gouges one of them out? Think of things that are particular to Bertrand’s character. His crossbow for example. Maybe Alice breaks his right arm so badly she nearly rips it clean off at the elbow, leaves it dangling by tendons and skin and his friends wonder if he’ll ever be able to shoot again. Maybe she claws his face so badly that his own sister doesn’t recognize him at first until she gets around the other side of him? Maybe she carves an obscene word into his flesh that is specifically aimed at hurting and humiliating him. Maybe “faggot” if she wants to take a stab at his sexuality. Or perhaps just more general insults like “bitch” or “cunt” or “failure”. Perhaps she simply doodles on him in blood rather than carving. Perhaps she draws a smiley face on him like the psychopath she is.
Let me give one final piece of advice. Do not shrink from being cruel to your characters. Violence has consequences and not everyone is considerate and honourable. When a quarrel comes down to blows, civility is usually thrown out the window. Engaging with the primal instinct to cause bodily harm will often make people say and do things they might regret later, but while the conflict is going on, remain in the moment with it. Be brutal, be real with it. Nothing robs a fight scene of its power quite like a grievously wounded character walking around like nothing happened in the next scene or chapter. Part of being a writer is doing mean things to your creations. You can eat ice cream and look at pictures of kittens later. Right now, be a jerk.