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6 Simple Tips for Writing an Amazing Fight Scene

If you've reached the point of writing a big fight scene in your novel and are struggling, don't worry. That's just your intuition as a writer telling you to take a minute and really think about what you want to do here.

Conflict in literature isn't just a plot point—it's a vehicle to move a story forward, to reveal important character traits, and eventually, to achieve catharsis at the end. Knowing this, when it's time to write a scene involving major conflict, particularly a fight scene, it's important to take a minute to step back and evaluate what needs to happen with that scene to make it effective. And beyond effective—you need to take a step back to consider what needs to happen to make it memorable.

What makes a memorable fight

Anyone who has ever read the fight scene between Inigo Montoya and Westly in William Golding's The Princess Bride has read one of the most memorable fight scenes in literature.

The man in black stood.
"You seem a decent fellow," Inigo said. "I hate to kill you."
"You seem a decent fellow," answered the man in black. "I hate to die."
"But one of us must," Inigo said. "Begin."
And so saying he took the six-fingered sword.
And put it into his left hand.

William Golding's The Princess Bride

What follows is a series of specialized sword attacks and subtleties that, across approximately seven pages, is one of the most memorable fight scenes of modern literature. And since Golding wrote the screenplay to the movie adaptation of the book, it's just as good on film.

Obviously, writing a fight scene can be one of the most intimidating parts of your story to write. So, let's look at a few tips for making your fight scene memorable.

1. Make it more than just a fight

Your fight scene should, above all else, be a moment when your protagonist confronts the antagonist (or minor henchmen/bad guys) and reveals important information about them both. As you'll notice in the scene from The Princess Bride, the dialogue that occurs between the two characters is a kind of "meta", fairytale-esque example of what makes all memorable fight scenes stand out from the rest.

Consider the final fight between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. The famous No, I am your father line not only changed the protagonist—it revealed something startling about the antagonist, thus developing both characters significantly within fight dialogue.

2. Choose a great setting

The fight scenes in The Princess Bride and The Empire Strikes Back have something else in common—they both take place in great settings.

This tip is a little tricky because in addition to choosing a great setting, you have to avoid too much description of the setting while the fight is taking place. Too much description not only slows the pace (which is usually the last thing you want to do when a confrontation is taking place), but it detracts the reader's attention from the character development that needs to happen.

You'll notice in both The Princess Bride and The Empire Strikes Back, we see the setting of the epic fight scenes before the actual fights take place. This gave the writer (and director) time to reveal details about the great location that would soon be the setting of the upcoming fight scene.

3. Don't over-describe movements

In the same sense that using the fight scene to write a lot of setting description will slow down the action, over describing the fight itself will have the same effect. Instead of doing this, use as many action words (verbs) as possible while keeping descriptive words (adjectives and adverbs) minimal.

You'll also want to avoid giving your readers a blow-by-blow account of every moment in the fight. Keep in mind these simple rules—make it powerful and quick, choosing emotion over extensive setting or movement description. Let your reader fill in some of these details in their own imaginations and it will keep the pace of your fight scene on track.

4. Include emotion and dialogue

Your first impression when reading that heading might be, but wait, won't emotion and dialogue slow the pace during fight scenes? Again, think back to the pivotal fight between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker when Vader finally admits that Luke is his son. Think about the pauses for effect and how dialogue—in small doses—increased the tension during the fight in ways that only emotional dialogue can.

As for emotion, don't falsely assume that the only way to show emotion is to describe it. Here is a moment when it is even more important than ever to show, don't tell, when you write. Think about the ways your characters can show their emotions through physical response—heart pounding, blood racing, grip tightening responses.

5. Be realistic

With the almost "meta" moments happening throughout Golding's novel, realism wasn't his goal. We all know that in the real world, two opponents wouldn't carry on such witty banter as they try to win against the other. However, unless you're writing a Golding-esque Fantasy with elements of satire, keep your fight scenes as realistic as possible to keep your readers turning pages.

Here are a few ways to ensure that your fight scenes are written as realistically as possible:

  • Research the weapons your characters would most likely be using based on their job/role. If you're going to be using sophisticated weaponry or black-market technology, make sure you know it well by doing as much research as possible. While you don't want to go overboard on descriptions of these weapons or hi-tech gadgets, realistically mentioning them during the scene will make your fight more believable.
  • Avoid over-use of dialogue and make sure that what is said has a purpose of either advancing the plot forward or revealing important character traits.
  • Don't allow your character to have superhuman traits (unless it's a superhero story), such as fighting off 12 guys at once or dodging bullets. This kind of unrealistic fighting should only take place when characterization requires it, such as stories of people with superhuman strength or science fiction, in which an alternate universe or setting allows the laws of physics to be avoided.

6. Know the purpose of the fight

Finally, let's discuss the fight's purpose and why you've chosen to write one in the first place. Before we do this, however, ask yourself this very important question: Am I throwing in a fight just to make the book exciting?

If your answer to that question is yes, you'd be better off thinking of other ways to ramp up the tension in your book. Sometimes a simple, menacing conversation between the antagonist and protagonist is all it takes to create conflict and tension. If your fight's sole purpose is to build tension rather than the other tips I've covered, it could very well be a distraction that doesn't do anything for your plot building and should be avoided.

A fight is the perfect moment to reveal important things about your characters and create reader excitement, especially in interesting settings. However, it's also a literal representation of conflict, and should be used with the utmost caution if you want your book to be a bestseller that readers can't put down. A fight for the sake of a fight gets old fast—give your readers more in your fight scenes and they'll turn out better than you ever expected they could.

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