Is there a formula to writing fight scenes? Yes—and no. Yes, because each fight must have a beginning, middle, and end. At the same time there isn’t such a formula because you can change it any way you want to fit your writing style and the story. So let’s break down the first bit:
- The Beginning – two characters (or more) come together with either the intention to fight or an attempt to resolve a conflict which leads to a fight.
- There might be some dialogue exchanged, warning the other person about the consequences of their actions if they decide to attack or pleading with them to think through it, or it could be jesting or bickering.
- Characters might circle each other, mentally measure the room as well as their opponent.
- Someone will choose to attack. The first few strikes and tricks should likely be mentioned in the scene to show the fighting style of each character.
- The Middle – the two characters are full into the fight.
- Don’t write every single move. The more detail you write, the slower the scene gets, and a fight scene isn’t slow.
- To show the quickness of the scene, summarize. If it’s a sword fight scene, use language such as this: “Their blades became a blur as they swung around striking and blocking then twisting and ducking.”
- Allow poetics and redundancy into your writing because the characters are striking at each other again and again. Show this by the language your use even though you can still be vague on the details. “Left, right, high, low, they struck at each other again and again, twisting and turning, ducking and dodging each other’s blades and punches while trying to land their own.”
- The middle connects the beginning and the end, so specific things happen throughout the middle leading to the end. Perhaps the result of the fight is a character falling to his death or something. Your characters need to move from where they originally started to that location. This is why you must be aware of the setting and location of the fight prior to the scene.
- Just as you wrote the precise strikes each character did at the beginning of the scene to get it going, use include similar language sprinkled throughout the middle. A mix of summary and detail keeps the reader grounded in the scene. This is also an opportunity to show one character getting bested by the other and then reverse the roles a little later on. Ex: “Conrad moved too fast for him to see, but he kept fighting—blocking low, blocking high, and as soon as he felt Conrad’s blade touch his, he snuck in an attack only for Conrad to parry it and quickly riposte. Having enough, Draven locked blades with the older man then slammed a punch into his stomach. When Conrad grunted and hunched over, Draven fisted his hand around the hilt of his sword then smashed his guard into Conrad’s face, sending him sprawling across the floor. When Draven approached him, Conrad twisted and kicked Draven’s feet from under him, knocking him to the floor, and the two began to grabble…”
- People get tired when fighting, so there are pauses in the fight. This happens when they push away from each other and circle one another (maybe trade a few witty lines or accusations), or they could lock blades especially at the hilts and press against each other. Yes, the latter isn’t very relaxing because you’re constantly pressing against the other person’s weight. However, because your entire body is used to keep the lock in place, it’s easy to maintain without too much strain as long as both fighters are equal to each other and not one above the other. The respectful way out of this is both fighters simultaneously push away from each other. These pauses are good opportunity to move the characters further along to where they need to be at the end of the scene.
3) The End – both characters have either resolved their differences or one of them has been defeated or there is an interruption that ends the fight.
- Just like in the beginning when you used precise details to get the fight going, you need to use strong detail to bring it to an end. Something is going to give in the fight. Someone will either yield or die. This is when you show what exactly happens. Then you nicely wrap up the scene.
And thus you’ve written a fight scene.
Now is it as simple as that? In writing, nothing is ever that simple. That’s a good thing though. It means you can do whatever you want in order to create your own style of writing fight scenes. This is merely a rough sketch of such a scene especially when it’s one-against-one.
This formula can also be used with multiple people against one person, but it’ll be a little bit different. By having attacks come from all sides and different times (or the same time), another element of fighting is added. The singular fighter must be keenly aware of his surroundings and number of opponents at all times. Of course, this is impossible, but he must try to be as aware as possible. This means you, as the writer, must know how the fight will unfold. Imagine it like a scene from a movie. Where are the characters? What are their surroundings? What objects could be obstacles or weapons? As the fight unfolds, it will get out of hand, so there’ll be times when you need to have your main character dive behind a pillar or something just to reevaluate the situation and assess where everyone is. This gives you a chance to breathe and plot out the next few moves of the scene. Once you’re ready, throw the character back into the chaos.
However, when you have five-against-two or more, the dynamics change drastically. Although the overarching approach to a fight scene remains the same, handling a group fight is different, and I will go into more detail of this in next week’s post.
So remember, prior to actually writing the scene, you need to know the following:
- Who is fighting?
- What’s their personality and style?
- Where is the fight taking place?
- When (time of day/year) is it taking place?
- What is the predicted outcome? (don’t be surprised if it doesn’t turn out the way you had planned)
When actually writing the scene, remember the following:
- Approach the scene, start slow.
- Speed up the action but allow for potent pauses or slow moments.
- Slow the scene back down or end it abruptly.
If you ever get overwhelmed, then step back and breathe. Take a break if you must. Reevaluate the scene. Listen to the characters. You never know when something is supposed to happen in the scene that you did not see coming. A character might announce, “Oh by the way, I’m supposed to die here,” and you respond, “WHAT?!” That’s part of the fun of writing. Remember, if you’re surprised, your readers will likely be surprised too.
A few points to keep in mind:
1) If the locking of blades occurs anywhere along the blade rather than at the hilt, this is strenuous, but there usually is a reason for such action. The normal rule of engagement is that as soon as you feel your opponent’s blade against your own, you parry (block) and riposte (attack). This is called ‘disengagement of blades’. So if two opponents’ blades are locked somewhere along the middle of the blade, they’re trying to prove something—most likely that they’re stronger than the other person.
2) If your characters are sword-fighting, the goal behind every strike is to maim or kill—not to be fancy or entertaining unless one character is obviously taunting the other. Yes, if you’re fortunate enough for your books to become movies, the choreographed fight scene will likely have more flare to it in order to be eye-catching, but be careful about adding that flare to your writing.
In other words, if your characters are using swords to fight, they are not playing around. Every move they make is either to prompt an action from the opponent in order to create an opening, or they are defending themselves, or they simply blast in with an attack—aimed to kill. This means the characters will not attack each other’s blades because the blades aren’t the problem—it’s the person holding the blade that is the actual threat.
FUN NOTE: If your characters are training with swords and one person doesn’t have a clue how to use the sword, one thing the master swordsman will most likely say is, “Do NOT attack the blade!” And they’ll say this over and over and over again because this is what every beginner does without fail. How do they stop attacking the blade? It just happens, but it takes a while.
So next week we discuss a small group fight scene. We will eventually talk about writing battle scenes.