Many stories have fight scenes from Rocky’s bouts in the ring to the duel shown in the above picture from the Princess Bride. The scenes serve a variety of purposes as diverse as the stories they belong to. It would be hard to have a boxing movie with no boxing, but fights aren’t always physical and not all are fought with fists or swords. The first thing is to understand why you want a fight at this exact point in the story. You may have to show an aspect of your main character, or move the plot forward.
The duel in Princess Bride accomplishes a few purposes. It shows the Dread Pirate Roberts is not quite what he seems to be, it is a chance for humour, and most importantly it sets up the partnership between Roberts and the people he bests. The action is classic movie duel with them moving around a lot, talking a lot, gaining minor injuries and switching hands. Since the book and movie is a send up of the classics, this is done with wry wit and a wink at the standards.
If you are going to write a good fight scene you need to think it out carefully. They are, by their nature, high points in a story, so deserve to be solidly set in the plot. Once you know why you need the fight, the how is much easier. This is my methodology of writing strong fight scenes. I’ve picked the climactic scene to write, but the basic point made below need to be considered in more or less detail in any fight.
My way of writing a strong fight scene.
Before we start fighting we need to talk about language. Not the fighter’s language, but the language you use to describe the action. There is a range of options from being vague. He swung at his opponent and missed. to extremely specific. She threw a straight punch from her hip aiming at his solar plexus. He used a low block and slid to the left before attacking with a snap kick from his right leg. You probably want to be in the middle somewhere. If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about find a martial artist and explain what you’re doing and let her help you with how to succinctly describe the give and take of a fight. The more detailed and technical you get, the more likely some fight geek is going to spot a mistake.
What you want to avoid is things like ‘She punched him right in the face.’ You don’t need ‘right’. You will also want to have a broad collection of verbs to use so your fight isn’t weighed down by adverbs.
Setting the Stage
The first thing in any fight is to know where your combatants are going to duke it out. A fight in a boxing ring will be very different from a brawl in an alleyway or a tussles in a Victorian parlour. Not only you need to know the setting, but your reader does. This does not mean you give an exhaustive detailed description of the setting, but you lay the ground work for what’s going to show up later. We’re going to write a fight scene set in the Edzell Castle about where the words ‘West Range’ appear. Look around, what would be the immediate things the POV character would see? How do they enter the space? Let’s have our hero enter from the Garden, We’ll call her Sir Glancelot. The villain of the piece will enter through the entrance. We’ll call him the Black Smirk.
Next we need to think about what they’re wearing. It’s a medieval style combat so some kind of armour. Chain mail – lighter but less effective in protecting against blows, but is lighter and allows a bit more free movement. Plate armour – the full clanking suit which will stop most medieval weaponry but is much heavier and clumsier and is usually worn on horse back. Since we don’t have horses, we’ll put both of them in chain, but the Black Smirk has bracers (extra armour on the forearms) Sir Glancelot doesn’t. We’ll have them duel with sabre, an edged sword which can also be used to thrust if needed. They are relatively light and would have been common. Unless they are in armour, the huge two handed swords are unlikely as they are too slow.
Sir Glancelot crept through the narrow gate from the Garden into courtyard. The tower loomed over her on her left. She almost stumbled over the broken rock of the fallen stables. The courtyard was empty but for a unhitched wagon on the north side. At the corner of the wall Sir Glancelot peered carefully around the corner, no telling what the dastardly Black Smirk would do. Nothing. Boots thumping on flagstones, she walked out into the space, disappointed. He’d run away again.
A flash in the corner of her eye made her spin. She barely blocked the thrown knife with her arm. It clattered into the rocks behind her. The Black Smirk charged from the wide entry, sabre in hand.
A fight scene, like every scene is a mini three-act story, with its own plot and end-goal. It’s no good writing a fantastic fight if it doesn’t matter to the plot. The hero must start in one place and as a result of the fight end up in a different place. The goals of a fight will vary depending on where they are in the story and what you need to do with the character. Not only the goals are important but the motivation for the fight. Why are they fighting instead of running away? Who’s going to win? This last question isn’t as obvious as it seems. Of course the hero wins, right? Except at some point in the story, the hero needs to lose a fight and take some lumps. If you want any suspense at all in your fights, the reader needs to believe the hero could lose. The only way to do that is have the hero lose at least once. Lastly you need to know how long the fight is going to last. As a general rule, the more important the fight, the longer it should be. I edited a book by a writer who wasn’t really comfortable with fights though she was writing about knights and warfare. It wasn’t a problem until it got to the climactic fight at the end of the book, which she finished up in a paragraph. By the time we were done, it was closer to being an entire chapter. The flip side of the length of the fight is the weight it has in the story and the payoff at the end. Weight is how important it is to the plot. A longer fight will move things further than a short one. The payoff is the emotional release at the close. Relief, sorrow, joy, the more important the fight the more complex the emotions need to be.
