Ah, fight scenes. Unless you’re writing a particularly tame story, it’s almost certain that you’re going to have some sort of fight scene in your story (or at least a particularly action-packed one). This might be super exciting, or it might fill you with dread—-for me, it’s the latter, so I get it.
Fight scenes can be ruthless. If you, like me, struggle with falling into word soup in the middle of a particularly dense section, it can be daunting to map out and execute a fight scene in a way that’s both clear and interesting.
But it doesn’t have to be so hard! There are a few ways you can make fights scenes easier on yourself. In this article, we’ll talk about some basics for a good fight scene. We’ll also give a few tips for magic in fight scenes, if you happen to be writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel.
How Do You Write a Good Fight Scene?
Right off the bat: how to write fight scenes, anyway? What makes a fight scene ‘good?’
Like anything else in writing, the way you write your fight scene will be impacted by your overall writing style. However, there’s a few things you can do to write fight scenes more efficiently and more impactfully, regardless of your style or genre.
1. Make fight scenes necessary
Perhaps most important: your fight scenes need to be necessary.
Think of it this way: if you’re watching a terrible movie and bad guys show up out of nowhere and start attacking the characters, what do you usually think? There might be some cool camerawork or stunt work, but in the back of your mind, you’re thinking wait, what? Why are they fighting? This is stupid. You’re pulled out of the experience, which means you’re not super invested in the fight.
You always want your plot to consist of necessary, meaningful beats. Things should matter, and important plot points should always be necessitated by what came before. This is especially important in an action sequence.
It’s not that you have to always avoid action sequences unless the characters literally have no other option. Characters are supposed to be people, and sometimes people choose to fight when talking or walking away would also work. But the fight needs to feel necessary to your characters for it to feel necessary for your reader.
2. Clarify your stakes
Making your fight scene necessary will also help you with this next step: clarifying your stakes.
The stakes in a fight are what the characters have to lose. This can vary depending on the fight—especially if you’re writing an action-packed book, not every physical altercation will be a battle to the death, and they don’t need to be.
However, readers should know what the characters stand to lose or gain from the fight scene. What are the risks? How much danger are they in?
If we can tell that the bad guy could actually kill our beloved main character, we’re going to be way more invested than if it seems like just another Tuesday. Likewise, if we know what the characters want or what they stand to lose, we’ll be more invested in watching them reach that goal.
3. Make fight scenes unique
You don’t want a meaningless fight scene, but you especially don’t want a bland one.
Keep your characters and setting in mind while you write your fight scene. What is your character most likely to do in a fight? Do they grab for hair and earrings, or are they particularly noble? Are they even any good in a fight, and if not, how do they adjust for this? Do they give up when it gets rough, or do they double down?
You’ll also want to incorporate setting to make it more memorable. What’s around that your characters might use as a weapon? How can they use the setting to their advantage, or how does the setting set them up for failure?
Making the fight scene specific to the characters and setting will make it more grounded, and it’ll keep it fresh for the reader, especially if you’re writing something with lots of action sequences.
4. Watch for lengthy prose
Like I said before, your style is going to impact your prose, which will impact exactly what your fight scenes look like.
That being said: fight sequences are meant to be tense, punchy, and exciting. When writing to achieve that effect, it’s best to stick to shorter sentences, specific details, and choppier paragraphs. You still want to keep sentence variation in mind so things don’t get repetitive, but the way the sequence reads should influence how it makes the reader feel.
Also, you’ll want to avoid describing every single minutia of the fight. While it is important to describe things in such a way that a reader can keep track of them, some writers overcorrect and describe too much. Focus on describing specific, impactful parts of the fight, and give just as much thought to how the fight feels as you do to what’s going on technically.
How Do You Write a Fight Scene with Powers?
If you write fantasy or sci-fi, you know there’s a whole host of issues that come into play when characters have powers or magical abilities. Obviously, we don’t have magical abilities in real life (drat), so finding a way to convey how this feels to the reader can be difficult. Plus, it can be hard to get across how it functions in a fight.
Here are a few ways you can improve your fight scenes when a character has powers:
1. Know your rules and follow them
Your character won’t know everything about your magic system, and that’s okay! They don’t need to. But it’s important that you do.
