Struggling with Fight Scenes?


Last night in workshop, we had a nice discussion about fight scenes. They’re difficult to write well because the instinct is to narrate every step in the action in real time, neglecting all else. I offer a few tips.

1. Give us just enough. From Writer’s Digest: “If you describe every action of the fight, not only will you bore the reader but your pacing and flow will fall apart. So think of your job not so much as having to meticulously choreograph the fight but rather to give the reader enough insight into the action that they can build the scene in their minds.”

2. Don’t forget sensual details. From Stand Out Books: “Write around the physical actions, set the mood and write the sounds, smells, tastes and feel of combat, and your reader will tap into the visual heritage that was formally working against you to picture their own kick-ass fight scenes.”

3. Punchy sentences help.

4. Make sure the fight advances the plot.

5. Get inside the character’s head.

A classic example of a fight scene comes from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Here John Grady is in jail and someone is trying to kill him with a knife. McCarthy gives us plenty of fight interspersed with sensual details (smell, taste, sight) from the environment and also very importantly, the interior thinking of John Grady. There’s also repetition which nicely evokes the jabbing of a knife.

“John Grady could smell him. [The cuchillero] feinted and his knife passed across the front of John Grady’s shirt. John Grady dropped the tray to his midsection and moved along the wall looking into those black eyes. The cuchillero spoke no word. His movements were precise and without rancor. John Grady knew that he was hired. He swung the tray at this head and the cuchillero ducked and feinted and came forward. John Grady gripped the tray and moved along the wall. He ran his tongue into the corner of this mouth and tasted blood. He knew his face had been cut but he didn’t know how bad. He knew the cuchillero had been hired because he was a man of reputation and it occurred to him that he was going to die in this place. He looked deep into those dark eyes and there were deeps there to look into. A whole malign history burning cold and remote and black.”

My suggestion is to find fight scenes you admire and copy them. No, not plagiarize. But note what the writer is doing and then try that in your own scene.

Credit: Nils Rinaldi/Flickr Creative Common

2 Comments on “Struggling with Fight Scenes?”

  1. Great advice and nice research, Tracy. In a late chap of my novel-in-progress there is indeed a brief fight. I will have to take another look at it and see if I did my best Cormac McCarthy or if I did some of the bad things!

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