We’re going to just write the opening section of act one. This is the final battle between Sir Glancelot and the Black Smirk. The Smirk is holding the Prince captive somewhere in the castle. She needs to get past the Smirk to find the Prince. If she loses, the Kingdom will fall into evil and ruin. Each time they’ve met, Sir Glancelot has barely escaped with her life, if not her honour, intact.
Sir Glancealot whipped her father’s sword from the sheath making the air hum. Deep breath, don’t panic. Their weapons clashed echoing from the broken walls. Before she could blink, he’d disengaged and slashed at her face. Her feet tangled as she threw herself back and she fell hard to the pavement. The Smirk sneered at her and jumped forward to finish her off.
“Should have stayed with your needlework.”
Don’t be in a rush to get up. Sir Caldwell’s voice spoke in her head. She parried his strikes and waited her chance. The Smirk stepped in close to send a slash toward her throat. Her sword held his, ringing like a bell. In the second before he recovered for another attack she struck out with her foot, connecting with the Black Smirk’s leg belong the knee. He stumble back…
Dialogue and Paragraphing
A lot of fights in books and movies have the characters engaging in a long dialogue while they fight. Imagine dancing to a fast song a club, and engaging in a deep meaningful conversation at the same time. Not so easy. Keep dialogue short and punchy during the action. Keep longer speeches for natural breaks in the action.
There are a few ways to paragraph fights. One is to use a new paragraph for each character’s action. So Sir Glancelot would have her paragraph, the Black Smirk would have his. This is great for large battle scenes where you need time and space to set up each move, but in the above section almost every sentence would be its own paragraph.
In duels I like to use a paragraph for each exchange. So in the example above, she’s lying on the ground, he’s attacking, she’s blocking, he steps in close, she kicks him and so on. When that bit of action is complete, I’ll start a new paragraph.
As in the larger scene, each paragraph has its own beginning, conflict, resolution.
Here’s where things get dicey for our heroine. In book this is the low point in a character’s life. Everything is falling apart. In a fight it is where the antagonist begins to get the upper hand. What I don’t mean is they chase the hero around beating the everliving snerf out of the hero. Too many movies/books have the hero at the point of death in this section. They are beat, just not dead, then they pop up as if they aren’t battered, bruised and bleeding to death from a ruptured spleen and win the day. You want the reader to believe the hero can lose the fight, but you also need to make the victory plausible.
At this point there should have been a few minor wounds, now things get more serious. Injuries which could threaten the hero’s ability to fight happen, but the villain has taken some lumps too.
What is more important than the physical danger is the emotional danger. This is where the heroine doubts herself. She’d never beat him before, she can’t beat him now. She’s going to die, the Prince will die, the Kingdom will fall into ruin. There won’t be much dialogue in this section as both combatants will be exhausted, but you can use internal thought to great advantage in showing state of mind.
Don’t neglect the physical effects of the fight, pain, anger, humiliation. Where are they located in the hero’s body, how do they affect her ability to fight?
Sir Glancelot gasped for air. Blood running down her arm made the grip on her sword slippery. She blocked a blow from the Smirk and almost lost her sword.
The Smirk had stopped smirking now. He limped forward slashing at her as if his arms were iron instead of flesh. His sabre ground across her chain mail, screeching like a banshee. She gave up on elegance and punched him with the hilt of her sword.
She retreated away until her back hit the wagon. Her sword hand trembled. Her heart pounded painfully. The sting of the cuts he’d given her didn’t hurt as much as her failure. The duel had descended from an honourable fight to a brawl. A knight doesn’t brawl, they fight with and for honour, no matter what the enemy does. Sir Cadwell’s instructions to the squires the first day they assembled condemned her.
She’d lost, the Black Smirk’s eyes burned as he stalked toward her told her he knew it too.
Unless we’re writing the equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. The hero needs to win the fight to have a positive outcome to the plot. Everything has pointed toward this moment, but we’ve all but convinced the reader the fight is lost. Now we need to turn things around, but in a way which doesn’t ignore all that’s gone before.
At the beginning of Act Three, the antagonist has the upper hand, not necessarily because of serious wounds, but because of the emotional space the hero is in. Before we can turn the fight around, we need to turn the hero’s thinking around. You’ll have been dropping hints for this moment throughout the book. You haven’t, go back and do it, I’ll wait.
Those hints will be a counterpoint to the emotional thinking which led the hero to this place and time. In Sir Glancelot’s example, she’s been trained to fight honourably, no matter the circumstance. Anything less diminishes her and shames her knightly order. To counter that you need to have someone who talks about honour being great, but not much use if she’s dead. Perhaps a knight whose fallen into cynicism, perhaps an encounter with someone who never cared about honour. Doesn’t matter, only that you have at least three occasions on which she is presented with the pragmatic alternative to dying honourably.
The next thing is to focus the heroine on the goal of the fight. It’s bigger than her. The entire Kingdom will suffer, will they care that she died honourably?