Before you start your action scene, make sure you know how the magic works. How do characters wield it? Can they wield it whenever they want, or is there some way they need to activate it? Will it run out, and if so, how does that impact the character wielding it?
This might not all come up in the fight scene, but if you know how it works, you’ll be able to keep the fight scene consistent. Imagine if, in season two of Avatar: the Last Airbender, Katara did some earthbending to get the gang out of a bind and it was never mentioned again. That would raise some serious concerns about the rules of the world as we understood them, and it would make it harder for us to follow future fights.
2. Set up the magic beforehand
Action sequences are difficult enough to juggle on their own, but they can be doubly tricky when you’re also using them to explain magic.
To be clear: an engaging action sequence is often a great way to set up how magic works! Learning alongside a character as they work with their new power definitely makes it memorable for the reader, and if you have the chance to introduce magic that way, more power to you.
But even if you’re doing that, it might be easier to write the action sequence if the reader at least has some idea of how things work beforehand. Maybe they don’t know how this specific character’s magic works, but knowing what magic looks like in this universe, how it can look in fights, and what its significance is will all help make the sequence more engaging.
3. Anchor the magic
Last but not least: one of the biggest struggles writing magical fight scenes stems from the fact that we don’t have real-life magical abilities. This means it’s hard to relate to how it feels for characters to deliver or receive magical blows.
To get around this, keep your descriptions anchored in relatable feelings. Maybe I’ve never been hit by a bolt of magic, but I’ve definitely had an electrical shock before. Describing things in terms the reader can relate to will help them get a sense of the magnitude of the magic, the stakes of the fight, and the way the characters feel.
For more tips on how to edit fight scenes (both realistic and magic-involved), check out Hannah Lee Kidder’s video on writing better fight scenes. She edits a fight from a fantasy novel and a fight from a realistic novel and gives some pointers for both!
How long should fight scenes be?
There isn’t a hard rule for this, but in general: fight scenes should be exactly as long as they need to be, and no longer.
Okay, that sounds super vague. But here’s what I mean: remember when I said a fight scene needs to be motivated, and readers need to know the stakes? These keep a reader invested, but they’ll only keep a reader invested for as long as those stakes and that motivation remains relevant. In other words, a fight scene needs to be paced well for it to land.
When writing your scene, keep the character’s goals in mind. How do they try to achieve it? What are the barriers to overcoming this goal, and how easy are they to overcome? In a longer fight sequence, the stakes should get higher over time to keep the reader engaged. In a really long fight sequence, you’ll need to temper the action with some slower moments to give the reader a break.
How do I know if my fight scene is good?
Still not sure about your fight scene? Feel free to look at this checklist to see whether you’re on the right track.
1. Your fight is motivated
Can you tell why your characters are fighting? Is there a reason why each character is doing what they’re doing during the fight, even if that reason is misguided or unjustified? Look at the previous scenes and see whether it makes sense for these characters in this situation to get into a fight. If so, you’re golden!
2. Your fight changes the stakes
A fight scene ought to change the stakes or teach us something new. Again, this is especially true if you’re writing a book with lots of fight scenes. If you start off with a fight scene that doesn’t change anything or end up mattering, your reader will subconsciously recognize your fight scenes as unimportant, and they’re less likely to be invested in the next one.
What happens as a result of this fight? What did we learn, lose, or gain? If the answer is nothing, and you could take out the fight scene without affecting anything else, you probably need to do some editing.
3. Beta readers mostly love it
When it comes down to the minutia of the scene, it may be tricky to tell on your own whether you’re communicating what’s going on clearly. After all, you wrote it! In your head, it makes perfect sense, and you know what’s going on. To a reader, though, it might read more confusingly.
This is where a good beta reader or critique partner could come in handy. Find a pal, writerly or otherwise, to go over your fight sequence.
Ask them whether they understood what was going on and ask some of these questions:
- Did they stay engaged the entire time?
- Were there moments they fell out of focus or got confused?
- Were they able to make sense of WHY the fight was happening in the first place (do they think the fight was necessary)?
This will help you know where to go in and clarify later.
What’s your favorite fight scene in a book? Do you know any authors who write particularly good fight scenes? Let us know in the comments!