So you’re working on a story, and it really ought to have a fight scene. But you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m not a martial artist! I’m not a member of the SCA! I have no idea how to fight!” Or maybe you’re thinking, “Fight scenes are so boring. I’d rather skip over this and get back to the actual story.” Or something else that makes you dread writing that scene, rather than looking forward to it with anticipation.
To the first group, I say: the details of how to fight are possibly the least important component of a fight scene. The crucial components are the same ones you’re already grappling with in the rest of your writing—description, pacing, characterization, all that good stuff.
To the second group, I say: it’s only boring if the author does it wrong.
A fight is part of the story. Just like any other scene, it shouldn’t be pure spectacle, stopping everything else dead for a set-piece before resuming the actual narrative. You can sort of get away with that in movies, because you have a soundtrack and changing camera angles and so forth to make it seem exciting, but words aren’t very good for describing movement; on the page, a fight needs to do something more.
This is violence. It’s one of the most fundamental things hard-wired into our brains, alongside food and sex — which makes it rich with narrative potential. What a character is and is not willing to do, when it comes down to fists or swords or guns, can reveal or change or confirm some fairly profound things about her personality. It can also play into or against the themes of a story. And there’s the artistic side, too; fight scenes can be just as much about good writing—description and so on—as anything else in the text.
When you sit down to write a fight scene, the most important question you should ask yourself is, What is the purpose of this fight?
In fact, ask yourself that twice: once for the characters, and once for yourself. Inside the story, we’re asking why these people are fighting. What’s their impetus for doing so, and what do they hope to accomplish? Outside, we’re asking what the fight is supposed to do for the story as a whole. Ideally, there should be more than one answer to one or both of those questions.
Why does the question of purpose matter? On the internal, in-story level, it determines what the characters are willing and unwilling to do. A woman probably won’t kill her best friend if the goal is just to make her give back the diary she stole from the dresser. But if the guy she’s fighting murdered her entire family and she wants him to pay? Very few holds barred, there.
On the external level, it determines how you the author put the fight on the page, and how it will end. If the only purpose is a simple, plot-based one — say, your character needs to get past the guards — then you can dispose of that in a sentence or two. It doesn’t merit any more of your attention, or your reader’s. But if it’s a climactic moment, where something important is going to happen emotionally or thematically (or better yet, both) alongside the plot consequence . . . then it’s time to pull out all the stops.
Which isn’t the same thing as describing every single block and strike. In fact, doing that will often kill your pacing and make your readers’ eyes glaze over. But for those of you who aren’t trained fighters, that’s good news! You can actually write a pretty good combat by focusing more on the meaning of what’s happening: whether someone is fighting defensively or launching an all-out attack, whether your point of view character is consumed by rage or terrifed they’re about to die.
It can help to describe a few specific movements, of course. Like a sex scene (with which it shares many technical challenges), a fight scene benefits from physical, visceral details. But they can be environmental details like heat or cold, light or darkness, the layout of the combatants’ surroundings; they can be bodily details like sweat in the eyes, uncertain footing, the burning pain of an injury. Those matter more to the reader than a binding parry to two, because the reader understands what they mean.
And when you need an actual combat move, there are ways to get that, without going through years of training first. YouTube has a lot of videos for different weapons and fighting styles — or if your characters aren’t skilled combatants, grab something non-lethal and a cooperative friend and try walking through things slowly, figuring out what you would do if you wound up in a certain position. If you need more than that, ask around online, or see if someone at a local martial arts studio is willing to help.
But don’t lose sight of the story. In the end, that’s the part that matters the most,
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. She is also the author of the Varekai novellas, the Wilders urban fantasies, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, and more than fifty short stories. For more information, visit www.swantower.com or her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/swan_tower.