The combination of those two things will shift the heroine’s stance and bring to bear a new weapon or skill which she’s refrained from using because it would stain her reputation. Again you’ll want to have set this up long before we get to this fight. Make it clear using this skill/weapon has been frowned upon, even forbidden. It is important you bring something new to the fight, because what’s she’s been doing hasn’t worked.
Sir Glancelot dropped the broken sword, and stood waiting for the death blow. The Black Smirk lifted his sabre.
“I’ll be sure to tell everyone how you failed.”
The Prince, the Kingdom, they’d get along without her. If they survive this. Tears stung at the back of her eyes. She hadn’t thought her heart could break any further. The Smirk had taken everything from her, father, his sword, her honour as a knight and now…
The slash came toward her throat. Her knees collapsed and she rolled to the side. The sabre clanged against the stone. You’re no good to anyone dead. Not Sir Caldwell’s voice. Cameron’s before he wrapped her hand with cloth and set her punching a board. All the while telling her how to strike to hurt a man worst.
The Smirk came at her again, smirking at this new opportunity to torture her.
“Maybe I won’t make it quick, there’s lots of fun to be had with a girl, even one as ugly as you.”
Fire climbed up from her gut. She expected her mail to melt from the heat. The Smirk’s leer grew wider, thinking the heat came from shame.Emily had grown up being shamed, for her looks, for her actions. Shame had been her life’s companion. Emily laughed.
The Smirk paused a brief second. Emily balled her fists and leaped to the attack. Her first blow hit his collarbone, not hard enough to break it through the mail, but it made his arm spasm. Her left hand hammered on his wrist and his sword fell.
She hated everything this sneering worm stood for. Emily let the fire loose to power her fists….
Of course, it won’t be quite as simple as all that, but the desperation is reversed, now the villain is fighting for his life. Remember that knife he through at the start? Yup, that one. But in spite of the knife she wins.
Now comes the point at which you wrap up the emotional cost of victory. She’s not the same person who started. Sir Glancelot began the fight, the shameless Emily finished it. What price does she pay? Make sure there is a cost, but also a reward. The scene ends as a transformative moment, here is where she embraces the truth of her life and finally lets go of the lie which has been driving her through the story.
If you don’t work the aftermath, the battle loses its power to move the reader. This, as much as the fight itself, is the climax of the story.
In smaller fights, there will still be an aftermath, but it points the hero in the right or wrong direction depending on the needs of the plot. Here is where you show why the fight mattered. A word of warning. Don’t do a voice over explanation of everything she’s learned. When I started writing as a kid, I always felt I needed to explain to the reader what they’d just finished reading. I still fall into the trap and savagely cut it out of the manuscript.
Emily picked up the hilt of her father’s sword. He’d have died of shame if he known how she’d defeated the Black Smirk. Her eyes watered, and she let both her tears and the hilt fall. If he hadn’t been so stubborn, he’d have been here with her.
Falling to her knees, her anger and grief over his dead burst out of her and her cry echoed off the walls like a wild creature. It left her empty and oddly at peace. No longer did she have to pretend to be a knight, to fight against the stares and murmurs. It didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. The Kingdom would be at peace.
That was worth the cost.
Boots clanged across the stone, familiar voices argued until the Prince’s boot stood in front of her. Not polished or immaculate. They looked as torn and dirty as her heart. He’d have to get a new pair.
“Sir Glancelot.” The prince extended his hand.
“Emily, Sire.” She refused to take his hand. “Just Emily. You should have no trouble rounding up the remainder of his troops.”
“Sir Emily Glancelot,” the prince’s voice sounded annoyed. Nothing new there. He knelt down in front of her. Gasps sounded around her, then clanks and grunts as the rest of the knight fell to their knees. “I watched you fight. He’d tied me at a window so I could see your defeat. You had me worried for a bit.”
“I had me worried.” Emily kept her eyes pinned to the ground, just in front of his knee, scraped and bloody through a tear in his trousers.
His hand lifted her chin up until she had no choice but to look in his eyes. She saw something she’d never expected. Respect….
So there you have it. The fight is a story encapsulated. Whether you get technical or stay away from exact descriptions, it will the emotions which will have the biggest impact. Especially for the closing battle. In a way each fight is a summary of what the character has learned so far, either rightly or wrongly.
A couple of suggestions to finish off. I made a point of how the setting affects the fight. I found the castle map on the web and used it as inspiration. The surroundings are important throughout the encounter. The rubble, the wagon. You could go Douglas Fairbanks and have them on the stairs. In order to keep track of where they are in relation to each other and the setting I’ve been known to print out the map and use coins to move the people around. That way I don’t have someone teleporting across a large distance or running through the wagon. Blocking out the fight physically is very useful. If you have a large room, moving yourself through the fight physically is a great way to check for impossibilities.
Lastly, as I said at the start. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Experts enjoy the chance to teach what they know.
One more point. Very similar principles are involved in writing strong romantic encounters.
Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them or point you in the right direction.