Writing fight scenes, part 1

Fight scenes are crucial in any adventure story. Most writers, though, have never had to fight for our lives, so how can we write convincingly about people who do? Luckily, we all have experience with some sort of movement, and can draw on that experience to write fight scenes that make sense.

Here’s my movement background: I teach dance for my day job and am fond of contact improvisation, in which dancers do impromptu lifts and partnering. Contact improv requires an intent focus on and synchronization with your partner. It’s like a non-confrontational martial art. I’ve also done foil fencing and SCA light fighting.

Coming from my specific movement background, here are some things I’ve noted about writing fight scenes.

1. Know the setting
Pay attention to the setting in which the fight takes place. Draw it if necessary. Know what the terrain is like and where the exits and light sources are. Fighting in a marsh at night is very different from fighting on a rooftop at noon. Not every fight needs to happen in an amazing setting (like along the mast of a ship during a storm) but you do need to use the setting you’ve established. If you mention a ladder, your readers will expect someone to climb it, duck behind it, or knock it over. If you mention a chandelier, well . . .

Similarly, if you know you’re going to need a particular item at some point in your fight—for example, if one character is going to grab a fire poker and use as an improvised weapon—you should mention that item before it becomes important.

2. Plan your choreography
As a dancer, I always notice whenever an author has problems with this. For example, if your pickpocket ducks into a winding alley, turns left, and then hides behind a rain barrel, she can’t peek out and see someone passing by the entrance of the alley. Similarly, if she runs in a first-story door and up two flights of stairs, when she looks out a window it’s now going to be a two-story drop and she’s going to be peering down at the tops of people’s heads.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to plan out every thrust and parry of the fight, and in fact (as I’ll get to later) that would get boring. But you need to know the major beats, such as when a new character enters, when the advantage changes (someone who was winning the fight starts losing, and vice versa), or when the fight moves into a new area.

I think about this like a movie storyboard. If you are an artist, or even just draw stick figures, you could do a visual storyboard. Bullet points can also work well:

• Neharu and the half-sea shade enter the arena and face off
• The sea shade attacks first, with his net and spear
• Neharu fights cautiously, blocking with his shield and trying to figure out his enemy’s fighting style
• Neharu catches the net on his shield and tugs, pulling the sea shade off balance
• This gives Neharu an opening to attack with his spirit sword
• And so on . . .

3. Know your weapons
Different weapons work differently. In foil fencing, you thrust with the tip, while bladed weapons that are sharp along the whole edge can slash as well as thrust. Reach can be very important—a taller person or one with a longer weapon will have an advantage, though short people can make up for it with speed and good footwork. And this isn’t even getting into firearms . . .

A little research can go a long way, and luckily, there are some good resources available online about weapons:
Writing realistic sword fights
A couple misconceptions about bladed weapons
An interview with a sword fighter who is also a writer
Some tips about guns

To be continued in part 2.

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The Five Wits Press

A collective of writers, artists, and worldbuilders.

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